A Review of our Time Tracker Software

I work at a small, but quickly growing consulting startup. At first, time-tracking was a significant pain for me and the owner. I spent a lot of thought trying to automate my personal time-tracking and had decent success using FogBugz and Paymo. However, no matter what I tried, I was still required to spend about 3 hours a month (1.5 hours per billing period) exporting my time records into an acceptable MS Excel format to be given to the client. I understand that there was even more work done by the owner, as he made sure every consultant’s format was the same, copy-and-pasted records into one huge spreadsheet, and invoiced the client based on this report. What a mess! That was time that should have been spent on client work, advancing the projects to which we were assigned and making more money in the process. Thankfully, after some brainstorming and research, our company standardized on Harvest for time tracking.

What we wanted was an affordable, centralized solution that could track time and enable invoicing for all employees at the company. Harvest has delivered even more than we thought we needed! Included with our monthly payment, we receive a mobile app, API use, and expense tracking.


Harvest Time Tracking

 

Design

One thing I like about Harvest is that it is definitely a modern-looking website that is continually being updated. The site is also intuitive and visually appealing. It was not long before we learned how to make an invoice online.

 

Usefulness

Simply put, Harvest saves us time. What used to take me 90 minutes at the end of each billing period now takes me 5. It’s also very easy to manage and create invoices. I think it’s fair to say it’s worth the money considering we keep paying the fee every month.

In addition to its advertised features, online time tracking provides insight and transparency into key aspects of our business:

  • Employees’ work habits
  • Progress of projects and budgets
  • Real-time snapshots of what work is currently being performed

 

The Time Tracker App

Members of our team have used the Harvest Time Tracking app for Android and iPhone. It is pure icing on the cake. It has its limitations but it saves me a lot of time in 2 particular use cases.

Expense Tracking

I can easily keep my expenses organized with this app. The best feature is the ability to add expenses and to take a picture of any receipt as soon as I receive it. By making it so simple, it encourages the habit of inputting expenses almost instantaneously, reducing the likelihood of losing track of a receipt or forgetting about a meal. It can be humorous to see a few members of our team out to eat on a business trip as we all take out our phones to take pictures of our separate receipts.

Stopping a Running Timer

Simply explained, the smartphone app gives me mobile access to my online time sheet. This is especially useful if I leave the office to run an errand or go home for the day but absent-mindedly leave my timer running. I can quickly take out my phone, open the app, and stop the running timer. It syncs with the Harvest server soon after.

 

The iPhone app does have some limitations. The key item I’d like to see improved is the ability to edit time entries (which is possible on the website). As explained in my most common use case above, if I leave a timer running I might remember to stop it while I’m on the go. It would be nice to be able to edit the time entry to change the end time to be earlier (when I actually stopped working). As it is now, I have to remember to go back and change that time entry the next time I’m in front of my computer.

 

API

I’m not yet a connoisseur of web APIs, but Harvest seems to have a good one as far as I’m concerned. As an experiment, I wrote a simple website in just a few hours to display whether or not I am working at any given moment.

 

Integrations

I haven’t yet had the need for many of these but it is encouraging that Harvest time tracking integrates with many common software-as-a-service tools such as InDinero, Twitter, ZenDesk, and HighRise.

 

Summary

It should come as no surprise that I consider Harvest to be some of the best small business software I’ve used. It runs the core of our business and draws few complaints. It’s especially easy to bring on new consultants, requiring almost zero training. In that case we typically say something like “just use Harvest for time tracking.” And they do…

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First-Hand Tips to the Interviewee

Through recent discussions with interviewers such as HR managers, Project Managers and Technical Hiring Managers, I’ve compiled a list of first-hand tips to job candidates. I hope they are helpful to you.

From Conversations

 

“[A] stumper for more entry level individuals is the ‘where do you see yourself in 5 years’? Many times (most times) it is ‘manager’. Given that they are probably interviewing with the manager, they should think what the manager wants them to say which is more ‘an expanded role in what I am interviewing for’. This stumps many of the interviewees. Remember, the interview is about the company not about the interviewee.”

Pat Tokarcik – HR Director – ShurTech Brands, LLC

 

“There is one piece of advice to the experienced or inexperienced that I’d pay forward – [get] Gallup’s Strengths Finder & set out some realistic development goals as part of self discovery.

