Workplace distractions are an indigestible all-you-can-eat buffet. It starts with the sugary snacks, like Twitter, Instagram, Amazon or eBay. They’re garnished with carb-heavy coffee runs, lunch options, and office gossip, along with some protein: side-projects, meetings and online messaging services. You still think you’re fine until finally, cruelly, the server piles on a great fatberg of emails that block you up and slow you down.
When you’re tasked with building a brand-new, cutting-edge payments platform like Access Worldpay, it’s hardly ideal. So it’s no wonder that the leadership team chose to remove as many distractions as possible from the people tasked with delivering it all.
Perhaps counterintuitively, they decided the best way to increase teams’ productivity was to reduce their time together. For context, Access Worldpay uses the Agile approach to software development. This maximises speed and flexibility via small teams working in 10 day ‘sprints’, during which they plan, build and release software.
Careful examination of these sprints revealed that their productivity was frequently diluted. “Oftentimes you’ve got lots of other things cutting in and distracting teams so typically people can only contribute 85-90% of their time to sprints,” says Sean Simmie, Co-Lead (Build Chapter).
The solution was to “segregate those distractions as much as possible” by reducing the sprint length from 10 to 8.5 days. Reserving sprint time solely for sprint work “protects” the teams so that they can focus properly on the task at hand. It also allows the remaining 1.5 days to be reserved for issues that are equally important but not sprint-specific.
Most of this time – a full day – is invested in ‘chapter time’. But what are chapters? “With Agile delivery, you take all the people you need to produce the outcome you want and put them in a team,” Sean explains. “If you need more than one team, generally you’ll want them all to be aligned so you don’t duplicate effort. That’s where chapters come in.”
Access Worldpay has several chapters, all working to standardise best practice, share experience and expertise, and establish common principles and practices. “The chapter day is about the cross-cutting concerns and different chapters have different areas to align on,” says Sean. “For example, the build chapter has done a huge amount to standardise our approach to software engineering.”
Moreover, Agile delivery emphasises ‘people over process’, so “empowering people to contribute and make decisions is important,” says Sean. Investing in a specific, demarcated chapter day makes it “a distinct, protected thing that gives our people the opportunity to contribute rather than the leadership team simply micro-managing things.” He continues: “If we don’t give people real time and space to do this, it doesn’t happen – we’ve seen that time and time again.”
The final half day is reserved for personal development. “Again, it’s people over process,” says Sean: “We take our commitment to our people seriously because they’re our success, our biggest strength.” Behind this commitment lies a clear business case, he explains: “We need full-stack developers that can handle infrastructure, the front end and everything in-between, so we’re looking for people to grow in breadth and depth, to constantly improve on the engineering side.”
Individuals discuss their career aspirations and personal development plans with their manager. These can involve improving soft skills, such as presentations, or learning new disciplines. “One engineer uses his half-day to address and work on UX-related topics,” Sean says: “He set up a mentoring programme in which he would discuss, collaborate and review his work with a member of the UX team.”
Investment in personal development also extends to extra time for conferences or essential training, such as Scala or Cassandra. It also happens less formally on the desk with line managers providing specific support and continuing performance management, and at regular ‘lunch and learn’ sessions. “It’s a chance for people to come together as a community,” says Sean. “Three of our engineers are the lunch and learn co-ordinators so instead of being management-led, it’s a grassroots effort, which is valuable.”
Beyond these lies a universe of courses and libraries online, including Linux Academy and Pluralsight. “We try to offer as much as possible and some people use their time to do certifications themselves,” says Sean. “The key thing is that it has to be something that the individual wants to maximise – if they feel they’re already getting enough from on-the-job experience, that’s fine as well.”
Although these 1.5 days are protected, they aren’t sacred. “Production takes priority over everything,” says Sean. “We have a duty of care and responsibility to our customers so we can’t have folks taking time out to read from Safari Library if our systems are crashing in production.”
“The thing is, they wouldn’t do that,” adds Ben Haswell, Engineering Lead: “Our teams have ownership and they know it.” It’s a natural consequence of Access Worldpay’s culture of empowerment and, ultimately, it’s the dividend yielded from a sustained investment of time, training and trust.
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