How Agile Remote Work Became a Growth Strategy for Spire During COVID-19

Danielle Walker
Mar 24, 2020

Working remotely is a business advantage that has contributed to our most profitable quarter in 21 years. It has been made possible by processes such as:

  • Eliminating silos and barriers to pushing code
  • A standard to hire the best talent in the world, rather than just the city where we are headquartered
  • Lean methodology and the elimination of tribal knowledge
  • Clear communication with staff about what makes the individual successful and how each individual contributes to the company’s success

In an increasingly connected world and global economy, many companies perceive remote work as challenging to implement. At Spire Digital, we track and assess success through data and the work produced. This leaves no reason to guess if everyone is working because we can see that they are. Expectations are clear and we are hyper-focused on outcomes. With clear expectations, individual contributors find the best way to produce their best work. 

I interviewed the brain trust behind Spire’s lean methodology, Nick Coppolo. As Chief Operating Officer he has put the goals, structure and processes in place to help make Q1 our most profitable quarter in 21 years. You will see his quotes and influence throughout this case study.

Before we get into the processes and standards that have contributed to Spire’s success, let’s start with some of our favorite remote-working tips. This list was originally distributed as a reminder of our culture and principles as we went fully remote in order to social-distance in the thick of COVID-19:

  • Have a meeting? Turn on your camera!
    • If you and your teammates are having a group meeting you’d usually have in-person, schedule a hangout or a zoom and turn on your camera! Face to face interactions go a long way.
    • One of the perks of WFH is that you don’t have to spend any time commuting or getting ready…don’t worry about your camera background or your bedhead, we’re all in this together, throw on a hat and be kind to your colleagues.
  • Over communicate
    • Whether in Slack, text, phone calls, or video calls, over communicate to your teammates and team leads what you’ll be working on, when, and when you’ll be on and offline. Remember, they can’t walk by your station to see you and chat.
  • Use your calendars
    • When we’re not colocated, we can’t round each other up for ad hoc meetings like standups or white-board sessions. Instead, put invites on your teammates’ calendars in addition to rallying folks on Slack. Remember to include conferencing in the invite details, as needed.
  • Client requests
    • Assure them we have the tools in place to remain productive and collaborative. Recommend and schedule a video conference.
  • System malfunctions
    • If you’re having a problem getting access or being productive, whether because of an IP issue, a VM isn’t connecting, your internet is slow, or any other reason, please reach out to your Practice Lead, Tech Lead ASAP, we’ll find a solution.
  • Hours 
    • Please adhere to you and your teams’ normal working hours. If you want to make an adjustment, because you no longer have a commute, for instance, discuss it with your Lead.
  • Chat it up
    • Just as you would lean over to your teammate who sits next to you, “lean over” in slack or the communication tool of your choice to ask for help, a gut check, or for a humble brag … Keep you and your teams’ behavior, communication style, and cadence the same regardless of the tools you’re using.

Working Remote… With A Home

“It’s like coming back to the mothership after an expedition.”
– Nick Coppolo, COO

Spire software developers in the office

Spire Digital is headquartered in Denver, CO where we have a physical office. We think it’s important to have a central home. This is where the team can gather whenever they want, make use of meeting space, and even hang out with our friendly office dogs. Much of our team lives in the Denver/Boulder area and many choose to come into the office every day – these folks have a dedicated workspace. Others choose to come in a few times a week or intermittently. For these team-members we provide “hot desks” – a workspace that can be rotated between the folks who choose to come in at any given time. Still, others live outside of Denver or choose to be fully remote. Ultimately, each person has the option to work from wherever they want.

Pushing Code from Chiang Mai

Spire software developer on a laptop

Our systems, our process, and our culture supersede time and place. An individual knows how to produce good work, how to earn revenue and how to earn their bonus regardless of where they are in the world – this is in our DNA. As Nick Coppolo puts it, “I don’t care if you’re pushing code from Chiang Mai as long as it’s great code and it’s on time.” This progressive, remote, global software development agenda has served us and our clients well. By going global, we have widened the talent pool. We don’t just want the best talent in Denver, Colorado – we want the best talent in the world. Period. This is to the benefit of our clients who may not have the resources to pull from a world-wide community of talent. This frees them up to work directly with the team to focus on their vision, the software and the results, rather than where and how to have an in-person meeting.