I didn’t think about the book when we discussed ratings the other day, and it’s a pretty important piece of advice that was recommended to me & I’ve been successfully deploying in my ‘self discovery’ phases of life. I wish someone would’ve told me that after college. Nevertheless, interview advice for college grads, especially recent college grads, is to focus on strengths and deploy those for confidence. If you gain confidence through preparation or whatever gets you to that ‘I’m ready’ feeling, then you are going to more easily control your behaviors on the ‘stumping’ questions or even the relatively easy ones. It’s also being comfortable that you don’t know everything and don’t have to, giving the interviewer a chance to draw their own conclusions on that.”

Lacey Strete – Special Projects Analyst – Construction Software Technologies

 

“Bring portfolios of your work if you have it and be prepared to discuss what is included. Interviewers are focused on a variety of your attributes. If I find an entry level candidate who exhibits confidence in their abilities (even if they need to be fine tuned from a technical standpoint), but who also has confidence in their communication skills and can speak to what they have created, I see potential for a future mentor/manager. Candidates who can fill those roles in the future are incredibly valuable.”

Natalie Stuller – HR Manager – WS Packaging Group

 

“I’m reminded of an interview I did a few years ago. I asked a guy about a specific version of a program or application, and his response was something along the lines… ‘I did xxx which is similar in the past, and since it should be the same principles, I could adapt to figure it out. Plus if I have specific issues I can always use Google and figure it out.’

I thought it showed his ability to work outside of the box and solve his own issues, and he turned out to be one of the few people on my team who could.”

Jeff Strempel – Consultant – Accenture

 

Already in the Public Domain

Of course, there are some tips already on the Internet that can be very useful for interviewees.

In this YouTube clip, Jason Calacanis, an entrepreneur, speaks for a minute or so about having candidates self-rank themselves.

 

 

Lastly, this YouTube clip was produced by Toastmasters, an international organization helping members to be better public speakers. Here are 5 key tips to interviewing for a job.

I invite you to connect, but only on your own time

This blog post is the 3rd and final of a series of Anti-Pattern stories

In this last post of the series, I finally take the opportunity to rant a bit. Thinking back to the time when I worked at the aforementioned small company, I realize the reason I became so emotionally affected was because the company seemingly had great growth potential that never materialized. Below is one last story of workplace theatrics accompanied by quotes from my favorite movie of the last 5 years, Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

“Do Less… Well no, you gotta to do more than that”

One of my favorite lines from the movie applies to the network monitoring policy at this corporation. For at least some period of time, the paranoia from above was deep, resulting in a robust monitoring software rollout. Whereas some companies track proxy statistics to determine broadband usage and lists of sites visited by employees (a tactic I have no problem with), that was just the beginning in our case. Here, all corporate emails from most employees were published on the network to keep them honest. Additionally, the owner of the company installed software to be able to view keystrokes and screenshots from each employee’s computer usage on the network. Details about this product’s existence as well as the tracking information collected were only supposed to be accessible to the owner. When a Network Admin noticed a peculiar “SpyWare” program on the server, the “cat was let out of the bag”. In retrospect, we all should have had some suspicions based on the broad statement allowing company collection of data in the Employee Handbook.

Knowledge of keystroke logging was held in a fairly close circle, shielded from new employees. Therefore, I did not find out about it right away. Granted, I do not like the idea of anyone being allowed to track keystrokes, as that provides all the information needed to login as me on the network and possibly additional websites, etc. However, the network monitoring policy that frustrated me the most began when “questionable” sites became blocked, inaccessible to users on the network. Some of the obvious sites you would think of were on the list of blocked sites (Gaming, Personal Email, MySpace) but also blocked were those not so obvious sites (Personal Banking, LinkedIn, YouTube, Random Blogs). Many times during the day I would be blocked from information on the Internet I needed to do my job, such as tutorial videos on YouTube or programming help on a blog. The “straw that broke the camel’s back” for me was when I received a LinkedIn Connection request from the owner, but I was not allowed to accept it while on the company network. How can the site be considered valuable and reputable enough for the owner to use it to connect to employees during work hours but not reputable enough to actually allow them to reciprocate while on the job? It was as if we were being asked to “Do Less.”

