The three types of work
Posted on Jan 8th, 2021

During the last year we discovered a useful classification for all the engineering work at OneDome. It serves us as a powerful framework when we think about processes, communication and planning. We split everything we do into these three categories:

  • Three weeks long projects
  • Problems that require immediate resolution
  • Small chunks of continuous improvement work

These types of work have their own specifics. Below is a description of how we organize work and which tools we use to collaborate in each case.

Projects

We do most of the product development work in three weeks long projects. Within these weeks engineers organise their work as they see fit. We don't assign tasks. Developers get a fixed amount of time to implement a project within guidelines that product and engineering teams initially agree on.

To prepare for each project we collaborate on a document that we call aproposal. The goal is to understand whether the work proposed seems achievable in three weeks and to identify risks as early as possible.

At the beginning a draft for a proposal is created by a member of our product team. After some initial framing it is shared with the developers for an engineering review. Once the feedback from engineering is taken into account and an agreement is reached on the feasibility of the proposal - we kick it off and the implementation team starts the works.

All further communication is asynchronous. We intentionally don't create chat rooms per project. We communicate over comments in a Trello card that we create for each new project.

Tools we use for the projects:

  • Nuclino- for collaboration on the proposal document
  • Trello-we create just one card for each project, in that card we use to-do lists for tasks within the project
  • Airtable- big picture view for all projects over time
  • Miro- for real-time collaboration and engineering reviews if they happen over a video call

Surges

When we are in a situation with a sense of urgency we start a surge. The reason for the pressure can be an issue that requires an immediate fix or a rare business opportunity that needs help from engineering. During a surge engineers always act in an accordance to predefined protocols and runbooks, follow strict communication rules and focus exclusively on delivering a quick solution. Engineering leadership is heavily involved in order to pull required resources and coordinate activities.

Surges require completely different approach to communication. Given their urgency and high impact there are more people within company interested in real-time updates. At the same time an engineer investigating a problem requires to maintain clear focus and can be easily distracted by constant chat alerts with requests for updates.

Email turned out to be the best communication tool for a surge. We create an email thread as the very first step and add everyone involved into it. The communication over email is asynchronous, however in this case we commit to respond as soon as we have more information. For example, if investigating an issue requires time the engineer handling the surge will clearly identify how much time he needs for the first go. The same engineer will reply not later than the time specified, either to request more time or to share the latest findings.

Tools we use for the surges:

  • Email- our main communication medium during a surge
  • Real-time chats and calls- for engineers only, if there's a requirement to coordinate
  • Airtable- storing all historical surges, with notes on resolution and retrospectives

Continuous improvement work

Certain aspects of our tech stack require regular enhancement. Series of small refinements help us to achieve this. Here are some examples: improving our DevOps flows, updating documentation, improving cross browser compatibility, updating libraries, cleaning up unused service instances upgrades etc. These modest contributions produce useful results in a short span of time from few hours to couple days of work. The best moment for this mode of working is the period between projects.

Our tech strategy identifies areas of responsibilities for each engineer and sets long term goals for them. Driven by these goals engineers self-manage their work on small improvements. We use an internal tool to post status updates on their most recent efforts. The resulting log is occasionally reviewed during 1:1 sessions in order to provide feedback and to streamline the future contributions.

Recently we adoptedImprovement Kataas a coordination and visualisation tool. We describe iterative changes clearly defining our current and the next stages as we move towards an ideal future.

Tools we use for the continuous improvement work:

  • Nuclino- to document and collaborate on our current efforts
  • Status updates- to post about recent achievements
  • Miro- to visualise our Improvement Katas

Our categorisation provides the engineering team and the executives with a shared language. In addition to other benefits this language gives us a straightforward prioritisation mechanism: a surge is always more important than a project, and the work on a project always has higher priority than a small improvement. It also helps to understand the trade-offs that we make as we allocate our engineering resources. This is especially valuable in a dynamically changing environment. Ability to adjust sails accordingly in an unpredictable situation is what defines a truly agile organisation.

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