This is the team’s playbook, your playbook.
Here you will find how you and your teammates should run our software consulting company, as well as the tools and practices that should guide us to create quality software products.
This document is in a continuous development process and you are a key player in helping it evolve. Please contribute to it using the Playbook's git repo.
We've learned from our experience that working with people that share the correct set of principles is the foundation for creating highly productive teams.
Aim high and encourage everyone else to stand out above the average.
Pay attention to details, a great product is the sum of perfectly well-thought-out details.
Practice impersonation helping pursuing other people’s goals as if they were your own.
Be Honest, never sacrifice honesty for politeness.
Love your craft and strive to transcend through your creations.
Our main objective is to be an outstanding team of designers and engineers. If necessary, we will eliminate or simplify any policy that makes us diverge from that goal. Most of the time you won’t find a policy, instead we encourage you to "use your best judgement".
We avoid departments and prefer to use just a few hierarchies. We like composition of roles necessary for projects and company objectives over inheritance of bosses and direct reports.
We avoid having private conversations about each other or clients. Instead, we talk in person, and use tools such as Slack, JIRA and GitLab to communicate openly within a project, within sophilabs, and publicly.
We prefer open offices where everyone can see each other, encouraging people to collaborate spontaneously but still maintaining a quiet work environment. We say, “Work comfortably while keeping the stillness of a library”. There are many places for entertainment so you can rest when you need to without disturbing your teammates.
Our standards are very high, and bringing on a new team member requires a "yes" from everyone who participated in the interview process. Therefore, we expect the best from each other, give each other the benefit of the doubt, and encourage each other to take initiative to improve ourselves and the company.
Except for a few roles with pure management responsibilities, everybody at sophilabs must dedicate at least part of their time to programming software, a customer project, internal tools, or to the Research and Innovation working group.
We work at a sustainable pace. From March to December we dedicate two days per month as “investment days”, and one day during January and February. We typically distribute investment days in the team in order to have at least one member dedicated to the project everyday. If a team member is absent from client work because of illness or study holidays, we'll use investment days as extra client days to avoid slipping behind schedule. When taking time off during client work, we discuss how it will impact the schedule with other team members.
Sending off-hours communication may create an unintended sense of urgency with the recipients of your message. Try to avoid creating that urgency when possible. Unless actually urgent, you may ignore off-hours messages which you receive and handle them once you are back at work.
Sometimes we need to stay highly focused to solve challenging problems properly and we want no interruptions from our team, during those moments we listen to our favorite music avoiding any program or podcast that requires attention, or we just move temporarily to a more quiet and isolated space.
Our main business is consulting projects. Those projects start with sales and go through a normal flow of designing, developing, shipping, monitoring, and iterating. The goal is to do such a good job for our clients that they want to poach us, and to be such a great place to work that we can be confident our teammates won't leave.
Investment days are days for investment in ourselves, our company, and our community. Primarily this means doing something that interests us like defining best practices, investigating a new framework, contributing to open source, writing a blog post, attending community events, or reading an educational book. The goal is to encourage individuals to improve and share their knowledge with the rest of the team. The time you invest during these days must generate value in different forms:
- Picking from or contributing to guidelines and playbook
- Completing squads’ pre-defined tickets
- Contributing to or creating open source software
- Writing a blog post
- Exploring change to tools and processes on the "R&I" JIRA project
- Working on conference and meetup talks and proposals
- Working on sophia or other internal projects
There is a difference between a normal investment day, and extended downtime between client projects (being “on bench”).
Extended periods of time between client projects should skew heavily towards revenue generating activities. This could be working on existing revenue generating products and services, networking and sales, or creating something new that will generate revenue.
Because this extended time period will go away when you resume client work, and because we can't sustain non-revenue generating activities for long, approach this extended time between client projects with a sense of urgency. Validating ideas, shipping, and getting to revenue generation as quickly as possible should be a priority. We shouldn't go weeks without results to show, and we should impose the same constraints and processes as we do on client projects.
Every person who joins sophilabs receives a MacBook Pro latest generation. These laptops are known for their performance, robustness, great look & feel and battery life, but for us, the most important feature is that they allow us building and testing apps on any platform: OSX, Linux and Windows.
Plain text won't become obsolete. It helps leverage your work and simplifies debugging and testing. The editor should be an extension of your hand; make sure your editor is configurable, extensible, and programmable.- The Pragmatic Programmer
We encourage everyone to be an expert using his/her favorite programming tool. Know every shortcut and automate repetitive tasks to gain more productivity so you can focus on building the software the way we want.
Early in a project, we have to decide which platforms we'll use. Which platform depends on our ideas for solving the users' problems. For example, if they're construction workers on a job site, a mobile or tablet interface might be the best choice.
After considering what's best for users, consider what's best for us:
- The tools are open source with a strong community
- The tools make us happy
- The tools help us create and iterate quickly
In our experience, teams using the Django framework can bring products to market more quickly and with a lower total cost of ownership than other tools. There's also strong overlap between the agile and Python communities, which means (among other things) that Python developers tend to write adaptable modules, write tests and avoid repeated code.
