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Code as Craft

The Art of the Dojo main image

The Art of the Dojo


According to the Wikipedia page I read earlier while waiting in line for a latte, dojo literally means place of the way in Japanese, but in a modern context it’s the gathering spot for students of martial arts. At Etsy and elsewhere, dojos refer to collaborative group coding experiences.

“Collaborative group coding experience” is a fancy way of saying “we all take turns writing code together” in service of solving a problem. At the beginning of the dojo we set an achievable goal, usually unrelated to our work at Etsy (but often related to a useful skill), and we try to solve that goal in about two hours.

What that means is a group of us (usually around five at any one time) goes into a conference room with a TV on the wall, plugs one of our laptops into the TV, and each of us takes turns writing code to solve a problem. We literally take turns sitting at the keyboard writing code. We keep a strict three minute timer at the keyboard; after three minutes are up, the person at the keyboard has to get up and let another person use the keyboard. We pick an editor at least one person knows and stick with it–invariably someone will use an editor that isn’t their first choice and that’s fine.

I often end up organizing the dojos and I’m a sucker for video games, so I usually say, “Hey y’all, let’s make a simple video game using JavaScript and HTML5’s Canvas functionality,” and people say, “kay.” HTML5 games work very well in a short dojo environment because there is instantaneous feedback (good for seeing change happen in a three minute period), there are a variety of challenges to tackle (good for when there are multiple skillsets present), the games we decide to make usually have very simple game mechanics (good for completing the task within a couple of hours), and there is an enormous amount of reward in playing the game you just built from scratch. Some examples of games we’ve successfully done include Pong, Flappy Bird, and Snake.

That’s it. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Belying this simplicity is an enormous amount of value to be derived from the dojo experience. Some of the potential applications and benefits of dojos:

Onboarding. Hook a couple of experienced engineers up with a batch of new hires and watch the value flow. The newbies get immediate facetime with institutional members, they get to see how coding is done in the organization, and they get a chance to cut loose with the cohort they got hired with. The veterans get to meet the newest members of the engineering team, they get to impart some good practices, and they get to share knowledge and teach. These kinds of experiences have a tendency to form strong bonds that stick with people for their entire time at the company. It’s like a value conduit. Plus it’s fun.

In-House Networking. Most of Etsy’s engineers, PMs, and designers work on teams divided along product or infrastructural lines. This is awesome for incremental improvements to the product and for accumulating domain knowledge, but not so great when you need to branch out to solve problems that exist outside your team. Dojos put engineers, PMs or designers from different teams (or different organizations) together and have them solve a problem together. Having a dojo with people you don’t normally interact with also gives you points of contact all over the company. It’s hard to overstate the value of this–knowing I can go talk to people I’ve dojo-ed with about a problem I’m not sure how to solve makes the anxiety about approaching someone for help evaporate.

Knowledge Transfer. Sharing knowledge and techniques gained through experience (particularly encoded knowledge) is invaluable within an organization. Being on the receiving end of knowledge transfer is kind of like getting power leveled in your career. Some of my bread and butter skills I use every day I learned from watching other people do them and wouldn’t have figured them out on my own for a long, long time. The most exciting part of a dojo is when someone watching the coder shouts “whoa! waitwaitwaitwait, how did you do that!? Show me!”

Practice Communicating. Dojos allow for tons of practice at the hardest part of the job: communicating effectively. Having a brilliant idea is useless if you can’t communicate it to anyone. Dojo-ing helps hone communication skills because for the majority of the dojo, you’re not on the keyboard. If you want to explain an idea or help someone who’s stuck on the keyboard, you have to be able to communicate with them.

Training. I work with a lot of really talented designers who are always looking to improve their skills on the front end (funny how talent and drive to improve seem to correlate). Rather than me sitting over their shoulder telling them what to do, or worse, forcing them to watch me do some coding, a couple of engineers can dojo up with a couple of designers and share techniques and knowledge. This is also applicable across engineering disciplines. We’re currently exploring dojos as a way for us web folks to broaden our iOS and Android skills.

The Sheer Fun of it All. I’m a professional software engineer in the sense that I get paid to do what I love, and I take good engineering seriously within the context of engineering and the business it serves. Thinking hard about whether I should name this variable in the past tense or present tense, while important, is exhausting. Kicking back for a couple of hours (often with a beer in hand–but there’s no pressure to drink either) and just hacking together a solution with duct tape and staples, knowing I’m not going to look at it after the dojo is a welcomed break. It reminds me of the chaos and fun of when I first learned to program. It also reinforces the idea that the dojo is less about the code and more about the experience. We play the games after we finish them, sometimes as a competition. Playing the game you just built with the people you built it with is a rewarding and satisfying experience, and also serves to gives a sense of purpose and cohesion to the whole experience.

Our process evolved organically. Our first dojo was a small team of us solving an interview question we asked candidates. We realized that in addition to being helpful, the dojo was also really fun. So we went from there. We moved on to typical coding katas before we finally hit our stride on video games. I encourage anyone starting out with dojos to iterate and find a topic or style that works for you. Some other considerations when running a dojo: there will likely be different skill levels involved. Be sure to encourage people who want contribute - designers, PMs, or anyone in between. It’s scary to put yourself out there in front of people whose opinions you respect; a little bit of reassurance will go a long way towards making people comfortable. Negative feedback and cutting down should be actively discouraged as they do nothing in a dojo but make people feel alienated, unwelcome and stupid. Be sure to have a whiteboard; dojos are a great reminder that a lot of the actual problem solving of software engineering happens away from the keyboard. Make sure you have a timer that everyone can see, hear, and use (if it’s a phone, make sure it has enough charge; the screen usually stays on for the whole dojo which drains the battery quick-like). Apply your typical learning to your dojos and see if you can’t find something that works for you. Most importantly, have fun.