Soldier on duty

Context

A while back I was part of a team which was one of many teams in our client enterprise. We were the team who handled the Web UI of a multi-tenant train ticket booking website and worked in a different time zone. Our day to day work depended on the whole system consisting of a large number of micro services, message queues and third party services working perfectly. But that was wishful thinking.

The problem

Because of the large number of moving parts in the system, we would get some environment issues regularly which hindered our delivery. For e.g, a few services in the test environment were failing, some DB values were changed while we were away, some configurations were changed without our knowledge etc. On top of this we also used to have regular interruptions from other teams on the floor, asking us for help around some backend issues because our team was best placed at understanding and handling them.

One of our team members was an experienced devops/support guy (lets called him Mr. X) who had been working on this project for a long time now and was quick at solving most of these issues, unlike many of us who were new. Even the long timers depended on him and took his involvement for granted. Mr. X seemed to be under a lot of pressure due to this. Some of us tried to assist him once in a while but it didn’t seem to help reduce his load due to the intermittent nature of the issues and lack of a proper process.

The Solution

Soon after, when I took over as the technical lead of the team, I encouraged Mr.X to voice out his concern in a retrospective meeting. The team discussed it and recognised it as a problem to be solved. This is when I suggested a solution which I called ‘Soldier on duty’.

Each team member assumes the role of the Soldier on Duty for a week, on rotation. The soldier shields the team and handles all interruptions and blockers. If needed, Mr.X or other experts can be consulted.

With a little hesitation at first, the team agreed to this.

Preparation

There were a few things we had to do to equip the team to go along with this plan.

  1. Make the leadership aware of this plan and explain the necessity and benefits of it and and promise them that delivery will not get impacted. They agreed to pilot this for a month as a trial.
  2. Plan iteration capacity based on the possibility of the Soldier on duty being busy the entire week.
  3. Make a roster with each team member signing up for a week on rotation. All developers and QAs (and Mr.X) were part of this.
  4. Plan knowledge sharing sessions with Mr. X. Add a living document for the same.
  5. Enable each team member with the required access, software etc. to work on all the issues.
  6. Track the Soldiers tasks and current team blockers on a visible wall.

Success

We started off with a bang. As the tech lead I made sure that I encouraged the team to take this task up enthusiastically to learn and contribute. With a few teething troubles like machine setup, figuring out unknowns etc, we were on full swing with this plan of action. Each week, the Soldier of the week proudly announced his/her name in the standup and took up complete responsibility to shield the team from the big bad world, literally !!

Benefits

We got huge benefits from this initiative.

  1. Definitely, a happier Mr.X :) — The health of every team member is the team’s responsibility and this team took it upon themselves to share each other’s load and not take certain roles for granted.
  2. Team Unity — The respect, unity and camaraderie in the team increased manyfold. Whenever another team member would come to us with the problem, everyone would jokingly shout out, ‘Hey soldier, this is for you’ and the soldier took it with a smile saying ‘Bring it on!!’
  3. Learning — The responsibility of solving an issue independently helped a lot of people learn something new everyday and up-skill themselves.
  4. Increased confidence—Each team member was now capable of keeping the team running in any situation. Learning new things helped increase the confidence of all.
  5. Quick resolution to issues —With more people aware of the way to solve issues, the resolution were fast and precise.
  6. Increased Productivity — With blockers getting tracked and solved in a timely manner, the team’s productivity increased.
  7. Better networking— Rather than one or two people communicating with external teams ( for e.g, the infrastructure team) more people started engaging in effective communication, thereby improving their network within the organisation.
  8. Innovative ideas — Like necessity is the mother of invention, blockers are the mother of innovative ideas. Lots of problems got identified by soldiers on duty which could be solved to make our system better.

Learnings

  • Your team at your workplace is like a family. The members of this family have to be encouraged to look after each other’s interests and help each other grow and evolve.
  • One of the most important duty of a leader is to safeguard the health of their team and use innovative methods to ensure a high morale/motivation of all members and roles in the team. Support and encouragement from higher management goes a long way to realise its positive benefits.

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