- Are high quality.
- Avoid vendor lock-in.
- Provide flexibility to switch components.
- Work on many devices.
- Are battle-tested.
- Have few bugs when seen by many eyes.
Django comes with features that decrease the burden on the programmer to protect against security attacks such as:
- Cross-Site Scripting (XSS)
- Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF)
- SQL injection
- Header injection
Django helps us do the right thing with regards to security but we are still required to be diligent, knowledgeable, and test comprehensively. We support Internet Explorer 10+ and the latest versions of Firefox, Chrome, and Safari. We do not support Internet Explorer 6, 7, 8, or 9. Those browsers are losing market share, they have security issues, and they are time-consuming to design for, develop for, and support. On mobile devices, we support iOS Safari 7.1+, Android Browser 4.4+, and the latest version of Chrome for Android. In limited special cases, user demographics will dictate that supporting an older version of Internet Explorer is required. Those special cases should be identified early on so we can plan for additional time and expense in order to support the version.
"Mobile" refers to the user, not the device. Everything about how we design a mobile application has to be in the context of that idea. It raises questions like:
- Are they moving?
- Are they relaxed on a couch?
We try to start with the most usable platform first. If the device needs the camera, calendar, or address book, an “hybrid” app for iPhone, iPad or Android may be the right choice. If the app is targeted for a massive audience and/or the app performance is critical we recommend developing two separate “native” apps for iOS and Android.
For other products, especially content-only products such as text, images, videos, and landing pages, a mobile web app makes sense because:
- All modern smartphones can render HTML.
- We can create and iterate quickly.
- We can deploy new versions multiple times a day.
Our mobile engineers make use of their expertise with the Ionic Framework to create multi platform apps and Swift when we want to create platform specific apps for iPhones, iPads or Apple Watches.
Examples of languages we typically use are:
- Python, NodeJS: our server-side preferences
Examples of frameworks we typically use are:
A framework is a library that makes performing a particular task in a programming language easier. Like the framework of a house, it is there when we begin programming and is always there giving the program structure and support.
For data that must be saved and stored correctly, we use PostgreSQL (we usually refer to it as "Postgres"). It's a thirty-year-old open source database that is highly respected, is well supported by documentation and hosting providers, and can be used by any developer who knows the SQL standard.
In recent years, a movement called NoSQL has gained popularity. Best translated as "not only SQL", tremendous effort has been made to create different kinds of databases for different use cases, often based off academic or industry research.
Our most frequently used NoSQL database are Redis, which we use for storing transient, high quantity read/write data such as activity feeds, tags, background jobs, sessions, tokens, and counters; Cassandra which we use for storing time series.
Redis and Cassandra are reliable, open-source, and simple. They offer high performance and reliable predictions of its performance. When we need to do full-text search on documents, we use Solr. Its major features include hit highlighting, faceted search, real-time indexing, dynamic clustering, database integration, and rich text documents handling.
In contrast with a proprietary license, the source code of an open source program is made available for review, modification and redistribution. The difference between open source licenses is what we can and can't do with the source code. Open source licenses can be divided in two categories: permissive and copyleft. Permissive examples include:
A copyleft example is the General Public License (GPL). Both categories have the purpose of establishing the copyright holder for the software, granting users the right to copy, modify and redistribute it, protecting the copyright holder from any potential guarantees that the software may provide (software is provided as-is), and optionally imposing some restrictions.
Permissive licenses let us modify a program, redistribute it, and even sell it. We can embed or link code with other programs without restriction or explicit permission by the copyright holder. Copyleft licenses only allow us to link or distribute code with other code that has the same license. It also forces modifications to be released under the same license. Combining anything with the GPL makes it GPL.
Non-copyleft licenses do not enforce derivative works to also be open source. Some software is released under a dual license: both a permissive and copyleft license. This provides developers who use the dual licensed code to apply the license that better suits their needs.
Most of the software we use has a permissive license:
- PostgreSQL, PostgreSQL License (BSD based)
- Redis, BSD
- Solr, Apache License 2.0
- Python, Python Software Foundation License (PSFL) (BSD based)
- Django, Django license (BSD based)
- AngularJS, MIT
The Agile way
We adhere to the Agile Manifesto principles, declaring that our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software. We welcome changing requirements, even late in development as we understand that agile processes must harness change for the customer's competitive advantage.
We say that working software is the primary measure of progress, and as a result we aim to deliver working software in the shortest amount of time, usually within one or two weeks.
Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely and must work together daily throughout the project.
At regular intervals, we reflect on how to become more effective, then tune and adjust our behavior accordingly. We look for a motivating environment and culture, where everybody trusts each other to receive constructive feedback and get the job done.
We strongly believe that continuous attention to details and technical excellence enhances agility. Lastly, we believe that simplicity --the art of maximizing the amount of work to avoid-- is essential, at every level.
In our experience we have seen that the best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams who truly understand these principles.
Project kick off
A kick off meeting is set up whenever a project starts, please use this document to guide the presentation.
