With the constant pressure to both find and then execute on client projects, agencies often lose sight of the possibility of working on internal projects. While the initial reaction is often to dismiss them as a distraction from the important client facing work, carefully chosen interal projects can be very valuable. Aside from the obvious benefit of solving internal problems that might not have a readily available solution, they also provide training opportunities for developers. They give you a chance to try new ways of doing things with relatively low risk, or perhaps preview new languages and frameworks you've been considering.
Here at OmbuLabs, we use internal projects for all of these reasons, and we've found them to be a valuable part of our company culture. Here's a brief sampling of the most prominent ones we've been working on:
Dash - While Github and Pivotal integrate reasonably well, we found that what they provided didn't quite match our desired workflow. We needed more than just a way to link Github activity to Pivotal stories. We wanted to have an overview of both in dashboard form. Dash lets us see our open stories and PRs together in one place.
Points - As a development agency, estimating projects is a critically important task, and one that's worth spending significant effort to get right. Getting estimates wrong has consequences in any business, but when you're doing the work for other people, those consequences can be especially bad. One thing we quickly figured out is that when it comes to estimates, two heads are better than one. Points is a tool that we developed so that multiple developers, typically the ones who will be doing the actual work, can weigh in with their estimates. The band of estimated values that develops has turned out to be surprisingly accurate in most cases - and those cases where it hasn't have invariably been important learning opportunities.
Our Blog - The very blog you're reading now is an in-house project. We looked at a few different options for adding a blog to our website, but none of them really fit the bill. They either lacked features we wanted, or didn't integrate as seamlessly with our main site as we wanted.
Fast Ruby - As a productized service offering, a pre-canned template site simply wasn't an option here. We knew the design and concept for the site would most likely change quite a bit over time, so a custom written site was the way to go.
Ombushop - This started life as a flagship project by our founder, intended to address a lack of e-commerce options in Latin American countries. It's also a useful case study for our Rails development services.
As developers, there's always a temptation for us to start writing our own tools the minute we find a problem with no obvious off the shelf solution. While creating your own is all well and good, it's still a good idea to stop and ask yourself if you really need to. Sometimes you really can solve a problem you have with an existing service or tool, if you just look a little harder. Like most organizations, we struggled with documenting organizational knowledge for a long time. Like many of you, we initially tried using Wiki software as the repository for our internal documentation. Like many who've gone this route before us, we found it somehow didn't quite fit the bill - we wanted internal documentation, not an internal encyclopedia - and it wound up languishing. We cast around for alternatives for a long time, until we found Tettra, which seems to do the job for now.
We've found that carefully, mindfully considering internal problems and implementing our own solutions to them where necessary is a useful exercise for trying new things, and for honing our skills at evaluating problems. The next time you hit a pain point in your shop, ask yourself: what's the simplest solution that we can build ourselves that will solve this, and how else can I make it valuable? Is this an opportunity to try that new framework we've been interested in? Or a good chance for a more junior developer to get a rare opportunity to do some greenfield development? Try a few carefully chosen internal projects, and see for yourself if it ends up being a useful exercise. If you're anything like us, you'll find that more often than not, they are.