Pubs and code

Published 2016-02-03 by Jochen Lillich

In December, our team met for the fourth instalment of “freistil Days”, our company retreat. This time, we came together in Dún Laoghaire, one of the lovely seaside parts of Dublin. We’re now pretty much settled on a week-long format, with Monday and Sunday being the travel days, respectively. The purpose is still the same:

  • spend some time living and working together at the same place,
  • see a bit of our host city (previously, we’ve been to Barcelona, Rome and Hamburg),
  • enjoy the experience of intense productivity and cross-pollination of ideas, and most importantly,
  • learn to know each other better.

Working together

This time, the project we had chosen was integrating Consul into our infrastructure. Consul is a distributed key/value store and service discovery tool. Until now, the only central database for our infrastructure has been the one in Chef, our system management tool. While Chef enabled us to improve our servers-per-sysadmin ratio continuously, it has its limits regarding dynamic infrastructure orchestration. Using Consul, our services will be able to register all kinds of events and react immediately, for instance, a new application server being added to a cluster, a domain name of a customer website getting changed, a database cluster node having too much load, just to name a few. We expect Consul to make our infrastructure much more elastic. It will also help us eliminate the annoying 10-minute delay between configuration changes and their execution.

Living together

While working on our laptops on a single table allows for fast project progress, it’s also quite intense! Sharing a place has more profound effects on us than mere efficiency. Most importantly, it exposes personality traits you don’t usually discover during short video calls. One colleague might prove to be an excellent cook; someone else might have awesome drawing skills or be a gifted guitar player. It also sheds more light on our, say… less-developed sides. Suddenly there’s time for a discussion to span more than the usual 30 minutes, and it becomes apparent who struggles to focus and who starts impatiently interrupting others to get their point across. freistil Days are a great place to improve our communication skills and we get to understand each other better all the time. And after a heated debate, going out for a pint in one of Dublin’s amazing pubs was sure to help us cool down again. ;-)

Exploring together

During freistil Days, hump day is always excursion day. Everyone on the freistil team seems to like Whiskey, so we decided to visit Jameson Distillery on Thursday. Before, we had the opportunity to attend a talk by Rowan Manahan, the @presentormentor, about “The art and heart of public speaking”. Rowan apparently struck a nerve with Markus, who immediately started planning a talk for WordCamp Europe!

After we had a yummy breakfast at Brother Hubbard and moved to another coffee shop to check our email, we experienced the downside of being out and about with the whole team: reacting to emergencies gets a bit more complicated. A newly hired web developer of one of our customers called because he needed urgent help getting started with freistilbox with a launch deadline looming. Markus managed to take the pressure off quickly; he set up a Skype call from one of the empty tables outside and proceeded to give a thorough explanation of all the core concepts of our hosting platform.

On our tour at Jameson Distillery, we learned all about the essentials of Whiskey-making — and had a taste of the result, of course. After that, we took a stroll through town and finally headed home very satisfied (and tired enough to call it a day early).

Succeeding together

So what results did we achieve during this week? Apart from making our first steps using Consul in production, we also got the

freistilbox Dashboard ready for launching its public beta phase. Doing a serious software development project is a great learning experience for us as an operations team. The Dashboard will not only give our customers the long-awaited self-service experience but will also improve our internal workflows and tool chains.

This realization led us to choose “team workflows” as another central topic for our retreat. Making our internal processes more efficient has always been the key to how a small team as small as ours can manage a steadily growing hosting infrastructure running many hundred high-profile websites. At freistil Days Dublin, we had intense discussions about how we can adapt concepts like Test-Driven Development and Continuous Deployment for our daily development work, which is building the software code that gets and keeps our servers running.

All in all, we had a great time in Dublin. We added new technology to our arsenal. We had quite a few laughs over quite a few beers. We took a stroll through Europe’s tech capital. We learned new skills and got to know each other better. That’s what our company retreats are all about. And in May, freistil Days V are waiting!