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Our team is thinking of doing a "Project In A Week" (bootcamp), and I'm interested to know if anyone else has experience of doing this or has any advice?

The idea behind it is to get away from the distractions of the office, motivate each other, and build our bonds within the team, in order to come up with an innovative and profitable product in a short space of time.

The plan is to get the whole of the dev team (about 5 devs), a designer, a project manager, couple of sales and marketing people staying in a conference centre/hotel for a full working week. We'll be completely focused on building one web app (planned in advance) and getting it live and on the market within the week. We'll work quite long days but in the evenings we'll have some fun together as a team. There would be a couple of members of the team left in the office to ensure we're not distracted by day to day client support. Similar 'immersive' approaches are used by training companies such as Firebrand.

Good idea? Terrible idea? What should we do to incentivise the team?

Any thoughts/experiences/advice would be greatly appreciated.

Cheers

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Red Gate did something similar to this a while back: youtube.com/watch?v=29yz3v1OCIE –  thecoop Mar 24 '11 at 17:15
    
whats the idea behind sales and marketing people? are they going to create client base,viral marketing for your product in development?. I can understand the development team in on this. –  Aditya P Mar 24 '11 at 17:31
    
@AdityaGameProgrammer Yes, the sales/marketing people will drive the public facing website content and design, and will work on promotion as you say. They need to be involved to shape the product, help with testing and ensure the developers deliver something 'sellable'! –  TimS Mar 24 '11 at 17:37
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7 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I was on the "Coding by the Sea" team from Red Gate that thecoop mentioned.

I, and I think everyone else on the team, had an absolutely amazing time, and I'd be first in line to put my name down to do it again. We built the beta version of SQL Search, a relatively small tool, from scratch in a week, though it was certainly of beta quality and not ready for general release at that point.

Here's a few caveats I remember from our debrief:

  • There were four of us on the team: 2 developers, one tester, and one UX specialist. We thought that five might work, probably adding a second tester, but six or more would start to become rather less useful. Once you get up to that kind of team size, you start needing some kind of project management, but with four of you, you can self-organize very effectively. I'm not sure having a project manager on this kind of thing would work!

  • Having some kind of idea of what you're doing before you go is good, and we spent a day or so beforehand speaking to those within the company who wouldn't be on the team getting their input. This was really valuable! However, don't go with a rigid spec, as a) it takes a lot of the fun out, and b) it'll change anyway. We spent the first morning brainstorming the design and requirements, but kept them flexible throughout the project.

  • Remember you need to organize infrastructure: we all took desktop PCs so we could easily run multiple monitors - don't scrimp on this, or you'll cause your developers unnecessary pain. How will you access other bits of the office infrastructure? Build systems? E-mail? Who on the team will put this together?

Answers to some of the questions raised by others - this is what we did; it worked for us; it might not work for you:

  • Meals: we were in the house for six nights. The first night we did pizza for speed, another night we went out into town for a curry, and the remaining four we each cooked a meal for everyone else. This worked really well, and we all enjoyed both cooking and eating. For breakfast / lunch we just got a selection of stuff that meant we could throw together something appropriate. If you do this, all go shopping together at the start of the trip, and needless to say, the company pays! (That included a few bottles of wine, by the way. Don't be silly and set limits on how much they can spend: if you can't trust them not to be silly, you shouldn't be doing this...)

  • Compensation: we didn't get paid for overtime, or time off in lieu. As part of the team, I didn't even consider for a moment that I should do. It was a totally amazing experience, and I know there were loads of people in the company who would have loved to go if any of us hadn't. I appreciate that some may have family commitments, and this could be problematic. If you think you'd enjoy or benefit from the experience, do it - if not, don't.

  • Time: I think a week (5 working days) is about right. We arrived on the Sunday evening, and spent that just getting settled in and set up, then a bit of relaxation. We left the following Saturday morning after packing up, leaving us Monday through Friday for the actual project. There's no way we could've sustained what we did for two weeks, but any less than a week, and I think you'd be very limited in what you could achieve. I don't think a team hand-over would work.

  • Productivity drops after 40 hours: for a week in isolation, we didn't find this to be too bad. Could I sustain it indefinitely? Certainly not. But for one week, running on adrenaline, coffee, and great teamwork, it worked. Though the code written at midnight after a couple of glasses of red wine did need a little attention the following morning ;-).

  • Accommodation: make it amazing. Not some dodgy conference venue. Find the most amazing house, in the most beautiful location you can. We had a TV the size of a small planet (that never got used), a wood burning fire, a table football table, enormous kitchen, and definitely a bedroom each! It was in the middle of nowhere, and that was great too.

