The work and times of the app development team at Steamclock.

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Brendan Lensink • June 22, 2021

Quests: Now Free as in Speech

Two years ago, one of our Build It Day experiements produced a little Mac menu bar app called Quests. It let you quickly access the Github issues assigned to you. In the spirit of shipping stuff, we packaged it up and put it up for download on the App Store as a free app, business model TBD. A lot of folks found it useful, which was great!

Since then, we’ve continued our work building products for clients, as well as exploring and prototyping product ideas of our own. While we love Quests and we’re glad to have it, we’ve struggled to find a plausible business model that would support Quests as a sustainable product. For now, it seems destined to stay as “just” an interesting tool, and not a Serious Product™.

Which is perfectly fine!

But that’s meant that when Github, Gitlab, or Apple changes something that impacts Quests, it’s been hard for us to prioritize fixing it as promptly as we think our users deserve. We want products to delight, and an app that takes forever to support new macOS releases is not delightful. So we’ve been hosting a useful app that’s basically languished, meanwhile bunch of programmers around the world have been writing in about their ideas for for small fixes and additions to it.

So, we’ve open sourced Quests. As of today, the app is available under the MIT License, and pull requests are now officially welcome. The Mac developer community has been wonderful supporters of Quests so far, and we’re looking forward to being able to reply to feature requests with “patches welcome!” instead of just “that would be nice!”

Quests is still available on the Mac App Store for the time being, and has recently been updated with fixes for Big Sur – including that one CPU usage issue. We plan on continuing to upload releases as appropriate, though we may end up moving to a flow where the app is direct-download if it gets enough community contributions that our App Store distribution impedes release management somehow.

You can find the new, open source, Quests repository on GitHub. We’re excited to see what’s next for it.

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Erica Leong • June 8, 2021

The Path to Sharing Work, Early & Often

Chances are you’ve heard of the common adage, “share work, early and often.” The benefits are clear: sharing in-progress work early on allows teams to get on the same page and avoid surprises or wasted work. Easy win, right? A lot of teams find it easier said than done.

The Bumpy Beginnings

You might’ve heard that Steamclock has a culture of focusing on quality and polish. This has led, on occasion, to us taking things too far – or, relatedly, jumping to polish too early. In the early days for instance, we sometimes ran into situations where a designer would take a concept, dive straight into a rabbit hole, get sidetracked by the allure of polish, and eventually emerge with a proposal weeks later that was totally out of scope. Suffice it to say, we’ve learned some hard lessons.

Various lo-fi sketches of a pencil concept

So, why is it hard to present work while it’s still rough? On a personal level, it can feel uncomfortable — vulnerable even — to present work that hasn’t achieved our personal threshold of polish. Or, if you’re anything like the designer writing this blog post, you might be so enthusiastic about exploring a particular idea and getting straight to iterating, that you forget to check whether you’re even on the right track, or whether there are other, potentially better ideas that are worth considering. Oops. 😬

But there are ways a team can make things harder too. In our early days, our team hadn’t yet created a consistent workflow for presenting in-progress work, nor a regular schedule for checking in. Sure, we had Slack channels for each project, not to mention Github issues for each task, but requests for feedback on either avenue could get lost in the sea of messages we’d go through daily. We had syncs for each project, but thoughtful design reviews tended to get pushed out of these cross-team meetings.

When we did get around to discussing design feedback, we would often find ourselves getting pulled into a long, prescriptive, or occasionally ambiguous feedback loop. “Make this bigger” / “this isn’t working” / “I don’t want to say make it pop, but…” What we really needed was feedback that was more driven by goals and principles, setting people up to do great work more independently.

The Turning Point

Like any good team, when we see a problem we aim to fix it. So we changed how we worked.

First, we created a #design-wip channel on Slack for posting explicitly in-progress work — such as early sketches for a logo or low fidelity wireframes. We do this with the shared understanding that the work is rough and might even be — gasp — ugly. This helped with visibility, but intentionally sharing early was key: it meant that we were able to consider more approaches and then commit more wholeheartedly to the right one, or shelve an idea entirely if it turned out to be a less promising direction than originally thought.

Shelving a half hour sketch feels a lot easier to do — and much less painful — than shelving weeks of work. Well-timed context via a Slack message or Loom video can work wonders.

For things that required more synchronous feedback, we created weekly design syncs for presenting work internally. This has become a safe space for presenting rough in-progress work to the team, discussing projects’ priorities and goals, asking questions, and clarifying assumptions — essentially, anything that warranted deep discussion. This not only helped us get into a better habit of checking in on each others’ progress, but also pushed us to provide and receive better, empathetic and constructive feedback that could get lost in a Slack message.

Where We Landed

Two years later, our design syncs are our team’s favourite meeting. We’ve found a lot of value in setting up these spaces for ourselves, and getting feedback to come in early has really strengthened collaboration amongst our team. Accepting crudeness in our process granted us freedom to be more divergent in our early ideas, and gave us more confidence in converging on the best one.

