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We Call It 'Saw Time'

dev3l profile image Justin Beall ・4 min read

TL;DR

from current_employer import saw_time
Saw Time: Explicit time given to a creative worker that is dedicated to sharpening the professional "saw" during core business hours.

“The only sustainable competitive advantage is an organization's ability to learn faster than the competition." -Â Peter M. Senge

My favorite sharpening the saw story:Â The Story of the Greatest Lumberjack in the Land

What Is Saw Time?

In other tech companies, it is referenced as "hack time" (Spotify/10%), "20-Time" (Google/20%), and "10-Time" (Explorys, an IBM Company). These organizational efforts typically focus on individual contributions toward product innovation.Â

It's not working on technical debt stories or spikes...

Saw Time is all about the individual's professional growth. Every sprint, employees are given time to pursue learning and other activities related to mastering his/her craft. Providing professional creative thinkers with opportunities to learn is akin to giving geniuses brain steroids.

We have top down management buy in. This is the linchpin that creates a fertile safe zone in which a learning culture can begin grow and prosper. The Saw Time charter has the chief product officer's name and every department manager's name on it stating they agree to it's intention.

Outside of actively resolving a Sev1 or Sev2 ticket, individuals will not to be pressured to work on his/her day-to-day tasks during Saw Time.

Why Saw Time?

My current employer is a startup based in Cleveland. We are in the middle of a fundamental shift away from reckless speed, now steering towards craftsmanship and delivering value.

I imagine all companies go through ranges of similar growing pains. In the beginning, speed to market is the key. It keeps the company alive. Then, at some point in the future, outsiders to the engineering department, like marketing or upper management, begin to wonder, why do simple features take days/weeks instead of hours like they used to.

Failed products, unsuccessful application rewrites, surviving turnover, and launching semi-successful products well beyond target dates, become battle scars that tenured employees wear with pride. It's only been two years...

Then something magical happens. We realize the "legacy" application we play in needs to be handled differently. We learn to how to relentlessly write automated unit tests, refactor safely, and work (add features) within the codebase by keeping in mind concepts like the strangler pattern, feature toggles, and lean validated learning.

Imagine with me:

  • That time you tried to describe how a field in the database could toggle code execution flow for enablement of features post application deployment? (Feature Toggles)
  • The pain you feel every time a you write a comment that feels like a hack to describe a messy algorithm. (Clean Code - My Moment)
  • When you tried to explain what legacy code means in a objective way? (Legacy Code => Modern interpretations)

These are a few of my specific experiences. I know you have similar stories of your own.

After ten years of professional product development, my corpus of knowledge is continually trumped, or an elusive feeling/idea coined in phrase, by smart people like Martin Fowler, Uncle Bob, Michael Feathers, and many others!

What Is The Length of Saw Time?

2 Hours

We decided that 2.5% of each team members work time per two week iteration is to be explicitly reserved for personal growth and innovation. Individuals work 80 hours a iteration. As a result, we conduct sprint planning with this diminished capacity in mind.

When Is Saw Time?

Sprint close day.

For us, this is a common sweet spot for all teams. Closing one sprint then planning for the next tends to typically wreck sprint productivity that day already.

What Is Within Scope of Saw Time?

Anything and everything about learning and skill development that can be tied back to the individual's profession.

Tracking Saw Time

The individual is not required to official track this time.

We encourage radiation of activities to increase knowledge sharing and opportunities for group activities. Make it a topic of conversation around the office!

There is a Saw Wall. in which people can post sticky notes on what they intend to do, what they are doing, or what already has been done.

Conclusion

This is an experiment. We tried to imagine the shortest amount of time in which someone could truly do more than scratch the surface of any individual topic while not having a critical impact in sprint commitments.

We state we are professionals. We act in such a manner that is professional.

We learn because we love solving problems.

NOTE: All opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of Justin Beall and are in no way affiliated with any other organization or institution.

Discussion

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davejsaunders profile image
Dave Saunders

We have implemented something similar, with a similar time commitment.

We have a problem I didn't expect - we actually find people don't actually use the time. Developers are reluctant to break off from sprint tasks that are nearly finished for that short period of time ('I'll just finish this one little thing first'). I'd say that less that 10% of the team take advantage of it, despite us trying to promote it.

I'd be interested to hear your experience of how well it is adopted in your team, do you 'enforce' it?

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mattbarcomb profile image
Matt Barcomb

I've some experience and two suggestions for the same problem:

1) People generally like to feel like they are getting something done (finished) so I had some luck asking folks to schedule with themselves time for learning at normal/natural times during the day. For most this typically corresponded to first thing in the morning (over coffee!) or perhaps right after standup or right after lunch. Others liked a more event triggered time, like once a story is completed or when you (or your pair) realize you are stuck or slowing on your work tasks.

To add this sense of getting done, we also had an optional "what I'm learning" wall. I felt important to not require this as I didn't require the learning to be professionally related and some felt reluctant to post what they were learning about. But we also had a sharing time that was also optional and structured like a LeanCoffee so no one felt they were on the hook for a presentation and also no one felt like they were going to be trapped listing to a topic they didn't find particularly interesting.

2) Check your incentives, both implicit and explicit. Some companies that are trying to look hip will "allow" some kind of learning time but don't really support it. Sometimes it's obvious/explicit like when learning time gets routinely cancelled or if people are taking their learning time they often have to work extra time to meet expectations. But sometimes it's more subtle. Like people that routinely give up their learning time are seen as "go getters" or "team players" and tend to get various rewards more often.

Hopefully many places that allow it, truly support it but I'm speaking from experience at places I've see do this. Hopefully #2 doesn't apply to you :)

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dev3l profile image
Justin Beall Author

I don't think you can 'enforce' this, otherwise you create a grade school scenario where people show up only because they have to, not to learn.

In our industry, knowledge directly correlates to pay. Emphasize to your peers that the company is paying them to make themselves more valuable.

We have a Saw Time charter on Confluence that states:
Is this time guaranteed? : Outside of actively resolving a Sev1 or Sev2 ticket, individuals will not to be pressured to work on his/her day-to-day tasks during Saw Time.
And managers agree to this statement? Yes. {insert manager names} all agree and in fact encourage you to take advantage of this time.

We are trying to imbed this as apart of our engineering culture.

  • Tech leads / seniors need to set the example by doing, not just saying
  • The standup after Saw Time, individuals are encouraged to briefly share what they did. For example, "Yesterday I practiced the bowling kata and wrote a blog post about Saw Time" (true story).
  • ASK someone, hey what did you do for Saw Time? IF the answer is 'I couldn't because of sprint commitments', pull out the "5 Whys" until you get to the root... ELSE honestly listen to the items they talk about
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joshcheek profile image
Josh Cheek

I consider it borderline unethical to allocate other people's time. I prefer the idea that each person manage their time however they see fit, as long as its not causing issues for the rest of the team.

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

You're contrasting this with a more ideal solution. Our company doesn't allocate people's time, so something like this would be regression, but it seems like there are orgs that are much more strict about this, in which case I think this provides a lot of freedom that wasn't once there. It's a matter of where you're coming from.

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

I love this!