There's a very brief video we did of our adventure here, if you're interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29yz3v1OCIE

Cheers, Rob

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Rob, thanks so much for responding to my email to your CEO and taking the time to share your experiences. I'm glad this idea worked for Red Gate in a real world environment. By taking your advice and lessons learned I hope we can reproduce the same motivation and productivity within our team, and come up with a successful product. Thanks again! –  TimS Mar 28 '11 at 10:48
    
@TimS: not a problem! Every company works differently, and what worked for us may not be the same as what works for you, but maybe some of my comments will give you something to go on. But I'd give it a try, and see what happens :-) –  rmc47 Mar 28 '11 at 11:19
    
Great information! –  DKnight Mar 28 '11 at 12:21
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I think that if you tried to pull me away from my family and all my personal responsibilites for an entire week of work promsing unpaid overtime and forced interaction with my co-workers I would do my best to opt out.

I like a lot of my coworkers, but there is no way your whole team likes each other that much.

If you have a bunch of single employees this might work.

Maybe if the location was amazing, and the activities planned had wide appeal, and you invited families along and paid for them to stay the weekend.

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Yes the time away from family and normal life is a big concern so glad you raised it. It would of course be opt-in only, with some kind of financial and/or holiday incentive for working away and putting in the extra effort. What do you think is a good way to incentivise the team? Thanks again –  TimS Mar 24 '11 at 17:01
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depends on your people, and I listed a few at the bottom there. Otherwise, profit sharing on the product might be a good motivator. A base % shared for everyone including the folks that stay behind and make it possible, and then additional % shared between the ones that go on a sliding scale based on how much work gets accomplished. There are a lot of ways to do incentives though, it's best taylored to what the actual people in your team want. –  DKnight Mar 24 '11 at 17:18
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Agree with incentives. Here are some things that would appeal to me as a breadwinner / mother of 3: Double-comp time for overtime (2 hours off later for each hour worked, taken at my discretion). Double pay. An extra week of vacation and a bonus so I can use it to take my family somewhere nice. The key thing is that, whatever it is, it has to compensate both my husband and I - because when I work longer hours, so does he, as the SAHD; and, it has to be partly certain - not just "only if the product does well" income. –  Ethel Evans Mar 24 '11 at 17:37
    
@Ethel Evans Very useful comments, thank you –  TimS Mar 24 '11 at 17:44
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I like the idea and would love to participate in something like this, but in order to have that option, you would have to incentivize it heavily with time (not just money!). Keep in mind that, by having me stay overnight, you are also making my husband work overtime to care for our children. If you have primarily single or childless employees, this may be less of an issue. Also, if your employees all expected to travel and be away from home for the occasional week when they took their current positions, this would be less of an issue.

My idea of good compensation for this would be a week of vacation (which would also help me recoup from the overtime) and a bonus so I could afford to do something nice with the family . . . and bribe my husband to go along with this.

I would want a very clear plan for what we will do before we leave . . . basically, all the sprint planning (or other estimation techniques) gets done before we leave, with clear estimates.

Having one evening where the company treats us to dinner out with our entire families (if the event happens locally) could do wonders to keep me from worrying about my family by the end of the week.

I would much rather do a two-day event (suggested by someone else) during the week than on a weekend. My weekends are booked solid with family and church events. If you do choose a weekend activity, don't forget to leave time for religious obligations.

If your employees have to work overtime regularly already, this could backfire. Make sure the week before and the week after are fairly light so they start fresh and have time to recoup afterward.

ETA: I'm aware that my requirements to do something like this might be high. I'm offering them mostly to give an idea of how the employees for whom this would be most difficult might feel about spending a week away from home for a training exercise like this.

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Thanks for this viewpoint. A busy family life will certainly make it more difficult to commit to, so it's good to hear the incentives you'd expect in return. –  TimS Mar 24 '11 at 18:34
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Personally I would not want to do something like that. In the first place, this would cost me as I would have to get a dog sitter. In the second place, my off-time is mine. I need it and I need to be away from co-workers. I have art classes and other activities I'm not willing to give up. Then there's the exhaustion factor. If you want me to come to a hotel and work well past my normal hours, no thanks. Tired people make mistakes, it is stupid and short-sighted to plan to work extra hours. Then what will the week you return and the week before you go be like? Extra work spent to get things in shape to leave for a week and come back to a whole host of things that didn't get done that are urgent. No thanks.

Maybe this sounds like fun to some young single guy, but to me it sounds like organizational torture.

Oh yeah, I forgot, so this once and they will expect you to be able to pull off all future development in a week as well. I'd consider this point very carefully if I were you.