“So then do something about it”

If working at this place was so dreadful, why did I continue to work there? Well, for one, I didn’t have the option to create a rock opera about Dracula (I kid). But as stated above, I truly believed that the company would grow and along with that would come personal opportunities. The key benefits to working for this company were:

  • Growth Potential
  • I was given tremendous amounts of responsibility early, which was frequently a rewarding challenge
  • I viewed the job as a resume builder, thinking that I could land any job after about 3 years
  • My colleagues were great to work with and are some of my best friends today
  • I got to work on brand new Microsoft technologies

“It’s really good, Peter. I just don’t understand it”

3 posts now have revolved around my time working at this company. It’s time to get to the point by explaining what I learned by constantly having to “walk on egg shells.”

  • It pushed my leadership ability to a new level. I was forced into making technical leadership decisions within a short period of time after beginning the job. Because of the high turnover, I went from being the 3rd most experienced technical person in the company to the 1st. This meant that I had to learn to make decisions without the reliance of someone who had relevant experience.
  • I learned when and how to speak up, to voice my opinion.
  • I learned that it is important to be able to articulate the points for or against a decision.
    • When responding negatively to news about a decision, I learned to be able to describe reasons why a decision made me uncomfortable.
    • When presenting, it is important to start with an “Executive Overview”; don’t assume that the audience knows immediately what you’re talking about.
    • When selling an idea, I learned to prepare for critique and to validate benefits.

Perhaps most importantly, I began to understand how stressful it can be to own/bootstrap your own company. For the owner, his or her entire livelihood is at stake every day. The occasional emotional response to bad news can be expected.


Hire ‘em and Ignore ‘em – Another Anti-Pattern

This blog post is the 2nd in a series of Anti-Pattern stories

As I wrote in my last post, turnover at one of my previous employers was abysmal, a dreadful 50% each year. I don’t know the industry calculation for employee turnover but here’s mine:

Count the number of people at the company on January 1.

If half those people are not there a year later, then that’s 50% turnover.

I also mentioned in the last post that the company was fairly small. I think it’s fair to say the company’s growth was restricted by the continual loss of (mostly) talented employees. Nevertheless, you would think that a company with so much experience filling vacant roles would have become effective at training and onboarding new hires.

On the contrary, this company’s orientation process was inconsistent at best, nonexistent at worst. Instead of a new employee’s excitement being maximized during its peak, it was met with a complete lack of direction. Whatever willingness to learn and sacrifice the employee had was quickly drained with feelings of boredom, irrelevance, and defeat. The culture had become so rotten that some company members actively avoided new hires until they had “established they could cut it.” In other words, it was not considered worth the time to introduce one’s self to a new employee until he or she survived a certain minimum number of weeks on the job. Another common scenario was that new employees were not given any tasks or attention when they started. They were just left at their cubicles to stare at their computer monitors and look busy. They usually did not know who to ask for help or for more work to do so they became frustrated with the lack of mental challenge and began wondering what alternative employment options existed.

Exciting Lunch

Posted by jmerriam7

As I alluded in my previous post, a more dramatic scenario occurred when new hires were introduced to their first “dropped bomb,” when an ambiguous “corporate catastrophe” was explained in a monthly meeting. They were incidentally led to believe their jobs were in jeopardy, leading them to revert to their recent yet unsatisfied job search as a fallback option.

It is my belief that new employees require attentive treatment and care in order to rapidly train them how to do their jobs and more importantly to reduce turnover. In many cases, companies are willing to spend time and money on recruiting talented employees, but next to zero time on them once they have signed an employment agreement. With a thorough employee orientation program, new hires are incorporated into existing teams and they feel confident about their efforts, abilities, and the organization. They begin to produce results earlier begetting momentum and a sense of accomplishment. Doesn’t this sound like a better outcome?

Accordingly, if you remember only one thing from this post, remember this:

Employees in orientation must still be recruited!

 

Below I outline a few recommendations for new hire orientation. They may seem like remedial suggestions but I can assure you they are new concepts to at least one company. Picking and choosing even a few to implement should increase morale and productivity of new employees.

Introduce the new hire to people with whom he or she will interact regularly

One of the goals of employee orientation is rapid integration into the existing team. Introduce a new hire to close (in proximity or function) employees on the first or second day. If the company is small enough, introduce him or her to everyone in the organization.

Take the new hire out to lunch with the team

Ideally this would take place on the first day. When the new hire is eating lunch with peers, he or she can begin to ask less formal questions about the job or company history.

“Pair up” the new hire with someone knowledgeable

Ideally, there will be an experienced member of the new hire’s team in a similar role. The experienced member should teach techniques and best practices to the new hire. Additionally, this semi-formal pairing provides comfort to the new hire that there is always someone that can answer questions.