After that, the following stuff is set up:
- Project mailing-list: email@example.com, which includes the client and firstname.lastname@example.org, which include only the technical team
- JIRA tracker (provided by client)
- Gitlab or Github repositories (provided by client)
- Jenkins project (provided by client)
- Access to cloud service (security groups and roles)
- Google docs folder (ask client for a documents repository or use docs.sophilabs.io instead)
Every morning, each project team gets together for 15 minutes. We talk about what we did yesterday, what we're going to do today, and expose blockers. We immediately resolve blockers together or help the person in need following the standup.
We do this in order to:
- See each other face-to-face
- Learn what others are doing in order to help them
- Build accountability and trust
We have used Redmine, JIRA, Pivotal Tracker, Asana, Trello, and other task management systems over the years. The following section details a process that uses JIRA, however the overall process remains relatively the same if other tools are used instead. No two products are the same, so flexibility in the product development process is important. JIRA responds well to changing the structure of the process "on the fly."
In any task management system, it's important to have a clear understanding of the product development process. The Current Sprint is the only prioritized list to which the product team should refer to in order to know what to work on next. It represents two weeks of work. A story represents a job story, bug fix, engineering task, or general todo. Stories start out as a simple idea, 1-2 sentences long. Detail is then added, including descriptive wireframes and explaining why (from a business perspective) we are focusing on it. Notes on suggested implementation are often added, and at times it is also a good idea to include the acceptance criteria of the story.
Once the stories in the Sprint have been prioritized and vetted, they are ready for design and development. A designer or developer "puts their face on it" by assigning it to themselves and pulling it into the In Progress column. The stories in the In Progress column are actively being designed or developed. You should never have your face on more than two stories at a time. Work is done in a feature git branch. When a designer or developer creates a pull request for their feature branch, they move the story to the Code Review column. All reviewers must "put their face on it" while reviewing.
The agile master is not a project manager. The rest of the team does not report to them. The agile master is also not a technical or design lead.
The agile master adds an impartial perspective. They run weekly meetings so that there is consistency in week-to-week communication. They keep an eye on the high-level goals of the project, which should be easier for them because they are not involved in the weeds of the project day-to-day. They express enthusiasm when the team is in a groove and help problem-solve when things get off track. When appropriate, they should work with the client to either reduce or increase team size to correctly serve the project.
Once every 2 weeks, everyone involved on a project meets in-person or via video conference. This is an opportunity for the entire team to discuss achievements, hurdles, and concerns. The goal is that everyone leaves feeling excited and empowered for the week of work to come.
The agile master runs this meeting aiming to:
- Understand how the team feels about last week's progress and what's to come. Ask all team members from both sophilabs and the client, "How did you feel about last week? How do you feel going into this week?" This is less of a recap of the completed work (a better place for a recap being during daily standups) and more a check of how each person feels about the current project. Take notes
- Have each member of the team voice any risks or concerns; after everyone has had the opportunity to bring these up, work together as a group to mitigate these concerns. Encourage everyone to voice the same concerns even if they've already been mentioned; it helps prioritize what the team is most concerned about and should spend the most time fixing. This is an opportunity to discuss how to improve the process and product we're building together. Note who had which concerns and track how we'll be addressing these concerns
- Celebrate success. Review the work that shipped last week, showing the actual product, and congratulate those who made it happen
- After the retro is done, share the notes with the team and ensure anything actionable from the retro is captured. This allows teammates to view progress, understand how feelings on the project change over time, and accomplish anything we set out to do given the outcomes of the retro
Based on the answers to these questions, we record our plans in the task management system:
- Archive the two-week previous sprint
- Review product design priorities. Pull what we estimate to be an appropriate amount for this week into the Backlog
- Review bugs. Pull any important bugs into the Backlog and prioritize them at the top of the queue before everything else. We want to always be fixing what's broken first
- Review engineering and refactoring tasks. Pull stories into the Backlog based on what the designers and developers believe is appropriate given the previously stated product design and bug tasks
- Re-sort the entire Backlog according to priority
The task management system is the canonical repository for plans. When things are only said on the phone, in person, in emails that don't include the whole group, or in one-on-one chats, information gets lost, forgotten, or misinterpreted. The problems expand when someone joins or leaves the project.
We could be called "aggressive" with our approach to cutting features, budgets, and schedules. It's hard to say "no." as it is usually not well-received. There's a reason someone requested a specific feature. We have to battle sometimes in the face of "yes". We do so armed with knowledge of the history of software success and failure: in 2004, only 34% of software projects were considered successes. The good news is that that was 100% better than the stats in 1994. "The primary reason is the projects have gotten a lot smaller." Few software projects fail because they aren't complicated enough. Saying "no" means keeping the software we're building as simple as possible. Every line of code we write is an asset and a liability.
Simple software, once launched, is better suited to meeting the demands of customers. Complex software, if it ever launches, is less capable to respond to customer demands quickly.
It is crucial to put the design of the application ahead of the development. Focus should be placed on wireframing usability, user experience, and flows. We find it important to keep the design and development cycle adequately tight. We do not wireframe one month out because as we approach certain areas of the product, we often decide to cut or change features. Those changes are an expected part of the iterative process and feedback loop between the client, the sophilabs team, and users. It would be wasteful to spend time wireframing features that never get built or building features that won't be used. The designer will refine the sketches into HTML and CSS wireframes. HTML and CSS wireframes are built on moqups. It also allows developers to start implementing features within the wireframes.
