Agile space

By Julie Hall

Photography By Norm Johnson

Friday, October 13, 2017

Agile space for software team improves collaboration, productivity

See also: Why agile workspace?

From the outside, the three beige “T” buildings look like any other 1980s-era “temporary” trailer offices at Sandia. But step inside and it’s immediately obvious that this isn’t your manager’s mobile office building.

Instead of a central hall flanked by offices, each adjoining building is an open concept.  In T37, the only barriers are glass conference room walls and a Star Trek-themed partition. In a back corner of T51, a software development team holds a stand-up status meeting, aided by a rolling monitor and notes they’ve written on the wall. In T50, in front of a kitchen-type counter with bar stools, another group reviews items on a large monitor, highlighted in red or green according to their status. The cryptic names represent pieces of the overall product and the team responsible for them.

Workers have scribbled notes, diagrams, and equations all over the walls. There is a sense of energy and purposeful activity, and the openness gives everyone a good view of the space and each other.

The “warp speed” partition is part of T37’s Star Trek Next Generation theme.

The “warp speed” partition is part of T37’s Star Trek -Next Generation theme.

The buildings, dubbed the Collaboration Corridor, are home to Sandia’s Tumbo/Micro team, comprising about 60 software developers, system architects, and system engineers who are developing ground systems. Tumbo, Swahili for “abdomen” or “core,” refers to the core data processing component that Sandia is responsible for that is part of a larger project. Sandia is also executing the payload-specific “Micro” portion of the architecture, which is responsible for planning, scheduling, and tasking.

The buildings represent Sandia’s latest foray into developing agile work spaces — flexible, space-efficient work areas that encourage interaction and collaboration. Completed in September, the space is the culmination of a two-year partnership among System Mission Engineering Center 6300, Facilities and Emergency Management, and Infrastructure Services, says Dorothy Stermer, who oversaw the project for 6300 for the past year. Not your average remodeling project, the agile space represents a close coupling of experts in agile methodology, computer science, ground systems development, facilities planning, and enterprise IT to design a state-of-the-art agile environment.

Incorporates latest ideas

“It’s challenging to attract and retain computer science and computer engineering talent,” Dorothy says. “This remodel incorporates the latest ideas from agile development to create an inviting space for knowledge workers, something our new hires expect.

So far, the response and the results have been positive.

“Everyone agrees it’s been fantastic,” says computer scientist Stephen Rowe, who participated on the team that developed the building requirements. Locating all the team members in one place and creating an environment that enables the team to successfully implement agile development has “improved our code, algorithms, and speed of development.”

Says Jeff Brooks, manager of Next Generation System Architectures: “Getting people co-located has been a significant factor in our ability to increase productivity across the teams and the program.”

Writable surfaces include the walls.

Agile: emphasis on face-to-face interaction

Agile is a methodology for building products incrementally using short iterations so the process can continually adjust to changing business needs. Teams work on different components of the software, engaging in frequent face-to-face communication to deal with changes and obstacles as they arise.

 Since working software is the primary yardstick for progress, the status of each team’s current effort is displayed on an electronic status board strategically positioned in a high-traffic area near the restrooms and kitchen area. Green indicates the code has been tested and has passed; red indicates a problem that must be addressed.

The quickest and easiest way to address an issue is to hold a quick stand-up meeting or find the person you need to talk to and have a quick discussion, says computer scientist Jeff Sallade. “All the people I need to talk to are right here,” he says. Rather than sending an email, “it’s easier if I can just catch them in person.”

Creating a productive, inclusive environment

New hires start working with their teams in the space from their first day, allowing them to quickly make meaningful contributions, Jeff says. He cited one example of a new hire who started on a Monday and was making contributions to code by Friday, progress that typically would take a few months. New hires are more inclined to ask questions when they’re in close proximity to their mentors, he adds.

