October 12, 2017No Comments

Why our executive retreat brought 10 leaders deep into the Scottish Highlands

If you’re looking for an executive retreat about how to do the work better, there are plenty — I run one. But less than a year into taking over as Table XI’s CEO, that’s not what I needed help with (or at least not the only thing I needed help with). I wanted to learn how to be a better CEO from peers I admired. I wanted to understand how the stress was affecting them as leaders and as people. I needed answers. What does work-life balance really look like for the CEO of a growing company? And when, if ever, did people think about life after retirement?

So I led a group of nine executives into the depths of the Scottish Highlands.

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September 18, 20141 Comment

A Working Adventure: Coding in Brazil

RubyConf - Plataformatec

I recently returned to Chicago after spending three weeks in Brazil. While I did get to spend some time relaxing on the beach, it certainly wasn’t all vacation.

Here at Table XI, we’ve been developing an International Exchange Program where developers can travel abroad to work with and learn from software experts all over the globe.  For our people, this is a really unique opportunity to learn about other cultures, pair with amazing people,  and connect to the broader software community outside of Chicago. While visiting, we always try to engage in the local community, actively participating in regional conferences and other community outreach programs.

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January 27, 2014No Comments

Coding in Costa Rica: The Developer Exchange Experiment

costa-rica_58Every year, wherever you are on December 13th, there's probably a code retreat happening someplace near you. That's because it's the Global Day of Code Retreat, and this past December, I traveled to San José, Costa Rica, for it. Part of the reason I trekked so far to participate was because Costa Rican software shop Pernix Solutions invited me to be a guest facilitator. On top of that, Table XI and Pernix wanted to try out a Developer Exchange, so this was an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

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May 1, 2013No Comments

What Is a Code Retreat, Anyway? And How to Persuade the Big Cheese to Sponsor One

At Table XI we’re constantly challenging ourselves to improve our development chops. We recognize that the best and brightest—perhaps especially the best and brightest—need consistent opportunities to wrestle with big problems and up their game, so to speak.

To that end we’ve spent a good deal of time over the past year exploring ways to build out our developer education program. There was no need to recreate the wheel here—it’s already been rolling through Chicago for some time—so we turned to some of the folks we think do it best. We visited our neighbors at 8th Light, stormed the halls of The Starter League, and spent time talking to meetup and conference organizers at places like WindyCityRails.

The answer we came up with was pretty simple: Provide resources that help developers to form new perspectives on the challenges they face. To this end we’ve been happy with a number of approaches: We started a book club for developers; hold monthly, company-wide Round Table meetings; and last month, we hosted a full-day Code Retreat for our entire development group.

What is a Code Retreat?

Good question. Does it involve slamming our laptop lids and running down the hall to ‘retreat’ from code? Far from it. (We’re afraid of the tripping hazard.) It’s actually a day-long workshop focused on the fundamentals of software development and design, providing developers the opportunity to take part in focused exercises away from the daily routine of “writing useable code.”

That’s a bit of a mouthful that means we spend a day programming and go home without a program. Unintuitive as it may sound at first, taking a step back from production realities can be quite liberating. The code retreat takes great advantage of the format to hammer home fundamental principles of good software like SOLID and the 4 rules of simple design. We leave the retreat with a better understanding of how to write flexible programs that minimize the cost of change over time. No small feat.

How is it structured?

Typically a Code Retreat is a day-long facilitated event, broken into several sessions. Ours was run by Corey Haines, the Godfather of Code Retreats (I’m pretty sure he even owns a cape). Corey and a few friends pioneered the whole concept four years ago, and he’s really at the center of the movement. When it came time to organize our event, we knew he was just the guy to host it.

IMG_2460Corey facilitated five sessions at our office. In each 45 minute session we paired with someone new to work toward an implementation of Conway’s Game of Life. The pair chose a common language and let loose on the problem using TDD, of course. By switching partners we were able to collaborate with people we don’t normally have the opportunity to work with, which was a ton of fun.

Sounds easy so far, right? But there’s a twist! Each session also introduced a new constraint designed to bend your mind in one way or another. Say goodbye to the comfort zone. For instance, most of the world’s programs are chock full of “branching logic” like:

> if ‘this’ then ‘do that’

Corey said, “No way, José.” Our first constraint was to attack the problem with no such branching. Without a familiar tool, we had to think of different ways to move the ball down the field (that’s a sports metaphor, I think). Next thing you know we had a better grasp on polymorphism, and life was good.

Why do it? To avoid software ossification.

Time is incredibly valuable. At Table XI we’re always working toward aggressive deadlines and goals. We love our client projects for many reasons, one of which is that they keep the lights on. With that in mind, we have to be smart about carving out time away from these projects. We firmly believe that Code Retreat falls squarely in the ‘being smart’ category.