In the context of our software, the user interface is the individual view that allows for goal completion.
We evaluate interfaces on the following criteria:
- Puts outcomes first
- Provides users with affordances
- Congruent with surrounding platform
- Consistent across entire application
We put the user's goals first. No one is using our software solely because it looks nice. There's a reason they sought out our solution. Our number one priority is making that outcome desirable and easily attainable. We make software easy to understand. It's not enough to be functional, users must know capabilities exist and be able to anticipate how the software is going to react to their inputs. Our software should be as intuitive as possible. We remain consistent with platform guidelines. Interfaces look and feel best when they are congruent within their context, rather than being strictly branded across all platforms. We prefer common patterns when designing, and we maintain consistency. Usable interfaces work as expected across the entire application.
Interaction gives users the ability to change the canvas, and to directly manipulate it. Designing those interactions is what makes our software come to life. Interactions should provide affordance — animation, for examples, can be used as a powerful metaphor to help a user understand an interface. Interactions help guide a user from the beginning of a task all the way through it's completion.
Designers guide these interactions from prototype to implementation. For web applications we start in the browser. For review, we use gifs to demonstrate interactions.
We refer to an application's visual design exclusively as its style. We use the universal design principles to communicate and bring order to those ideas in our applications.
Those fundamentals include, among others:
- Alignment (often achieved with grids)
- Emphasis (often achieved with size, position and color)
- Consistency (buttons, links, headers typically look alike)
- Whitespace (elegant, timeless, gives eye a rest)
Successful visual designs typically don't draw attention to themselves. The content will be front-and-center. The workflows throughout the site will be obvious. Resist the temptation to aim for a design that is "memorable" or a design that "pops."
Successful designs are usable.
Our development practices are based on the Agile Manifesto and a subset of the XP practices. We adhere to their principles, and have found that applying them greatly improves the quality of our work as well as the happiness of our team.
We always use source code control. It's like a time machine because it enables us to work in parallel universes of our source code, experimenting without fear of losing work and rollback if something goes wrong. Git is an open source code control system written by Linus Torvalds. It's fast and great for working in branches. Additionally, we prefer to use Gitflow for branches and release management. We also use GitLab for hosting our git repositories.
We write code in a consistent style that emphasizes cleanliness and team communication.
High level guidelines:
- Be consistent
- Don't rewrite existing code to follow this guide
- Don't violate a guideline without a good reason
- A reason is good when you can convince a teammate
Code that is written by two people who sit next to each other at the same computer is pair-programmed code. That code is considered high quality and should result in cost savings due to less maintenance. In the long run, this style of development saves money because fewer bugs are written and therefore do not need to be fixed later. When you are writing an important piece of code, don't you want another person to look it over before it goes into production? This is a good indication that pairing is beneficial and should be done more often. While we don't pair program all the time, we recognize that it can be difficult to act as a team when working at a distance. Which is why we believe that. There is no better collaboration between designers and developers than at the keyboard.
Here's the flow. Read our git flow based protocol for the git commands.
- Create a local feature branch based on dev
- When feature is complete and tests pass, stage the changes
- When you've staged the changes, commit them
- Write a good commit message
- Share your branch
- Submit a merge request
- Ask for a code review in Slack
- A team member other than the author reviews the merge request. They follow the Code Review guidelines to avoid miscommunication
- They make comments and ask questions directly on lines of code in the GitLab web interface or in Slack
- When satisfied, they comment on the merge request "Ready to merge."
- View a list of new commits. View changed files. Merge branch into dev
- Delete your remote feature branch
- Delete your local feature branch
Test-Driven Development (TDD) is one of the most important Extreme Programming (XP) rules, but we need to be very careful how applying it, as it may add a significant amount of code that could make us move slower. One of the great benefits of TDD is that it enforces the design of testable components, being a good practice to create clean and maintainable code. We have some suggestions to encourage the creation of tests for component interfaces avoiding a high coupling with the implementation details:
- Don’t test private methods
- Test the more generalist method that is closer to the user instead of each one responsible for the smaller tasks
Acceptance tests are code created from stories’ acceptance criteria. This code is run against the application. When executed for the first time, the test will fail. The developer writes application code until the test passes. Once the test passes, the developer will commit the code into version control with a message such as:
Author creates post
The code is then run on the Continuous Integration server to make sure the acceptance test still passes in an environment that matches the production environment. Every time the code is pushed to the dev branch, the staging environment is automatically updated so that anyone can see the current status of the project.
When the acceptance test is green for the CI server, and you along with any other designers, developers, or clients are satisfied that the jobs story is complete on staging, the feature can be deployed to production at will. This can result in features being pushed to production very frequently, and therefore, more value is being delivered to customers sooner.
