Jonathan Sumner Evans
Sumner Evans
Software Engineer at Beeper

Mexico City, Mexico --- Work Retreat

Posted on in Work Retreats • 2008 words • 10 minute read
Tags: Travel, Mexico City, Mexico, Beeper, Work

This week, my company (Beeper) had our Fall retreat in in Mexico City, Mexico. We have company retreats about once every four months and this was our fourth. Similar to all the previous retreats, the goal was to provide valuable in-person time to collaborate and connect as a team on a personal level. I was able to meet a couple people who had joined the company since the last retreat and reconnect with many coworkers that I’d met during previous retreats.

We had fifteen members of the team at this retreat. We stayed at a hotel called Camino Real Polanco, and we were able to utilize some office space from another Y-Combinator startup. Having the office was a nice change from the remote locale of the Portugal retreat. The office had a great view of the city.

I shared a room with Bradley who works on our desktop app. The hotel room was quite nice and there were quite a few restaurants close by. The retreat was less communal in feeling than the previous two in Playa del Carmen and Portugal, but (as I’ll describe later) this retreat was more work-intense than the previous ones and having the ability to go back to our rooms to decompress was quite nice.

Meeting Coworkers

One of the best things about the retreats is being able to put a physical person behind the Zoom box that I see every day at standups and planning meetings. This retreat I was able to meet three people for the first time: Obed, a Puerto Rican member of our support team; Matt “Laser”, an Android developer from Ohio; and Max, a Finnish backend developer who is currently working on our new Slack and Discord bridges.

I was also able to spend time with people who I’d met at previous retreats. We have demos every week on Monday where anyone in the team can demo what they are working on, but not everyone demos something every week, making the retreats a nice time to hear about what people have been working on for the past few months. Since the last retreat, I have mainly been heads-down on a project called Hungryserv with Toni and Tulir so I haven’t been as attuned to what everyone else working on.

Working and Learning

This retreat was the most meeting-heavy one we’ve had, but each meeting was extremely valuable. We had five full-team meetings, and I think that if the only thing that we did during the retreat were those meetings, the whole retreat would have been worth it.

On Tuesday, Eric talked about our plan for next year and laid out an exciting vision for the company. It’s always great to hear his high-level thoughts on where the company is going. Obviously I can’t share most of it publicly, but I can say that the future is bright, and you can expect big things from Beeper in the new year.

Retro

The week kicked off with a retro meeting led by Brad. We of course had to get our sticky note peeling lesson from Annie so that our retro post-it notes wouldn’t bend at the sticky part and subsequently fall off of the windows.

We had a beautiful view of Mexico City in the background as the team participated in what has become the unofficial starting point of each retreat.

Obed (standing right) discussing his retro sticky notes

We had a beautiful view of Mexico City in the background as the team participated in what has become the unofficial starting point of each retreat.

There were a few themes which I felt were especially prevalent throughout the retro which was overall extremely positive.

On the infrastructure side, there was an overwhelming sense that the Hungryserv project has been a resounding success. The project was a brainchild of a couple of discussions that myself and Toni had just before the Portugal retreat. During the last retreat, it was still vaporware, but over the last few months, with Tulir, Toni, and myself full-time on the project, we are now poised to ship to production. In fact, even in August, we were close enough to having it working that I was able to give a presentation about the project at the 2022 Berlin Matrix Community Summit.

Another highlight was the reorganization of the teams a couple months ago which put more people on the iOS project. Since then, we’ve made great progress on the iOS application. The team has worked hard restructuring much of the app including rewriting the backend data storage systems and rewriting the conversation view. Although most of the work they’ve done is not immediately visible, the improvements have made the app significantly faster and more reliable.

On the Android side of things, we entirely overhauled the Android SMS bridge, and users can now set Beeper as their Android SMS app. The desktop app has also seen many improvements including a new conversation view with advanced power-user features and a greatly improved timeline. All of the clients have also implemented functionality to display when each message gets delivered successfully to the external network.

I always like the retros because it’s a time for us to take a step back from the day-to-day and take stock of what we’ve accomplished, and think about what we can do to be a more effective team.