Formally train the new hire

For smaller organizations this is not as practical, as most knowledge is tribal. However, medium-to-larger organizations with established roles often spend the first few days or weeks training new hires in a classroom. Such focused learning of company-specific knowledge reduces experience needed to perform the job.

Implement a formal mentor/mentee arrangement between different departments

Pair a new hire up with an experienced company member from a separate department. The experienced member should be given knowledge of what is expected of a mentor in such a capacity. The mentor schedules regular (e.g. weekly or monthly) meetings with the mentee. This setup provides new hires the opportunity to ask questions about corporate culture or specific difficult scenarios without concerns of corporate politics.

Develop a central knowledge base

This often takes place in the form of a wiki. New hires should be directed to an internal web application that can be searched for information that has helped employees in the past.

Setup a new hire’s computer and working environment

.NET developers like me encounter this anti-pattern frequently. We show up on our first day and are given a laptop with a fresh installation of Windows on it and administrator privileges. We are expected to spend the day (or however long it takes) installing the software needed to perform our jobs. Visual Studio alone takes about half a day to install, so you can imagine the extremely unproductive time wasted on staring at progress bars. I recommend setting up the computer to a point past all the down time. It should be easy for a current developer to work on his or her own computer while another one is plugged in at its side getting important programs installed. If there are specific development environment configuration settings that a new developer should know, leave those incomplete for a learning experience.

 

Retaining newly-hired employees is essential for organizational progress. Great opportunities are lost when employees leave your company before significantly contributing to its success. The company loses money and time on recruitment, training, salary, and also could lose the opportunity to hire the second-best candidate, who likely has joined another company already. By implementing an orientation program with some of the above strategies, turnover of new hires can be greatly reduced. And if a company-wide “restructuring” must occur, at least show some sensitivity to the employees that are considered valuable so that they feel secure in their positions.

 

 

 

2 Steps Forward, 3 Steps Back – A Leader’s Anti-Pattern

Recently, I have struggled to maintain the blogging pace (1 every 4 weeks) that I set as a goal for myself at the beginning of the year. The difficulty can be easily explained. I have been meaning to share some stories from past experiences. However, I have hesitated, worrying that by publicly displaying my thoughts about sensitive topics I could be burning the bridges I have built with past colleagues. Ultimately, I’ve decided to write about some lessons learned based on advice from a mentor, “sharing how you overcame difficult situations is always a good thing.” I will attempt to be objective in my recollection as opposed to writing a long-winded rant. Names will be withheld to protect the guilty. Nevertheless, I can say with certainty that the chaotic, passive-aggressive environment of the following situations taught me more about dealing with superiors and office culture than anything else.

Since I plan on writing more than one post around the same topic, it is useful to spend a little effort describing the culture at my previous employer. First of all, the company was small. It was big enough and established enough to not be considered a startup anymore. However, it was small enough that any change that ownership decided on could be carried out in a matter of days, and drastic decisions were made… frequently.

Once a month, all employees met over a long lunch to discuss important topics, like current status, growth, and direction of the company. This was not an abnormal concept, but it was at these meetings where we were met, more often than not, with such flummoxing news that we all left in disbelief. We began to walk into the meetings each month expecting a new “bomb to be dropped” on us employees. Despite hearing that company financials were good, we would learn of a completely new corporate direction. Also typical would be revocations of previously approved “perks.” Or, as we looked to our left and right and noticed certain people were not in attendance, we would soon find out that these folks had been fired unexpectedly that day.

At the time, I merely chalked everything up to the passive-aggressive nature of leadership. But now, looking back, I realize what was happening was a lack of trust, and therefore a constant evasion of policies, conversations, and tactics that had previously caused pain. The moment anything went wrong, then in the eyes of those making decisions, it meant that everything on which the company was focusing was wrong, and changes needed to be made in the opposite direction. Put another way, the strategies being implemented may have been near perfect, but they were immediately abandoned at the first setback. It is this anti-pattern on which I will elaborate today, but first, I want to share an excerpt from a journal I wrote while on the job:

No one really ever knows if they’re doing a good job. “Reviews” have been neglected over the last 8 months. And, although we have a “Vision” statement, our environment changes so often and our direction always comes from one source, that it makes everyone feel like whatever they were working on before wasn’t right.

