Gardening Day: how to run a tech debt cleanup day whilst being fully remote

natashamccann
Aug 10 · 6 min read
A cartoon picture of the FT gardeners, along with links to Slack, Twitter and Github that the Gardening Day teams needed.
A cartoon picture of the FT gardeners, along with links to Slack, Twitter and Github that the Gardening Day teams needed.

Just like financial debt, you have to be wise about the technical debt you are building up over time. Unmanaged technical debt can slow productivity and hamper future projects.

A Gardening Day is when teams band together to ‘weed our gardens’ — for example, to reduce our technical debt, improve documentation, find ways to save money on and above all share knowledge. One of our focuses for this day, for example, was to decommission unused resources that we didn’t need sitting in the Cloud (AWS) or within the data centres, as a result saving money and reducing risk.

Last year we ran our Gardening Day in the FT office, and the outcomes and feedback were very positive. We were in the office last year, we had the teams self organise and got the competitive spirit going but we didn’t know how much of what worked depended on being together in the office. We didn’t want remote work during a pandemic to be a blocker in running one of these sessions again this year, but we knew we would have to tackle some things differently. Some things we realised up front — for example, the importance of slack and the need to organise the teams up front. Others we found out on the day.

Our aims

Our aims for the day were much the same as for the previous year, but at the same time we also wanted people to have fun and enjoy the competitive spirit even though all the teams were completely remote. We also recognised that in the current climate of a global pandemic, that it may be hard for some individuals, so we were mindful of making sure we didn’t add any additional pressure.

Gardening Day with a remote twist

We realised the day would not be the same as last year (less chocolate and pizza) but could be made excellent in its own way.

Due to the pandemic, the whole company is now working remotely. To this date, we have all been working from home for a total of 4 months. But we were still confident that we would be able to run a successful gardening day.

We had a small group of engineers working on preparing the day and given the event was going to be fully remote, we were aware that we had to prepare more than we did last year. For instance we asked people to vote on themes and ideas they would like to work on, we pre created teams before the day and gave the teams enough time before the day to discuss and plan.

Starting off the day with an Icebreaker

Since the objectives for the day were to collaborate on improving our services and have fun we needed an Ice Breaker to kick things off.The organising working group invented a game of Social Distancing Bingo with people getting points for each lockdown activity they were willing to admit to.

Examples of lockdown behaviours included;

  • attending work meetings in pyjamas
  • stockpiling loo roll
  • running 20k (I definitely didn’t do this one)
  • Eating over 300 gm of chocolate in one day (that’s more like it)
  • Injuring yourself whilst doing DIY

The working group had also decided that the Bingo Master (Mister Bisque) had to be dressed up to set the tone for the day….

The Bingo Master dressed up in his lobster suit, claws and all.
The Bingo Master dressed up in his lobster suit, claws and all.

The icebreaker proved to be a lot of fun. Everyone then split into their individual teams and started rooting up the tech weeds!

The teams

In total, 48 people mostly from two groups in FT Product and Technology participated. The Manila office also joined us this year and it was fab to have them working alongside us. We had carefully split them into 10 teams, so each team had equal opportunities to learn and win.

A slide that shows the names of the Gardening Day teams.
A slide that shows the names of the Gardening Day teams.

So how was it different remotely?

At the beginning of the day we all jumped onto a Google Hangout to gather together, everyone then split off into their separate team Google Hangout to band together and dig out the weeds. This was very much different from last year where we were all in the office and self organised.

Mister Bisque and I then jumped into each team hangout throughout the day, to see how the teams were getting along and to offer any assistance they needed. We had a lot of engagement from this and it was good fun to look at all the teams’ different tactics. This was an effective alternative to last year where we walked around the office for a check in. Reflecting back on the day, team hangouts worked really well as a replacement to this!

Results

In total we managed to clear up a lot of “weeds!”. Some of these weeds include…

  • 669 technical issues raised and 446 technical issues resolved.
  • $3600 saved and more yet to come
  • 300GB of NAS (file servers within our data centres) shares cleared up
  • 1471 Citrix Profiles removed, over 2.1 million files cleared from the NAS shares.
  • 50 unused AD accounts deleted.

We had a few prizes for the teams that improved the most, saved us the most, etc. But this time we had one special one for the people who made remote gardening day fun for everyone. These prizes automatically brought out competitiveness across all teams.

So what did we learn from a remote working gardening day?

We learnt that despite being a fully remote department, being in different time zones and not having an onsite presence, we could still run an effective cleanup day and ensure great results.

We logged double the issues that we did last year (despite some teams trying to hack the scoring systems :P) and saved almost the same amount of costs, with more savings still to come from some of the issues that were flagged.

The feedback

The feedback we received on how the day was run and organised was pretty great!

  • 96.7% of participants worked with someone they don’t often work with.
  • 93.8% of participants learned something new.
  • 100% of the participants agreed that we should do this again next year.

Remote working and its effectiveness

Remote working has definitely been a change up to working in the office, but we feel that the remote working didn’t just make the day more successful, it also ensured better results. There was less pressure, everyone was working in an environment in which they felt comfortable in and we knew if there were any issues that cropped up we could all jump into a video call and help each other out.

Post gardening day the organising committee had a discussion surrounding whether to make this a remote or an on site event next year. We all decided due to the success of this year we were going to push for the remote event — which shows in itself how effective remote working can be.

Final Note

With a bit of planning, it is possible to run group wide events successfully. Some feedback we received from our teams also alluded that the day was a very good morale booster and an excellent tool to get everyone to work towards a common objective. Days like this are valuable. And although the reduction of technical debt and cost savings are important the most valuable outcomes are the collaboration and the improvement of team spirit and morale.

Thanks to Lisa Fiander, Chris Hayes, Mark Barnes, Rhys Evans, Sarah Wells and Nayana Shetty for their help with this post.

And thanks to Chris Hayes, David Moor, Mark Barnes, Nayana Shetty alongside me for organising the event and helping make it a memorable day for all.

FT Product & Technology

A blog by the Financial Times Product & Technology…

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