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Down Tools Week 2016

By Steve Jones,

Last week I went to the Redgate Software office in Cambridge, UK. I travel there a few times a year to meet with product groups and touch base with the other people in marketing. However, this trip was planned around Down Tools week, which is an event that Redgate has once or twice a year. This is similar to what other companies have done, like Atlassian ShipIt day, and I had the chance to participate a bit in one of the projects. It was quite fun, and a memorable experience.

The idea is that a project is pitched as an idea for a single week. These are usually ideas that aren't worth funding as a large project, or would help the world somehow. A team comes together for a long week and has to showcase their work by Friday afternoon. There have been projects just to try something fun at Redgate and investigate something. We had a number of projects, including a charitable image recognition project for Waterscope. That one was really interesting, as some of the software and documentation improvements that were made will be pitched to their investors and taken our for field trials.

I got involved with the Rescue DLM Dashboard project. I like DLM Dashboard as a tool, but it needs some work and should provide more value. A team got together with the idea of seeing where we could add more value and make this a commercially viable product. We also tried to fix a few bugs and get some UX love for the tool. By the end of the week, we had integrated DLM Dashboard with a couple other projects, and had other items to work on. We did win a couple of the contests (best t-shirt, best presentation), but we still have a commercial brief to write and get approved before any more work will be done.

The project structure itself was interesting, with a daily standup at 11am, and teams of programmers working in pairs to add features. I didn't do any coding, mostly because my C# skills are far below others, and I had other commitments during the week. I was in and out of the dedicated conference room, talking with the project managers and watching developers work through the coding. We had a few interns that worked with experienced developers, and it seemed that people worked well together, sharing ideas and solutions for issues.

I was impressed that the setup of everyone's workstations, all moved to a conference room, connected, and with cloned git repos was done fairly quickly, with working builds for most people by Monday at lunch. It's not as simple as one might expect to grab a new project and get a working build, especially on a complex piece of software, and it was fascinating to watch people debugging issues across web pages and local services. I was also pleased to see how open other teams were to lending us a person for a day or two in order to facilitate integrations or extend APIs.

Down Tools week is expensive, but it certainly could be done in different ways. An organization wouldn't need to cater food every night. Pizza or other alternatives might be fun for some groups. However, I think this can be a great way to create some excitement for your developers, as well as investigate some research that might not otherwise be feasible to undertake. I don't know that you need to make as big a production as Redgate does, but I'd encourage you to think about taking a week off from normal projects once a year and letting developers work on things that might excite them at your organization.

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