Utilizing Data Systems to Setup Success

We’ve spent time and effort to set up systems that allow us to successfully and efficiently work together, even when we aren’t colocated. What does this look like? For one, we have eliminated barriers to pushing and pulling from repositories. Unless specifically requested by the client, this means no VPNs or Virtual Machines. 

We also ensure global access to key documentation through Confluence or Google Drive, workflow management tools like JIRA, and collaboration tools like Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Slack. All of our applications are cloud-based allowing access at any time, from anywhere, facilitating quick communication and workflow.  For example, our designers use InVision for their prototypes so any person can view the prototype and even provide feedback through comments.

Well-Defined Lean Methodology

Building world-class software requires great people and great process, not great places.”
– Nick Coppolo, COO

Software development code on a computer

Look to a Toyota or a Lexus factory as an example. The assembly line is so meticulously standardized that every part of a vehicle, down to the smallest bolt, has its own place and position on the conveyor belt; and the assembly line is even ergonomically designed all with the intention of maximizing efficiency and productivity and eliminating mistakes. Imagine if every conveyor belt were different – sometimes the socket wrenches come before the nuts and bolts, other times it is in reverse order. Yes, the assembler would be able to adapt but it would be much more chaotic – causing mistakes and taking up more time. When each tool is aligned and set up in the exact same way every time it greatly reduces mistakes and speeds up the process. Each assembler is responsible for setting up their part for the other assemblers down the line. We treat our work the same way. Predictability is the holy grail. Setting standards at the project, design, and development level keep the rest of the team running efficiently, with cadence and autonomy. Each person knows what they are responsible for and thus, can set up the folks “down the line” for success.

Through process, we eliminate tribal knowledge. Tribal knowledge is information that is not widely known by all employees at a company, is not documented, and resides only in the minds of certain people. By documenting everything, we ensure information is disseminated in a way that everyone can benefit from the knowledge. Perfect documentation allows us to spend less time chasing things down and more time producing innovative work. While we are adept at running traditional Scrum, most of our teams run a highly-progressive version of lean Kanban which allows us to limit rituals that require the whole team. We adopt the motto, “if it wasn’t documented, it wasn’t said.” Anything typed in Slack, determined in an ad-hoc conversation, or written on a whiteboard doesn’t count unless it is also documented in the single source of truth. We operate by a “you, or me?” standard – if a change is discussed and made via an unofficial channel, one person asks the other “do you want to reflect that change or should I?” The responsible individual makes the change in the appropriate place – the acceptance criteria in a JIRA ticket, the development standards in a Confluence document, or an official written communication to our client. All team members know where to look to find these sources of truth. 

There is clear delegation and ownership of tasks and responsibilities. For example, when a developer finishes working on a JIRA ticket, they know where to find their next assignment on the JIRA board. If anything is unclear in the acceptance criteria of that ticket, they pass it back to the person who wrote the ticket, usually a Product Lead, and pick up a different ticket to work on. The developer is not left to guess or assume what the acceptance criteria means. This supports a seamless transition of work and continuous delivery. It also empowers the developer to make and produce quality work at all times.

It isn’t necessary to be in-person to collaborate or discuss changes. Sometimes this happens via Slack or an email. Other times we jump on a Google Hangout or Zoom call. To do a design review the presenter can share their screen with their teammates and receive in-person feedback and bounce ideas off one another. As a partner to our clients, we owe it to them to work with well-vetted technology and ensure that the process is as streamlined and efficient as possible.  

Highly Entrepreneurial Culture

Spire has been designing and building custom software for 21 years. We’ve had the privilege of working with entrepreneurs, founders, and big-thinkers. We are great partners to our clients because our culture is entrepreneurial in itself. The culture is openly-communicative and transparent. Leaders are unambiguous about what makes the company successful – each individual is aware of what they need to do to be successful in their own career and how that, in turn, contributes to the company’s success. In fact, we believe it would be to Spire’s detriment if we did not make it clear how the company earns money. Leadership spends a great deal of their time putting goals, structures and culture in place to let the rest of the team thrive – galvanizing the Practice Leads, Tech Leads, and Product Leads to be the tactical leaders of the team through a bottom-up culture. We hold one another accountable, have mutual respect, and make the right decisions for ourselves and our teammates. We focus on the products developed, not the amount of hours a person sat at their desk.

 

Looking for strategic guidance during the current pandemic? Watch this video about COVID-19 and brand communication.

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