The SpecTrust engineering team recently held our first-ever “Innovation Week”, during which time all roadmapped work was sidelined, all ritual meetings were cancelled, and all engineers were encouraged to focus and collaborate on initiatives that mattered to them.
What is Innovation Week?
In short, Innovation Week is a week-long engineering event celebrating, you guessed it, innovation. The entire engineering team is encouraged to put aside typical project work and turn focus to an initiative they choose to pursue in order to advance our organization. The idea here is to provide dedicated time for the team to shine a light on areas of growth that might escape the typical product roadmap.
The idea of Innovation Week isn’t new, in fact I first experienced it while working for a previous employer. I found it to be a really fun and effective way to empower the team and provide value to the greater organization in a creative, collaborative, and passionate way. Since then I have been keen to introduce the practice here at SpecTrust.
Picking a Project
An Innovation Week project could take many forms, and engineers are encouraged to get creative and truly choose initiatives that they care about. Example project areas include:
- Setting out on exploratory new feature work.
- Addressing weaknesses / tech-debt in our codebase.
- Improving internal processes and tooling.
- Bolstering our internal documentation.
- Learning and/or adopting new technologies.
- Any other idea that drives value for the organization.
Team members can choose to work together or choose to go it alone on their own projects. Some may be smaller, meaning you could work on more than one project during the week. Some won’t be able to be completed in a week, which is okay. These projects can be continued in spare time, or even potentially be added to the formal engineering roadmap.
During innovation week, we cancel most of our regular engineering ritual meetings. This is to enable as much focus time as possible. This means:
- No standup.
- No forum meetings.
- No tech talks.
- No iteration planning / retrospective.
- No housekeeping duties for on-call engineers.
On Friday afternoon we all meet together and show off what we worked on that week. Each person / group takes a turn talking about what they set out to accomplish, what they were able to achieve, and what they learned along the way. This is a casual and celebratory event where we can look back and feel proud of working towards a better future for the company.
What did we accomplish?
Now that we understand what Innovation Week entails, let’s turn focus to the fun part: taking a look at what the team was able to accomplish last week!
- One engineer created the very engineering blog that you are reading right now! This team-managed blog provides a way for us to share with the tech community more about the interesting things we do and the tough problems we get to solve. They also wrote two posts to get us kicked off, one about how the blog is set up and managed and another about how we enable code-sharing between Rust and TypeScript projects.
- One engineer set out to build a new heat map visualization leveraging D3.js to show the results from our external integration calls over time. This was in an effort to find better ways to tell compelling stories about our data that are accurate and that users can understand and use to draw insight.
- One engineer took on an initiative to improve our GraphQL-based error reporting capabilities in a way that preserved our security controls while still enabling flexible error-handling behavior. This set a foundation for us to be able to provide much better information to users when errors occur.
- Three engineers banded together to start a massive migration of our entire CI/CD pipeline for all applications and services from CircleCI to GitLab. This sets the stage for a number of future initiatives for improving our development loop, deployment strategies, and infrastructure management.
- One engineer took it upon themselves to address large cleanup tasks, including the safe removal of large amounts of legacy code and completing the migration from diesel to sqlx for all Rust code that interacts with our data models.
- One technical project manager focused on diving deep into SQL learning in order to make themself available for data analysis and reporting tasks.
- I was able to join the team as an engineer as well, focusing my time on implementing an ergonomic and maintainable test framework for our GraphQL API leveraging Jest and supertest.
These are just some of the major developments, with many more small initiatives being worked on along the way. All throughout the week every team member truly embraced collaboration and made themselves available to help across projects.
The entire team, including upper leadership, came away with positive things to say about Innovation Week. The entire event was surrounded with this feeling of chaotic-good energy, and the result was new value in every direction and, in my opinion, a stronger and more cohesive team. Due to the success of this pilot, our leadership team has set forth an intent to hold quarterly Innovation Weeks from this point forward. We are optimistic that continuing this practice will lead to similar learning, bonding, and growth opportunities in the future.
As always, SpecTrust remains committed to empowering our team to feel passionate about the work they do and the team members with whom they get to do it, and Innovation Week has proven to be a great tool to do just that.