Another source for this is that we have high turnover here. So, if someone learns some method or process from someone else who was terminated, the thing learned gets questioned even though it might be highly valuable.

I think a way to resolve this is to understand that it occurs. When there is turnover, either more could be explained, or there should be a more thorough strategy for picking up the focus that the resource had.

 

The Solicitation of Advice

Recognizing that turnover was high and morale and productivity were low, leadership asked me and another employee to lead 2 workgroups over the course of several weeks to brainstorm areas at which the company needed to improve. The idea was that recommendation documents from each workgroup could be created somewhat anonymously, and would result in an honest, public discussion with the owner. The documents would follow a What, Why, and What’s Next format for each suggestion.

I cannot speak for the other workgroup, but mine was thoroughly engaged in the process of trying to “fix” the issues of the company. We spent hours brainstorming, collaborating, and refining our recommendations, but we ultimately knew that no policy change or employee benefit would take root unless a culture of trust arose first. Our message was clear. We aspired to a culture of trust in which we communicated openly, trusted the intentions of colleagues, and were patient with decisions based on education and experience. In order to fit the requirements of the document, we provided specific examples of ideas for change in addition to an overview wherein our culture of trust concept was explained (if you knew our audience, you would know how important adhering to the proposed document structure really was).

Eventually, our deadline arrived along with the promised “open” discussion. The owner was the solicitor of our recommendations and the authority for taking action. Our workgroup’s mission was to pitch our ideas on paper and await the resulting changes. Going into the meeting, I was excited about making a truthful, heartfelt, objective, and passionate case for change. My hopes were quickly squashed.

The owner had a day to review recommendations before the meeting. However, it apparently was not long enough to enable an objective reaction. The meeting kicked off with defensive remarks rebutting the specifics of nearly every recommendation. Those of us who were more vocal, or who had less to lose, prudently responded calmly, arguing for the case of the documents.

As you may have guessed, the multi-hour clash was all for naught. The owner, citing past misbehaviors by employees (most of whom were no longer employed there), told us we “were not mature enough to handle these changes.” The entire discussion focused on arguing specific points about low priority recommendations and how they would be carried out. It became emotional. The overarching message was not heard, nor internalized.

Maybe it was better to receive an immediate negative response than to follow the company’s normal trend of putting changes into place only to lose faith in those changes soon after. Still, that was the 2nd “bomb” I endured at the company, and it illustrates one of the biggest anti-patterns that was so common. We were given hope in the form of solicited advice, but absolutely zero progress resulted. The owner had effectively reduced morale to nil. There was a fleeting moment of trust (2 steps forward) followed by the regression to a comfortable status quo, except the engagement of several of us was lost in the process (the 3 steps back).

Don’t Be Lured by the Fringe Benefits

It seems common for software developers to question their career direction after several years of experience. I have gathered through my own feelings and conversations with others that there is a point in one’s career, usually after about 4 years, at which one wonders how long he or she can continue to build business application after business application. What once was challenging and exciting has become repetitive and mundane because the pace of learning has greatly decreased. The motivation to create yet another CRUD application (one that is categorized because it only involves the most typical business functions: Create, Read, Update, Delete) has been lost, resulting in many introspective hours staring out the window thinking about greener pastures.

What can be done to renew the sense of excitement and urgency that comes from developing something new? Myself, I thought that working in a “cool” industry that I was already interested in would solve the issue. I figured I already loved sports and casinos. If I got a development job in those industries it would make the dull tasks less dull. I would be able to tell myself, “Well, I hate clicking through smoke tests again but at least everything is sports-related!”

Roulette CasinoBaseball StatueFashion Industry

Posted by Heather Clemons
Posted by wallyg

Having worked at an Information Technology (IT) department for a professional baseball team before, I figured I would be able to leverage my experience and professional network to get an interesting new job. Granted, my work there was more of an internship than anything, but a role in such high demand serves as a recognizable selection process and it has been a great conversation topic during job interviews. It was a wonderful overall experience and I appreciated the opportunity. Therefore, I focused on new jobs with professional sports teams, video game development companies, and casinos.

Casino – For someone going to school in the middle of Ohio, I spent a lot of weekend time in college at casinos. I enjoyed Black Jack and was constantly searching for the perfect system to make money. I even wanted to be a professional poker player for a little while. I also toyed with the idea of taking a winter off to learn to be a Black Jack dealer. There is something about fiddling with those heavy clay chips that is both riveting and relaxing at the same time.