Martin Fowler has an extensive description of Continuous Integration. The basics are:
- We have a test suite that each developer runs on their own machine
- When they commit their code to a shared version control repository, the tests are run again and "integrated" with code from other developers
This helps ensure that there's nothing specific to the developer's machine making the tests pass. The code in version control needs to run cleanly in production later. So before the code is allowed to be pushed live, it is run on a CI server or service. When a build fails, we get alerts in Slack and via email. Click the alert and we see a backtrace that gives us a hint on how to "fix the build." When we write the fix and commit to version control again, we'll get a "passing build" alert in Slack and via email. Click the alert and we see the passing build.
Green is good.
A solid test suite is an absolute requirement for a web application in our opinion. However, one major problem with test suites is that they get slow as they get large. CI can ease the pain by distributing the test runs in parallel. We've used Bamboo, Hudson (now called Jenkins), and other CI libraries that we manage ourselves. We use Travis CI for open source projects. We use Jenkins for private repositories. CI test runs are triggered by GitLab post-receive hooks.
In order to save time and money, we focus as much as possible on the client’s product and the outsource operations to external services.
- We have found that a short checklist is valuable when setting up a new production environment or preparing for a launch:
- Are we using a concurrent web server?
- Are long-running processes such as email delivery being run in background jobs? (See how to set up delayed Job)
- Are there redundant (at least two) web and background processes running?
- Are we using SSL? (See "SSL Certificates" section below)
- Are API requests being made via a separate subdomain (api.example.com)? Even if the same app, this gives us architectural flexibility in the future
- Are deploys done manually at a scheduled time when teammates are fresh and available if something goes wrong?
- Do deploys follow a well-documented script?
- Are we sending logs to a remote logging service? (See How to integrate Sentry)
- Are we using a AWS RDS service? See AWS production databases
- Are we monitoring performance and uptime? See New Relic
Buy a wildcard certificate from DNSimple. The wildcard (*) lets you use the same certificate on www., staging., api., and any other future subdomains. SSL and DNS are tightly coupled. If we're doing any work with SSL, we need to make sure we have access to make DNS changes, such as adding a CNAME record. When working with a client that has a DNS department, schedule time during off-peak hours in order to pair program with their DNS personnel to ensure smooth sailing. We can accidentally take down a site that is all SSL if this work isn't done methodically.
We use Amazon Web Services. The cloud and its services will empower our clients' businesses to start and operate in a way that has never before been possible without significant upfront investment. File uploads for features such as user avatars are uploaded to Amazon S3.
Examples of transactional email are:
- Follow ups after the first 3 days of use
- Free trial expiring
- Message another user in the system
We use Stripe to collect payments from users via credit or debit card, as well as for recurring billing. It is a payment gateway and merchant account. Charges for Stripe will vary depending on usage; successful charges are 2.9% + 30 cents. There are no setup fees, monthly fees, or card storage fees
We use New Relic to monitor performance of production applications. Debugging performance might be the best part of a developer's job. When there's a clear, numeric problem, we get to fix it and improve that number. So we can say things like "We made this 175% better." There are many established techniques for fixing performance problems:
- Amazon server clusters
- Asset pipeline
- SQL query caching
- ORM queries improvements
A number of them require developer thought:
- Database indexing
- Eager loading
- HTTP caching
Page caching is the most heavy-handed technique available, but if we are able to cache an entire page and push it into a CDN, it will be the fastest option.
Everyone who works at sophilabs has the responsibility to engage professionally with clients. As a developer or designer, we are undoubtedly involved in emails, phone calls, or chats with clients. In these interactions, we always demonstrate respect and professionalism.
All emails are archived and not deleted, so that a paper trail exists on any internal conversation or client facing communications.
Also for the purpose of maintaining a paper trail, we ensure that a record of all sophilabs emails remain in the google apps sophilabs site. This means that if we forward emails or use an email client, all emails are recorded in google apps as well.
We use an appropriate email signature to maintain a professional tone with clients at all times.
Protecting confidential information via email is also extremely important for us. As such, we do not send passwords by email, and we are very careful in sending confidential documents by email as well. As all email can be easily intercepted by third parties, no confidential information should ever be sent to someone who is not “need to know”.
We are always logged in Slack during work hours. This decreases feedback loops for team communication. Our slack account is found under sophilabs.slack.com.
We have some security guidelines in order to keep confidential information safe.
- We set passwords on computer for boot up and sleep
- We never send passwords using email, we use 1Password
- We create safe passwords
- We do not leave our laptop, computer, phone, or papers lying around unprotected
- We limit access to sophilabs networks and communication channels, email and phones
We want to design and develop software. Before we can do that, we need clients to hire us. The following section details how our sales process works and answers commonly asked questions by potential clients.
The overall process is:
- A potential client contacts us
- We arrange a Skype call
- Qualify/disqualify: are we a good fit for the client?
- Qualify/disqualify: is the client a good fit for us?
- Understand the client's vision
- Agree on the outcomes we're trying to achieve
- Estimate iterations
- Schedule people for iterations
- Sign the contract
- Pay a security deposit
- Start working
Our leads often come to us from Google searches and client referrals. Each lead is tracked on sophia.
