Read time 9 min
Our blog series takes a deep dive into the Reaktor way of working – giving you a behind-the-scenes view into the everyday joys, struggles, and wonders of working in a team.
Cast of characters
Mira, UX designer
Client, Opetushallitus, started in 2015
Three friendly faces are looking at each other through the screen, just like in countless remote meetings in the past months. The gang has been working together at the Finnish National Agency for Education, getting their hands dirty with the ambitious Opintopolku.fi system (studyinfo.fi).
The one with a massive bookshelf in the background is Timo, the true all-rounder who has worked at Reaktor for its entire existence. Still far from a dinosaur mentality – Timo is famous for his enviable curiosity in everything happening around. Furthermore, he has a serious weakness for the public sector.
Juhani waves from a more ascetic environment, having a break from his duties as a second half of the infrastructure team at Opintopolku. Before entering Reaktor, he’s had his share of start-ups, having worked as a developer and software architect with a product targeted at the Asian market. Coming from the peculiar province of Savo, he’s a kind of a person you can’t help liking.
Finally, we have Mira, a UX designer who jumped into the skins of accessibility specialist for a few months. It was already her third summer stretch at Reaktor, and now it seems we are lucky to have her stay – instead of her plan B, opening a storefront bakery.
They have been working on the Opintopolku service that covers all the official information about study programmes leading to a degree in Finland. The service gathers universities, upper secondary schools and other educational institutions under the same roof to serve the students more comprehensively. With Opintopolku one can browse through different study options and apply for the studies online. For a consultant, it’s a project where it’s all about finding the balance between a bureaucrat, a craftsman and a bohemian mentality.
I’m here to lurk how it is to work at a Reaktorian hybrid team. Any first thoughts on the topic?
Timo: To be honest, I´ve always found it hard to define a team in the first place. I’d like to think of it as an ensemble that includes i.e. project owners and all other people directing and guiding the work. Not only pure doers.
Juhani: In this case, we actually have several mini teams that make up a bigger group of co-workers, the “team of the teams”.
Mira: For example, my role is located pretty much at the other side of the team to Juhani’s. He’s taking care of general support, while I’ve had more specific tasks to inject accessibility-related ideas around the service.
Timo: I’m somewhere in the middle, I suppose.
Juhani: I’d say so. Timo’s role is bigger than just a developer’s one. He has a rare ability to push things to the right direction, without people feeling they are being bossed.
Mira: Well said. For example, I got a wide-ranging introduction from Timo when I joined the team, and felt immediately welcome.
So the roles and responsibilities vary, just like people’s areas of specialization. How does it affect working, to have a full-stack team on the site?
Juhani: We can work more independently as a team, when all the needed capabilities are present. It makes a lot of sense to have different fields represented from the very beginning.
Timo: Sure. It usually ends up saving the customer’s time and money, too, as everything is connected in the end result anyway. It’s like a puzzle we are creating.
Juhani: But it’s not that people representing the same skill set on paper would work identically in the real world. Even developers can be wearing totally different hats, like me and Timo.
The team consists of specialists from several consultant companies. Does a multi-vendor environment create some twist into the mixture?
Juhani: I must confess I had some prejudices when I started. Somehow it felt odd, having colleagues from different IT companies and crossing borders just like that. Anyway, soon I came to second thoughts. Even though some competitive tendering can happen between our employers, it never feels like we are actually competing with each other.
Timo: I don’t think anybody even dreams of some sort of monopoly in the field. Nobody would benefit if one company would dominate the business.
How did you end up in the project?
Mira: I’ve written my master’s thesis about accessibility, and here, they needed someone to look at the big picture with such a lens. Luckily I’ve done some basic studies in computer science, too. It has helped me to find the right questions, like how does the code relate to this or that idea. In the beginning, it came in handy to get to scan some code with others, row by row, them explaining the decisions they had made.
Timo: Mira has offered us a fresh pair of eyes. It’s been a long project, and new members can ask sharp questions and force us to reason our decisions.
