Coder Engineering Offsite
Coder has a distributed engineering team across Australia, Brazil, Ireland, and the United States. In mid-April, we converged for three days of work and play in Austin’s pleasant, beautiful spring for our first ever department offsite. Our schedule was:
- Mini hackathon
- Presentation and discussion of observability led by one of our engineers
- Team health monitor led by our Head of Operations
- Go Kart racing at the Circuit of the Americas, the Formula One venue
- Dinner in one of the luxury boxes at CotA
- Mob programming with TDD led by two engineers
- Non-violent communication led by one of our engineers
- Pistol and rifle shooting at The Range (welcome to Texas!)
- Street art at Something Cool Studios
- Glassmaking at Ghost Pepper Glass in East Austin
- Interview design team exercise led by me
- Personas exercise led by our product manager
- A deep dive into container virtual machines led by one of our engineers
- API design work session led by one of our engineers
- Happy hour at the home of Mark Milligan, our VP of Sales
- Dinner at Austin Beer Garden and Beerworks
Those last two events included everyone at Coder who lives in Austin, not just Engineering, as well as a couple more visitors who timed their visits to coincide. We ended up having more than 80% of the company (all fully vaccinated) attend at least one activity that week, including one future employee who hasn’t even started yet!
This offsite was especially important due to COVID-19. Like many companies, Coder has been remote since the start of the pandemic. We made the decision in 2021 to become fully remote forever. Remote work has been great for us, but it meant a lot of team members hadn’t ever met each other in person, though we had spent quite a lot of virtual time together. What we discovered was that everyone was as smart and cool as we thought, some people were even funnier in person, and that people don’t always look their height on Zoom.
We did a three day offsite because we want to avoid asking our employees to use personal time on business trips. Monday and Friday were designated as travel days, though some employees traveling longer distances inevitably needed more than that, and some chose to stay in Austin beyond that one week to get more face time.
The agenda for the offsite was an eclectic mix of activities based in large part on my experiences with previous attempts:
Work sessions tend to be fluffy and abstract with little relevance to our real work
Time is often wasted on sessions that can be done in any format, not just an in-person offsite
Fun activities beyond the work sessions can feel forced or unenjoyable
Too little unstructured time can be draining and squelch serendipity or
Unstructured time can be so unstructured that nothing happens
So-called team-building activities do little to actually build teams
I believe that the best team-building activity in a professional environment is about striving together to achieve an important goal. That belief and the experiences described above dictated my goals:
Work sessions should be relevant to our problems and produce meaningful outputs that we act on
Work sessions need to be activities that substantially benefit from being face to face
Fun activities should be distinctive, challenging, and/or novel for most participants
Leave some loosely structured time for people to connect and collaborate
Our post-event survey found that everyone’s experience was either very positive or very very positive, so we did pretty well.
While we’re thrilled by this success, we’re already thinking about ways to make the next one even better. For instance, we were able to get most people to Austin, but we weren’t able to get everyone. Next time I’d like to do better at incorporating remote attendees so they can participate more actively. A GoPro on a tripod and a conference speaker/microphone are a big improvement on a laptop’s built-in camera and audio, but we can still do more.
We’re also examining the trade-offs between having a variety of activities and focusing deeply on just one or two things. There’s a similar and related trade-off between going somewhere like Austin that has a lot of people and a wide array of activities versus going somewhere more remote where our collective attention will be directed inward.
We know we’re not the only company experimenting with ways to work together in a fully-remote context. And we know that an offsite every few months won’t entirely smooth out the wrinkles that sometimes emerge when everyone is at a remove. But we’re committed to making this part of Coder’s culture, and we’re already counting down the days til our next one in August!