Sweating the details: The combination of science and craft

Sweating the details: The combination of science and craft powering Enable’s software development teams

Build It BetterNovember 25, 2012


Enable Tech is a column on design and technology by David Hunt. David has been our operations director from the very start, and has lead the evolution of Enable into one of the most respected and high-quality software development businesses around. David has an uncompromising passion for design, quality and excellence.

On Monday, Matt will arrive at his desk to confront a 315 page document. It describes the precise inner workings of a mission-critical software solution. It sounds pretty complicated.

But the software doesn’t exist yet.

In three months, Matt and his team will race from zero lines of code to tens of thousands. The end result will be rolled out to hundreds of users, who will rely on it every day. It’ll be delivered on time, on budget — and if it’s not the best piece of software our company has ever created, we’ll be disappointed.

It’s OK, Matt has done this before.

Matt, a member of the Enable team

Over the twelve years we’ve been in business we’ve worked hard to refine our formula for building software. If our talented team are the ingredients then our software development methodology must be the recipe. Both are equally important.

We recently moved the company to a new building, just a few hundred meters from our old base. It was a wonderful opportunity to craft something that might help remind us of the things we believe in at Enable; a daily reminder of what we’re trying to achieve.

A bricks-and-mortar version of a brand guidelines document, if you like.

A bricks-and-mortar version of a brand guidelines document, if you like.

I asked Matt whether moving to the new offices has impacted his day-to-day role.

“We spend the majority of our working time sitting,” he says. “So any improvement in the type of chairs we sit at is something we appreciate all day, every day.”

Our chair of choice was Herman Miller’s Aeron. An iconic chair, for sure; but other than the boost to morale, what’s the rationale for spending twice as much as normal?

“Someone who is uncomfortable at work is more likely to look for another job,” Matt replies. “But more importantly, as software developers, the future of our career is dependant on being able to continue to sit comfortably at a desk and use a computer.”

Herman Miller Aeron chair at Enable’s offices

We’re in the bring-your-own-device era. Home-working. Hot-desking. Videoconferencing. So what does the future hold for traditional office environments? And why do we believe they’re still relevant for software development teams?

For one thing, communication is vital. There’s a constant stream of chatter within each of our teams.

“The base level is instant messaging,” Matt explains, “Between two individuals or within a persistent group such as a project team, it’s become much more popular since we adopted Skype as our telephone and instant messaging platform.”

Enable’s staff use a device called the Polycom CX200 which resembles a traditional telephone but integrates with the Skype software client on their computer, providing modern features that an old fashioned system can’t match.

“Email is used for more formal communication,” he says. Team members are adept at keeping their mailboxes organized, carefully filing old messages. “It works because we have a record of what has been discussed and agreed,” he says.

Why talk over Skype if the person you’re speaking to is just a few meters away?

“Sometimes a conversation may start over IM and progress into a phone call,” Matt says. “Perhaps when something is proving hard to explain.”

With Skype, the team can do screen-sharing to quickly demo something to each other. Exchanging files is quick and easy.

It’s clear that there is no shortage of ways to communicate. But why talk over Skype if the person you’re speaking to is just a few meters away?

“IM lets us communicate without really switching context from what we’re doing at our desks, without breaking concentration,” says Matt. “The offices have to be quiet and peaceful. Building software requires a lot of concentration. The environment has to be a comfortable place where we can relax.”

And of course there’s certainly times when you can’t beat a face to face chat. Heated discussions tend to take place away from desks, in one of many meeting and breakout spaces.

Chill-out space at Enable’s offices

“The chill-out room is a better place for conversations and sharing ideas. You can take a break to do some reading or have a chat with someone, getting a change of scenery from your desk,” Matt says. “It’s a pleasant, lively environment with good facilities. It’s a place to go to relax and take a break from the intense levels of concentration in the working rooms.”

A place to take a break from the intense levels of concentration

Enable’s project teams are more effective because team members work on the project on the same days as each other, work roughly the same hours and maintain open lines of communication. I ask Matt whether he thinks the offices help staff stay focused on Enable’s values — consciously or subconsciously.

“The new offices have a very clean, professional feel,” he says. “This puts our team in the right mindset. And if as a company we’re trying to keep ahead of the latest technology then it’s important we’re surrounded by the latest technology at work.”

Enable’s computer of choice is the best available (the Mac Pro). The telephony system is bleeding-edge (it’s Skype). A super-fast 100-meg internet connection is piped in to the building. A testing lab houses a variety of devices that clients might find themselves using to access software built by Enable.

Reception waiting area at Enable’s offices

Our work is about sweating the details. It’s about having a clear vision of what we’re trying to build — but more than that, it’s about consistently following that vision through in every feature, every pixel, every line of code.

Our offices have been created for software development. Better than working from home. Better than anything we’ve seen elsewhere. They’re comfortable, distraction-free, with the whole team focused on working productively, building the best software they know how to.

Matt concludes, “The investment has demonstrated to staff that the company is serious about what it does and how much it values the team. It’s an indication to staff of progress and growth. It shows the company is serious about its future.”

Read other articles from our blog


Agreements vs contracts — what are the differences?

Contracts and agreements are often used interchangeably, but legally speaking, they are two very different things. An agreement can be informal, meaning nothing needs to be witnessed or written down while a contract agreement is more formal and legally binding therefore must be docu...