1IMG_2443When facing problems we humanoids tend to favor solutions that are near at hand. Often this means accommodating blind spots rather than challenging them. Next thing you know, short-term productivity yields to long-term complexity and systems fight off changes like the plague. It happens all too often. New features introduce tough regression errors and take too long to build (if they’re even possible). Everyone is sad.

The Code Retreat is great at expanding the set of approaches that a developer can draw upon. By stripping away the usual deadline pressures for a few hours, we explore new tactics and see problems from different angles. At day’s end, we walk away with our heads sparking with ideas, which we can practice and incorporate when the time is right.

Consistently creating high quality software is an immense undertaking. It requires months and years of work, while keeping accrued knowledge “under your fingertips” through frequent practice (as Corey would say). The Code Retreat is an excellent day devoted to just that: practice. We learn new approaches and revisit forgotten patterns. We break down barriers by pairing across team boundaries. We improve our ability to talk through problems and communicate design ideas. At the end of the day, we’re more creative and efficient developers, ready to build flexible, maintainable systems for years to come—the ultimate value-add for our team and clients alike.

Thinking about setting up a Code Retreat for your company and want a developer's perspective? Give me a shout on Twitter @eeeschwartz or Contact us to get in touch with an expert.

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April 18, 20131 Comment

Iterating to Excellence: A Look Back on 11 Years

perksTable XI recently celebrated its 11th anniversary, which has been the source of both celebration and reflection. We certainly couldn't have made it here without the help of some of our first clients, like The Spice House, Dickson Data, and Chicago Dryer. But we also couldn't have accomplished what we set out to achieve without the team, many of whom have been with us since our early days.

Last month's Table Talks centered around the theme of "Innovation." I used the opportunity to deliver a presentation on business hacks using company perks. Sure, some things like company retreats to Costa Rica and freshly prepared lunches make Table XI a great place to work, but what many people don’t understand is that they also help solve real business problems.

But it’s taken a lot of tinkering to get where we are today. We’ve tried a lot of things that didn’t work—ask anyone here about the noisy ping pong table we once introduced—but we expect some things to fail and some to stick. When we build software, we never presume we'll deliver the final product on the first go. Rather, we deliver in increments, get feedback, and continue to iterate. Why should building a business be any different? We’ve just applied these same agile methodologies to management.

If you’re curious to know what did stick, take a look at my presentation below (and check out the rest of the Table Talks on Innovation on our PechaKucha channel).

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February 27, 2013No Comments

What to Do in Lake Geneva: The Table XI Retreat

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This year, for Table XI’s annual company retreat, the frozen shores of Lake Geneva and The Abbey were calling. Though it may not have been as lengthy (or exotic) as 2012’s week-long trek to Costa Rica, we still managed to fit a lot into four days.

Our biggest goal with our retreats is always to give our people the chance to get to know each other better outside the restraints of project teams and a regular workday. This has only become more important as we’ve grown substantially over the past two years, and it’s always enjoyable to see people who don’t cross paths on a normal basis hanging out playing Werewolf or putting together a LEGO Death Star. On Saturday afternoon, I noticed a card game going on involving a couple employees (both old and new), one of our contractors, and some significant others—none of whom had ever had much interaction with each other before. It’s great to see these kinds of connections form over the course of a long weekend. People also bonded over a trip to the Yerkes Observatory, Frozen Turkey Bowling (this is a real thing that’s exactly what it sounds like), meals both company-sponsored and not, and an evening of S’mores around a campfire.

The other point to taking these retreats is to give ourselves a chance to work on the business as opposed to in the business. During the days we broke our team into smaller groups for professional development and company planning sessions. In particular, we made a lot of progress around targeting our marketing and account management efforts and selecting the right tool for our delivery operations. We did a deep dive on our customer profiles, identifying key patterns and practices that will not only help us serve our current clients better, but also let us pinpoint client prospects we think will be a good fit with Table XI.

Finally, we went over the business’ finances with the entire company. This is always a key component for me, since our newer employees are often surprised and appreciative of this level of transparency and candor. I’ve always maintained that giving people the greater financial context for why we make certain decisions is crucial to the health of the company as a whole, since it empowers the individuals working here.

All in all, I’m happy with our Lake Geneva excursion and the progress we made on a macro level. Stay tuned over the next several weeks for some more detailed retreat follow-ups, including a shot of our new commissioned artwork “Eleven Tables,” and some pretty hilarious photo galleries and videos of people doing things like throwing frozen turkeys at bowling pins.

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February 21, 2013No Comments

We’re Off to Lake Geneva!

