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Ways We Work

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Inside the Waterloo-based software agency

The "A Day With..." is a series inspired by the fact that most of the best projects, products and work come from teams. We hope to offer a glimpse into the inner workings of some of our favourite teams using photography and interviews with team members. We want to put a human face on the products people love by getting to know the team and the process behind them.

Boltmade is a software service company based in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada who works with clients to build and design software products. They take a unique approach to the service model and because of it stand out from their digital brethren. We connected with Ben Morris, Co-Founder and VP of Engineering, to talk about Boltmade and capture a day in the life within the company.

Tell us about how Boltmade got started?

Ben: We got started a little over two years ago. We had all been doing this type of work for years and wanted to create a place where we could really focus on the craft of designing and building amazing products and software.

By the end of the first year we were having some success and had grown to ten people. By the end of the second we were twenty and by the end of this year we’ll be thirty.

We arrived early in the morning to take part in the full staff stand-up meeting the team holds on a daily basis. Boltmade’s offices are located in an old restored factory called the Bauer Building close to the downtown core of Waterloo. The building itself is a nice blend of old and new, with classic narrow slat board floors that creak as you walked.

Ben greeted us and gave us a mini tour of the space. While we walked the team started to arrive and congregate in the front area for the morning meeting. As I got prepped to shoot, Ben had thrown on a YouTube video of "Shia LaBoeuf" Live and the rest of the team, myself included, watched in disbelief. I moved through the space to take a few photos before the meeting got rolling. The office is made up of three distinct areas: the original space referred to as Boltmade North and their expansion office, completely detached from North, referred to as Boltmade South. The company has been growing incredibly quick over the past year and recently they expanded into the office that sits between the South and North offices.

How long have you been in your current space?

Ben: We’ve been in the same building in Waterloo since we started, but have expanded our office quite a bit as we’ve grown. At first, it was just a couple of us in one 800 square foot office in one corner on the second floor. It was great, we were able to just throw a couple of desks in an empty room and get to work.

The open office plan worked really well in the beginning but as we grew past 10 people it started to break down. We had broken up into a few different project teams and space was getting tight. Having everybody in the same room was fantastic for collaboration and establishing culture, but wasn’t ideal for heads down focus when it was required.

As we moved past just a couple of simultaneous projects, the space became more distracting. It was more difficult to go heads down and get into flow for the type of work that we need to do.

Bumping up against space constraints we started thinking about what we wanted in our second office. We needed more space to accommodate our growing team, more private spaces, and some amenities like running water.

Last summer we were lucky enough to be able to take over another office right down the hall. The new space was 3x the size of the existing space, and had project rooms. It was perfect, as it gave us some room to grow.

We kept the first office and turned it into an event space and overflow meeting room for larger groups. Being on the north side of the building that office became Boltmade North while the second became Boltmade South.

Each team now has a private office with a door that can shut if they need to make a call, have a loud whiteboard conversation, or just want some privacy.

Boltmade South filled up over the following months, and in January of this year we took over the remaining space between North and South. We cut doors into the walls and now have one large space.

Your team has grown exponentially in the last year. What’s it been like growing at that pace? What have the challenges been, the benefits?

Ben: It’s been an interesting challenge for sure. We’ve doubled in size in each of our first two years. We’re now twenty four people and our plan is to hit thirty by the end of this year.

Finding the right types of people can be a challenge. Our teams are quite small so everybody needs to perform across disciplines at a very high level.

We work in such a diverse set of technologies that nobody can be an expert in everything. It helps that we’ve been lucky enough to build such a strong team. It almost doesn’t matter what your question is, in all likelihood somebody else on the team has gone through what you are. For example, it’s great to have Stephen just down the hall when I have a Git question, or to have Eric sitting behind me if I’m working out how to test something in Rails.

With everyone present, the stand-up meeting got started. The team members each took a turn holding the company conch (pictured above), it gave them the floor to discuss, inform, and update the company on their projects or personal things like a vacation coming up. This meeting ensures that everyone in the company is on the same page and that everyone is aware of all the general activities within the company as a whole.

What’s a typical morning like at Boltmade?

Ben: People start trickling into the office around 8am. Most of the office is there between 9 and 9:30am. We have a company wide stand-up at 10am that everybody attends. It’s our chance to gather face-to-face.

When we started we had a classic stand-up routine, everybody would answer what they did yesterday, what they’re going to do today and if there was anything blocking them. By the time we hit 15 people it became tough to keep going at that high level of detail so we changed it to focus on company wide news.

