Distribution in our DNA

Here at King, we live and breathe data. We use data extensively in the creation, promotion and management of our games – and to garner insights which guide the development of the business. The Data Analytics (DA) organisation is the broker and clearing house for data at King, and, like many of King’s central functions, is distributed across our key European hubs of Barcelona, London and Stockholm.

I’m part of a team in Data Analytics called DA Core. We’re responsible for providing a suite of foundational data products and services to the rest of King. Our mission is to support our world-class DA colleagues, King’s small army of embedded data scientists, and colleagues across the company (or “Kingsters” as we call each other) do great and insightful work with our vast volumes of data.

Distributed tech – and team

DA Core operates King’s core data infrastructure. At our scale, distributed computing is the order of the day – so in our stack you’ll find one of Europe’s largest Hadoop clusters, the EXASOL in-memory analytics database, and the QlikView reporting and visualisation platform. We also provide what we call the “Core Data Model”, and core daily KPI reporting to King’s leaders.

Like much of the tech for which we are responsible, DA Core is itself distributed. Around two thirds of the team is based in King’s London location, with the rest in Barcelona and Stockholm. As with any team that is not entirely co-located, this presents us with both opportunities and challenges.

Leveraging distribution’s advantages – and mitigating its challenges

On balance, we like our distributed structure and think it makes sense for us. It compels us to be more explicit and intentional about our work, and it allows us to serve customers face-to-face in all of King’s primary places of business.

We use King’s business-wide videoconferencing platform, Blue Jeans, for the majority of our meetings (including daily stand-ups), so a team member who has to work from home to care for a family member or wait for a delivery can do so with minimal friction. And since we are less in the habit of interrupting people at their desk (even when colocated), some of us also find that it helps promote flow – that elusive but critical driver of productivity.

We understand though that there can be downsides of distribution – and that these are amplified when we forget about them or pretend they don’t exist.

That’s why we’ve baked a few specific ways of working into our team’s operations.

Delivering day-to-day

In our day-to-day work, we value open and frequent contact across our locations. Webcams and headsets are standard issue kit for all Coreistas (as we refer to each other in the team), and extended Blue Jeans sessions – where you might fire up screen-sharing and pair program – are not uncommon.

We have a private HipChat room where we share information with each other throughout the day, and everyone in the team has a King mobile phone, so we can call across our geographies at no personal cost. (Sometimes it’s just easier to pick up the phone, and we don’t want our international distribution to be a barrier to that.)

In addition, we track everything we’re working on in JIRA, and write down our plans and ideas on King’s internal Confluence site – “Kingfluence” – so these things are automatically visible across locations. This writing has the side benefit of helping us structure our thinking.

A relaxed end to the week

Something that doesn’t come so naturally in a distributed team is unstructured conversation – the discussions about the less pressing or non-work stuff that might take place at the coffee machine or lunch table when everyone is in the same office.

So every Friday afternoon, after lunch in both of our timezones, we have an informal 30-minute meeting that we call DA Core Weekly Highlights.

This was an idea we came up with at a team off-site in Stockholm last summer, where we all agreed it would be a valuable addition to our regular meeting roster, and we’ve been doing it ever since. We use this time together to share with each other our personal highlights of the past seven days – work-related or otherwise.

We also take the opportunity of this call to highlight teammates who’ve done something great since the last weekly highlights meeting – as part of a wider initiative we call Feedback Friday.

Both of these things help to reduce the social distance in the team, and allow us to work more effectively together the rest of the time.

Strengthening our human connections

Notwithstanding the above, we believe it is pretty important that all the members of our distributed team do actually meet face-to-face from time to time.

That’s why, once every two or three months, we get together in one of our locations – normally Barcelona or Stockholm – for a day out of the office. During these off-site days, we do things which either explicitly or as a side effect strengthen the bonds between us and ultimately allow us to work as a more collegiate team.

We also do some fun stuff during these get-togethers. At a recent off-site in Stockholm we huddled at the ICEBAR and competed to see who could melt their ice glass first by licking it warm(!). And last August, we did a rather crazy room escape at Chicken Banana in Barcelona. Pictures from these events are enthusiastically shared and liked on our team’s Facebook at Work group, often in real time!

The DA Core team at King hitting up ICEBAR in Stockholm

We’re now planning our next get-together in Stockholm shortly after Easter – those in the team from more southern parts of Europe are hoping spring will have reached Sweden by then!

The future: n+1?

So this is where we are today. Knowing King (one of our company’s values is Fast & Fluid), we could be doing something completely different tomorrow. We think though that this is a pretty decent foundation for a distributed team setup.

Returning to the tech analogy, now that we’re up and running across three locations, it should be relatively easy to spin up a fourth should the need arise. You could say our team supports elastic location provisioning.

If you’re curious about this topic and would like to learn more, I suggest taking a look at the article Global Teams That Work from the October 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review.

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Kenneth MacArthur

About Kenneth MacArthur

Kenneth works in King’s Data Analytics organisation, where he helps deliver reliable, performant big data products and services to the King business. As well as doing stuff with data, Kenneth is an enthusiastic proponent of the diversity and inclusion agenda at King, and believes passionately in the business benefits of a more diverse and inclusive workplace. Currently based in London, Kenneth has also lived in Berlin, Stockholm and various parts of Scotland. He can often be spotted up Turó de la Rovira in Barcelona.