Developing a close-knit team through the liberal application of electricity, mud and physical exertion.
Physical fitness and software development are something of an ideological mismatch if you believe the clichés. Fortunately, we’re not fond of conforming to that particular stereotype at Avco Systems; which is why we’ve sent teams to take part in Tough Mudder for team building for the past 5 years! We started in 2013 when a team of three of our own ventured to Wales for their first obstacle course run and continue to the present day with our team of nine. Our team has also expanded from just software developers to include members of our Network and Admin teams, even our Technical Director has done two!
Why we bother
Software development is a team activity, long gone are the days of the solo worker in a cubicle who only interacts with his colleagues on the way in and out of the building. Communication is an essential skill and is the key to being an effective team which allows us to quickly develop solutions for our customers.
It is also important for us to be able to break tasks down into manageable components that can be done by an individual in such a way that it can then be integrated into the whole. Requirements are often complex which makes it unreasonable to expect everyone involved to be an expert in all aspects of those requirements. Equally, projects are frequently large in scope and have tight deadlines so it is vital that the developers work together and communicate their knowledge and progress so those deadlines can be met. This is just a handful of examples of how working as a team is important to a software developer every day. We’ve found that team sports and events are an excellent way to increase trust and refine our communications skills.
What we do
Football in the park is a near weekly occurrence from mid spring to early autumn. Headers and volleys when numbers are low or matches when there are enough people available. Either way the communication skills developed and the teamwork experiences are a direct benefit. As an added bonus the cardio involved and getting outside and away from our desks for a while can only help us live longer.
Tough Mudder is a 12-mile obstacle course notorious for its use of mud, ice and electricity. Every run begins with an oath sworn by the runners in which they are reminded that the event is a challenge, not a race, and that teamwork and camaraderie are the most important aspects of the event. The participants are also told not to whine because whining is for children.
Our staff approach preparing for these events in a multitude of ways, some head to the company gym or go for a run while others just show up on the day and hope for the best. It’s not an uncommon sight to see one or more of our employees lacing up their trainers come lunch time. All the training isn’t just for Tough Mudder or football either, one of our own is taking on the Ealing half marathon this year and we have martial artists, pole dancers, climbers, squash players and swimmers in our ranks who need to stay in shape for their hobbies and competitions.
Methods to Our Madness
As a group we have a wide range of running speeds and fitness levels. As a result, our common strategy for group activities is for people to take part at whatever level they feel most comfortable. This could mean loitering near the goal rather than chasing the ball or it might involve running separately and meeting up at each obstacle to tackle the challenge as a team. Sometimes working through an obstacle just means providing moral support and sometimes it means letting your teammates climb up you.
Over the Wall
A common challenge at Tough Mudder is getting your team over a 10’ wall. At 10’ they’re just too tall for a human of average height to clear without assistance so we have to work together. Our strategy is to have someone brace against the wall in a seated position (only without the comfort of a chair!) and have each member of the team climb up them to their shoulders and tackle the wall from the elevated position. This works well for getting all but the last member over the wall. Fortunately, we have a 6’3” lanky bloke on our team who doesn’t need help getting over the wall and he goes last; negating that problem entirely. This relates quite well to how a majority of our projects are too large for a single developer to tackle alone and how you have to rely on the support of your team to make sure everything gets done.
Into the Water
Another favourite of the folks at Tough Mudder is to set up a slide into some water, force people to go under a barrier in the water and then get them to climb out the other side, which all sounds very pleasant until you consider the fact that the water is filled with ice and kept at a cool 1ºC. There’s not much we can do to help each other on this one, other than tell each other it won’t be that bad (it will) and get each other moving on the other side so we can stay warm. This ability to keep each other motivated and provide encouragement translates well to when we’re dealing with particularly difficult, daunting or tedious projects.
Reach the Top
A handful of obstacles involve getting the team up a man-made structure. None require more teamwork than the Pyramid Scheme in which a convex ramp is placed with a moat at the base and the team must find a way to reach the top. You can’t just run due to the moat and the shape of the ramp, so teamwork is essential. Our method for this is tried and tested with one person stood against the base of the ramp, another holding their feet so they don’t slip back into the drink while the rest can climb up them to the staging point in the middle. Then the foot holder climbs up the base member, onto one of the climbers who is holding onto the middle before they are joined by the base member who also climbs the… you know what, it’s actually really hard to describe in a way that makes any amount of sense. Point is, we nailed it because we work well as a team.
How it all helps
These exercises and team activities help in our day to day work by forging trust and improving our communication skills. The obstacle course runs also have the benefit of developing our problem-solving skills. Getting the entire team organised and to the start line for the right time, getting each person over, under or through the current obstacle or just figuring out who’s playing football at lunch help us come together as a team.
A great bonus of challenging ourselves with mud runs is that over the years we’ve managed to raise money for a couple of notable causes, Help for Heroes and Thames Valley Hospice, through sponsorship. You can sponsor us for our most recent run by checking out our Just Giving page.
Team Events in 2018
This year we’ve sent teams to Stratford for a Tough Mudder 5k and Hemel Hempstead for a Tough Mudder Half as part of the Repeat Offender Programme. We also sent our largest team so far take on Tough Mudder in Gloucestershire in August. The team included six veterans (one of which did their 12th full event!), and three new recruits to Avco’s Tough Mudder family. We’re not quite sure why we keep getting people signing up; on paper the event looks awful. Electrocution, icy water, enclosed spaces, high drops and more than a little mud doesn’t sound like a recipe for fun but by the time we’re done we know each other a little better and can’t wait to sign up for the next one. Maybe it’s the free booze at the finish line?