In a way, focusing on quantity early on has driven better quality work.

So allow us to impart some of the wisdom we’ve learned on our journey. Create safe spaces to allow people to share rough work. Establish high level goals early to drive more focused, high fidelity polish later on. And never, ever, say the phrase “make it pop.”

Illustration of pencil in final 3D form

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Brady Valentino • May 5, 2021

Should You Build a Mobile App

Should you build a mobile app?

We often have folks ask us if they should build an app. After all, this is exactly the type of work that we do at Steamclock. How could we say no?

We often say no.

You’d be surprised just how often we tell people that they don’t need a mobile app. You might not be surprised at how surprised people are when they hear this.

Of course, some companies can justify building a great app. And we like working with them! So we had some fun building an only-slightly-snarky checklist. An inventory of items to consider when you’re asking the question of our times: Should you build a mobile app? (The answer may surprise you.)

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Allen Pike • April 15, 2021

Remote Hiring at Steamclock

Our team at Steamclock entered 2020 with big focus on hiring in Vancouver. We knew we wanted to avoid some of the issues that large distributed teams often suffer from. Interminable conference calls, only arrangable at the very beginning or very end of the work day. Inconsistent internet access disrupting decision-making and iteration speed. A lack of shared culture, where team members feel isolated from one another.

In a past life, our founder Allen worked at a large company that did hybrid remote work. Seeing managers who needed to fly internationally every week in order to attend in-person meetings, and teams needing to schedule early morning or evening meetings to work around time zone issues, contributed to our acute awareness of the pitfalls of hybrid remote setups.

Despite our skepticism around mixed remote and in-person teams, Steamclock has long had work-from-home day every week – No Meeting Wednesdays. Historically though, we did all our meetings in person. We went to substantial lengths to find and train a great team right here in Vancouver. In fact, at the beginning of 2020, we’d just finished building out a very nice office space in Vancouver for our local team. It’s still very nice! But currently, very empty.

Our empty meeting room at the Steamclock office

Of course, we’ve been working fully remote over the last year. Like many teams, we’ve been struck by just how effective we can be working at a distance. Initially, though, we attributed a lot of this to being fully remote, avoiding the dreaded hybrid meetings. We heard from our team that they looked forward to returning to working in-office at least once a week. Given that, we were one of the few software companies in 2020 posting jobs only looking for local talent. It felt a bit silly, but we’d done all this work to avoid having a hybrid remote organization – hiring, training, and investing in our work space.

Over time though, it’s become clear to us that to build the most effective team, we need to fully support both local and remote team members. And while hybrid meetings aren’t ideal, we’ve been practicing a really effective way to have fewer hybrid meetings: have fewer meetings. 🤯

So the path forward is clear: we’re building the best darn hybrid remote work culture out there. And of course that means we’re finally hiring remotely.

An illustration of a remote worker

British Columbia & beyond

Now, it’s hardly newsworthy that a software company in 2021 is hiring remotely. But we wanted to call this out specifically since a lot of people know us as outliers. We invested in an all-Vancouver team, and became known for that. There are folks over the years who’ve told us things like:

Steamclock seems like an amazing place to work. If you ever start hiring in Rock Creek, BC, let me know haha!

If that was you, it’s time for us to talk!

Like most companies, we have certain guidelines around the kind of remote folks we’re looking to hire:

  • We’re expecting that junior hires will be focused in Vancouver, so we can make sure they get solid in-person mentorship and teaching.
  • We’re sticking with Pacific Time as our one true time zone. Our team is on the west coast, and most of our clients are in the Bay Area. It seems like many of the issues we as an industry used to blame on “remote work” are actually more about teams working across very different time zones.
  • We’re a Canadian company and do prefer to invest in full-time employees rather than contractors – and we’re going to all meet up a couple times a year here in Vancouver – so for now we’re looking for folks eligible to work in Canada.

Still, it feels great to be finally strengthening our team with some of the many talented folks that live across BC and elsewhere in Canada. We can shed the “all-Vancouver team” part of our identity, and double down on the “builds really nice apps” part. A worthy upgrade.

We’re currently hiring a Senior iOS Developer. So if you’re an iOS Developer in Rock Creek, or eligible to work in Canada and up for roughly working Pacific hours, get in touch!

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Allen Pike • April 5, 2021

Hiring a Senior iOS Developer

Over the years, Steamclock has hired pretty infrequently. Our growth has been slow and steady, and our team members tend to stick around!

In 2021, though, we’ve geared into a higher growth mode. We’ve already hired an excellent Android developer, and have a position open now for a Senior iOS Developer. So if you’re an iOS Developer in British Columbia, we’d love to chat!

If you’re not a senior iOS developer, but you’re really into building great apps, it still might be a good time to say hi. We have big plans, and are going to need more thoughtful, skilled, and empathetic folks to execute them. 🌈

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The work and times of the app development team at Steamclock.

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