Red Gate has a highly engaged culture characterised by collaboration and innovation. Red Gate gives employees freedom and encourages the open flow of ideas while challenging people to create and develop. Down Tools Week is the cornerstone of Red Gate’s initiatives which encourage employee-led innovation.
Red Gate is a software company providing “ingeniously simple” tools for technology professionals worldwide. Founded by Neil Davidson and Simon Galbraith in 1999, it has annually featured in the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For since 2007 as well as winning numerous other awards. Red Gate doubled in size each year for the first few years and then through steady growth increased employee numbers to 300 people in Cambridge, UK and Pasadena, USA. Originally focussed on developing SQL tools, Red Gate’s products today include .Net, Oracle, Azure and Delivery tools.
Red Gate tries to maintain its original start-up informal culture through growth. The co-founders have described their founding philosophy thus:
“When we founded the company, we started out with the following goals:
- Working with each other in doing something that was personally fulfilling
- Creating software that made a technical contribution
Running a company in a way that aligned with our moral values and us as people – this was a reaction to working in places where the humanity of the people in the organization was seen as an annoying inconvenience.”
These principles are reflected in the company’s values:
The 13 Red Gate Values
- You will be reasonable with us. We will be reasonable with you – we’re all trying to treat each other as we would like to be treated in the same circumstances. Sometimes the circumstances are difficult, but we will all still be reasonable.
- Attempt to do the best work of your life – We’d like you to achieve your own greatness and to be all that you can be. We’ll try hard to allow that to happen and we’d like you to try hard too.
- Motivation isn’t about carrots and sticks – Constant oversight and the threat of punishment are incompatible with great, fulfilling work. We believe in creating appropriate constraints and then giving people the freedom to excel.
- Our best work is done in teams – We work in groups and towards a common goal. The company is more important than the team, and the team is more important than the individual.
- Don’t be an asshole – No matter how smart you are, or how good you are at narrowly defined tasks, there is no room for you here if you’re an asshole.
- Get the right stuff done – We admire people who get stuff done. While there’s a place for planning, thinking and process it is better to try – and try well – and fail than not to try at all.
- Visible mistakes are a sign that we are a healthy organisation – What we do is very difficult, the current situation is hard to understand and the future is uncertain. Mistakes are an inevitable consequence of attempting to get the right stuff done. Unless we can make mistakes visible both individually and collectively we will be doomed to mediocrity.
- No politics – No gossiping, no intrigue, no pussy-footing around problems and no telling people what you think they want to hear whilst privately disagreeing. We will be transparent in our dealings.
- Do the right things for our customers – We believe that if we do what is right for our customers then we will thrive.
10. Profits are only a way of keeping score, not the game itself – Focusing purely on the numbers is a sure way to kill Red Gate’s culture. We believe that if we focus on the game – building awesome products that people want to buy, and then persuading them to buy them – the success will follow.
- We will succeed if we build wonderful, useful products – Shipping something amazing is better than creating something average and to budget and on time. We cannot market, sell, manage or account our way to success.
- We base our decisions on the available evidence – Not on people’s opinions, the volume of their voices or who they are. When the evidence changes, we are prepared to change our minds. We will thank, and never shoot, the messenger.
- We count contribution, not hours – What you achieve is more important than how long it takes.
Red Gate’s leadership system fosters a highly engaged, creative culture. Its people approach is supported by values, initiatives and tools that reinforce openness and collaborative innovation. Below is a sampling of the specific initiatives and tools that we believe not only work well at Red Gate but could be applicable to other organisations as well.
Sweat the Small Stuff Day
In mid-September 2011, Dominick Reed suggested Red Gate have a Sweat the Small Stuff Day. He had watched a TED video and thought it was a great idea to stop work for one day and fix all the small, annoying things that no one ever seemed to have time to do in the daily course of working. The idea is that by fixing the small things, the whole organisation is better off due to the accumulated effects.
Dominick posted the TED video on the internal forum and was supported by Neil and Simon to organise it. To avoid any disagreements over what should be changed, ideas were initially posted on the intranet forums so anyone could comment. Some ideas generated a discussion about how best to change things but most ideas just seemed like common sense. It was implicitly agreed that unless someone said ‘no’ that all ideas (including those which generated a discussion) could be worked on. Red Gate’s Sweat the Small Stuff day took place on September 30th and generated a whole host of small fixes around the organisation.