A salesperson will get assigned to the card for the incoming lead but anyone in the sales team can take responsibility for that lead. The person either responsible qualifies or disqualifies the lead, often with a quick intro email or Skype call with the potential client. We prefer to pair on sales calls, having at least one designer and one developer on the call. This enables us to get multiple opinions on how good or bad of a fit the client and project might be for us. It also gives us the ability to answer both design and development questions to the best of our ability, and it allows us to train and improve our process during sales calls.
Understanding Product Vision
Our goal is to begin thinking about the client's product and start working as a team to plan it even before we officially start working together. Some example questions to ask are:
- What big benefit does the product provide?
- Who currently buys this product?
- Who do you want to buy this product?
- What do customers love about your product?
We distribute the sales process throughout the team. Potential clients should be able to talk to the people they'll be working with. We should be able to handle any spikes in incoming leads that make it difficult for the sales team to respond in a timely fashion.
We work remotely every day with our customers, and tools like Slack, Gitlab, and Jira have made that much easier over the years. An ideal consulting project for us is one where a member of the client team is available at all times. When that fails, we want to find out during the sales process how available they will be. If it seems like they won't be available very often, we should seriously consider declining the project.
If the NDA is important to the client, it’s important to find out enough about the business to evaluate whether or not there might be a conflict with any existing or past clients. We will only sign it if it’s determined that there is no conflict and the project is a good fit.
Anyone at sophilabs should be able to advise a project. If the primary salesperson is not also the agile master, there should be a smooth hand-off from one to the other.
While each person plays a role, a team needs to be a team. Everyone is responsible every day for delivering high quality work, for staying true to the vision for the product, for communicating their schedule and intentions, for making hard decisions, for delegating to others when they don't have the time or skill to accomplish a task, for keeping team morale up, and for being consistent.
No Fixed Bids
Some consulting relationships start with a requirements document. The requirements are often extremely detailed. The probability of this document containing the optimum feature set is extremely low. The right features are better learned through user interviews, prototyping, releasing actual software, and getting feedback from real users. Based on that document, clients expect consultants in the industry to submit an exact timeframe and bid. This contract style sets the client and consultant working against each other from day one. Instead of focusing on designing the product experience or evaluating what assumptions were wrong, they end up spending time negotiating about what was meant in a document written a long time ago or focusing on arbitrary deadlines. In fact, it's worse than negotiating, it's retroactively discussing something that no one remembers the same way. As you might have guessed, we don't do fixed-bid, fixed-feature-set proposals.
We do need to know clients' budget. This is often uncomfortable for them but their budget helps determine what scope is possible. It saves time. If they don't know their budget, we discuss different options. We talk about breaking product rollout into stages and try to improve the product's chances of success at each stage by:
- Focusing on a small subset of features.
- Designing a valuable user experience.
- Developing a meaningful relationship with users.
We price projects at a per person, per hour rate. We work a minimum of 32 hours per week. We use the same rate for designers and developers. The work required for each week dictates which skills are needed. The number of people needed determines the cost and how much gets done. During the process of explaining our billing, we sometimes tell potential clients "time and materials" is the same as hiring an employee for their annual time with less risk to them because:
- Our team is experienced. We've interviewed hundreds of candidates in order to find the talented group of people we work with today
- We've worked together on projects before. We have "a way" of doing things
- Short projects require less money
- Our time is predictable (32 hours/week) and consistent
- We can quickly rotate in a new team member if someone gets sick, leaves the company, or is ready to rotate to a new project
Clients always know what is happening via access to the project management system (JIRA), chat room (Slack), version control system (Gitlab), and ongoing communication with our teammates.
We store contracts in Google Drive and have a series of folders for pending, current, past, and lost clients.
The consulting proposal and contract contains:
- A one-page summary of the expected work
- Our hourly rate
- A security deposit covering two weeks of work is required to start working
- Invoices will go out once a month
- Agreement that both parties won't use any materials that violate someone else's copyright
- Agreement that neither party will publish anything abusive or unethical to the web hosting provider
- Agreement that the contract is mutually "at-will" meaning either side can decide to stop working with 15 days' notice
We've met our current teammates via:
We have standard questions for Python developers, NodeJS developers, DevOps and designers for the technical interview. We like to talk to respondents about design process, architecting systems, and writing code which is exactly the same thing we do for work every day. Apart from technical skill, during the entire interview process, we look for character strengths such as:
- Enthusiasm (invigorates others)
- Focus (pays attention, resists distractions, remembers directions)
- Composure (remains calm when critiqued, doesn't interrupt)
- Gratitude (shows appreciation)
- Curiosity (eager to explore, asks questions to understand, actively listens)
- Optimism (gets over frustrations quickly)
- Grit (finishes what he or she starts, doesn't get blocked)
- Emotional intelligence (demonstrates respect for others' feelings, knows when and how to include others)
- Appreciation of beauty (notices and appreciates beauty and excellence)
In order to be hired, the candidate must get a unanimous "yes" from the existing teammates with whom they interacted.