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Good point, direct expenses like the dog sitter should probably be paid by the company if you were to participate in such a project. I'm not sure I agree about the home/work balance though, as this is only a very occasional thing and not a reflection on the normal working patterns expected. In terms of pulling off all future developments in a week... That's definitely not an expectation we have, this is the exception not the rule :) –  TimS Mar 24 '11 at 18:44
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It's not your expectation that matters, it is the expectation of the sales guys and the senior management. –  HLGEM Mar 24 '11 at 18:52
    
Not a problem if expectations are managed properly! :) –  TimS Mar 24 '11 at 18:53
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let's just say that in more than 30 years of working I have never seen it work out well for the team inthe long run if they make an extradordinary effort to do something and succeed. That then becomes the definition of ordinary effort 99% of the time. But you know your organization better than I do. Just be awre that sales guys in particular will remember this the next time the client wants something faster than your estimate. And they will promise it without asking you first. –  HLGEM Mar 24 '11 at 18:58
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taking nerf bats that the Devs can use on the sales and marketing people could also be used as incentive ;-) –  DKnight Mar 24 '11 at 19:20
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While I can understand there being good intentions behind this, I'm not sure I'd see this working well in a lot of cases. Here are some initial questions, comments, and concerns:

  1. How detailed out is that "planned in advance" part? There seems to be the want of "innovation" but with a specific time line that I'm not sure the world works that way. What if there isn't a shippable product at the end of the week?

  2. No analysts. Is there a reason for having no testers, business analysts, and system administrators in on this?

  3. "RSA Animate - Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us" does mention a software company that gave employees 24 hours to do whatever they wanted to do that may be a better idea than trying to have someone be creative but within a box.

  4. How would meals be handled in this arrangement? What about dietary restrictions or limits?

  5. Would there be set working hours for the project or is this open to the team to decide? Some people may want to work really long days in a consistent push and others may prefer spurts.

  6. How would the sleeping arrangements be structured,e.g. would there be pairs in hotel rooms or is each in their own room? For example, I sleep with a CPAP machine that was somewhat surprising to the person that I shared a room back in January which may or may not make this an easy thing for me to just up and go for a week away from the world.


Back in 2000, my boss and I went to a conference for a week in LA and shared a hotel room. I'm pretty sure he didn't enjoy getting first hand experience with my snoring capabilities. Thus it did happen to me but I'm not sure how likely I am to have that happen in the future.

Another thought is what kind of follow-up would be done to see what changes there are in relationships and process that could be taken from that week? While some of these intangible benefits may continue as relationships have changed, it may be worth noting them somewhere to acknowledge which lessons were learned on this kind of exercise.

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Excellent points, thank you. The planning in advance will consist of a brainstorming day to decide on the idea (we have one in mind) and flesh it out (technically and commercially), followed by our user interface guru putting some wireframes together. Good point on the testers, folks back at the office who aren't involved could do that. Meals, sleeping and hours are all up for debate amongst the team. –  TimS Mar 24 '11 at 17:34
    
What business makes you share a room with someone else? In 20+ years of business trips that thought never even crossed my mind because it would be such a bad practice. If I had to share a room the number of business trips I would agree to go on would be very, very small. Not that I don't like my coworkers, but having to spend day and night with them is far too much and once I goto the room I don't want anyone bothering me. –  Dunk Mar 24 '11 at 18:10
    
I disagree with having testers off-site for this. I think having dev / test work closely in this environment could have some big wins, and would make testers feel more like an integral part of the team and not second-rate citizens. Of course, I speak as an SDET –  Ethel Evans Mar 24 '11 at 18:26
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I agree with your edit to do with a follow-up process. If we do go ahead with the idea, perhaps we should also blog about the experience so that others can benefit from our evaluation as well. –  TimS Mar 24 '11 at 18:50
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I have no experience with doing it as a full week in a company environment. I've done some dev camps and taught at one, and they're great. Those typically run for a weekend. You start Friday night, you finish Sunday night. In between, you meet people, form a team, sort out an idea, and build something. It's at least educational, and it can be great fun.

I think part of what makes those work is that everybody present is doing it for fun. So don't force people, and don't pay people extra to do it. Figure out how to make it so exciting that you'll have to turn people away. And then, as others suggested, make it painless for them, so they have nothing that interferes with working.

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Great points about not forcing people and ensuring it's made exciting and rewarding. Thanks –  TimS Mar 24 '11 at 17:39
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I would split into 2 teams, each working 2 days. This makes it easier to cover back at the office, have enough time to complete the project and not burden everyone by being away for a week.

You also get the benefit of learning to build things so the next/another person can work with it and possibly take over. This is true for marketing & sales people who inherit closed or nearly closed accounts.

Now it sucks being the second team. You could just ask for volunteers without them knowing it. Have a contest to pick who gets to be the first team. Of course the second team gets final say in the project, so that may be a benefit. They could just redo everything.

Spend the last day with both teams together and debrief/fight it out.

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Hmm not sure about that approach in terms it becoming a battle of two halves, but will give it some thought as I can see where you're coming from. –  TimS Mar 24 '11 at 17:42
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