Thoughtworks UK

27 February 2006

For the last month or so I've been hanging out in our UK office, catching up with various UK ThoughtWorkers. I was intending to visit some of our client projects, but just catching up with people in and around the office has kept me pretty busy (it's also wiped out any book writing progress, but that can wait till I get back home.)

As a physical office, our London office is probably our nicest. It's on the ninth floor just north of Covent Garden. As I write this I can see the roof of the British Museum on one side and the London Eye and Houses of Parliament on the other. The office is very open. There's half a dozen meeting rooms, but the rest is large open desks. A few permanent desk for operations people at the front and several open desks with no set spaces at the back for consultants who happen to be in for the day. The open plan encourages lots of communication, which is why we like it. It also helps reinforce our lack of hierarchy: Cyndi, the UK managing director, sits at an open desk spot just like everyone else.

The London office has gone through lots of changes in the few years it's been around. For its first couple of years it was dominated by one or two very large projects. Now we have a dozen clients on the board with various smallish teams doing a variety of different things. Most of the work is in the London area, which is nice because it allows people to get together relatively well - the British reputation for drinking is alive and well here. We do get some work out of town, currently there's a project starting up in Dorset, but these are more the exception - so travel isn't the bugbear that it is in the US.

For me it's a big difference to life at home. At home I'm pretty much on my own, other than email and occasional phone calls, all day. For contact I have to fly, which I do every other week on average. (Flying every other week feels like such a luxury compared to my earlier 'every week' travel schedule.) Here in London there's lots of people to talk to right here. This also effects our evenings as we've been going out with friends nearly every night, while we are such stay-at-homes in Boston.

The UK office is brewing a number of interesting things. Two to mention are our automated deployment work and QuickStart. Historically our deployment approach has been a handover to the client's operations group. In London we're building up quite a team of really sharp deployment people who can work with development project teams from the very start of a project. This allows us to consider deployment issues from the very beginning and also build up automated and continuous deployment techniques.

At the other side of development is our QuickStart effort - short intense system envisioning activities intended to scope out projects before we start thinking about delivery plans. The idea with QuickStart is to get people used to working in a collaborative manner from the beginning to give people a feel of how a full delivery project will work out. The sessions are quite intense and focus on surfacing inconsistent viewpoints so they can be discussed and resolved early on. There's a big emphasis on using highly visual techniques - probably stemming from the fact that the leading perpetrators, Luke Barret and Marc McNeil, have a background in UI and interaction design.

Although it's not a conscious initiative, another thing I've noticed in the London office is the heavy use of retrospectives. I've long been a fan of retrospectives, if nothing else because I've been so frustrated with clients' inability to learn from their own experience. I haven't been terribly successful in pushing retrospectives at Thoughtworks in the US, but in London Tim Mackinnon has done a really good job of spreading them around. We now use them on nearly every project as well as on our internal activities. It helps that Tim is a terrific facilitator, and he's steadily teaching some more people to run retrospectives too. I'm hoping I can get him to write about some of this, including his technique of 'Futurespectives'.