Offer and Onboarding
We make the offer via email, if it is accepted then a contract is signed by both parties and a trial work period of three months begins. Both parties are going to use that period to evaluate each other. A feedback meeting will be scheduled between the new team member, his/her mentor, and the agile master 10 weeks after hiring.
Once an offer is accepted, we create an email address for the new teammate, give them access to systems like GitLab and Slack, send them an Employment Agreement, notify accounting, and send them a welcome email. They will receive a welcome package, which includes a MacBook Pro, stickers, a printed copy of this playbook, and a t-shirt. JIRA issues will be created for the hiring manager for any remaining items that haven’t yet been completed.
A mentor is assigned to new team members, who will act as a guide during their first three months. The mentor will help them set up their machine, purchase any required software, and walk them through one turn of the development cycle by getting their profile added to our website. The mentor should also make them feel comfortable, answers questions they may have, or point them to the person who can answer them.
We are entirely bootstrapped, with no outside investors, or debt. Sustainability of the company is very important to us. We want to bring great people on at reasonable salaries and reward them as aggressively as possible for actual performance. We may never be able to compete dollar for dollar with other tech companies but we can compete on being a great place to work, with lots of opportunities to learn, and the freedom to define and execute on our own projects.
We receive regular feedback from clients, managers, and teammates so that we can continually improve ourselves and the company on every project, year-round. Additionally, we have biannual reviews for more formal review and potential salary increases. During onboarding, a "Biannual Review" calendar event is created, set to recur once every 6 months, starting from the hire date.
Here's a rough look at our biannual review agenda:
- Our performance on recent consulting projects
- Investment day contributions
- Satisfaction with the company and our work and projects
- Any questions we have about sophilabs and our strategy
- Areas of focus for the next 6 months
Salary increases are the natural result of improvement. Managers may choose to increase a team member’s salary during biannual reviews in accordance with the company’s finances, and based on individual accomplishments such as:
- Creating great software
- Making users and clients happy
- Self improvement by learning something new
- Improving sophilabs by bringing in sales, mentoring a teammate, or contributing to an internal tool or research
- Improving our community by writing blog posts, contributing to sophilabs open source projects, or attending conferences
- Going above and beyond (anything we might have missed on this list)
It's important that our manager explains why a raise is being given and what, if anything, could be done to receive a higher raise in the future. Raises aren't given just for "showing up".
Running a software-based business requires more than beautiful code or a popular product. Managing cash flow and taxes can feel unimportant or difficult but getting them right is as vital to our success as product design.
Fortunately, we decided long time ago to build our own ERP system which make things like bookkeeping, receipts, signatures, and invoicing much easier. It is a minimal core system connected with multiple third party services such as Redmine, Jira, Quickbooks to extract desired information. We named it sophia and you can find it at panel.sophilabs.io.
We use Gmail for our email.
We use Google Calendar for our calendars.
We use Google Docs for our editable documents. We prefer Google Docs because they are:
- Easily sharable by URL. Everyone has a browser, not everyone has MS-Office or OpenOffice installed
- Always up-to-date with the latest edits
- Enable real-time collaboration, like group meeting notes
- Autosaved to the cloud, so no worrying about backup
- Are as easy to find as Googling something
- Without document type versioning (e.g. xls vs. xlsx)
These tools are not well-suited for large documents or complicated spreadsheets, which is great. We write code and are biased toward minimal documentation and upfront specs so we generally shouldn't be writing long documents. For cases where we are writing large spreadsheets, we find it's faster to snap together a small app to do the job. This is a good time to ask if such complicated analysis is really necessary. When documents are mostly similar with slight variations (like contracts), we create templates and put them in the Templates folder of our Docs repository.
We over-communicate with clients online to avoid having scheduled meetings. Problems usually come up because of poor communication. When we need to meet for a discussion, we aim for 30 minutes. Google Hangouts is our preferred communication tool when working remotely, (Skype works too if Google Hangouts is not possible). They are easy to set up, sharable by URL, and let us get a look at whoever we're talking to. Screen-sharing is also very easy, when necessary. We have used Hangouts/Skype for client meetings, candidate interviews, and company meetings.
We've learned a ton from blog posts, tweets, and newsletters from others in the community. We encourage teammates to give back whenever they have something to contribute.
We have an institutional Blog, for sharing important events and facts related to sophilabs in addition to product design and software engineering topics. When you want to write a post, create an Issue on JIRA in the Community project and assign the Issue to yourself.
Spend time writing and rewriting a great headline. It helps you narrow your focus, figure out the purpose of the post, and catch the reader's attention. When writing a post, first move the Issue to the “Drafts” column. Then write the post in sophia, and be sure to add tags to the post. Tags help readers find related blog posts. When you’re ready for feedback from the team, move the issue to the “In Review” column and share the Issue URL with the team in Slack. Based on the feedback you’ve received and your own judgement, make any necessary changes. Once the post is ready to be published, date it and change the status to “published”
Our RSS feed, Zapier, and Buffer accounts are setup to automatically work together to link to the post from Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn. You should also link to the post from Hacker News, Reddit, and any other appropriate sites. Lastly, move the Issue to "Live."
Ongoing experiments are managed in our "Research & Innovation" JIRA project.