Some of the fixes:
- Red Gate receives over 10,000 searches a month on its website. A small group reviewed the most frequent searches and optimised them so that when customers do a search on the website, the most relevant results are returned quickly
- Changes were made to an end user license agreement. It wasn’t a controversial change but had caused problems, which are now resolved
- The word ‘synchronized’ was changed to ‘deploy’ across products and user/help manuals, which made terminology clearer for users
- Changing all the clocks in the building to display the same time
- Cleaning all the whiteboards that had out of date information on them
Coding by the Sea
In November 2009, CEO Neil Davidson, issued a challenge to Red Gate employees. He sent an email round the company, “If you fit the bill, have a sense of adventure, are willing to try something new and are free … You will be living in a house and you can’t bring partners. In return, we’ll pay all your expenses (including a small beer allowance), you’ll get to work with people you might not have worked with before, in a way you haven’t worked before, and produce something cool.”
The goal was to spend a week developing a product that could quickly be shipped to customers. A converted barn on the Suffolk coast was home for the week, while the team developed a new product away from the distractions of the office. The result was SQL Search, a plug-in for SQL Server Management Studio and was available just three months after initial development. Four months after over 10,000 downloads of the product were achieved.
Down Tools Week
Following on from the success of Coding by the Sea, Neil decided to open the challenge to the entire company. This isn’t a deliberate attempt to emulate Google’s 20% time Atlassian’s Fedex days. It’s simply a continuation of an experiment that worked at Red Gate and a deliberate extension of the number of people involved in order to multiply the benefits and the output. The first Down Tools Week took place in 2010. For a Week all current projects were paused and employees could work with whomever they liked on something different. Examples of activities included:
- Generation of new ideas for commercial products (usually including building and shipping a prototype version)
- Fixing problems with internal systems and processes
- Learning new technologies
- Learning new skills by working with different people
- Allowing people to scratch itches (‘I always wanted to try X’) without any expectation by the company of producing a commercially viable product
- Allowing people to do something for any other reason they like
Three examples of products developed during the week included:
- A test-tracking tool for testers to track their tests. They spent the week developing a demo of their web-based tool to show testers what more they could get from a web-based tool rather the tools they currently use
- An app for simple talk called ‘simplepod’, which works on the various different mobile platforms. It was developed and uploaded all within the Down Tools Week
- An Exchange-Space Analyser Tool, which helps administrators understand their space utilisation to maximise the space on their exchange servers including a novel scenario what-if planning application
In 2012 Red Gate decided to take stock of Down Tools Week. A group of volunteers, including Red Gate’s Head of Development, met to review the purpose. They came up with this statement:
"Down Tools Week is an opportunity for you to work on a project of your choosing, doing anything that you think could be valuable for Red Gate. It isn’t mandatory but we are keen for everyone to take part.
It isn’t so much what you produce that matters, but what you find out along the way that can be of some use to others at Red Gate. Therefore, we expect everyone who takes part to share what you learned or did during DTW."
Following the last Down Tools Week, Red Gate has a wealth of forum posts from those who took part, explaining the work they did and what they learned along the way.
9 Postcards is an event that took place in November 2010 and was repeated in 2011. The initiative won Red Gate the Sunday Times Best Companies special award for Innovation in Engagement Practice in 2011. 9 Postcards fits in with the business planning cycle and is designed to test what everyone at Red Gate thinks of the Company. All employees are given 9 virtual postcards – three to suggest ideas on how they could improve their own performance, three for how their area/department could improve, and three for ideas on how/where the whole company could improve. Joint-CEO, Simon Galbraith, would then review the postcards on suggestions for the whole company. Managers would look at the others.
As it was felt that there would be too many actual postcards for Simon to read, a Red Gate Software Engineer created a tool for the forum where employees could post their ideas for Simon to review. While it was easier not to have the postcards, the negative is that ideas got ‘voted’ on [not voted on, but you could ‘+1’]. Simon reviewed all suggestions and then with other senior managers, decided which company-wide ideas would be undertaken and when.
Where ideas where small things such as putting a hook in the shower room, he told the individual to just do it and claim for expenses. So the exercise proved to be good for empowering people.
Ideas of All Sizes:
9 Postcards resulted in lots of little ideas that made a small difference. It did generate two or three big ideas that greatly impacted the company. Most people suggested solutions so it became the job of managers to work out what the underlying issue was.
One issue that received 10% of suggestions alone was the website. Many employees considered it wasn’t what it should be. As a result, senior management committed a team of six people and associated resources to permanently work on the website – a large investment.
