Jonathan Sumner Evans
Sumner Evans
Software Engineer at Beeper

Ericeira, Portugal --- Work Retreat

Posted on in Work Retreats • 2842 words • 14 minute read
Tags: Travel, Ericeira, Portugal, Beeper, Work

I spent the first week of my trip at a Beeper company retreat in Ericeira, Portugal: a town about an hour northwest of Lisbon. We were staying at an event venue called Alma do Paço. The goal of all of the work retreats is to allow the team to have a week of focused collaboration. We tried to take advantage of having all of the teams together by working on some cross-team projects. We also try to have whole-team meetings such as retrospectives, planning and brainstorming discussions, and other meetings. The retreats are also our main opportunity to meet coworkers in-person and are great times to build relationships. I find that meeting people in person is extremely helpful for making the online interactions feel personal.

I’d met most of the people who attended this retreat at either the Montreal retreat or the Mexico retreat, but there were four teammates who I hadn’t met before: Brandon, an iOS developer (and my roommate for the week); Samer, a support agent; Toni, an infrastructure developer; and Ivan, our product designer.

At one point during the retreat someone commented that the group was so cohesive and friendly that they had a hard time remembering who they had not met in person. I think that is just a testament to the effectiveness of our remote culture.

The Venue

The location of our retreat was beautiful. Alma do Paço is just outside of the town of Santo Isidoro and is often used for weddings. It is built within the ruins of a fourteenth century royal summer home. The views were great, and the beach was a 30 minutes walk away.

We were out in the country, and the views were spectacular.

The view over the countryside from our retreat venue

We were out in the country, and the views were spectacular.

A few of us went on Sunday and at other points during the week. I went again on Wednesday and on Friday.

The beach near our retreat venue

A few of us went on Sunday and at other points during the week. I went again on Wednesday and on Friday.

Our workspace for the week was almost entirely outdoors. We spent a lot of time under the open-air tent that was set up outside. The area around the firepit was also nice when there was some shade. The small chapel area was covered, but there was only a small (fairly ineffective) mobile air conditioning unit which made the space difficult to use during the hottest parts of the day.

We used the tent for all of our main team meetings.

The team listening to Eric lay out the company vision

We used the tent for all of our main team meetings.

Our Hosts

The Alma do Paço hosts were on-site helping accommodate us every day. The main host: Chaplain (I think he’s the owner of the property) is an Australian, and Carolien (not to be confused with the Caroline at Beeper) is native Portuguese.

The primary thing they did was provide food for us every day (except for a few meals which we had at offsite locations). Breakfast was always an array of bread and a variety of jams and other spreads along with cheese and prosciutto. Lunch and dinner featured a variety of meals from some vegetarian meals, to seafood. They were all quite good, but we often did not have enough. For quite a few meals, we ran out of food too quickly which was very unfortunate.

Work, But Not Too Hard

Since it was a work trip, we did have to do some work. However, we focused on more collaborative full-company or cross-team meetings and projects.

Retro!

In what seems to be the standing tradition at the retreats, we had a retrospective meeting on Monday morning to kick off the week. At the retro, everyone had a few minutes to write sticky notes covering five categories: what is going well, what is not going well, ideas for things we should be doing, outstanding questions, and shoutouts. Then, everyone took turns reading their sticky notes and people were free to make small additional comments. The “shoutouts” category was new for this retreat and consisted of mentioning people who had made a noticeable impact that you wanted to recognize. For example, one of mine was for our support team. They work to inform users about how to use the product and also help smooth over any service disruptions or bugs that users run into. They also work to inform the engineering team about what issues users are facing.

Caroline (standing left) is discussing her retro sticky notes as Brad (standing right) looks on.

The team participating in the retrospective meeting

Caroline (standing left) is discussing her retro sticky notes as Brad (standing right) looks on.

On Mission

On Tuesday, Eric laid out the company vision and how it relates to our short, medium, and long term plans. He has done this every retreat, and while overall the same, each time a few more ideas come into focus and I am finding it easier to see how what we are working on currently aligns with the very ambitious goal that we have to “build the best damn chat app”. One of the new things this time was the unveiling of our mission statement: make it easy for everyone on Earth to chat with each other.

Discuss and Plan

Other meetings included an hour or so on Monday discussing what we could build for the support team to help them improve their processes. Out of that, a few action items arose, some of which ended up being worked on during the retreat. Additionally on Monday afternoon, each of the engineering teams had a tooling planning session. My team (Scott, Eric Rabil, Tulir, and myself) spent a lot of ours by walking around the neighborhood talking about things that we wanted to make easier for ourselves such as improving our deployment queue functionality and consolidating more logic in shared libraries.

We also had a security brainstorming meeting on Tuesday led by Brad to discuss what we could do to harden the security of the platform. After that we also had a discussion about database reliability and how to ensure that bridges (the services which connect Beeper to the external networks) reliably reconnect in the case of temporary database outages (an issue that we have been running into more recently due to the large number of upgrades happening to the database layer of our platform).

On Wednesday, we had a meeting to discuss how to scale the platform. One of the main things that we discussed as a potential option is to create a specialized server for non-federated bridge traffic. This is a project that myself and Toni had started working on a bit already and we discussed ways to try and test it out and eventually get it into production as well as possible alternative approaches. The project is called hungryserv since it’s for unfederated traffic.

Writing Some Code

Monday and Tuesday and some of Wednesday were (I think intentionally) very meeting heavy and the meetings were a great way to make sure everyone was aligned. In the back half of the week, we focused on cross-team initiatives and other collaborative projects.

I spent most of my time working on hungryserv (the unfederated Matrix homeserver proof of concept that I mentioned earlier). Toni worked on roomserv which is another component that will be needed to help scale. My goal was to get hungryserv to the point where you could run a simple bridge against it. Throughout the process, I relied heavily on Tulir’s expertise with the spec and how all of the endpoints work. I didn’t quite get there by the end of the week, but I got very close.

At one point, Ian asked me for some help compiling a project that he built on Linux (he wasn’t able to cross compile it from his Mac due to dynamic linking). We ended up setting up an automated GitHub action so that the build process could happen automatically on all relevant platforms. Ian hadn’t used GitHub Actions before, so I was able to help advise with some of my experience with it. It was a neat collaboration with someone that I don’t normally have any context to collaborate with (Ian is on the iOS team currently, so we don’t interact often day-to-day).

I also paired with Rabil to finish up proper bridging of link previews from iMessage to Beeper. This feature allows, iMessage users to see a nice preview of the link in the message sent from Beeper and vice versa. All of the other bridges have had this for a while, but iMessage had some specific challenges that made it more difficult, and was best done when we could each quickly ask questions of one another while staring at each other’s code.

I’m pretty sure we were putting the finishing touches on iMessage link previews here.

Sumner, Eric Rabil, and Tulir coding while sitting near the fire

I’m pretty sure we were putting the finishing touches on iMessage link previews here.

One of the major cross-team initiatives for the week was message send status indicators which will help inform users when errors happen while bridging their messages to other platforms. Scott led a mini “hackathon” and facilitated many discussions and test sessions to ensure that the way that we were handling it is consistent across all of the apps, makes sense to the users, and also has as few edge cases as possible. I didn’t participate much in the hackathon, but I did contribute in a small way by writing a bit of bridge “mock” code (code that emulates what a real bridge would do) to help the client teams test their functionality.

Chatwoot! (And Other Shenanigans)

We got a lot of things done during the retreat, but we also got into a lot of shenanigans as well.

At one point, Gerardo mentioned that he had noticed that I seem to be very quick to read messages whenever Chatwoot is being discussed. This is true since I set up “Chatwoot” as one of the keywords that I have notify me noisily (and break through any other chat muting that I have). The reason for this is that I wrote the Chatwoot bot that the support team uses and so I added it as a keyword so that I would be notified any time that people had problems with the bot. Well, everyone started typing Chatwoot in our various chats all the time just to notify me. Throughout the week, “chatwoot” would appear in random chats at random hours of the day which was amusing and became the de-facto motto for the retreat.

Funnily enough, one of the small projects I worked on during the week was an addition to the Chatwoot bot and I had to deploy a new version of the bot a few times. Unfortunately, the bot isn’t in our continuous deployment system, so it has to be upgraded manually. Hence, Nick (one of the members of the infrastructure team) became my CD system for the day. For a few hours, every time I walked over to him it would be so that he could deploy a new hash to production. After a few times, every time I’d come over he’d see me and ask what I’d broken that time. Even the next day when I came over to talk to Nick, his first question was “what hash do I need to deploy?” and “what have you done this time?” :)

Alma do Paço has a large fire pit within the ruins area and every evening we started a fire and sat around talking and drinking until late into the evening. Adam was always the one who started the fire in the evening and so we promoted him to the C-suite as our CFO (Chief Fire Officer). Luckily, Scott who was dubbed as our Chief Safety Officer after leading us safely back to the Airbnb during the last retreat was there to oversee and approve the fire.