Now stand-up takes about ten minutes and is used to keep everybody on the same page about company wide business. Hires, vacations, projects starting and finishing, that kind of thing.

After that most teams will go back to their room and have a project team stand-up covering higher detail. Then it’s just heads down until lunch.

Can you tell us a bit about the structure of the team? How is work divided?

Ben: We’re 24 people now and are broken down into 7 semi-independent project teams.

Every project requires various types of expertise at different points. We might start off with a heavy design or research phase before transitioning to a development focused phase.

At any moment, everybody in the company is fully assigned to just one project. The type of work we do is very focus intensive so we decided early on that we didn’t want to split people across multiple projects. We can contribute a lot more value focused on just one product/domain for an extended period of time than we can if we’re jumping around every few hours/days.

One thing that’s a bit unusual about us is that we don’t have any product/project managers. Every team is responsible for making sure communication happens and that their project is on track. We like to keep as few barriers as possible between our customers and the teams actually doing the work.

Is there a general process you follow for every project or is each one different?

Ben: We have a strong process that each team follows, with the understanding that every project is different and people can change something if there’s a good reason to. It’s about putting sensible defaults in place but having the ability to change them if they don’t make sense.

The only set meetings that are common across all projects are the weekly Sprint Planning and the monthly Release Planning.

Sprint planning happens at a set time every week and lasts for a couple of hours. We’ll start with a demo of everything that was completed last week. The purpose of the demo isn’t so much to provide feedback on what was done as it is to update everybody on where we are and inform the next part of the process.

Once we’re all on the same page we’ll move onto the actual planning. This is where we decide what we’re going to do during the next sprint (week) and commit to it. For each sprint, we try to have a spiritual theme that we can work towards. It might be “User On-Boarding”, “Search Filtering” or “General Polish”. We find that it’s helpful to have a larger goal than just individual features to keep everybody focused on what we’re actually trying to do. It’s easy to get lost when your work becomes a never-ending list of features.

We’ll go through all of the user stories in the backlog and estimate the effort required to complete them using story points. We use a number of different tools to inform us on how many points we think we should be able to get done based on historical velocity.

The final piece of the meeting is called the retrospective. It’s the team’s space to recognize what’s been working, what we could improve on and then picking one thing to focus on for next week. In next week’s meeting we’ll evaluate how we did and decide to either double down or pick something new to focus on for improvement.

Every 4-6 weeks, each project has a Release Planning meeting separate from the Sprint Planning. It’s intended to let us look at the project from a higher level and evaluate how we’re doing. As most of our projects are 2-6 months in length it’s easy to drift and lose the path if you don’t have frequent check-ins.

During Release Planning we’ll look at where we are relative to the start of the project and where we’d like to end up.

After the meeting concluded the team went their different ways. Some went straight to their desks to tackle the workload ahead and others discussed ideas in the kitchen or worked with teammates through a design problem. Everyone appeared to know what they needed to do.

The company culture runs deep and it was made obvious by the numerous stickers affixed to laptop screens, phones, bikes, backpacks and more. The team genuinely operated with a certain devoted ownership of the company’s culture and brand. This type of loyalty isn’t often seen in the tech space where staff tends to move from company to company with ease. It definitely signifies that Boltmade is a fantastic place to work.

How do you go about building your team? What things do you look for when adding someone?

Ben: The vast majority of our current team has come by referrals from within our personal networks. Having somebody you trust vouch for somebody makes the interview process so much easier. It takes away a lot of the basic questions and lets you focus on the more important attributes.

We look for three main things when we’re looking at bringing somebody onto the team. Intelligence, Motivation and Judgement. They’re difficult to screen for, but so important to the work that we do. As long as somebody has those everything else will come.

We work with a pretty wide range of technologies and it’s rare that we find somebody who is an expert in all of them. As long as somebody is motivated though they’ll learn the tech quickly.

It was fantastic to connect with Boltmade and witness their approach to the digital service industry and how they can bring a more agile-software engineering model to that space. The team members I chatted with spoke to a more holistic approach when creating software for people and it's clear that user experience and design are equal players to software engineering when it comes to making successful products.

Thanks so much to Ben and the whole team at Boltmade for letting us in and taking a peek at the art and science of what they do.

Company Stats

Drink of choice: Three Fields Lager from Elora Brewing Company
Coffee or Tea: Coffee
Number of office pets: A dachshund named Fez
Apps/Software used by the team: Too many to name
Projects per year: Currently we have 7 projects ongoing
Years in business: 2.5
Number of team members: 24