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Hindsight is 20/20—so take advantage

by Marguerite on April 30/2013

I’ve only been on the FreshBooks dev team for a few months, so the stories I hear about the bad old days when our releases were like picking a way through a minefield are only legend to me. But I gather we’ve come a long way, and I suspect that this was in large part due to our Release Retrospective meetings. It is in these meetings that our blunderings are turned into lessons so that we learn from our mistakes instead of making the same ones ad infinitum.

Curiosity. That is what I felt while I attended my first retro. It struck me as a strange ritual. In a small room, wherever there was room to stand, devs, QA, Product, Support and Ops crowded around a table strewn with Sharpies and Post-it-notes. These sticky-pads, some green, some red, were passed around. People began writing on them using squeaky markers, peeling the notes off and handing them to a person at the front. This person stuck them on the whiteboard—red notes on the left, green notes on the right. When the sound of scribbling and unsticking of stickies had tapered off, the person at the front went through each note on the board: peeling it off, reading it aloud, discussing it briefly with those present, and finally handing it to one or more people.

This is what was really happening during that meeting, and what happens during all our retros: the afternoon following our weekly release, those involved gather together. If someone thinks something went well during the release, they write it on a green sticky. If something could have gone better, it goes on a red sticky. Each note is read for all to hear. A green note is handed to the people responsible for the thing that went well. If it’s a red note, everyone is brought up to speed on what went wrong, and ideas on what could have been done differently are discussed. The sticky is then handed to whoever claims the responsibility of seeing that some or all of those ideas are put into practice.

That first retro probably didn’t last more than 20 minutes, but when I came out, I was sold. In exchange for 20 easy minutes of our week, the retro meeting gave us a host of benefits. Here are a few:

  • Everyone learns from the actions of others. For example, one time a dev on my team discovered he would be unable to make it to the upcoming release. He backed out his changes that were scheduled to go out, just in case. This small act saved us a lot of headache that release when related changes caught fire. At the following retro, that dev’s name was on a green sticky, and we all heard why. That day I learned in a way that words can’t teach that sometimes it’s worth making the extra effort, just in case.
  • Even the best devs are exposed as merely human. We do these retros weekly and mistakes are easy to make, so chances are each person in the room has been the cause of a red sticky at some point in the past. Being exposed to that knowledge routinely teaches us to admit to our failures more readily and with more grace—we know we’re in good company. This humility also makes us more willing to change when our current habits prove problematic, a quality that is so important when trying to get somewhere as a team.
  • Achievements are honoured publicly. One of the devs here recently refactored a particularly nasty piece of code and put it under test. When his work was called out publicly at a retro, I felt so proud of him as I and those around me applauded him! I also suspect that knowing his work will not go unnoticed or unappreciated will mean he is more willing to take on similar beasts in the future.
  • Cross-department communication happens! Let’s face it, fellow developers. Interactions with other departments can sometimes be a bit… well, sticky. After all, each department has its own goals and methods. As far as releases go, however, all departments are on the same page: we all want smooth, uneventful releases. That’s why 5 departments are represented at retro: it’s a time for different teams to talk to each other about how each department can adjust their processes in order to help make the next release go better.

Allow me to go meta on you and do a mini retro of the 25 or so retros I’ve been to. The process isn’t perfect: there are some red stickies that seem to keep coming back, week after week. But some red stickies that were common when I started have been replaced by green stickies: the routine “People late for release” has turned into “Everyone on time—again!”. “3 hotfixes this week” has turned into “5th week in a row no hotfixes”. As I become less of an onlooker and more of a participant in these retros, I feel more and more proud of the upward direction we’re taking. And that is something every team can benefit from!


Our fearless leader was sick
Our first retro leader was Corey. Then it was Diller, whom we fondly referred to as Sexy Corey. Then Ashok came along, known as Sexy^2 Corey. Today he was sick, and Stinson, his substitute, had to bear the brunt of our disappointment with this red sticky.

Red and Green Stickies
Pre-discussion stickies.

drawing a goat on a green sticky
People have fun during retros. This is The Mark Story drawing a goat on a green sticky.

My monitor, surrounded by green and red stickies
I surround my monitor with the feel-good stickies I receive. The ones with an arrow in a circle are referring to the from a shop in Montreal.