• Written by Nadia Gorchakova
    3 October 2016

Above: The Akvo dev team. Riga, Latvia. Wednesday 14 September 2016. Photo by Loïc Sans.

9 am. Riga, Latvia. Here we are, kicking off the Dev Team Week 2016.

You might ask what brought us all here in the first place. The family of Akvo products is constantly growing. Our ambitions are often bigger than the resources we have at hand and, as a result, our rockstar Dev team increasingly finds itself under pressure. It was high time, we thought, to break some bad habits and redesign the way we work together.


The theme of the dev week couldn’t have been more fitting – empowerment.
Maaike, our Talent growth & HR Manager, asked us to dream big and imagine a workplace where we would feel completely empowered. A moment of silence and we were off to our tables to discuss the question in small groups.

The importance of planning ahead. Deep work. Keeping moving forward. Confused? Let me explain everything bit by bit.

Reaching the summit requires thoughtful planning

Surprisingly, dreaming up your best day at work can be really challenging. The group I was in focused on how to get to the top of a mountain – the poetic metaphor for our common goals and shared vision.

We can choose different paths leading to a summit. As we go up, we face obstacles along the way and can even wander off the path at times. What’s important, however, is that we all have a map or, in other words, a common plan that makes our journey meaningful. Thoughtful (and early) planning, we reasoned, would help us get all the way to the top sooner, so that we can all sit back and enjoy the magnificent view.

All you need is less: a space for deep work

Deep work popped up as another key ingredient of our ideal day at work. Distractions (think: urgent emails, Slack messages, some meetings etc.) are all around us and can seriously reduce our productivity. For this reason, it’s so important to allow yourself to block some time when you can concentrate and get things done. How do we go about it? Everyone has their own ways of making this happen.

Having the confidence to say “no” to taking on more work is often the first step to “going deep”. As expected, this topic was a popular one with the dev team. In fact, by the time you’re reading this, we’ve already held a follow-up round table on the best practices for deep work. You can get a feel for it here.


Above: Emmanuel, Jana, Charles and Stellan discussing Akvo Flow. Photo by Lars Sjörgreen.

Keep moving forward

Even with sufficient planning and a healthy amount of deep work we all get stuck sometimes. What’s the trick to keeping moving forward? Surely, one could ping a colleague right away, but there is an alternative. Talk to the rubber duck. Yes, you read that right.

The basic idea is that people who ask questions should try and put a bit more effort into it. It goes like this: grab a rubber duck and describe your problem to it. Explain what is it that you’ve done so far to solve the problem and why you think you feel stuck. Boy does it ever work… The technique is brilliant for acquiring a deeper understanding of the problem you’re facing.  Sounds simple, but many people hit on a solution while venting out their frustrations to the duck. That’s what we call the aha! moment.

To everyone’s big surprise and delight, we got rubber ducks as a farewell gift. I’m happy to report that our duck arrived safely in Amsterdam!


Above: Jana presenting a rubber duck to Stellan. Photo by Marten Schoonman.
Below: the discoveries from our ‘Dream’ session were incorporated into our brand new Dev Team Manifesto. 



It turns out there are quite a few things that can make us feel like a champion. And it doesn’t always have to be something big. Enjoying full ownership over a task or challenge is key. Instead of executing someone else’s word-for-word instructions, most people prefer to align on expectations for the end result and go run with it. The part where you figure stuff out and push through to the finish line – that’s what gets your creative juices flowing. And of course once the solution is implemented, nothing could be more empowering than having your choices validated. Kudos from the team (and the outside world) are always appreciated.

It’s all about the product

We took stock of the Dev team structure as it is right now and unanimously agreed that is has to be rethought. Currently, we work in loose cross-product teams. Juggling  responsibilities for different products, be it Akvo Flow, RSR, Lumen or Caddisfly is no easy task. This results in high amounts of context-switching, which eats up our time and contributes to ever-growing stress at work.

Our vision is to have more product-focused teams, which could give everyone a chance to develop an intimate knowledge of the product and confine multitasking to the necessary minimum. There is one limitation though – our bandwidth and availability. Do we have enough team members to form fully functional product teams?

One of the solutions came in the form of the letter “T”. This is the concept of T-shaped skills. The vertical bar in the “T” represents the depth of one’s skills while the horizontal bar stands for ability to collaborate in less familiar contexts. Thus, even though we may have our minds set on a specific product (vertical bar), we can work in a more cross-functional setting, taking on less familiar tasks, if need be (horizontal bar).


And now it’s time for a story…

Jana, our Product Manager for Akvo Flow, introduced us to the world of user story mapping. This is a book and a technique expounded by Jeff Patton, a seasoned product manager and product design evangelist based in the US. User stories are, by definition, stories you tell about your software. A user story map tells a story of a user doing something with the software to reach their goal.


Above: Daniel, Gabe, Charles and Marten designing a user story map. Photo by Jana Gombitova.

The idea is dead simple – all you need to get started on feature planning is a wall, a bunch of post-its  and a team of 3-5 people who want to talk about the product. One post-it at a time, the team creates a coherent narrative about what a piece of software should do, for whom and why. The technique offers a great alternative to old-fashioned feature requirement documents. It helps avoid misunderstandings and build software that users love.

Needless to say, we got our hands dirty with designing a user story map ourselves. Our group worked hard to map out our morning routines and argued passionately whether one should clean their teeth before or after breakfast.

Action plan

As the week in Riga drew to a close, we put together an action plan. We proved to be exemplary students and used user story mapping to prioritise the tasks.

Here’s the action plan overview:

  • We’ll change the structure of our team and start working in product-focused teams.
  • Thoughtful planning should be at the heart of everything we do. But first off, we’ll give particular attention to our user testing practices. We’ll make sure our prototypes are validated by users before we jump to coding.
  • We’ll improve communication with the rest of Akvo.
  • We’ll develop a set of KPIs (key performance indicators) to show the efficiency of our new support team structure.
  • We’ll work on ‘Dev team house rules’ – a code of conduct to make sure we stick to the best practices and carry the feeling of empowerment from Riga and into our daily work.

I must say this week in Riga was one of the most intensive weeks in my work life so far, but also one of the most rewarding ones!

Below: Marten, Iván, Thomas and Nadia looking at the action plan story map. Photo by Lars Sjögreen


Nadia Gorchakova is product manager for Akvo RSR. She’s based in Amsterdam and you can follow her on Twitter @nadiagorchakova.