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How does your team prioritise work? Who gets to decide what is most important? What would happen if each team member just worked on what they felt like?

I’ve had the opportunity to observe an experiment: over the past 8 years at Unruly, developers have had 20% of their time to work on whatever they want.

This is not exactly like Google’s famed 20% time for what “will most benefit Google” or “120% time”.

Instead, developers genuinely have 20% of their time (typically a day a week) to work on whatever they choose—whatever they deem most important to themselves. There are no rules, other than the company retains ownership of anything produced (which does not preclude open sourcing).

We call 20% time “Gold Cards” after the Connextra practice it’s based upon. Initially we represented the time using yellow coloured cards on our team board.

It’s important to us—if the team fails to take close to 20% of their time on gold cards it will be raised in retrospectives and considered a problem to address.

While it may seem like an expensive practice, it’s an investment in individuals that I’ve seen really pay off, time after time.

Antidote to Prioritisation Systems

If you’re working in a team, you’ll probably have some mechanism for making prioritisation decisions about what is most important to work on next; whether that be a benevolent dictatorship, team consensus, voting, cost of delay, or something else.

However much you like and trust the decision making process in your team, does it always result in the best decisions? Are there times when you thought the team was making the wrong decision and you turned out to be right?

Gold cards allow each individual in the team time to work on things explicitly not prioritised by the team, guilt free.

This can go some way to mitigating flaws in the team’s prioritisation. If you feel strongly enough that a decision is wrong, then you can explore it further on your gold card time. You can build that feature that you think is more important, or you can create a proof-of-concept to demonstrate an approach is viable.

This can reduce the stakes in team prioritisation discussions, taking some of the stress away; you at least have your gold card time to allocate how you see fit.

Here’s some of the ways it’s played out.

Saving Months of Work

I can recall multiple occasions when gold card activities have saved literally team-months of development work.

Avoiding Yak Shaving

One was a classic yak-shaving scenario. Our team discovered that a critical service could not be easily reprovisioned, and to make matters worse, was over capacity.

Fast forward a few weeks and we were no longer just reprovisioning a service, but creating a new base operating system image for all our infrastructure, a new build pipeline for creating it, and attempting to find/build alternatives for components that turned out to be incompatible with this new software stack.

We were a couple of months in, and estimated another couple of months work to complete the migration.

We’d retrospected a few times, we thought we’d fully considered our other options and we were just best off ploughing on through the long, but now well-understood path to completion.

Someone disagreed, and decided to use their gold card to go back and re-visit one of the early options the team thought they’d ruled out.

Within a day they’d demonstrated a solution to the original problem using our original tech stack, without needing most of the yak shaving activities.

Innovative Solutions

I’ve also seen people spotting opportunities in their gold cards that the team had not considered, saving months of work.

We had a need to store a large amount of additional data. We’d estimated a it would take the team some months to build out a new database cluster for the anticipated storage needs.

A gold card used to look for a mechanism for compressing the data, ended up yielding a solution that enabled us to indefinitely store the data, using our existing infrastructure.

Spawning new Products

Gold cards give people space to innovate, time to try new things, wild ideas that might be too early.

Our first mobile-web compatible ad formats came out of a gold card. We had mobile compatible ads considerably before we had enough mobile traffic to make it seem worthwhile.

Someone wanted to spend time working on mobile on their gold card, which resulted in having a product ready to go when mobile use increased, we weren’t playing catch up.

On another occasion a feature we were exploring had a prohibitively large download size for the bandwidth available at the time. A gold card yielded a far more bandwidth-efficient mechanism, contributing to the success of the product.

“How hard can it be?”

It’s easy to underestimate the complexity involved in building new features. “How hard can it be?” is often a dangerous phrase, uttered before discovering just how hard it really is, or embroiling oneself in large amounts of work.

Gold cards make this safe. If it’s hard enough that you can’t achieve it in your gold card, then you’ve only spent a small amount of time, and only your own discretionary time.

Gold cards also make it easy to experiment—you don’t need to convince anyone else that it will work. Sometimes, just sometimes, things actually turn out to be as easy, or even easier, than our hopes.

For a long time we had woeful reporting capabilities on our financial data. The team believed that importing this data to our data warehouse would be a large endeavour, involving redesigning our entire data pipeline.

A couple of developers disagreed, and decided to spend their gold card time working together, attempting to making this data reportable. They ended up coming up with a simple solution, that was compatible with the existing technology, and has withstood the test of time. Huge value unlocked from just one day spent speculatively.

That thing that bothers you

Whether it’s a code smell you want to get rid of, some UX debt that irritates you every time you see it, or the lack of automation in a task you perform regularly; there are always things that irritate us.

We ought to be paying attention to these irritations and addressing them as we notice them, but sometimes the team has deemed something else is more important or urgent.

Gold cards give you an opportunity to fix the things that matter to you. Not only does this help avoid frustration, but sometimes individuals fixing things they find annoying actually produces better outcomes than the wisdom of the crowd.

On one occasion a couple of developers spent their gold card just deleting code. They ended up deleting thousands of unneeded lines of code. Did this cleanup pay off yet? I honestly don’t know, but it may well have done, we have less inventory cost as a result.