Our projectors are packed, our laptops are stowed, and we are counting down the hours until the bus arrives to take us to The Abbey in Lake Geneva for the weekend. While not, perhaps, quite as exotic as Costa Rica, this year’s company retreat will still give us the chance to step back from day-to-day work and look at Table XI’s bigger picture. Plus, frozen turkey bowling. You can’t do that at the Equator.

On the docket this year:

  • Discussing strategy and goal setting
  • Standardizing best practices across the development team
  • Learning data visualization techniques and how best to apply them
  • Improving the client experience

We’ve also set aside time for interdisciplinary teams to work on company pet projects that fall by the wayside during the hustle and bustle of everyday work life. Some of these include developing an online game, identifying new products we can take to market, and finding ways to meld our client relationships into company events and culture.

But it won’t be all work, all the time. We’ll be visiting the nearby Yerkes Observatory for some winter stargazing, hitting the lanes for the aforementioned frozen turkey bowling, and partaking in other activities like ice skating, ice fishing, and anything else that involves ice (it is Wisconsin in February, after all). On Saturday night Table XI is taking us all to a dinner in which everyone will be wearing their new Trunk Club duds, so stay tuned for pictures of our devs like you’ve never seen them before. Fancy!

In the meantime, we’ll be updating our Twitter and Facebook pages throughout the weekend, so stop by to see the latest in Lake Geneva entertainment.

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March 28, 2012No Comments

10 Things We Learned in Costa Rica

We swam, we surfed, we SQL queried. Between the beach and the tiki hut office, there was lots to glean from our time in Costa Rica:

  1. Contrary to popular belief, developers are not allergic to sunlight.
  2. Hammocks make good desks.
  3. A day iterating on Facebook's API is a day well spent.
  4. When you want a good photo, ask a Schwartz.
  5. Jason Pearl builds cloud-based games and Imperial pyramids with equal levels of dedication and ingenuity.
  6. Chef Aram has ninja knife skills. And now we all know how to chop an onion properly.
  7. Just say no to traveling on the day two major airlines merge.
  8. Just say yes when someone asks you if you have a phone in your pocket before they throw you in the water.
  9. Meetings are more fun when they happen in pools.
  10. The two rarest things to see in the wild: sloths and a John Gore smile.

 

Check out some other highlights from our trip:

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March 7, 2012No Comments

Costa Rica Is Pura Vida

Before our trip, I found myself in conversations with clients and friends, trying to articulate why we were bringing all our employees, their significant others, and their children to Costa Rica for a weeklong corporate retreat. Most were congratulatory at being able to provide such an experience; many requested jobs; a handful, I suspect, if even for a moment, thought this might be a junket.

The reality, however, is that the trip is an extension of who we are as a company. It’s a progression of our flexible hours, catered lunches, and ability to work abroad—perks that allow us to compete for talent in our industry and find employees who are more than just employees. We endeavor to provide an environment that elevates an individual from trusted colleague to friend.

Our recent growth—including 11 employees last year—as well as the departure of two long-time staffers necessitated a renewed focus on our team and where we're headed as an organization. In much the same way we encourage clients to meet at our office and step outside the day-to-day of their existence, we wanted to do the same.

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We used this time to review development best practices and testing strategies. We intermingled teams exploring the depths of the Facebook API, cut our teeth on mobile platforms, exposed developers to new languages, and leveraged unfamiliar tools like mailgun and Refinery CMS, which will have immediate utility for our clients.

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February 28, 2012No Comments

The Pacific Beckons

The time: 6am, Saturday morning. The place: O'Hare. The destination: Costa Rica.

50 of us, including TXI staffers, significant others, kids, and a few friends all arrived in Playa Grande, Costa Rica this past Saturday. Following a company welcome dinner that night and boat ride on Sunday, we've buckled down for the past two days working on new techniques, new projects, and new tans.

But this trip isn't just about fun in the sun. It’s easy for big picture items to get lost in day-to-day minutia, so we leverage this chance to take time, take a step back, and take stock of where we can make improvements company-wide.

Primarily, we’ll be looking at ways to run and deliver projects with greater efficiency and transparency. We’ll be talking about engineering best practices like automated testing and continuous integration, as well as the latest project management tools that will give our clients more insight and control around their projects and budgets. These advances will have a huge impact on our clients, allowing us to work more efficiently and cycle talent onto projects faster. They will also give clients more flexibility to change or add features along the way, without fear of upset apple carts or blooming budgets.

We'll also be examining how we communicate what we do to the marketplace. We've done good work for a lot of people, but thus far have remained mostly under the radar. Our marketing team has some great ideas about how to elevate the profile of our organization, and we're looking forward to putting that plan into action.

There will be a lot more to report once we return in early March. We’re so grateful that we as a company have the ability to take retreats like this, and ultimately we think our clients will be, too.

We’ll be uploading photos to Facebook throughout the week, so check in for some vicarious sunshine.

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