Juhani: I landed the project three years ago when they prepared a massive system migration from traditional virtual servers to Amazon’s cloud. I ended up staying half by accident – no regrets! Technical debt still keeps me busy. It’s quite absorbing, trying to find the best ways to replace old technology with new and better.
Timo: I’d say you’ve truly grown into your current role during the project. I’ve watched you since I was here first (laughing).
Juhani: Agreed. There are 70 different services rolling behind Opintopolku – you can’t take them over just by snapping your fingers.
It must be a different kind of set-up when working in a public sector project. How would you describe it?
Timo: Personally, I like working with the public sector as it reflects how I think about sharing responsibilities in a society. As the budgets are tight these days, the tasks that are left for the authorities tend to be the fundamental ones. So the work has a clear purpose.
Juhani: To me, working at the public side tickles some sort of good patriotism. The projects have significance and relevance, and the work has a strong sense of justice as a backbone. So it’s not simply serving the one who pays you.
Timo: In the commercial projects the success appears more black-and-white. Here, the framework is different. For example, if you want to study at the university, there’s no way you can avoid Opintopolku.
Juhani: That also opens up a chance to perform worse than we could, as the public services don’t need to compete with each other. So people’s motivation plays a big role.
Trust is a very vital part of a successful team. How is it built when people come from different fields and backgrounds?
Timo: In my opinion, trust between team members doesn’t depend on whether they understand each other’s specialization areas or not, but personalities. There are some great tools for creating trust and better communication between different characters, like “My user manual”. It’s a practice where everyone explains one’s strengths and weaknesses.
Juhani: That’s surprisingly rewarding! In terms of how people like to work, too. Some think aloud a lot, while others make things almost ready before sharing them.
Timo: The more internal factor that ties people together is motivation. In our team it comes very naturally that the customer’s benefit is the crucial driver instead of anything else.
Juhani: Also, we aim to transfer our know-how for the customer.
Timo: That’s why demos are so genius. It’s a great way to share knowledge between the team and customers. Mira did a good job on this and had some very informative presentations.
Juhani: In demos, it’s a lot about building trust. When you show others what you’ve been up to lately, you also get a better peace of mind. Then it’s easier to go on.
Mira: Good you brought that up. It’s something I’ve been struggling with: how much should I do myself and how much should I strive for passing the tools and methods of accessibility to the customer’s side?
Speaking of struggles, has there been any other difficulties within the project?
Timo: You bet. As a software system it’s a tough one. A single applicant using Opintopolku doesn’t have a clue what is happening under the hood. Few clicks mean several crossing requests to different systems.
Juhani: This is the biggest and most demanding entity I’ve ever wrestled with. Often when I pass the endless road construction work at Hämeentie I think of our work. It’s somewhat similar.
Timo: On the other hand, they are fixing some ancient water pipes from the days of tsar, or so. Our contraptions tend to sustain for some months only.
Juhani: Yes, but there are historical components involved. Fortunately there’s always a government official to ask tricky questions from.
Timo: We are also dealing with a moving target. When the politicians bang their gavel, it makes a great fuss in our systems. All the details force you to prioritize what to focus on and what are the building blocks that will last the longest. Otherwise you wake up one day and realize you’ve forgotten the doors of the apartments you’ve been designing.
Juhani: Oh I hate it when it happens.
It’s time to wrap it up – but before that, one more thing about teamwork. What makes the team special? Does Reaktor bring something special to the table?
Mira: From the day one, I’ve had a gut feeling that we have a strong and mature team. Knowledge is openly shared.
Timo: It’s easy to ask for help. For example, visual design is a total mystery to me. How can someone just know that here you need a line and some other figure there? It’s better to accept you never know everything.
Juhani: Even though everyone has their own superpowers, Reaktorians dare to admit when they don’t understand something.
Timo: One of our colleagues said that it’s ok to make mistakes at Reaktor. It captures something quite essential.