Sabermetrics – Growing up I was obsessed with baseball and individual player statistics. I played on a baseball team and played board games like Strat-o-matic. I made my own scoring sheets and even used to make my own player cards to represent my friends in the board game. During my job search, I joined SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, and immersed myself into baseball statistics again thinking I could become a full-time statistician or statistical application developer.

At this particular time in my life, I knew I was moving out of state, so I figured it was a perfect time to make an industry change. However, at the time I was not comfortable with the prospect of not getting paid so I took one of the first jobs that was offered to me until something else presented itself. A funny thing happened at that company. As it was a small software product company, I learned that the environment there was close to what I had wanted all along. It was an old company by software standards, but it still had a “startup feel.” I learned what I wanted and what would keep me motivated:

  • The transparency of a small company makes it easier to absorb new knowledge about other business functions (e.g. Marketing or Recruiting)
  • There is a shorter feedback loop from working at a small company. This creates more accountability and helps employees to learn what is working faster
  • Being a software developer at a software company is a critical role and treated as such

Although the company had its share of problems, it showed me what I was looking for in a long term position. I wanted the growth potential and commitment to progressive technology that comes from a software product startup.

While working in a “cool industry” does come with perks, fringe benefits, interesting subject matter, and it may turn out to be generally awesome for some, I caution software developers to think about some of the hidden drawbacks to these types of positions.

Positions are in High Demand

Positions in interesting industries are both scarce and in high demand. If you are interested in a professional sport, does the city you live in even have a team at the highest level? If not, that’s scarcity. If you are lucky enough to see a job opening you are interested in, you must realize that there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of other applications. That’s demand.

As a result, salaries tend to be lower and expectations of working hours are much longer, especially during busy seasons or big events. Additionally, people hired into these jobs stay around for a long time. Because of the low turnover, it can be difficult to gain more responsibility by moving into someone’s role that has just left, limiting opportunities for promotion.

Technology comes at a Cost

By definition, the interesting industries mentioned do not focus on technology. They are generating revenue through entertainment. Therefore, it may make the job more entertaining but it changes the perspective of technology throughout the organization. Employees outside of the IT department view technology as cumbersome, productivity-restricting, and expensive. Any time there is a trivial bug in internal software, it will be treated as an urgent support request. Did I mention developers will be doing technical support?

To summarize, the key problem here is that the organization does not exist for the sake of progressing in technology. The IT department is a cost center. Any mistakes that cost money for the company were not budgeted for and get escalated quickly, making for a stressful environment for technologists.

Think it over

There are smaller drawbacks to consider too. Working somewhere that garners the awe of family and friends comes with requests to trade favors (e.g. introductions or getting event tickets). Additionally, sports teams and casinos are highly competitive with one another, so they are protective of advantageous processes and knowledge. I prefer to be able to learn from peers both inside and outside of my company as opposed to being a slave to competitive information silos.

In reviewing the pros and cons of working for a professional sports team for this post, I have almost talked myself back into trying to work for one. The fringe benefits are great (e.g. free game tickets and meeting athletes), it helps build a resume, and colleagues are all intelligent and ambitious. However, it is my intention to bring up these drawbacks to shed light on the entire package that comes with the job and to remind myself that I really want to work for a software company. To marry the two concepts would be the “Genius of the and.” By working for or creating a web retailer like Zappos, who needs technology to thrive, one can work in an interesting industry, like fashion, AND be a crucial cog in building revenue for the company.

King for a Day – My Visit to Zappos (Part 2)

In my last post, I discussed a very stimulating tour of the Zappos headquarters.

In this post, I discuss some of the perks of the Zappos work environment.

During the tour, I found myself checking off items in my head from my imaginary list of things needed in a dream workplace1 :

They provide the essentials for sure. You will definitely see me write about many of these key components of a great work environment throughout my blog entries.

Allow me to start with my favorite perk of working as a developer at Zappos, Adjustable Desks. I hope you can make out the picture that I took from my phone. In it, you can see a worker that is standing while working. I did not see anyone adjust his or her desk, but I understand that this can be done easily.

