18th July 2017

How chapters bring our distributed team together

John Ennew
Technical Director
Tech chapter at Escape Kent

Project teams and chapters

We’ve written before about how teams work at Deeson. We’re always learning and adapting our organisational model to free team members up to do their best work.

Everyone in a client-facing delivery role at the agency is a member of two kinds of team: cross-disciplinary project teams and discipline-specific chapters. The chapter is where professional learning, challenge and R&D happens.

The development chapter is currently made up of 15 software engineers – we’re the people who build the websites and business tools. Deeson also has chapters for design and user experience, and delivery.

A chapter on the same page

The development chapter’s focus is on delivering quality consistently by developing reliable and effective recipes, standards and best practices. We do this by collaborating and sharing what we’ve learned between all chapter members, so that project teams across the whole agency can benefit.

To this end we run a series of initiatives, led by enthusiastic and self-motivated members of the chapter. Together with the Technical Director, the person leading each initiative identifies areas for improvement in our processes, and sets quarterly goals which aim to address them. These goals should be SMART and agreed on by the chapter as a whole. 

To check in on progress against these goals, we’ve recently started running quarterly chapter meetups. The purpose of these is to recap on the last quarter, talk about what we’ve learnt, and set the direction for the next quarter. It gives chapter members a chance to contribute to improving the way we work, and to get excited about the direction the agency and chapter are headed in.

Learning by doing

With half our development team now distributed, located in various places around Europe, we value the opportunity to come together in person. Our quarterly meetups are a perfect excuse, and our first one took place at our Canterbury office last week.

It began with founder Tim Deeson and myself outlining the future direction of the agency and recapping our technical strategy. Then the initiative leads introduced their initiatives, summarised what we have achieved over the last quarter, and revealed their goals for the upcoming quarter.

Following this, we listened to 30-minute technical presentations from two of the initiatives. Mark demonstrated a new local development process using Docker, and Chris introduced us to behavioural testing using PHP framework Behat. We then held a hands-on workshop where all developers were challenged to set up a Drupal 8 site using our Docker local development recipe, and to write Behat tests.

Moving from Vagrant to Docker will be a key goal over the next quarter, so this was a fun and practical way to introduce two new processes. It allowed the initiative leads to identify problems with their approach first-hand, and address them in person. Meanwhile, the rest of the chapter benefitted from access to supported face-to-face learning.

Escaping the office

After the workshop wrapped, we ordered in pizzas and then headed out for a group activity in the evening. This quarter we decided to test our teamwork skills at Escape Kent, an escape room in Canterbury where participants must solve a series of puzzles and challenges to break out of a locked room within an hour. If anything is going to test a team’s ability to work together and communicate, this is it – and I’m pleased to say we got out with time to spare!

Feedback from the team about our first meetup has been overwhelmingly positive. Chapter members particularly enjoyed the workshop exercise, with tasks that were relevant to their work and improved their skills and knowledge. The pizza was a bit lacklustre, so we’ll need to mix up the food options next time but disappointing food aside, we’re looking forward to our next quarterly meetup.

Like the sound of the way we do things? We're currently hiring for several roles in the development chapter.