Benefits Of Shared Space On An Agile Team

Episode 95

January 23, 2013


design efficiency

The Agile Weekly Crew, Isaac, Deepa and Ryan discuss moving from cubes to team rooms, self-organizing teams and collaboration.

Clayton Lengel‑Zigich: Welcome to another episode of the Agile Weekly Podcast. I’m Clayton Lengel‑Zigich.

Isaac: I’m Isaac.

Deepa: I’m Deepa.

Ryan: I’m Ryan.

Roy vandeWater: I’m Roy van de Water.

Moving Into A Shared Space (Bullpen)

Clayton: Joining us today, we’ve got three people who actually work on two separate Scrum teams. You guys have recently, as of probably two months now maybe, three months, have moved into the bullpen, a shared team space. I was curious what you guys thought about going from working in cubicles to working in more of a team room environment.

Isaac: I love it. I like the collaboration and working with other people, and being able to hear other conversations, and have quick meetings without having to go anywhere else.

Is It Too Noisy

Clayton: Do you ever think it’s too noisy? That’s always the complaint that we heard before. Before everyone moved in there, it was always, “It’ll be too loud, I won’t get any work done.” Have you had that experience at all?

Isaac: I think maybe at first, just a little bit, but you quickly learn how to ignore that and work through it, so it’s not so bad.

Deepa: I didn’t like the idea at first. I thought there would be no privacy, that I wouldn’t concentrate, and it would be too noisy. But I think I gelled into how the whole group works, and started to learn how to concentrate even with the noise around me. I think I like it.

Enabling Self-Organization

Clayton: One of the other things that has happened since you guys have moved into these team rooms is that you’ve become more self‑organizing in lots of different ways. Like the way you do the work, and all kinds of things.

One example of that I thought of with Isaac and Deepa, in your team. You’re using a physical board, which is something that you guys hadn’t used in the past. What’s your experience been with trying to do something totally different?

Moving To A Physical Board

Isaac: Moving to the board, I thought it was actually kind of cool, because I think…Not just our team, but I think everybody hated Rally, which is the tool that we used online to track our task. We’ve never really kept it up to date, and for me at least, it felt like I never knew what people were working on.

Moving to the board I thought was really cool, because you can actually see who has what task, and you can see where it’s at. I liked it a lot.

Deepa: Yeah, it was more open to see who was working on what, and what the status was. Probably the morning and also check in the evening what was on it. That was very helpful.

Clayton: Is there anything you’ve experienced, Roy, as far as things you’ve observed? The teams have been more self‑organizing, or doing more team activities that maybe we’re a little more used to?

Roy: The team that I’ve been a part of recently switched to using a physical board as well. We’re only two days in, but to me it already feels like it’s making a huge difference from “What tasks people are working on” awareness, and actual looking at the tasks.

You mentioned Rally’s a pain in the ass, so we threw all these tasks in there. In the past I’ve always worked on the environment where I grab a task off the board, and work on it in front of my desk, and I don’t work on anything without a task.

It was such a pain to go in and find my tasks in Rally that I wouldn’t ever look. I started working the same way as everybody else, not looking at tasks at all. Which really made tasking during planning feel really irrelevant, other than as a way to get more accurate estimates.

Ryan: It’s funny, because when we use electronic tools we think that’s for better communication. But we’ve found that the communication has actually been faster and better by having having the physical thing there. If we have a magical touch board with everything totally digitally up there all the time, maybe we would get a similar experience.

Isaac: Until we have a power outage.


Ryan: The fact that it’s abstracted away on some web page that someone keeps on a tab that’s hidden behind other windows, and then you gotta go in there. Updating, we would always have problems with people updating their hours. “What did you work on?” “Is it in progress?” “Is it complete?” With a physical card it’s so fast and simple.

Roy: I think the idea, too, that we’ve been doing, where we actually have the card hanging over our desks. Makes it really easy to point in the general direction of a task. Like if two of the guys were around one task and working another task, we can be like, “That task,” and wave at that side of the room. Which is a really general but quick way to reference something, that in a digital tool would be like “Just in task T‑436.”

Color Coded Pens

Isaac: I also liked that we used the color‑coded pens, too. It’s really easy to identify when things are in progress. Before, you’d have to go into Rally and actually make sure you double‑clicked the little “P,” or whatever, a lot of times.

Roy: You guys have all the pen, so we just have random colored pens now. I’ll have to steal some.


Isaac: Yeah we have pens that we can block things, show them in progress, show the ones that are still available, and which ones are complete.

Shared Space Enabled Working Differently

Clayton: Do you guys think that way of organizing the work would have been possible, or easy to do, when you were still in cubicles? Do you think the team room has had a big impact on that?

Isaac: I definitely think the team room made a big impact on that, it’s a lot easier.

Deepa: It’s a lot easier, and I think we save a lot of time, just interacting with each other. Because we are all in the same room, checking on things.

Ryan: How many times in a cubicle did you get up to go and talk to somebody and they weren’t there?

Deepa: Well it’s [indecipherable 05:03] messenger first. Then the mail, and then…

Isaac: Waiting for a response. Then you get up, then they’re not there.

Customer Sitting With Team

Roy: Something cool happened in our team a few weeks ago too. Which is that somebody from a non‑software engineering team, that generates content that we interfaced with a lot, or were supposed to interface with a lot, joined our team and sits with us as well.

That’s been huge, because even though it’s really difficult for us to pair and help each other directly with the work that we do, the fact that we’re sitting in the same space, and overhear each other talking, and are just naturally communicating more, I feel has improved our ability to help each other by leaps and bounds.

Ryan: He’s noticed a major difference.

Roy: That too, yeah.

Ryan: He loves sitting in there. Even when the dialogue isn’t directly related to what he is doing, he likes to be around to be involved in the discussion.

Becoming A Team In Shared Space

Clayton: One thing that a lot of things teams struggle with is, they’re trying to become a team, or have some feeling of a team. Generating working agreements always seems kind of difficult for a lot of teams. You guys seem like every retrospective you come up with some new goal and a new thing, a new working agreement, and it seems like everyone pretty much sticks to them.

I’m curious why before, when you guys were sitting in cubicles, it didn’t really feel that way? It wasn’t so easy to make working agreements. Is it easier to hold people accountable, just because you are together all the time? It’s easier to notice when someone’s maybe going off‑track?

Isaac: I think so, I think the visibility’s there. I think before, when you’re sitting in your cube, you’re so isolated sometimes you don’t even think about the team. When you are sitting there it kind of forces…

Deepa: The smartboard was not that prominent sitting in your [indecipherable 06:42] queue. Now we have it on a common board, so everybody reads it and you see it all the time, so it’s always part of your [indecipherable 06:49] .

Roy: The other thing too, is a [indecipherable 06:50] just isn’t that relevant when you’re working primarily by yourself. You’re working in isolation, it doesn’t really matter if you’re upholding the team, those issues don’t come up. You have your own issues, and someone else has their own issues, you’re not going to observe shared issues between everybody.

Constant Interruptions

Clayton: Has there been anything that you guys haven’t liked about the team room so far?

Roy: Ryan and I had an argument earlier today, about an hour or two ago actually, that we haven’t resolved yet, about…

Isaac: Another podcast.

Ryan: I’m about to punch him right now.

Roy: About the constant interrupting each other with questions. Ryan and I were pairing on something, and I felt like we were building up some steam, some inertia, doing test room development, switching back and forth a lot.

Somebody came in and asked Ryan a question on something that he had expertise on, and he got pulled off into a discussion. Our working agreement is that you don’t do silent work, but I kept working anyways. Now all of a sudden it was either violate a work agreement or stop working, and it became kind of an issue.

It almost feels like retrospectives aren’t frequent enough for us to deal with those type of issues, because they creep up too frequent. When stuff like that happens too quickly, I can’t afford to wait until Friday for us to deal with that.

Ryan: I didn’t like the toe nails I found under my spot when I moved into the bullpen, but I think that’s been resolved for the most part.


Isaac: Personal hygiene’s kind of a big one with…That was a different team though.

Isaac: Those were there before us.


Clayton: What about you, Deepa ? Anything that you haven’t liked?

Deepa: I didn’t like that we didn’t have a common…What’s the presentation board?

Isaac: Oh, the white board?

Clayton: The white board.

Deepa: Yeah, the white board. That was an issue [indecipherable 08:31] planning. What else did we have?


Deepa: But now we have it, so I feel comfortable.

Planning In Shared Space

Roy: It’s interesting too, you guys do planning in your team room, in your bullpen, but we choose to do it in a separate conference room. I’m wondering, why do you guys chose to do it in your team room? I guess we’re the ones that are doing it weirdly, so maybe we have to excuse our behavior.

Deepa: You don’t have to move out?

Isaac: Yeah, we don’t have to move. I think we like the fact that we have the team room, that we pretty much use it for everything. We do the retro, planning, everything in there.

Clayton: I’d say everyone feels more comfortable in the team room, just in general. When we go into a conference room, that’s when it gets lifeless. There is usually just one person driving the computer that is showing stuff on the screen, and you can check out. In the team room it’s a little more intimate environment. Everyone’s usually sitting around the small little table, and people are having more fun.

Deepa: It’s your own place, so you’re familiar with it. I was first against having demos in the bullpen, because I thought it would not be very serious, people wouldn’t be responsible. After the first demo in our bullpen, I think I was very comfortable in the same place that I work and do the demo. It didn’t feel odd to talk about [inaudible 09:46] .

Planning Outside The Shared Space

Roy: I feel like if I were to do planning inside of the bullpen, that it would be really hard for me to resist the temptation to turn to my computer and start working on something when the planning gets tedious.

The other thing that I feel is, moving into a different room is, the room is associated with the planning mindset. When I’m in this room I’m in planning mode, and when I’m in this room I’m in developing mode. I feel like I make that mental switch when I walk through the doorway.

Ryan: One thing I did like about watching them plan is how they gather around a center table. It does pull you away from the computer a little bit. It also gets you face to face with the people that you’re planning with, which I think we don’t still do very well on our stand‑ups. We all stand back against our machines.

Getting closer, and getting interpersonal with people, I think generates a better feel as a team.

Roy: Our planning, too, involves us looking in a “U” shape at a common screen. I wonder what it would be like if we got rid of the projector and didn’t have that at all, and instead just sat in a circle and talked? We probably don’t need to see that.

Isaac: I’ve noticed that since we are gathered around that smaller table, it seems like everybody’s closer. When we used to be in a conference room, some people would sit way at one end, other people at the other end.

Roy: Yeah, we have the same thing.

Isaac: Breaking out tasks on index cards wasn’t very productive then, because it was too far away to see what was going on and the interaction just wasn’t there.

Ryan: That’s the thing I like the most about sitting in the team room, if we’re talking about a story and Deepa starts talking about something, it’s so easy for someone to just grab a Sharpie and put it in front of her and basically say, “OK, start writing task.” In the conference room, when everyone’s so spread out, it’s like, “OK, who’s going to write this down” Then, it turns into, not an argument, but…


Roy: Usually there’s a dedicated…


Ryan: Hot potato. [laughs]

Isaac: Yeah, hot potato.

Deepa: You sit all across the room, and then you are not together when you do the tasks. All that is very…


Roy: Maybe we should seriously reconsider how we do our planning, because ours feel pretty lifeless, and energy‑less.

Shared Space Advice

Clayton: I always like to ask the practical questions. If you had a friend that was a software developer, who had a similar role that you have, working in another company, and maybe their boss was thinking about moving their team into a team room, what kind of advice would you give them? What kind of tips and tricks would you give them, now that you’ve done it for a while?

Ryan: I would say, first off, that it requires a mind shift, that programming is a collaborative effort. I’ve been used to, in my career, it being a silent‑type thing. You get your little assignment, you go into your cave, and you come out of the cave every once in a while, and you slip your code under the door, kind of thing.

The mindset has to change, where you’re working together as a group and it’s collective ownership of the code. That’s really, I think, a key shift in my mind, to accepting this style of interaction.

Isaac: I’d say definitely be open to it, just go for it. Because I know some people really weren’t excited about it at all, but see a complete 360 when they just go for it and try it.

Deepa: It’s more like teamwork that dominates, and that should dominate. That’s what I feel. The mutual thinking there, you should probably juggle with your group.

Problems With Siloing

Clayton: A flip side for you, Roy, since you have more experience working in a collaborative environment, when you first started, when we were doing more siloed stuff, what were the big downfalls that you saw, the problems that you saw with the old way of doing it?

Roy: Back when we were siloing, back in Integrum?

Clayton: No, no. I think when you started here we hadn’t really make that whole mindset change that Ryan had mentioned.

Roy: What we had at first is, we had different types of developers. We had a flash developer, and a back end developer, and a whatever developer. We had all these specialized rules. Then, as we started pairing and working in a team room, it became impossible to maintain those roles. As a Flash developer, there may not necessarily be a Flash story.

One of the things we were doing was randomized pairing, based off of names from a hat. It becomes impossible, because you’re pulled off of flash tasks as often as you’re pulled onto other stuff, so you don’t get to maintain your own fiefdom, and you don’t get to stick their own code.

That was one of the negative things I saw in the past. If I’m a Flash developer, I would interact only with my Flash code, and then Ryan is a back‑end developer, and he’d only interact with the back‑end code, we never even saw each other’s codes. We never got to learn from each other.

Ryan: I’ll add another one. Issac and I, in our roles, originally were kind of outside the team. I found that when I sat with the team and I was a participant in the tasks, that I had more influence with the team. I kind of had street cred, or I was in the trenches.

When I had an opinion on something and wanted to influence the direction that the code was going…We make “Ivory tower” jokes, but it wasn’t like issuing edicts from some place in the distance. I was there every day, working on the same stuff they were working on, and so my opinion, I think, carried more validity just because of that, and not because of any title or position.

Roy: Maybe it’s more of an “Ivory steeple” now, then.

Ryan: Yeah.


Clayton: On that note, I think we’ll wrap it up. Thanks guys, for joining us today, and we appreciate it.

Ryan: No problem.

Deepa: Thank you.

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