July 07, 2015
by Jake Davis

Project Days

project-days

Simple is growing, quickly, and in the past year we’ve more than tripled our team. This growth has helped us to bring on customers at an increasingly rapid rate, while scaling the product and service for which we’re known.

There’s a well-documented, inherent danger that often comes with rapid growth, one that’s known to suck a company’s innovative spirit and crush culture: scale giving way to the loss of agency and creativity.

There are many ways to prevent this loss. Some companies build in free, creative time by allotting a percentage of work hours for passion projects. Others provide outlets for fast, energetic problem-solving.

We’re known for building things from scratch at Simple. So, true to this fashion, we decided the best way to protect our culture of innovation was to design a new approach to projects, starting from the ground up.

Enter, Project Days—a recurring, two-day event that invites our entire company to collaborate and pursue new ideas.

Not Your Normal Hackathon

Simple was built on thinking differently, regardless of level. It’s why we hire passionate, creative people with a knack for pulling things apart.

While engineers are primarily paid to write software, we intentionally hire individuals with unique goals, ideas, and imaginative spirit. We also want to ensure we’re taking the time to help people exercise these skills.

While a traditional “hackathon” style, 24-hour event may sound like the right answer, it’s not a cultural fit for Simple. We wanted to honor conflicting work schedules and obligations outside of Simple. We also prefer cold brew coffee to Red Bull.

Ongoing processes like “twenty percent time” dedicated to personal projects couldn’t build the level of energy and excitement that we hoped we would see. More than anything, we wanted to create a space that fostered creativity, problem-solving, and collaboration. This event had to fit seamlessly with the existing workday.

Project Days was our new answer to this old problem. It balances the hackathon/”twenty percent time” tension by being a mix of both, a two-day event where engineers are given the freedom to work on anything they want—really, anything—with the added excitement that comes from partnering with new people across the company.

This setup gave us the opportunity to fly our remote employees—currently more than one third of engineering—to our Portland headquarters. Employees from across the company now had an opportunity to socialize, collaborate, and get to know each other beyond the internet.

man giving a presentation

How We Did It

Organizing Project Days was pretty straightforward. We announced the event, created a GitHub repository for engineers to brainstorm ideas, and encouraged everyone to begin thinking about what they might want to work on. The team excitedly self-organized from there.

The results were impressive. Our 68 engineers proposed 47 unique projects for our first event. They were joined by members of Customer Relations, Marketing, Risk & Compliance, and the People team. While we couldn’t tackle every project, over the course of the two days, 45 Simple employees worked on 25 different projects.

Of these, 14 were live-demoed to the entire company at our weekly All-Hands meeting. The diversity of projects was astounding. Some have since shipped and are in customers hands today. Others live on as internal tools to help streamline our systems and increase visibility. And some were built just for fun to stretch our creative thinking.

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Round Two

The response to the inaugural Project Days was overwhelmingly positive. Every responder to our post-event survey agreed that this something we should do again, and 98% said the projects produced were valuable to the company.

But, we’re never done building and we’re never done growing. After our first Project Days, we heard teams from outside of Engineering say they had a hard time getting involved and wanted to contribute. This was counter to our intended mission of fostering cross-company collaboration, so Engineering took the opportunity to grow Project Days. This time, our focus was a close partnership with Customer Relations.

Again, for two days, engineers stepped away from their day-to-day work. This time, we dug into projects that would streamline Customer Relations, helping the team continue their incredible support.

This time, we saw far more cross-company involvement. Our Customer Relations team was joined by Business Operations and Product for a second round of projects. And again, we saw tangible outcomes, increased cross-company collaboration, and the same positive response that Project Days was the right approach.

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What’s Next?

Project Days will be an ingrained part Simple’s culture so long as it affords space for our team to innovate, create, and collaborate. The format will evolve as Simple does.

Feedback from round two will be used to guide the third iteration of Project Days. We haven’t settled on a cadence just yet, but are targeting every 2-4 months. This gives focus to our time together, while making sure we’re stepping back to work on exciting, new projects more frequently.

What’s most important is that Project Days isn’t about the direct output—it’s not about shipping projects en masse.

It’s about scaling the space for our team to collaborate, exercise creativity, and stretch. Building in this time for creativity keeps the “Design Thinking” that’s core to Simple alive and well. Simple always has, and always will, invest in innovation.

Interested in participating in Project Days? Join the fun!