We rigorously research, discuss, and conclude experiments on new tools and techniques. Write up these experiments on the blog at your discretion.
We've created a few open source libraries to help us perform common tasks and give back to the community. Our open source libraries work best when one person steps up to maintain them. Each of our repositories has a leader responsible for keeping the repository moving forward. The leader doesn't necessarily have to do the bulk of the actual work; responsibilities include:
- Understanding the underlying code and goal of the library
- Reviewing and merging pull requests
- Responding to and close issues
- Pushing new releases of packages when appropriate
- Encouraging people to take on useful tasks for the library
- Blogging, tweeting, and advertising new releases and tips
Every sophilaber has commit access to our open source repositories. Some guidelines:
- You may want to check with the project leader to see what would be most useful, or whether or not they're on board with your idea
- Send pull requests rather than committing straight to master
- Try helping out with existing pull requests or bug reports
- Documentation patches are a great way to get familiar with a project
Got an idea for a new library? Found something useful in a client project that you think is reusable? Great! Here are some guidelines:
- Extractions are more likely to be useful than Brave New World ideas, because you're extracting something that has already proven useful once.
- If you create a new library, make sure you have time to maintain it. You will be expected to lead it at the least for the beginning of its life.
- Do your best not to duplicate anything that's already been done. Do some digging to ensure you're not solving a problem that already has a solution.
- Introducing features that would be helpful to a client project or fixing bugs relevant to a client project are both acceptable during client time. However, most open source work should be conducted during investment time. If you are willing to add a/the? new open source project as a requirement to a project, be sure to let the client know
- Think about whether or not your idea makes sense as a pull request to an existing project.
We realized that in order to build a great company, it was necessary to divide our forces. One of our core principles is “always aim high”, so keeping in line with that, we’ve developed the following challenging objectives:
- Hire the best people
- Work for the best companies
- Craft the best software
- Build something that people love
We have created specialized workgroups who strive to achieve those goals by defining universal guidelines and ensuring they are always applied.
The current squads -classified by objective- are:
Hire the best people
- Recruitment squad
Work for the best companies
- Sales squad
Craft the best software
- Code Analysis squad
- Deployment squad
- Methodologies squad
- Product Design / UX squad
- Testing squad
- Security squad
- Software Design squad
Build something that people love
- Research & Innovation squad
How it works
Every squad follows the same workflow (M.A.P.E.D.):
- M easure teams and projects on different areas
- A nalyze measurements in order to detect the underlying issues and areas of improvements
- P ropose changes and design an action plan considering different scenarios
- E nsure the action plan is executed and help solving stoppers
- D ocument lessons learned and how the plan affected the measurements
- Go back to step 1
Each squad defines its own objectives and principles. In order to measure performance on different projects, metrics are needed. We use automated tools to measure quantifiable metrics, as well as quizzes that we distribute periodically to teams and customers to measure opinionated metrics.
Code Analysis Squad
- Simplicity : Minimize the effort required to understand a given source code.
- Consistency : Apply the same practices throughout the project and across similar projects.
- Legibility : The ability to understand the code at a statement level.
- Scalability : The activity of writing performant code at a statement-level.
- Reusability : The ability of a given piece of code to be reused in other projects without modification.
- Produce knowledge about code quality that can be applied to new and existing projects. This knowledge must be documented and only cover programming languages being used in sophilabs. Examples include: guidelines, linter rules, workflows, conventions, etc. These documents will not only refer to code, but also to how to ensure code quality (e.g. code reviews)
- Develop a plan or methodology to measure the effectiveness of the generated knowledge
- Develop or improve tools that automate and control the quality of the code (linters, conventions, etc). These tools and documents must be Open Source
- Adjust guidelines, workflows and other procedures to the needs of each project
Ensure that the software development processes used on different projects encourage the following principles:
- Adaptability: The team's ability to quickly adapt to unexpected changes
- Productivity: The output rate of the team is above average
- Visibility: The team is traceable and all documents and resources are accessible. The team proactively documents and informs to keep everyone on the same page
- Satisfaction: Team, client, and stake holders are happy
- Integration: Team and client are involved in the project
- Automation: All the repetitive processes and tasks that add overhead are automated
- Simplicity: Doing only what is needed every time
- Predictability: Estimated tasks were completed on time
- Hire great talents with experience or potential
- Offer talents to sophilabs as soon as they are required
- Create an excellent reputation and culture so people will aspire to work at sophilabs
- This group will be responsible for the hiring process and the three months trial period.
- Attend to inquiries from the Sales and Operations offices.
- Ask for tasks to the Meeting and Operation offices.
Ensure that software built by sophilabs has the necessary mechanisms to promote the following principles in an execution environment:
- Reliability: The application should behave as expected.
- Robustness: The application should be able to continue operating despite abnormalities.
- Correctness: The application is compliant with the requirements specification.
We are a group of people who enjoy crafting software for next-generation products. We hope the practices we've shared here will be helpful to you. Thank you for reading.
The original idea comes from Thoughtbot's playbook, we took the great work they did and adapted it to our philosophy.
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial