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Try these 5 team-building activities for software developers

Whether it's a soft skills workshop, simulated outage exercise or in-house tech conference, these one-day events get dev teams out of a coding rut. Plan yours now.

Developers and testers work hard enough, and it can help to pry their fingers off the keyboard and break them free from their routines with team-building exercises. That doesn't even mean you have to lose an entire day of productivity.

There are a variety of day-long learning-centric activities that help developers and testers pick up new skills, improve team collaboration and create value for the company in unexpected ways. Hackathons, for example, provide a means for developers to collaborate on a project with certain programming parameters. Conferences often host a co-located hackathon, and they even pop up as competitions for students. Hackathons are a common occurrence in dev-centric workplaces, but other events can be equally rewarding.

Check out these five team-building activities for software developers and testers, which focus on everything from soft skills to advanced technologies.

Dev day

A dev day begins with an open call to technologists across the company to submit proposals for presentations, activities and info sessions. Dev days enable developers to connect with their peers on topics both related and unrelated to their everyday work.

Cimpress, a mass-customization services company based in Ireland, created a dev day to celebrate its developers and create a forum for sharing, learning and development. "Let the people participating in Dev Day help drive and shape it, as they know best their own interests and what they would like out of the day," said Maarten Wensveen, CTO at Cimpress.

One dev day consisted of 23 presentations, which ranged from talks on coding to UX labs. Two popular sessions included "What makes a good rest API?" and "Intro to machine learning, part I." These team-building events just for software developers can inspire new ideas, engagement and relationships.

Game days

Charter Communications hosts game days, which are exercises to safely break infrastructure and, in the process, improve communication among testers, developers and ops teams. A game typically runs between two to four hours, and it involves a team of engineers who develop and support data-centric applications.

Start one of these simulations or functional exercises with goals, such as to replay a previous incident to gather insight about the causes or validate the fixes. Charter Communications often uses game days to test if a new system is operationally ready -- with all the necessary monitoring, alerts, metrics and runbooks -- before they deploy to production.

Set a time and date, book a war room for in-person attendants and set up dial-in or screen share in advance. Ensure the agenda allows time to review and revise goals and create hypotheses. End the session with enough time to craft ideas for how to develop fixes or architecture changes to address weaknesses.

You can use a chaos engineering tool or service, such as Gremlin or Netflix's Chaos Monkey and sister projects in the Simian Army, to run the experiments, but chaos engineering is about more than tools and software; it is a cultural shift where the whole team assumes failures happen and, therefore, mitigates them.

"Our teams' top priority is making sure our customers have a great experience with our products," said Mike Baldino, vice president of product intelligence at Charter Communications. "A well-organized game day is key to success."

For Charter Communications, that means prompt attention to alerts and rapid issue resolution. The exercise also helps them take a proactive approach to uncover problems before they impact customers.

As with all team-building activities for software developers, think big but start small. You might start with only 20 to 30 spare minutes in the week to plan, communicate and execute an experiment. While it might not be much, you can assess how your systems or services handle failure, Baldino said.

Friday projects

Templafy, an enterprise document template service, hosts regular Friday project days to encourage creativity across its engineering teams. Developers spend time exploring new technologies or refactoring code.

"We saw that development time outside of the normal sprint and team can lead to interesting new features that business wouldn't have thought of," said Oskar Konstantyner, product owner and team lead at Templafy.

Some of these Friday projects for Templafy led to the introduction of AI into their product, as well as multiple internal tools that increase development productivity for Scrum teams. Some Friday projects also made it to the backlog prioritized by the business.

In addition to product boosts, the projects pay off in team-building for the developers. "Many of these features are developed across the usual development teams, meaning that we improve team collaboration," Konstantyner said.

To keep Friday projects manageable, establish some ground rules. Make the projects small, and keep the scope in check over time with incremental updates. Coordinate with product owners so that the teams follow the company's overall strategy. Also, beware that Friday projects can affect work done in normal sprints if everything was not completed within the assigned timeframe.

Soft skills day

Soft skills are difficult to quantify characteristics of a good employee: Empathy, communication and time management are all examples. You can host a soft skills day for the entire company, or make it specifically a team-building activity for software developers, or even just for some select teams. Assign a committee to draw up the agenda and theme.

Cognifide, a technology consultancy based in London, hosts an annual soft skills development event called One Cognifide Day. It brings together over 400 people from the company's global offices. The activities focus on people, teams, collaboration and culture -- all organized by staff and for staff.

"A top-down lens [from executives] on an event of this nature would be counterproductive," said Josie Klafkowska, director of marketing at Cognifide. "Think of it as the soft skills side of what we do, with some real business challenges thrown in that we focus on solving together."

But it's also designed to open up communication. One of the most popular parts of the day is the hobby booths, where individuals can shine a spotlight on personal passions, such as beekeeping and whiskey tasting. There's always a business aspect to the day as well.

Start with three or four clear objectives, get planning early, communicate well throughout and check all the content against company objectives to make a soft skills workshop a success.

Cross-training days

To cross-train employees, earmark a day for a few presentations. Invite team members to submit topics they'd like to learn about. Then, ask an expert -- on or outside the team -- to create a 30-minute presentation and short exercise on the topic.

Cross-training employees is a team-building activity that enables software developers to expand their knowledge and enthusiasm about their work. This event provides information on the basics of a variety of technologies, which helps teams improve response time to issues, do faster code reviews and feel comfortable in other time-sensitive tasks.

Neo4j, a graph database company, hosts regular cross-training days to build new skills. "Our team works with a large variety of different technologies," said Ryan Boyd, director of developer relations at Neo4j. "It's very difficult day to day for everyone to become familiar with all of them, so we set up these days to encourage learning."

Keep to a rigorous schedule to ensure you don't dwell on any particular technology. Ideally, choose technologies that suit an individual team member's expertise, as they are likely to feel invested in the process and helping their colleagues learn.

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