I can only imagine how much more comfortable this must be while working. One of the biggest drawbacks to being a developer is the health issues that can arise from sitting at a desk in front of a computer for long hours. Carpel Tunnel Syndrome, limited physical activity, and bad posture can be at least partially alleviated by Adjustable desks. Perhaps I am especially sensitive to the adjustable desks because I am fairly tall (6 feet 4 inches) and am often defaulted into using disproportionate desk furniture. Corporations do not want to purchase custom chairs and desks for each individual worker so a one-size-fits-all strategy is taken, which is no help in creating comfort. I can understand the need for saving money in this way. Alternatively, Zappos has made the definitive statement that they care about employees’ comfort by allowing the flexibility to work on a desk of any height. If I had this opportunity, I would sit comfortably before lunch and stand while working after lunch, helping me to both keep good posture and to stay awake. I appreciate a company that felt this was important even knowing that employees will occasionally be tempted to dance while typing.

My commonly observed theme was a high level of interaction between employees. Although there are numerous obvious benefits to this, my original notion was that it would be extremely difficult to get much work done on an individual level, as I alluded in Part 1 of this blog post. After all, to accomplish great work, knowledge workers need time without distractions:

We all know that knowledge workers work best by getting into “flow”, also known as being “in the zone”, where they are fully concentrated on their work and fully tuned out of their environment. They lose track of time and produce great stuff through absolute concentration…trouble is that it’s so easy to get knocked out of the zone. Noise, phone calls, going out for lunch, having to drive 5 minutes to Starbucks for coffee, and interruptions by coworkers — especially interruptions by coworkers — all knock you out of the zone. If you take a 1 minute interruption by a coworker asking you a question, and this knocks out your concentration enough that it takes you half an hour to get productive again, your overall productivity is in serious trouble.

—Joel Spolsky, Fog Creek Software
(from Where do These People Get Their (Unoriginal) Ideas?)

What I had not realized is that I had this thought before seeing the development department, which was in a second building detached but right outside the main building. In my opinion, this separation was a crucial element to Zappos’ success.

Many departments work differently. Some require heavy collaboration and outright noise. Others are responsible for cheering whenever a tour walks by. A development department cannot survive if such distractions are omnipresent. It will never be as productive as it should be.

I cannot say I got the full experience of what the development department was like just by walking through it. However, in general, the second building was much quieter than the main. Employees working in the second building receive the best perks from both buildings because it is still easy to hop over and get a fix of the different energy of the main building when necessary. Whether it be the need for a game of ping-pong or reflecting with Dr. Vic, it must be nice to know that these options are available but do not get in the way of day-to-day work habits.

Beyond gaining productivity from existing employees, Zappos’ excellent and interesting culture affords them a giant benefit: Top-Notch Recruits. How many potential employees take the tour or hear about Zappos’ unique culture and soon after take a look at Zappos job postings? I would imagine this occurs frequently, as I know at least one other blogger that I talked to on Twitter did this. By garnering extreme interest in the company, Zappos has a huge pool of candidates to choose from when deciding to hire, which inevitably gives them a pick of some of the most talented workers around. Not to mention, Zappos is headquartered in Las Vegas, NV, a vacation hot-spot and genuinely exciting city. Many talented individuals would consider relocating to Las Vegas for a great job opportunity, at least for a few years.

With all the obvious benefits that Zappos has created with its corporate culture, why doesn’t every company strive to be like them? The only answer I can come up with is a fear of employees taking advantage of the company’s policies. At “normal” companies, we submit equipment request forms for bigger monitors and ergonomic keyboards, we are required to be at the office between the hours of 8 am and 5 pm, and we are our responsible for directing our own personal growth. At Zappos, these things and more are offered as part of the employment package, allowing them to recruit the best of the best. As always with the best of the best, superficial concerns about work habits can be relieved by knowing that great work will get done, period. Also, with such a unique experience, employees that value it know that it cannot be recreated anywhere else, helping with employee retention.

If every company tried to create an extremely unique and happy culture, it would not work. Zappos falls into the perfect fit of culture with aptitude with industry. Encouraging collaboration and outgoing personalities helps them “deliver WOW through service” which makes them a successful retailer. As more and more companies attempt this, it will require “culture innovation” to stay unique and to continue to attract talent. Kudos for being at the leading edge of this trend, Zappos, I can only hope our paths will meet again.

1: A supremely neat novelty that Zappos had in the office was an industrial-strength blender. When we were walking through the tour, we watched them emulsify random office items like a foam ball and a pencil. I don’t know what the purpose is other than to relieve stress and to give outsiders something to talk about.

