Take Time to Be Awesome

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At Treehouse, we have 6 developers in a team of 50+ people. I’m told that’s unusual for a web-based startup, and that typically the company’s staff (and hence direction) is dominated by a team of developers.

There’s good reason for this difference – at heart we’re a content production company, so that has to be our focus. The development team at Treehouse is really there to support that goal. We don’t get to set the priorities for what gets worked on and what doesn’t, but we’re all ok with that.

We had lately fallen into a trap though, and as the team leader I’ll admit that it was mostly my fault. With 40+ internal ‘clients,’ the list of “really important things to do” is kind of overwhelming. There’s a huge temptation there to just plow through the list as quickly as possible, and that’s what we were doing – each of our developers would spend 1-3 weeks completing project A, and then immediately turn around to start on project B.

The reason this is a trap is because it ignores the importance of self-motivated work in creative disciplines (And yes, software development is a creative discipline – I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say something dismissive like “it’s just engineering…” but that’s a topic for another post, perhaps). Staying on top of the priorities for the rest of the company is a great thing, but it also can turn into kind of a grind when you never get to tackle any of those awesome little ideas you have day-to-day.

This was manifesting itself on our team, and it was really apparent once I started looking for it – we believe pretty strongly in the 4-day work week and maintaining a healthy work/life balance at Treehouse, but the dev team (including myself, back when I actually wrote code) was consistently spending a lot of time working on nights and weekends. Why? Because stuff we did during working hours was all the stuff we had to do, and on nights and weekends we could work on those little things that we wanted to do. It’s fantastic to work with a team of guys who are that motivated, but that’s a solid recipe for burnout.

To try to address this problem, I’m giving the developers at Treehouse time to be awesome. Specifically, after every major iteration they do on the app (one of those 1-3 week chunks of work), I’m encouraging them to take some time (a few hours, a day, maybe a day and a half) to do something they think is awesome or important even if it isn’t on our “big list of stuff to do.” Maybe that means refactoring an ugly part of our code, or adding in a “nice-to-have” feature to the site, or fixing a workflow for our teachers in admin that’s been bothering them. The big thing is that it’s something they choose, and is something they think is awesome.

We’re just starting this policy, so I can’t yet report on results, but I really like the theory of it. Delays to our company-wide priorities are going to be minimal (we’re talking about a few hours here and there), and while I don’t expect it to totally eliminate the extra work that the team is doing, it will allow the team to be more expressive in what they work on. I think it’s a win-win.

I am curious, though, if anybody has any other ideas or thoughts about my “take time to be awesome” initiative.

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Tommy Morgan

Tommy's been a software developer for seven years, and was working with a consulting firm before he joined the Treehouse team. Now he spends most of his time making Treehouse awesome - whether that's through support, fixing bugs, or adding new features to the site. Originally hailing from the state of South Carolina, Tommy's now located in Atlanta, Georgia.

Comments

14 comments on “Take Time to Be Awesome

  1. This is a great idea. So often I find myself finding great ideas i’d like to apply to a project but cant because its down the list of priorities or the project has finished, even if its outside of the budget or scope sometimes it can be worth it.

  2. We have the boring term ‘IO day’ for this. Not even sure what it stands for. But it’s the same idea. Every 2 weeks you get 1 day to do the stuff you want. And every now and then there’s a ‘hack-a-thon’ day for good measure.

  3. I would certainly enjoy time to work projects aside from the grind. It is nice to not feel overly managed.

  4. I know first hand, that working on project after project in my new job is stressful. Especially because I am very new with web development technologies.

  5. Very interesting post I can really relate to – thank you.

    *Question*, are you expanding the initiative to other teams as well (like account managers, support, content/creative) – or have you found a more meaningful way to help them be awesome?

  6. I’ve found that the ability to choose and control your own projects, even if the scope is only a couple of hours, is a great way to foster a sense of ownership. I love it!

  7. It isn’t really expressed in my work environment, but, I believe it is a necessity to take some time out of the day to learn new standards, techniques, frameworks, or exercise our creativity. Simply because if you don’t, you won’t be motivated, and you won’t be up-to-date with the quickly changing web.

  8. Fantastic. This is also a great way to retain your developers in-house for the long haul. It is that internal itch to improve that ultimately drives the productivity. Kill the itch and all solutions will lack that last bit of polish that changes it from good to great.