Ever since a wonderful week in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 2016, I’ve told the story of one of the most interesting companies on the planet: Menlo Innovations.
Founded by Rich Sheridan and James Goebel in 2001, this compact software engineering company is now the stuff of folklore (well for people like me it is).
What’s so special about Menlo Innovations then?
- The company has the highest standards of working software anywhere in the known world. Their mission is ‘To end human suffering as it relates to technology’. And that manifests itself in faultless production of code. There is no customer support team at Menlo to fix faults because they aren’t any. In over 15 years of operating, there’s been no ‘software emergency’ on the release of their applications. Which is why they’re entrusted with software that works in healthcare, transportation and mission-critical applications in industry.
- They operate to this high standard by using a well-known developer technique called Extreme Programming (or XP). This is where coders work in pairs. And in Menlo’s case, pairing 2 people who share one machine keyboard and mouse. ‘But how is that efficient’ is the question everyone asks. Well, Rich will tell you — they’ve narrowed the gap from error creation to identification, to minutes instead of days or weeks. The two developers check each other’s work as it’s being coded. And also can learn from each other so the curve of competency is less steep at Menlo because of pair working. Pairs rotate regularly — probably every 5 days.
- As a result of working in pairs, there is no real hierarchy or people manager roles at Menlo. Sure people project manage, but people management is done through pairing. Menlo Innovations is a multi-year Worldblu Freedom Centered Workplace for its workplace democracy, inclusion and working in freedom over fear.
- They recruit not just based on coding prowess but their ability to work in pairs and they build tests that create that result — can you improve your partner's test score in exercises. A novel and quite challenging concept for many but that really sorts out if you can work the Menlo way.
- Menlo also has pairs in High-Tech Anthropology (or to some User Requirements). People who in pairs, study ‘users’ in their natural environment. And in Quality Assurance to make sure it fits their user’s needs and works as flawlessly as the Menlo way has now become.
- Show and Tells on software at Menlo are conducted by the client using the beta or prototype solution BACK to the developers rather than the other way around (as normal). This is novel and effective in the client owning and showing an understanding of what their product is and the requirement and UX/UI they desire.
- They use folders, cards, sticky dots, string plumblines on walls showing progress. Handwritten cards become the work specifications. This human, craft-like touch gives people breaks from screens, adds an artful and owned way of being (people can trace who assigned the work to the card through their handwriting).
- The office is baby-friendly, dog-friendly, desk space is moveable and goes where people need it to go. It’s an alive office with chatter and concentration; all-hands stand-ups and smaller more intimate working and designing; camaraderie and totally devoid of people beyond 5.30 pm. It’s called the Joy Factory because of their belief in joyful working experiences. It’s not a cliche, it’s an alive space of people doing their best work.
- So impressive is their working, that huge multi-national corporates come to Menlo Tours. How to work, do projects and be effective in production. A third of Menlo’s income pre-pandemic came from these tours. I was part of that in 2016 and is a memory so strongly etched in my mind, much of the Menlo philosophies have made it into PTHR’s psyche and ways of working. I suspect that’s also the case for aircraft & automobile manufacturers, banks, and other corporates who have been influenced by this mighty atom of an organisation of 50+ people.
And so that’s the story. I tell it time and again in keynotes so important to the so-called future of work do I believe the Menlo way is.
But this is not about Menlo per se except this one thing: Pair working.
I featured Menlo in my 2017 book Transformational HR as an indicator of a small company that has NO HR, and that working in pairs should be a strongly considered format for HR where it operates in larger or mid-size corporate environments.
And PTHR has adopted pair working. Not quite like Menlo but because the 8 of us are working in a self-managed way, there is no line management structure so people operate in pairs as Business Partners. Checking in on wellbeing, workload and performance, learning and progression — all done in a seasonal pairing with another member of the team. We’re about to rotate and I’ve up to now been paired with Clare — who is our Executive Business Partner. We check in each day Clare’s on duty. We look at development and performance and feedback on each other and we’re there as a nano-team within a micro-organisation. I’m about to switch to being Kirsten’s Business Partner and we’ll do the same. Clare will partner with Jessica. Broch will partner with Emily and Catalina will partner with Crystal. It works. If there’s an issue in our Business Partnering, we have a coach from another pair we can bring in.
As a result of this and being across 4 timezones and working remotely, we need that other. We are therefore not alone.
And this is where mid-pandemic working needs pair working.
Instead of being alone, you’re in a pair. It may even be that your workloads could be combined and you can work on it together and not as two work stacks.
Imagine never feeling isolated because you have a work partner?
Imagine having someone different to you to help you think things through and cast a different perspective on an issue who has no reporting responsibility for you? Safer, smarter, more sincere than any line manager relationship (probably).
Why don’t we forget that the team is dispersed for one second and just pair-up people to create these tiny teams within? And rotate, and learn from each other, and be there for each other and be accountable to each other and deliver with each other.
‘Ah but Menlo are dispersed so I bet this has all gone by the wayside’ you might say.
Except #TeamPTHR’s Virtual Menlo tour proved otherwise. The ingenious use of Zoom, Google Meet, Google Sheets, Trello and their core coding applications means the pair working is alive just in different locations.
Here’s a genius thing. Each pair sets up a Google meet ID. It’s on a spreadsheet used for work allocation each week. If you want to talk to that pair, you’ll find them on the Google Meet link as if you’d pop over to their desk space. It works. Totally.
I’ve already adopted this. So I open up Google Meet when I’m not on client calls and anyone of the team can find the link in my calendar and just ‘pop-in’. Isn’t it simple in its genius? It happened twice today, my first day of doing it. And it was almost like being sat across from someone who’d say ‘Hey, do you have a minute about…’ Though we’ve gotten brilliant at Slack use, this high-speed voice technology (as Menlo calls talking to another person) is just what you sometimes what you need to speak to and see another person.
All hands daily stand-ups still occur at Menlo. Except they’re on Zoom and probably people are sat down now. And each pair — who used to hold the famed Viking helmet symbolising their pairing — do their pair-based update. And on their arrival into the Zoom meeting, type the word ‘next’ into the chat window which records (to the second) who arrived when. So instead of going around the circle as it was in the office, there’s the flow already in the Zoom chat window by the time of arrival. So no embarrassing talking over others (no, you go ahead) or having an orchestrator logging who’s spoken and who hasn’t (and the windows on Zoom are moving around anyway) this simple process shows the attention to detail and efficiency that’s the hallmark of Menlonians.
There’s more I could share, but that would spoil what is a brilliant experience. The Menlo culture tour. I’d recommend it SO much. 90 minutes of wow.
But again, back to pairs.
We’re isolated in our study, kitchen, dining room table wherever. As we’re the lucky ones who can work in safe isolation from home. But it’s lonely, tiring, deflating and we lack social contact.
Except if we’re in a pair. With Google Meet (or MS Teams or Blue Jeans) on when we’re not on calls to others. And we can chat and stop and ask and share a joke or just ‘what’s for lunch today?’
Pair working isn’t just for technologists. It could be for all of us.
Pair working could be the mental health decompression, the belonging reminder, the efficiency creator and the human contact substitute we all need in a pandemic-afflicted world.
And Rich and the team at Menlo Innovations has proven the worth in this approach for over 19 years.
Remote pairing could be our saviour for the long, cold winter ahead.
What’s stopping you from trying it?