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WOW Week at PatientsLikeMe

01/20/2012

What is WOW Week?

PatientsLikeMe has built our own version of Google’s “20% Time” that we call “WOW Week”. WOW Week is a week of unstructured development time for engineers, where they can work on anything to improve our products as long as they demo their progress in front of the company at the end of the week.

The engineering team works in 2-week long development sprints. After three development sprints in a row, we have a “Technical Debt” week and a WOW Week.

Why a Week at a time versus 20% Time?

It’s easy to pay lip-service to the concept of 20% time for engineers while scheduling a full load of work. I’ve seen this happen many times at other companies. PatientsLikeMe avoids this pitfall by creating a public block of time for the entire company. See the 2011 WOW showcase to see how much we build.

Scheduling a complete week allows a single context-switch into innovation mode for everyone. This maximizes the value of this time, instead of dividing it into smaller chunks that are diluted by context switching and deadlines.

Why do it at all? Benefits for Individuals and Product as a whole

WOW Week has profound impact on the individual behavior and development of engineers as well as launching innovative product ideas and proving risky concepts.

Individuals: Complaints => Action, Ideas => Traction

Engineers are often eager to find problems or inefficiency and tell you about it. As a leader, this can be a frustrating trend. Letting engineers set their own agenda and priorities helps them weigh the value of action versus simply advocating what should be done. Everyone is better off when people use their own time and energy to solve the problems they care about and become more action oriented.

As engineers develop in their career, they need to grow from executing plans to owning a solution to a problem from start to finish. Working on your own projects and solving problems you care about is often the most effective way to engender ownership. This kind of ownership is a habit that can carry over into regularly scheduled work.

Products: Innovation, Proof of Concepts, and Failure

It’s difficult to balance the trade-offs between executing a plan efficiently and the creative work of synthesizing new directions. Having an entire week of time allows engineers to engage deeply with a concept. That might mean building a working prototype to explore a concept and even having time to iterate on the design. Innovation and execution use two completely different parts of the brain, so it’s useful to stay in innovation mode.

Some ideas are popular but considered too difficult or risky to schedule in a normal release. An engineer can grapple with that problem and build a prototype that mitigates the risk and prepares that feature for normal scheduling.

Labeling a project a risky proof of concept builds a safe space for failure. If some of your projects aren’t failing then you’re playing it safe to avoid public failure. We embrace the courage to fail during WOW Week in ways we wouldn’t during a scheduled release when we’re committed to shipping.

Downsides: What if it never ships?

The passion of engineers isn’t always aligned with the product or the business, so it can be dangerous to stoke that passion. Sometimes an engineer’s pet project or feature doesn’t fit with the product or conflicts with a business goal. This can be a difficult outcome to accept, but the frustration is generally worth the experience of being able to realize your ideas.

Additionally, having something tangible to serve as the focus of debate about whether to release your feature elevates the conversation. Both sides can clearly see what’s at stake in a tangible way.

Overall: Trust Your Engineers and Invest in Their Growth

Building a program of unstructured development time is a long term investment, in both the engineers on your team and the projects they produce. It’s much like basic research in the sciences – it often pays dividends, but rarely in the ways you expect.

Special Thanks to Steve Hammond (our Director of Engineering) for building this program.

PS: We’re hiring Experienced Engineers.

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