How project management has developed at Outlandish
We’ve been thinking a lot about our project management processes at Outlandish over the past few months.
It’s a very fluid place to work, with a mix of permanent Outlander PMs and floating collaborators (aka freelancers) who dip in and out of Outlandish and our projects.
While the seasoned Outlander PMs know how things fit together, we realised we needed to make project management work better for our collaborators.
Cue an internal project to polish up how we do project management at Outlandish.
It has given me time to reflect on how much its changed as Outlandish has grown, and how PMs try to create the best environment for developers to work in.
It’d be boring to detail the whole shebang, but here are a few reflections I thought were worth sharing…
- We‘ve made the methodologies work for us
Like many digital agencies, we use Agile methodology and work closely with clients as the requirements and solutions evolve throughout a project. We *heart* Agile and its focus on flexibility, but there are some things about it that we have decided to hack.
One of these things is the daily stand-up ritual, where the developers give an update on their progress at a pre-set time. Typically at a stand-up each member of a team is asked to answer three questions:
- What did you do yesterday?
- What will you do today?
- What blocking issues do you have that the team can help with?
But because we’re jolly people at Outlandish, and we like to take a Solution-Focused approach to work, we decided to add another question into the mix.
- What good things happened yesterday that you want to share with the team?
Often our developers will talk about how they cracked a technical issue that had been bugging them, so this fourth question is great for impromptu knowledge sharing between techies. At other times the team will talk about something lovely in their home-life, “my baby smiled for the first time”, “I went to a great gig”, “the curry I ate last night was delicious”. Some of the things we share are flippant, some are significant, but all of them help us understand what’s going on in each other’s lives—be it babies or biryanis.
The thing we try to do is to make the methodologies we use work for us, and play with them when we need and want to.
- We’ve used different tools as we’ve grown
When Outlandish started out it was four people coding around each other’s kitchen tables and cooking lunch for each other every day. The size of the company was small and the things we needed were simple. Now there are more than 20 of us, things are a little different.
We still eat lunch all together twice a week – but in our office, and cooked by one of our lovely local restaurants in Finsbury Park.
As well as scaling our approach to lunch, we’ve had to change the way we schedule people onto projects. When we were a teeny organisation there wasn’t much scheduling to be done.
We only had one project on at a time, and everyone sat next to each other working on it together.
When we grew to 10 people, we had a bit more on and moved our scheduling onto a whiteboard. We stuck tape on the board, created a grid of days for the upcoming two weeks, and along the left-hand side wrote the names of our developers, designers and project managers to indicate which projects they were on and when. It was a lovely homegrown solution, but again we grew as a company, and outgrew our board.
Rather sadly, when we tried to remove the tape it stuck to the white board making it hard to use for other purposes. Our old scheduling whiteboard now sits at the back of our office, by the hoover, on its way out. If you look carefully you can see the remnants of: M T W T F M T W T F on it.
Enough reminiscing already. We moved on. And we now use a wonderful tool called Float – highly recommended. Again, it works in a similar way, with the names our team down the left-hand side and dates along the top. But it does all sorts of other clever stuff too: live updates, accessible online, one-off scheduling, re-occurring scheduling AND stats (although we don’t make enough of these tbh).
This is what Float looks like:
- We (try to!) give developers the space they need to be effective
Developers need a good amount of time and space to do their work. I’ve always known this, but about a year ago one of the Outlanders sent around a link to this blog which explains how developer time is different to PM time, and needs to be respected and protected.
The blog made a lot of sense to everyone: it identified two types of work schedules. The first type is the “manger’s schedule” which can be cut into one-hour intervals, with lots of meetings and the like. The second type of schedule is the “maker’s schedule”, which is common among developers, artists, musicians and designers who need large chunks of uninterrupted time to do their work.
Or to put it another way, it simply isn’t possible to write high quality code in one-hour units interspersed with meetings. Indeed, if you’re a developer then a meeting can completely ruin the flow of your day—not to mention get you in the bad books of your PM who will want to know at the next day’s stand-up why you haven’t got through all the tasks you said you would!
These ideas really crystalised the idea that developers need time and space to produce good quality work. As a PM, I try to keep this in mind when organising meetings. Before I put a meeting in the diary I ask:
- Do the developers really need to be there?
- If so, can just one of them come along?
- Can this be dealt with at the daily stand-up instead?
The PM’s at Outlandish are very aware how precious developer time is, and we do our best to keep their time uninterrupted. It isn’t always possible, as we are one big team, and we often need (and want!) to talk to each other. But we also try and respect the peace and quiet needed to write awesome code.