Another issue was the companywide bonus scheme. One employee suggested it be reviewed and a larger number of employees +1’d this idea. As a result the Finance team took a close look at the scheme, getting a focus group together which included the employee who sent the virtual postcard. It was decided not to make any changes to the scheme (as no better ideas were deemed to be viable) but the communication around the scheme was much improved. We learnt that our scheme wasn’t perfect but we couldn’t find another example of a company bonus scheme that we thought was better.
A third issue was the noise generated from the canteen, which was felt to be disruptive. Senior management decided to invest in reducing noise emissions by fitting doors and changing the configuration within the canteen.
The biggest challenge Red Gate faced when implementing innovation initiatives is communication and access to information. How do you ensure that 200-300 people fully understand something new and are able to keep up to date with progress and are able to ask questions along the way?
The Red Gate intranet forums served as the main platform for information and questions for all initiatives. In Coding by the Sea, Red Gate set up a plasma screen in the middle of the office showing live video link to the Suffolk Barn. Down Tools Week culminates with a Show & Tell session , open to all Red Gate employees, and is filmed for reference. 9 Postcards is a live internal website accessible by employees at all times.
The employee-led initiatives and engagement events have had a big positive impact on the company.
One result of the Sweat the Small Stuff day is a general recognition across the company on individuals taking it upon themselves to fix small things as a matter of course. The legacy of this day is that Red Gate has embedded a mindset that if you see something that needs fixing, then “JFDI” [just ‘ing do it].
Four months after the first Coding by the Sea experience, over 10,000 downloads of the product were achieved.
The first Down Tools Week beat all expectations. It went so well that Neil and Simon decided to repeat it. Now three times a year the whole of Red Gate product development is able to down tools for a week. We don’t track participation rates but 70% of people able to take part did so at the last opportunity.
Down Tools Week culminated in a show and tell session open to the whole company. As well as profiting from new products and better systems, individuals benefited from learning new skills and networking from working people they don’t regularly interact with. There have been nine Down Tools Weeks at Red Gate so far and these have included 150 individual projects. A recent internal survey asked what participants thought was valuable about their project:
- 1 person learnt new theory for use in day job
- 2 people improved their project team processes
- 2 people said it refreshed them / “mini-sabbatical”
- 2 people made an improvement to their day job
- 3 people learnt about products out of their division
- 4 people learnt new tech to be able to improve a product
- 5 people built a proof of concept for a new idea
- 6 people learnt something about customers / markets
- 9 people worked with new people
- 10 people learnt a new technology (or improved knowledge)
- 14 people improved a product
Eight new products have been made as a direct result of Down Tools Week. 30 improvements to internal systems have been made within Down Tools Week.
Perhaps the most important benefit of Red Gate’s approach is to be seen in employee sentiment about the company. The Book of Red Gate, created by employees to celebrate the company’s 10th anniversary, sums up the essence of Red Gate:
“How many genuinely open, collaborative, transparent companies are there, that actually practise what they preach about ‘no politics’ and ‘do what works’, that are built around a spirit of restless creativity, forward momentum and optimistic evolution… where everyone’s contribution is listened to and values…? … ‘What is so great about Red Gate?’ … Everything.”
Red Gate has learned a lot these innovation initiatives:
Sweat the Small Stuff:
- Give sufficient notice so that individuals can propose more ideas
- Have visibility post the event to celebrate and share what was done
Down Tools Week:
- Improve the organisation of project ideas up front so that teams are more easily able to group themselves together and people are inspired by others’ ideas.
- Avoid very large groups and encourage splitting into sub groups.
- Share ideas, learnings and outcomes widely.
- Encourage an employee-led review of the purpose of initiatives as the company grows.
- Response time is important. Initially the analysis of the company-wide postcards took too long. The response from the CEO should be within a month of the deadline
- Set expectations to encourage employees to think big – scary and dangerous ideas – rather than ideas from the comfort zone
Above all, communicate.
Joint CEOs Neil Davidson and Simon Galbraith have championed the innovation initiatives at Red Gate and created a culture where innovation is embedded.
This 10-minute video on Down Tools Week gives both the CEO and employee perspective on the initiative:
This article recounts one team’s experience during Down Tools Week:
Here’s a photo of the latest Down Tools week project ideas wall:
Here’s a photo of the “Computer Says No” team from a 2012 Down Tools Week: