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wfDevCamp 2008: Work Away From Work

Sometimes, special tasks require unusual measures. It was obvious that we needed to move the development of wfDynamic, webfactory’s content management framework, a big step forward. So in December 2008 the webfactory team headed to an apartment in the Austrian mountains for a week of focused, uninterrupted work.

In the middle of daily routines, it is difficult to bring all the people together that are needed to achieve giant leaps in product development. At a small software development company like webfactory, everyone is working on different projects with different rhythms. There are meetings with customers, impromptu meetings of small sub teams on project-related minutiae and phone calls that need to be handled.

But we needed to get things done: wfDynamic heavily relied on user interface techniques that didn't comply to today's web standards and accessibility guidelines. Replacing these techniques by state-of-the-art alternatives was a job that needed time, focus and every skill we had on the team.

We felt that a week away from the office with the whole team would be the break we needed. Enough distance from „business as usual“ to really be able to zone into product development. The idea of a webfactory DevCamp was born.

Laying the groundwork#

The first step to take was finding a location. We agreed on a few particular requirements:

  • far enough from home to have a clean cut from everyday life
  • no distractions (no phone, no emails)
  • a flexible and inspiring working environment for the team
  • attractive options for breaks

We were very fortunate to find a place that almost perfectly met our requirements in the Austrian Alps. One team member's family had been using a holiday apartment in Westendorf, Tyrol for years. The apartment, situated on a small mountain road, had a good size to accomodate our company of five. The fresh mountain air and great views over the valley from our balcony provided an inspiring background for a concentrated working atmosphere. A ski lift in walking distance and many hiking trails through the snow-covered forest behind the house were just calling for attention whenever we needed a longer break. However, most of the time we were too captivated by our ideas and discussions to even consider going outside.

The setup#

Westendorf is about 700km south of our office. We decided to hire a van for the trip to foster team communication even on the journey.

On arrival in Westendorf we hit the next „Hofer“ discount market to buy some food and a „yesss“ mobile internet flatrate with USB stick. Equipped with the USB stick, a Mac Mini was serving as our router for internet access and also as host for our version control repository. It took a while to set up, but after we got it running it didn’t let us down once.

Discussions#

The team that set to work reinventing our product was quite diverse. Besides the more obvious division in software developers and interface designers, there were also subtly different flavours to each member. Analytical minds mixed with visual thinkers, the urge to save time for careful consideration clashed with pragmatic hands-on approaches. The question to what extent we would reuse the old code or start from scratch was another controversial subject.

All of it led to some very difficult but interesting and productive discussions throughout the week. Incidentally, it took more than half a day before the developers touched the first lines of code. The designers dug into Photoshop to knock up a few visual ideas while the most fundamental code discussions were under way.

Iterative Improvements#

It was interesting to see how we tended to discard the previous day’s ideas every morning because someone had come up with an even better approach after a break and/or getting a few hours of sleep. At last, Day 4 of our stay saw the first implementations of our new designs.

Sum of the parts#

After getting a better idea of the user's flow through and interactions with our application, the designers went back to their wireframes and started implementing them based on growing HTML outputs from the development faction. It worked quite smoothly and we had a rudimentary system up and running on the last day. With a lot of work left ahead, but a solid new code foundation under our belts, we returned home in high spirits.

Conclusion#

The webfactory DevCamp exceeded all our expectations. The development results were fabulous and we are absolutely convinced that we could never have achieved anything remotely similar during regular hours at the office. The event was also a great team building experience - shared memories of our day out (braving the slopes on sleighs) and of a few quite effective discussions during the shorter hikes around the house top the charts next to the energetic and productive atmosphere during development.

We will definitely do this again!

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