Matrix is Simple

Unfortunately, not everything is going well, and the complexity of the Matrix SDKs our clients use has been the cause of much pain. However, much of the complexity is unnecessary since, at its core, Matrix (the protocol we are building Beeper on) is simple.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Brad gave two comprehensive presentations covering the fundamentals of Matrix from a client perspective. The first one was about the inner workings of sync: the way that data is provided to the clients in real-time. In general, I was quite familiar with sync because I implemented significant portions of it for Hungryserv. I think it was valuable to have all of that information consolidated in a single presentation. The second presentation was about how encrypted messages work in Matrix. Brad covered things like how the device verification process works and what keys exist and how they are shared between devices. I was generally familiar with how encryption works in the Matrix ecosystem, however I didn’t know much about how key sharing or device verification worked, so it was great to get some background on that.

On Thursday, we had a meeting about best practices for clients to follow. Some of the topics discussed were how to handle specific edge cases while other topics included best practices for event storage structures.

Although there are many pieces to Matrix, it is elegant and simple in many ways. Many of the problems that our clients have are due to mishandling of sync or encryption deep within the various libraries that we are using. I think that now that everyone in the company has a working understanding of those fundamental pieces we can more effectively identify the root causes of bugs and fix the issues that our users experience.

Odds and Ends

Other than the meetings with the entire team, there were quite a few other planning meetings that subsets of the team participated in. Most of the people that I work with directly were not at the retreat, but I joined in a couple of ad hoc conversations about various topics.

Max was the only person there on my direct team, and he was working on infinite backfill for the Slack bridge. I provided “moral support” to his efforts, and occasionally offered insights into how the other infinite-backfill-enabled bridges work.

BRAD Day

Every three weeks we have a Beeper Radical Awesomeness Day (BRAD). It’s a day that every employee in the company can work on anything we want, so long as it’s company-related, and as long as we present it at the following week’s demo meeting.

It just so happened that the Friday of the retreat coincided with our regularly scheduled BRAD days, so we all got to hack on fun projects on Friday. I chose to work on the GroupMe bridge which had been worked on by Annie and Nick at the Montreal retreat over a year ago, but needed some serious attention. I spent the day getting it up to current Beeper standards for bridge building, and will continue working on it during the next BRAD day.

Other people on the team did cool projects as well. Max worked on rendering a UI on an embedded device that has a BlackBerry keyboard and a monochrome screen with the goal of eventually having it run a lightweight Beeper client; Tiago worked on integrating Google’s password store into the Android app; and Wellington added recently used emojis to the iOS app. There were quite a few other cool projects as well. It’s always nice to have some time to work on quality-of-life features that aren’t currently high priority on the roadmap.

Salsa Time

One of the best things about Beeper retreats is the awesome food we get to have every day.

This retreat, we had caterers serve us breakfast and lunch every day. The food was great every day.

In the evenings we went to various restaurants for team dinners. For example, on Wednesday, we went to a fantastic Tapas restaurant. There was so much rich and delicious food!

Every dish was great, and they kept coming!

The team enjoying a huge selection of tapas

Every dish was great, and they kept coming!

On Tuesday, we went to a salsa cooking class. The class was hosted in a historic district of Mexico City by local culinary instructors. We fixed four delicious salsas: a pico de gallo, a chilli oil salsa, a creamy tomato-based salsa, and a roasted salsa. The salsas were all “table salsas” meaning that they are traditionally served at the table to add flavour to the dish. These salsas tend to be spicier than the other type of salsa which is a “cooking salsa”. Such salsas are used in the dishes themselves while being cooked.

Are We One Team?

During the retrospective meeting, Scott posed the question “Are we one team?” with the connotation of trying to understand if we see ourselves as a single team with specializations in various areas, or as separate teams at the same organization. The Beeper team is still under 30 people and there are many large companies where single teams are that size. Leading up to this retreat, I think that culturally, we were one team: we all have a strong common goal and mandate and we are all focused towards it.

However, I think there were some functional divides within the team. The biggest divide was between “people who understood Matrix” and “people who cope with Matrix”. After this retreat, I think that divide has been bridged, and everyone now has a working understanding of the underlying technology we are building Beeper on.

The other divide was between client-side and server-side. During the retreat, I think there was a shift towards understanding that we have control over the entire stack. Our client devs don’t have to treat the server as a black box that can’t be modified. If there are server changes that can make clients easier to write, then we can make those changes. If they are generally applicable to others, we can even contribute them to the Matrix Spec through the MSC process, but developing things that work is our priority.

The retreat was a great opportunity to foster relationships across the team and remember that we are all working towards the common goal of making the best damn chat app in the world. We are at the beginning of something great and I’m excited to see what we can accomplish as one team!