“Bringing new hires together with their team is also a very inclusive aspect of this building,” adds Stephen, who came to Sandia two years ago after graduating from Texas A&M.

Prior to moving to the Collaboration Corridor, the Tumbo/Micro team had a “nomadic” existence as its collaborative space moved from one vacant space to another. Their first effort was in MO303. Stephen was working on an LDRD project with an intern housed in MO303 with other summer students. When he discovered the building was vacant the rest of the year, he proposed moving the team there to his manager. Some of the 6300 managers had a similar idea at about the same time, including Roy Fitzgerald, who preceded Dorothy as 6300 Engineering Operations Manager, and Alfred Lorber. Roy and Alfred saw the project’s vision.

The move to MO303 was “a game-changing improvement,” says Stephen. 

 “As a team we found it was a lot more productive if we involved everybody,” says Jeff. When new occupants moved into MO303, the Tumbo/Micro team set up temporary spaces in Bldg. 894 and then 890. When the T37/T50/T51 space became available, 6300 pitched the redesign project to Facilities, which embraced the vision.

“We have been looking at collaborative space for a long time,” says Lynne Schluter. “It’s hard in our security culture to get people thinking outside the traditional individual offices.” In 2016, Lynne and other participants in the National Security Leadership Development Program (NSLDP) team toured Stanford University’s, a teaching institute for design and experiential learning, and IDEO, an international design and consulting firm in Palo Alto, California, and came away excited to try something similar at Sandia.

Facilities worked closely with Center 6300 throughout the design process, incorporating lessons learned from the MO303 and 894 experiences, such as including a private meeting area.

Efficient use of space

Through its open concept and use of glass walls and partitions, the Collaboration Corridor houses nearly three times as many people as when the buildings contained private offices. Each building is designed around a different theme — Nature, Euro Disco, and Star Trek Next Generation — which is carried out through the choice of colors, floor coverings, and other design features. Furniture and whiteboards are mobile so they can be easily moved for impromptu meetings. Lighting is dimmable.

“It’s a great space,” says Jeff. “For a large collaborative project, it really works well.”

Alfred says it’s been interesting to see the attitudinal shift toward agile workspace among some developers. “Typically, there is a subset who initially say ‘hell no,’ I can’t work that way,” he says. “But then you get them in there and you can’t pry them out.”

Why ‘agile’ workspaces?

Café tables encourage spontaneous discussions.

Workspaces based on “agile” principles are flexible, space-efficient, and designed to encourage interaction, collaboration, and innovation. Agile workspaces are based on key principles from

The Agile Manifesto, written in 2001 by a group of thought leaders seeking to encourage better ways of developing software. The manifesto is the foundation of the agile movement, which has spread to numerous areas beyond software because of its ability to help organizations cope with continuous change.

Center 6300’s project incorporated the following agile principles:

  1. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
  2. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
  3. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

“Everything the team needs is within their collaborative work space,” says Alfred Lorber. Putting everything and everyone in the same space reduces the cycle time to solve problems.” Alfred helped create and shape the Collaboration Corridor as part of his responsibility for facilitating execution and improvement of 6300’s agile process.

A key aspect of agile spaces is common areas that are purposefully structured to create what Steve Jobs called “unplanned collaborations.” Incidental interactions occur when people cross paths as part of their normal routines, such as in stairwells or on their way to a breakroom. The idea is that chance encounters may lead to a novel idea or solution to a problem.

For example, Google’s New York City office is structured so that no employee is more than 150 feet from food. The idea is that as employees get up to get a snack they may accidentally bump into coworkers from different teams. Research has shown that chance encounters and conversations are not only conducive to sparking innovation and fresh ideas, they also improve employee satisfaction.

Agile spaces differ from collaborative workspaces. Collaborative workspaces are tailored to a specific purpose and are where workers spend part of their time in addition to their regular office, Alfred says. An agile workspace supports all of the potential work types the employees housed there may perform and is where they spend most of their work time.