The nightly bonfires were great team bonding times and I think a couple of good ideas came out of discussions around the fire, however, the most of the ideas were probably horrible and mainly inspired by the alcohol. One evening, we played a game that was some twisted combination of charades and taboo that was very fun and got everyone doing ridiculous motions and saying ridiculous things to get their team to guess the words in a deck of cards. Another time, Scott told a “story” about the barwich: an ice cream sandwich on bottom combined with an ice cream bar on top. He told this elaborate story about how he’d seen them in Japan years ago, but hadn’t seen them again… until a store in Portugal! On Monday, we had s’mores around the fire and it was the first time that some of the non-North-American team members had had a s’more! These were very fancy s’mores, though: they were chocolate covered marshmallows so you had to be very careful to not melt the chocolate off the marshmallow. We also had very tiny sticks and which made roasting the marshmallows a quite warming experience.

We got to learn a lot about each other around the fire pit and it was a really fun time each evening.

Getting ready to play a game around the fire one evening

We got to learn a lot about each other around the fire pit and it was a really fun time each evening.

Activities

We clearly managed to make up our own fun, but there were also some planned team activities throughout the week as well.

Getting In Shape

On Tuesday, we went on a mountain biking tour. It wasn’t super intense compared to mountain biking back home in Colorado since it was mainly just around the hills in the area, but I’m not a mountain biker so it was novel and a bit challenging for me. The views were spectacular. We stopped at many overlooks, including this one where we took a team picture:

The views were spectacular during the entire ride, but the company was even better!

The team in front of a scenic cliff overlook during our biking tour

The views were spectacular during the entire ride, but the company was even better!

The weather was fantastic for the ride, which made it very enjoyable, but we definitely got our exercise!

We spent time on both trails and roads during our ride. It was all very scenic.

Biking along the road back towards our retreat location

We spent time on both trails and roads during our ride. It was all very scenic.

Beach Time

I made a few trips down to the beach: on Sunday when I arrived, on Wednesday with Scott, Finn, and Nick, and on Friday with a lot more of the team. I got into the water on Sunday and on Friday. It was much warmer on Sunday and while cold, it was refreshing. The tide was also high, so the rocks which protect much of the beach from the large waves were effective, but still submerged enough that you could swim over them.

On Friday, it was a different story entirely: it was very cold, and the tide was low so the rocks were exposed making walking out to open water difficult in that area. There was another area which was exposed more directly to the ocean without a rock barrier. Some of us walked over to that area and tried out the water, but we didn’t go too far in because the rip tide was very strong with the large waves crashing onto the beach and receding back to the ocean. The water was very cold as well, so we didn’t stay long in the water.

Thursday Event

On Thursday, we went on a bus tour to Óbidos (a mediaeval town), Fátima (a Catholic church built on the location where Mary is said to have appeared to three children), and Nazaré, a town known for its surfing and is massive waves.

Our guide didn’t give as much commentary as I would have hoped, but I’ll show you some pictures of each location.

A panoramic shot taken from the top of the wall around Óbidos

On the left is a shrine where Catholics make pilgrimages to light candles and such. The square is modeled very similar to the square in the Vatican and has been visited by the Pope multiple times.

The main square at the church at Fátima

On the left is a shrine where Catholics make pilgrimages to light candles and such. The square is modeled very similar to the square in the Vatican and has been visited by the Pope multiple times.

There were no big waves the day that we was there, but apparently, the waves get very big. A surfer recently surfed a wave that was 26.21 metres (86 feet) high!

The coast of Nazaré

There were no big waves the day that we was there, but apparently, the waves get very big. A surfer recently surfed a wave that was 26.21 metres (86 feet) high!

During the tour, we stopped at a seafood restaurant and Caroline, Rabil, and myself shared a dish with freshly baked fish, potatoes, and vegetables.

The fish was very fresh, caught that morning I assume.

The waiter presenting the freshly caught fish

The fish was very fresh, caught that morning I assume.

Dinner by the Seaside

After the tour, we went back to Alma do Paço for a few hours and then headed to a dinner at a seaside restaurant.

The food was quite good, but the view was amazing.

The sunset was a beautiful to our meal.

The team eating dinner on Thursday

The sunset was a beautiful to our meal.

Conclusion

I always enjoy the retreats; they are great times to bond with the team, collaborate in person, and bring everything that we work on day-to-day into perspective.

It was a pleasure meeting some new co-workers, and I enjoyed continuing getting to know the ones that I’d already met a bit better. I’m looking forward to the next retreat and I’m excited to be a part of what Beeper is going to accomplish in the future!