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Staying Ahead Of The Curve: How We Reinvented Ourselves In A Week

     
By on November 25, 2019 - 8 Minutes

Back in 2000, AOL had 23 million email subscribers in the U.S. alone, seven times more than its nearest competitor. Nokia held nearly a third of the global cell phone market. And the makers of the Palm Pilot were worth more than General Motors, Chevron and McDonald’s.

Today, all three of those factoids look faintly ridiculous. Each of the three companies has declined dramatically since their heyday at the start of the Millennium. They’re all still going, but they’re now peering in at the tech revolution from the outside, unable to get into the party they helped create.

The reason for their decline? All three companies failed to anticipate new technologies. Instead of moving with the times they got complacent, allowing more innovative rivals to overtake them.

At Mobile Jazz, this lesson is always on our mind. We want to ride each new wave of innovation and keep going above and beyond for our clients. Otherwise, we know that other technology companies will leave us in their slipstream.

This was the motivation for our recent week-long trip to Mallorca. As a remote company we regularly hold events overseas, to strengthen team spirit and share adventures. We’ve surfed in Cape Town, skied in Austria and snorkeled in the waters of Martinique. But this was different. 

Mallorca was purely a work excursion, designed to ensure every single one of us is fully up to speed with all the technologies that affect our business. We’re living in a time of greater technological change than the world has ever seen, and we felt it was necessary to bring everyone together to regather our strength. Over the next few paragraphs, we’re going to tell you what we’ve learned.

Constant Improvement

We’ve run a program called MJ University since we started out. Right from the outset, we saw innovation was a moving target which would demand constant improvement.

MJ University normally takes the form of a weekly virtual class, called the MJ Talk, given by a member of the team on a topic of their choice. They give us a session of between 1 and 2 hours on the subject and we all dial in by video link, hoping to pick up a nugget of insight to use in our own work.

MJ team members gathered together during our remote week.

To complement these weekly sessions, we aim to hold a full week away every year, in a location which suits the team. It’s an intense week: although we don’t do any client work during the week, we hold a daily diet of workshops and tutorials, running from 9am to 6pm.

For this year’s trip we chose the Mallorcan capital of Palma because it offers an amazing climate in November, when we held the retreat, and is within easy flying distance for most of our team. Several of them actually live in Mallorca and the surrounding Balearic islands, so they were particularly enthusiastic!

The Course

To kick off this year’s event we held a two-hour quiz about basic engineering topics, to get us in the zone for the week ahead and ensure that everyone was paying attention (these quizzes can get seriously competitive).

Then we held courses on a range of user experience topics, from backend infrastructure management to machine learning, which is becoming one of our key focus areas. There was a lengthy session on protecting ourselves and our clients’ infrastructure against cyber attacks. 

This last topic was a keynote of the week. We focused heavily on cyber-security and secure programming techniques. The ever-increasing incidence of fraud attacks on mobile devices means that, as mobile engineers, we need to be constantly vigilant. What’s more, hackers are launching an ever-greater number of ransomware attacks at Internet of Things (IoT) devices. With a growing IoT portfolio, we need to be ahead of this trend.

A Week In Harmony

Another key focus was the development of Harmony, our internal framework which will become a core of the entire Mobile Jazz operation.

Essentially, Harmony is a core philosophy for the way we work. In most companies, each individual developer has their own way of working, but we want to create a gold standard that’s binding for everyone. The way we write code, the way we organize projects, the way we connect different software modules: all of them, we feel, can be standardized.

Until now, we’ve had to build a new codebase every time we use each different platform (iOS, Android, Desktop or IoT). With Harmony, we’ll be able to share a lot of core components across all platforms and will only have to build the user interface components on top, dramatically reducing the time it takes to build each project. What’s more each MJ team member will be able to work on every single project. So, if there’s ever a hold-up, we can all pitch in.

The Harmony library can be applied to each individual programming framework, and it’s totally scaleable. Our technology stack will remain constantly up-to-date, no matter how big the business grows, and everyone — clients, end users and our own engineers — will see the benefits.

We’ve already published brief documentation to introduce Harmony, but soon we’ll be releasing a full website, so stay tuned!

Optimizing Ourselves

Harmony is really just a part of our plan to optimize our internal management systems. We feel that, if we can keep tweaking our internal structure in line with emerging technologies, this will translate into a better service for our clients. 

Since the company went live in 2011, we’ve made a number of fundamental tweaks to our operation. We’ve replaced internal email, which was draining our productivity, with a project management tool called Asana; we’ve used Slack to set up dedicated channels for each team and ensure constant multi-way collaboration; and we’ve automated our recruitment process to entice top-class developers. Each of these changes has, we feel, had a major impact.

We wanted to come back from Mallorca with another idea that would enhance the business. So we set aside an entire day to hold a Hackathon, splitting the 20 attendees into four random teams and challenging them to each come up with one idea that would improve Mobile Jazz.

Our designer, Richard, hard at work during the Mallorca week.

Over the course of nine hours, interrupted only by a brief stop for pizza, we worked furiously, coding at the speed of light to reach our objectives. Here are the four ideas we ended up with:

  • MJ VPN: This new tool will manage our internal virtual private network (VPN) configurations, which makes it easier to set up and reduces our administration time.
  • Daily Harvest Review: We use Harvest to log our time and ensure we’re providing completely accurate bills for our clients. Our new tool will generate daily emails to team members if their Harvest log entries don’t fulfil our internal requirements.
  • MJ Now!: As a remote company we need to maintain constant connection to ensure total synchronicity. This new tool will connect to the various products that we use internally (e.g. Slack, Harvest, Asana, Google Calendar) and generate a dashboard summary on the status of a remote team member, showing their current location and active status.
  • MJ Pace: “Pace” is a reporting platform for project managers and team members who needs to check resource planning assignment and historical data. It is able to predict whether a project is going to run over budget, so we can restructure the project before the cost impacts the client.

Long-Term Returns

For Mobile Jazz, Mallorca represented a major financial investment. As well as having to pay for the accommodation, and the salaries for the entire week, we also faced a significant opportunity cost because we were unable to invoice clients for the time we were away. For a company which remains extremely lean, it was something we had to think long and hard about.

However we feel the investment has been well worth it. Everyone in the team has returned with a renewed focus on their work and a fresh source of knowledge about the company’s core processes. We’ve improved communication and processes among our team members, and we believe this will translate into even better results for our clients. What’s more, we feel that Harmony will enable us to fulfil our projects even more quickly and scale up our business to cope with increased demand.

By this time next year, when we’re writing about our next remote week, the tech landscape will have changed again. The arrival of 5G internet will have altered everyones’ expectations of what’s possible. Regulations such as GDPR will require us to rethink how we build software products. The maturation of machine learning will create a boom in AI applications, and increasing numbers of businesses will want to move towards distributed cloud solutions, as they facilitate a more joined-up way of working.

As a technology company, it’s not just our mission to stay ahead of these trends. It’s our job. But it’s also our passion, and we can’t wait for the next challenge.

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Stefan Klumpp
Stefan grew up in a small town in the Black Forest in Germany. After dropping out of high school he started an apprenticeship as a car mechanic. Later on, he studied Electrical Engineering and developed the first self-driving cars at Stanford University.

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