Strava Jams, May 2017

This is the second post in a series that discusses how we organize grassroots efforts to fuel innovation inside Strava, through a hackathon we call Jams. Our first post presented a historical perspective on Jams. This post will talk about the most recent edition of Jams and the challenges we’re facing as we are iterating.

Photography by Ben de Jesus

On May 24th, 25th, and 26th, Strava held the latest edition of Jams. Like previous editions, people jammed for all kinds of reasons: build cool new features, learn something new or simply embrace the opportunity to work on teams with people they don’t interact with in the normal course of their day-to-day work.

The Law of the Land

We block off three days every quarter for Jams. Historically, the scheduling of Jams has largely been done in an ad-hoc fashion, but we’ve been trying to hang onto a quarterly cadence. We are currently experimenting with having them at the end of the second month of each quarter so that they can feed into the planning exercise for the following quarter. In a couple of quarters, we’ll report back and let folks know if this has been helpful at all.

Every Strava Jams kicks off at the end of the workday on Tuesday, and lasts for three days. In that timeframe, people are free to organize their work and manage their time in any way they see fit. On Friday, everybody wraps up their Jam by 2:00pm, people stop what they were doing, we all enjoy snacks and drinks, and we get ready for people to present their Jams. For two hours, people present their Jams to the entire company. After 5:00, people hang out, continue snacking, and just generally unwind. Jams at Strava are very social.
After Jams, everybody votes for their top three Jams.

The Good, the Bad and the Unexpected

At Strava, our favorite retrospective format takes the form of a GBU — a go-around-the-room exercise where everyone takes the time to reflect and open up on the good, the bad and the unexpected.

Let’s start with the good — these are the things we found to make Jams significantly easier and more productive.

Ahead of Jams, we run a signup process where everyone can pitch their ideas. It’s a simple spreadsheet that anyone can edit and where people can ask for assistance, join a team or just find inspiration. As a general rule, all non-essential meetings are cancelled: what specifically remains on schedule are interviews and anything that pertains to hiring activities. Second of all, we keep our people fed: lunch is brought in for everyone on both days and the demo has been fueled by Vive la Tarte snacks for the past few years.

Finally, we have a single person, the Master of Ceremony, in charge of commandeering the demo and scheduling entrants. Several have tried their hands at the exercise but it requires a unique combination of organizational skills, discipline and a sharp sense of humor (the last one is not optional, as our VP of Engineering recently found out). After Jams, the existence of Strava Labs has proven a good outlet for projects that need a place to go, but without having to jump through the hoops of the product roadmap.

Now for the bad — the single biggest issue we have with Jams is how they blend with the product roadmap. Projects may not be ready to be put in the hands of athletes, may conflict with other parts of the product or upcoming plans. A related source of frustration is the lack of an equivalent to Strava Labs for mobile projects, which means our mobile engineers do not get the same degree of liberty as server engineers when it comes to experimentation in the wild.

From an organizational standpoint, scaling Jams to a company of 150 people spanning 9 timezones has proven tricky. Running a signup process that is visible, accounts for the skills of all employees and enables those outside the HQ to participate fully is less trivial than it sounds 😉. For the MC, simply organizing the demo is a full-time job and packing all decks and individual talks in a two-hour time frame has become fairly challenging.

Conversely, inclusivity is a problem: some people’s jobs don’t lend themselves to stopping “normal” work for three days, some people lack the direct ability to execute on an idea and don’t know what to do, etc… Finally, scheduling is disruptive of the regular business practices and of the cadence people are relying on to do their work.

The unexpected, and the beautiful, is in the output: we had really great Jams! About 20 people or teams presented their ideas, including:

  • Deepening our use of 3D Touch on iOS and implementing App Shortcuts on Android
  • Devising and testing communication tactics for preventing churn
  • Implementing a quick view of an activity directly from the mobile feed
  • Using our data to automatically identify running races and large group events taking place all over the world
  • Designing a lightweight version of Strava’s website optimized for mobile screens (a-la Twitter Lite)

Several cool ideas are going to move forward into our product, lots of people got to work with people who they don’t typically work with, people learned new things, and we all had fun together.
Jams is a work in progress at Strava. We are in the process of gathering feedback on our most recent Jams. We conducted a Jams survey within the company, have spoken with many individuals, and have identified themes to discuss for future improvements:

  • Not all Jams projects are born equal, and some work never gets presented in the demo
  • Jams are engineering and product-development centric
  • The planning and dissemination of ideas ahead of Jams is lacking
  • Remote offices and employees are left out of much of what makes Jams fun
  • The relationship between Jams and the company’s roadmap lacks clarity

Based on those themes, we’ve taken over one of our regularly scheduled Tech Talks slots and organized a brainstorming session to identify solutions to those issues. We’re currently processing all of the feedback and will determine what solutions we want to implement for our next Jams in August. We take all of these issues as opportunities to craft an event that will be more impactful to both the employees and Strava.
We will report back on what we find, what works, and how things went.