What an Astronaut Taught Us About Building Better Products
by Jase July 04, 2018
What an Astronaut Taught Us About Building Better Products

Former Canadian astronaut Dr. Robert Thirsk came to visit us at our semi-annual Ballistiq summit. Robert shared inspiration, anecdotes, and advice on how to work better as a remote team, and build better products. Yes, we know what you’re thinking, it’s awesome that we had an astronaut come speak at our office!

At first, we weren’t sure how we’d relate space missions to building web platforms. As Robert explained the challenges he faced, it became clear that we face many of the same hurdles as an agency and as software engineers.

- Working with different teams and cultures - Spec’ing out missions/projects and having to adapt mid-course - Staying focused in stressful environments - How to better debrief after a project

How building a web platform is similar to space launch

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Robert explained that with all the preparation in the world, there are unknowns when you undertake any space mission. This reminds us when we spec projects for clients. Often, even with our super talented Project Managers, we run into unexpected delays and complexity.

That’s where experience kicks in. Not just anticipating problems, but having teams with enough training and creatively overcome them. At Ballistiq our engineers are like astronauts — highly trained, tons of experience, and a variety of different background. Of course, planning and project management are super important. And having the team that can rise up and adapt to different challenges is key.

When waste management is cutting edge

We tend to believe astronauts spend all their time in space on walks, studying exotic materials or conducting other cutting edge research. The reality, like most work, is much more ‘down to earth’, pun intended. Heroes of space are those that take care of the small things. Trash, waste management, being organized, being clean. Because that stuff has nowhere to go in a space station, if you let it accumulate, it becomes a major problem down the road.

We draw the parallel to documenting code, bug testing, working on Javascript, etc.. These are aspects of software development that most engineers don’t want to deal with. Yet, if it doesn’t get done properly it comes back to haunt you.

The key according to Robert is to acknowledge that these small things are important, and to praise those who do the them consistently. When you acknowledge small wins, people feel good about doing the detail work.

Lastly, in small groups people tend to notice the small tasks you do or don’t do. That person who always microwaves fish at lunch won’t be winning hearts and minds of their colleagues.

People are more perceptive to the day to day details then you believe. The person who takes out the trash, or bring in donuts in the morning, will have an easier time getting their tasks and ideas prioritized.

Houston, we have a problem

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We’re an agency with a large remote staff all across Canada. We deal with time zones, tech issues, and other challenges remote teams face. So we all work on being really great communicators.

When Robert spoke to us about the difficulties of communicating with mission control center we were all ears. Robert and the space crews had to deal with communication blackouts, delays in receiving information, and miscommunications.

His advice is take time, and make communication routine. Don’t be shy in asking for clarification — Do not assume the other person was thinking, ask for details! We all tend to build up scenarios in our head, which turn out to be nothing once we ask about them.

Space mission are multinational endeavours: Russia, Japan, USA, Canada, and several European nationals all send crews to space, together. And there’s a difficult cultural and language barrier to overcome.

We notice the same thing when working with different clients across the globe. Yes, communication is done in English, but every organization has a different way of working and managing projects.

To overcome these challenges Robert recommends the giving extra time for communication — Add an extra half hour to initial meetings so that everyone has enough time to discuss details. At first, take it slow.

Robert also recommends making sure everyone in a meeting has had the chance to speak. Odds are if they’re invited to a meeting it’s because they’ll have either something to contribute or something to do.  

The key when working with our clients is make sure we’re on the same page. We do this with by: - Weekly and semi-weekly client check ins - Live product validation meetings - Communicating through Slack and other channels - Meeting multiple stakeholders in a project - Carefully reviewing all the materials provided by the clients - Spending time on our planning stage to make sure we have a detailed picture - Getting feedback at the end of the project Get the details on how we approach our projects over at the Ballistiq Playbook


Debrief like NASA

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The stakes for a space mission are astronomical — Billions of dollars of equipment, narrow windows of opportunity and of course, the loss of human life. You’d imagine that debriefing missions with NASA or the CSA would be screaming, and finger pointing. Yet they rarely look like that.

When astronauts encounter malfunctions in a space mission the post flight debriefs look to understand what failed in the process. Debriefs are detailed, but they’re team efforts — Everyone is expected to add what they could have done to avoid these problems. From better planning, to clearer instructions, everyone could have contributed to doing their jobs more effectively.

Just like working on a project for clients. There’s always aspects which could have gone better. The key is not to play the blame game. Have the contributors say what could have gone differently. People tend to be more open to feedback and criticisms when they’re the ones leading the conversation.

Debriefing after a failed project is the chance for the team to air their observations and insights with a process/project, and to make sure the next project goes off without a hitch.

We all need space

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Regardless if you’re an astronaut, digital agency, or product owner, we all have to deal with stress, and difficult situations in our life.  

Robert has some key ideas on how to deal with ups and downs that is life: - Exercise everyday — Exercise gives you more energy - Your reaction to events is what shapes their outcome - Prevent stressful events before they happen - Take out the trash! - Develop a personal checklist to be efficient with your time - Spend at least 30 minutes alone everyday to reflect - Take a step back and look at the big picture - Great teamwork is acknowledging people’s work. Making people feel good makes you feel good - Make time to learn new skills and expand your knowledge

Everyday we work on reducing our stress at Ballistiq. From ergonomic workstations, gym memberships, lunch and learns, semi-annual summits, training for our teams, flexible work hours — We understand that people who are well taken care of are productive.

We believe we’re pushing the boundaries of what an agency should be and can be. Our focus on empathizing with our clients and understanding the business objectives makes working with us easy and enjoyable. Not to mention, we’re a team of all-star engineers.

Check out our career page and get in touch with us for your next adventure.

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