King for a Day – My Visit to Zappos (Part 1)

Late last summer a group of friends were planning a trip to Las Vegas and invited me to come along. I struggled to rationalize the trip until finally settling on the excuse. While in Las Vegas, I promised myself that I would perform research by visiting the headquarters of Zappos, the successful online retailer known for its incredible corporate culture. The goal was to witness first-hand a company that has mastered the art of creating a fun yet productive culture while also serving to motivate me in my own career. I apologize if I spoil the surprise, but it worked!

Planning

I am a bit of a veteran when it comes to Vegas trips. I know what I like and therefore I optimize for those things. However, I was a bit nervous about setting up the tour with Zappos because being productive and talking business does not normally fit into the schedule of planned events when I am on the strip. Fortunately, during planning my nervousness soon turned into excitement.

I reached out to Zappos customer service by finding an e-mail address on their website. Shortly thereafter, I received an informative and encouraging e-mail from someone at Zappos.

Hello,

In an effort to share our culture with visitors we open our doors and offer an experience of the Zappos Environment first hand through a tour. I would love to help facilitate a visit to our office, to include a tour.

Tours are offered Monday through Thursday; and the tour duration is 75 minutes. Tours typically start at 9:00am and the last tour starts at 3:00pm.

Please provide a date and an arrival time, and I’ll coordinate a schedule. One of our wonderful tour guides will WOW you with our history of service.

Zappos.com extends a complimentary shuttle service to all of our guests. If you are interested in the shuttle, please provide the pickup and drop off location(s) as well as a cell phone number.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Best Regards.

It may seem like a simple e-mail but I was downright surprised. Maybe I shouldn’t have been, given Zappos’ reputation. The e-mail simultaneously answered nearly every question I had and reinforced my impression that the visit would be worthwhile. I immediately began looking forward to the tour. Looking back, throughout all my interactions with Zappos employees on the visit, I was received with similar tones of courtesy and relevant information.

The Tour

The tour of the Zappos campus was quite fun. Our tour guide, although fairly new to the company, was well trained and a good conversationalist. He delivered enormous amounts of functional knowledge about the company and each department in a very short time. I found the professionalism of every employee to be quite impressive but clearly information is not what made the tour fun.

Although I came to the tour alone, I was included in a group with 13 other people who all worked together at a Zappos supplier. This made things a bit awkward at first, but the tour included multiple tactics to get us out of our comfort zone. Some visitors walked around with Zappos flags, others were asked to ring a bell and yell something that nobody would know about them, and still others got to engage in a hula hoop competition with a random employee (who happened to be walking by at the wrong time). Because doing these things felt completely acceptable, nay expected, it did a great job of loosening up our moods. Additionally, only volunteers did these things. No one was forced to be embarrassed by the zany antics.

Zappos’ culture was very welcoming toward visitors. Almost every department we passed did something to acknowledge us and to make us “feel like Kings.” Many of them shook noisemakers, jingled bells, or played funky music on their computers. Some had funny stories or poems prepared for us. From a visitor’s perspective, I felt special to be welcomed in this way as opposed to feeling like a nuisance to people in the building. From an employee’s perspective, I could not imagine being happy about the distraction of a sizable group of people strolling through my office regularly, and me being expected to make noise and interact with them, but there will be more about that opinion in part 2 of this blog post.

The folks at Zappos wanted to make absolutely sure I left the building with a positive impression. In addition to all the free information, popcorn, and smiles I received, they gave me SWAG! I could barely carry it all (a backpack, Zappos Monopoly, culture books, and more). They let me and the other visitors choose a hard back book from their 2 large book cases in the lobby. I took home The 4 Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss. Given that I was on a mid-week Vegas trip I had traveled to Nevada with just a carry-on. There was no way that I could pack all my new stuff and take it home. While I was leaving the Zappos headquarters, I briefly had the thought to ask them if they would ship my stuff home for me. I honestly got the feeling that I would have, but I did not ask.

Conclusion

Visiting Zappos and taking the tour accomplished everything I had hoped. It taught me a great deal about how a unique culture can have brilliant effects, it was fun, and it inspired me to better myself so that I may be more desirable to future employers that have a similar environment. I absolutely recommend that you take a tour yourself. As long as you are interested in business, web development, shoes, or fun, it will be worth your while.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog post, in which I analyze the productivity benefits and drawbacks of Zappos’ environment.