This post was written by intern Emily Wong.
My experience working on software teams over the past couple of years has walked the line between exciting and anxiety-inducing. Interning at a small card processing company last summer where the team’s brainpower was divided among several projects at a time, it was a headache just trying to keep up with what was happening on a given day. My university’s computer science club wasn’t any less chaotic. When I took over as president only two years after the organization was founded, I was overwhelmed with trying to focus on immediate tasks while maintaining the board’s vision for our potential as a new student group.
When I started my internship at 4Degrees, I recognized the compact office as a familiar environment. They started the day with a brief stand up meeting, where everyone took turns to share what they were working on that day.
During my onboarding meeting, my manager gave me a run-down of the rest of the company’s traditions, from team dinners to weekly tech talks. Throughout the next few weeks, I found that 4Degrees managed to maintain a level of organization that I, in my admittedly limited experience, had not previously seen in a company of its size. While I thoroughly enjoyed working on coding projects and learning new concepts and techniques, I think the most valuable takeaway from my time here came from observing the leadership and teamwork within the company.
Setting clear goals
This is a pretty obvious step in any project, but working at 4Degrees gave me a much clearer idea of how to implement it, especially when handling a new and fast-growing project. Through our daily stand-ups, I found that the team was able to communicate efficiently and get everyone on the same page without spending more than five minutes a day. It also allowed our CTO and product manager to help direct each person’s focus for the day.
Weekly feedback meetings also played a part in goal setting. In a full-team meeting every Friday that spanned no longer than an hour and a half, we heard customers’ criticisms and reactions to the software, as well as the team’s progress on current tasks. Through these check-ins, we got a better idea of what to focus on for the upcoming week.
Building intrinsic motivation
This was a more significant problem at my last company, where my manager often struggled to keep programmers focused and productive during the workday. He solved this by holding the office to relatively strict guidelines, requiring them to sign in and out each day. The 4Degrees time-off policy, by contrast, offered unlimited paid time off. Team members worked from home as often as their life events necessitated. However, I noticed that this flexibility didn’t seem to hinder productivity. In fact, if anything, it improved the team’s work ethic by ensuring that no one got burned out.
In lieu of rigid scheduling, I found the team point system to be an effective method of building accountability. We used Airtable to keep track of each task’s description, priority, and point value. Programmers would get points for every task they completed, and each person would discuss their weekly total at the feedback meeting. I could see that this regular self-evaluation allowed team members to find what time management strategies worked best for them and to reflect on what they accomplished each week.
Using team dynamics to increase productivity
While it’s generally common for companies and organizations to facilitate bonding through team activities and social events, I never recognized the practical value of personal relationships within the office. In other words, beyond raising morale and fostering a friendly work environment, I’ve yet to be a part of a team that has successfully funneled this camaraderie into productivity.
The team at 4Degrees maintains a work-life blend through team dinners and sharing about our weeks at the end of every feedback meeting. Aside from making everyone a little happier to come into work every day, this dynamic was evident in team discussion. Everyone felt free to contribute their input to the conversation, and more importantly, to disagree or even argue if they felt strongly about their idea. The same was true during the day, as people were comfortable asking each other questions and work together on projects. While this dynamic can also be attributed to the personality types hired in the first place, I’ve observed that maintaining a healthy community and cultivating a collaborative culture can be crucial in working on a small team.
I’ve gained so much from my experience interning at 4Degrees over the past couple of months, from the chance to collaborate with and learn from a team of smart and creative people, to an increased familiarity working in and navigating through a large code base. However, I feel most grateful to have been able to experience a well-managed team and inclusive culture, and I’m excited to bring what I learned into my future professional and leadership experiences.