Exploring New Tech

When tasked with solving a problem, we have a bias towards tools & technology that we know and understand. This is generally a good thing, exploring every option is often costly and if we pick something new, then the team has to learn it before we become productive.

Sometimes this means we miss out on tech that makes our lives much easier.

People often spend their gold card time playing around with speculative new technologies that they were unfamiliar with.

Much of the tech our teams now rely upon was first investigated and evangelised by someone who tried it out in gold card time; from build systems to monitoring tools, from to databases to test frameworks.

Learning

Tech changes fast; as developers we need to be constantly learning to stay competitive. Sometimes this can present a conflict of interest between the needs of the team to achieve a goal (safer to use known and reliable technology), and your desires to work with new cutting-edge tech.

Gold cards allow you to to prioritise your own learning for at least a day a week. It’s great for you, and it’s great for the team too as it brings in new ideas, techniques, and skills. It’s an investment that increases the skill level of the team over time.

Do you feel like you’d be able to be a better member of the team if you understood the business domain better? What if you knew the programming language you’re working in to a deeper level? If these feel important to you, then gold cards give you dedicated time that you can choose to spend in that way, without needing anyone else’s approval.

Sharing Knowledge

Some people use gold card time to prepare talks they want to give at conferences, or internally at our fortnightly tech-talks. Others write blog posts.

Sharing in this way not only helps others internally, but also gives back to the wider community. It raises people’s individual profiles as excellent developers, and raises the company’s profile as a potential employer.

Furthermore, many find that preparing content in this way improves their own understanding of a topic.

We’re so keen on this that we now give people extra days for writing blog posts.

Remote Working

Many of our XP practices work really well in co-located teams, but we’ve struggled to apply them to remote working. It’s definitely possible to do things like pair and mob-programming remotely, but it can be challenging for teams used to working together in the same space.

We’ve found that gold card time presented an easy opportunity to experiment with remote working—an opportunity to address some of the pain points as we look for ways to introduce more flexibility.

Remote working makes it easier to hire, and helps avoid excluding people who would be unable to join us without this flexibility

Side Projects

Sometimes people choose to work on something completely not work related, like a side project, a game, or a new app. This might not seem immediately valuable to the team, but it’s an opportunity for people to learn in a different context—gaining experience in greenfield development, starting a project from scratch and choosing technologies.

The more diverse our team’s experience & knowledge, the more likely we are to make good decisions in the future. Change is a constant in the industry—we won’t we’ll be working with the tech we’re currently using indefinitely.

Side projects bring some of this learning forward and in-house; we get new perspectives without having to hire new people.

Gold cards allow people to grow without expecting them to spend all their evenings and weekends writing code, encouraging a healthy work/life balance.

Sometimes a change is just what one needs. We spend a lot of our time pair programming; pairing can be intense and tiring. Gold cards give us an opportunity to work on something completely different at least once a week.

Open Source

Most of what we’re working on day to day is not suitable for open sourcing, or would require considerable work to open up.

Gold cards mean we can choose to spend some of our time working on open source software—giving back to the community by working on existing open source code, or working on opening up internal tools.

Hiring & Retention

Having the freedom to spend a day a week working on whatever you want is a nice perk. Offering it helps us hire, and makes Unruly a hard place to leave. The flexibility introduced by gold cards to do the kinds of things outlined above also contribute towards happiness and retention.

Given the costs of recruitment, hiring, onboarding & training, gold cards are worth considering as a benefit even if you didn’t get any of the extra benefits from these anecdotes.

Pitfalls

One trap to avoid is only doing the activities outlined above on gold card days. Many of the activities above should be things the team is doing anyway.

I’ve seen teams start to rely on others—not cleaning up things as a matter of course during their day to day work, because they expect someone will want to do it on their gold card.

I’ve seen teams not set time aside for learning & exploring because they rely on people spending their gold cards on it.

I’ve seen teams ineffectually ploughing ahead with their planned work without stepping back to try to spike some alternative solutions.

These activities should not be restricted to gold cards. Gold cards just give each person the freedom to work on what is most important to them, rather than what’s most important to the team.

There’s also the opposite challenge: new team members may not realise the full range possible uses for gold cards. Gold card use can drift over time to focus more and more on one particular activity, becoming seen as “Learning days” or “Spike days”.

Gold cards seem to be most beneficial when they are used for a wide variety of activities, helping the team notice the benefits of things they hadn’t seen as important.

Gold card time doesn’t always pay off, but it only has to pay off occasionally to be worthwhile.

Can we turn it up?

We learn from extreme programming to look for things that are good and turn them up to the max, to get the most value out of them.

If gold cards can bring all these benefits, what would happen if we made them more than 20% time?

Can we give individuals more autonomy without losing the benefits of other things we’ve seen to work well?

What’s the best balance between individual autonomy and the benefits of teams working collaboratively, pair programming, team goals, and stakeholder prioritisation?

We’ve turned things up a little: giving people extra days for conference speaking and blogging, carving out extra time for code dojos, talk preparation, and learning.

I’m sure there’s more we can do to balance the best of individuals working independently, with the benefits of teams.

What have you tried that works well?

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