How I Programmed Team Building Into my Dev Pod

Bringing together a software team scattered across time zones & countries is hard. Bandwidth telecom developer, Dakota Metcalf,  built games to inspire the team.

Q: Why are you passionate about the work you do? 

A: I’m a senior software engineer working on Emergency Services at a cloud communications company called Bandwidth in Raleigh, NC. I code the latest 911 calling software that can pinpoint the exact location where someone needs help. It’s pretty cool: imagine you’re on a college campus, in the science building, fourth floor, A-wing, room 321, and you have a heart attack. You call 911, but how can EMS find you? Maybe you fall unconscious before you can give directions. My software sends a dispatchable location so EMS can go exactly where you are. It has the potential to save a lot of lives.

That’s why I like Emergency Services, because I know my work is important and can really make a difference. As we like to say on my team, Hypnotoad, “You can’t spell BEST without ES.”

The other part of my job is team building, which I first volunteered to lead last year. The culture on my team had been a little lackluster when I started, we were spread out in a lot of different locations and we needed some ways to gel. I’m a naturally creative person and I also like challenges, so I knew I could drum up some excitement. 

Q: What was your approach to team building? 

A: I started off by doing online happy hours once a month, but with a developer’s twist. Think Family Feud, but optimized for Google Docs. This into a fully coded web-optimized Family Feud game, specific to our Hypnotoad team.  Once I got some momentum, I was able to put together a small committee, and we kept going, making games like Price is Right, punch a bunch, mountain climbers, and more.   

Since it’s sometimes hard to get everyone together at once, we came up with games people could play asynchronously.  Using AWS Sandbox, we built games that people could play on and off throughout the day. I coded a picture-finding game like I-Spy, which came out every Wednesday, calling it “Wimmel Wednesday,” and used historical data from previously run games  to create a min/max metric for how much time should be spent per game per level.  I also created a target breaker game, a memory matching game, escape rooms, and more. These were really popular–my teammates would take a few minutes off between projects to rack up high scores and one-up each other on the leaderboard. 

Q: How did you sustain interest in the games? 

A: Prizes can really motivate people to engage, but can be hard on a budget. My no-cost solution was inspired by NFTs. Winners on the Hypnotoad team get a code that takes them to a separate app in our sandbox, and where I offer them the rights to their own digital trophy based on the most popular emojis we use on Slack.   

The results have been really inspiring: over the course of this year we’ve grown a lot closer as a team. A favorite game for everyone is Wimmel Wednesdays- it’s awesome to see my teammates memorize puzzles and start optimizing their clicks to see who can get the fastest time. It’s common to see levels that took on average 10 minutes to solve being completed in 45 seconds. Our happy hours also have become so popular that we upped them to twice a month. 

Q: What are your core tips for team building?

A: If a you’re software development manager or just anyone in engineering looking do some team building looking to kickstart their team’s engagement, here are my tips:

  1. Get feedback. Find out what kinds of things your team likes. Build feedback into each effort, so you can improve at every step. And feedback forms have to be simple: I typically ask whether people enjoyed themselves, would they do the activity  again, and what can we improve. I usually like to send this out within 30 minutes after the event. 
  1. Be organized. I created a committee to spread out the work, and we have monthly syncs to bounce ideas and plan for upcoming events. I keep spreadsheets with my in-progress projects, my new ideas, and my completed projects. I host everything in a Google drive folder, and all my apps are in the AWS Sandbox.
  1. Make it accessible. Our teammates are all over the world. That means I need to account for varying time zones, geographies and cultures. This is where the asynchronous team-building activities are useful, and I try to cast a wide net with games that let anyone, anywhere, participate. 
  1. ON. THE. CLOCK. Can’t stress this one enough. All of Hypnotoad’s teambuilding happens during working hours, because activities aren’t as fun if they’re cutting into your free time. Our team has been so much stronger and even more productive. 

I’m always looking for ways to up my game, so if you have any fun activities you’ve done with your developer teams, let me know in the comments.