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Fixing things up in Color Engineering – Color

Ryan Barrett

Many startups are familiar with the idea of Hack Days and Hack Weeks. We’ve had a few successful ones over the years at Color. Fixit Weeks are less common, but just as important! Even the best engineering teams gradually accumulate tech debt over time that needs to be fixed.

Kim Scott notes in Radical Candor that Fixit Week is a chance “to fix old and annoying problems that have been bothering people for months. It’s like cleaning out the utensil drawer where you spilled honey three months ago, but never quite found the time to take all the knives and forks out and scrub properly.”

We do routine maintenance and cleanup on an ongoing basis, alongside our core product roadmap development. Fixit Week helps us focus on bigger cleanup projects and sand-in-the-gears fixes that we haven’t quite managed to tackle yet. It might sound boring, but for engineers, it’s actually a lot of fun.

Last week was Color’s third Fixit Week. We kept a list of all the ideas and bugs we hoped to fix, voted on the ones we wanted most, and kept a running tally of who’d fixed what. At the end of the week, we held a ceremony and awarded prizes based on judges’ votes, popular choice, and special categories. Prizes came from — where else? — the local hardware store.

Katsuya Noguchi, one of the Color engineers who participated in Fixit Week.

We made the most of the opportunity:

  • Added perceptual diffs to our continuous integration to catch unintentional UI changes.
  • Redesigned our engineering interview process to be more hands on and better aligned with our actual daily work.
  • Prototyped an OCR integration that will let clients activate kits by taking a picture instead of typing in long numbers and barcodes.
  • Automated a number of processes for benefits providers that we’d been doing by hand, slowly and laboriously.
  • Automatically generate invoices that our support team was creating manually.
  • Automated employee onboarding and account creation across dozens of services.
  • Switched one of our analytics tools, Metabase, to use single-sign-on instead of VPN, making it more convenient to use outside of the office.
  • Added more important information to the tools used by our genetic counselors, so it’s at their fingertips when they talk with clients and they don’t have to interrupt conversations.
  • Upgraded a number of big libraries and frameworks to new major versions: Python, Angular, and more.

One of my favorite parts of Fixit Week isn’t even the week at all, but afterward. We’ve been living with most of these rough edges for so long, we’ve gotten used to them. We only notice them again after they’re gone, and our lives are a little better, just a bit, in dozens of ways. It’s therapeutic, even liberating.

It almost makes me want to try it at home. Robotic kitty litter box, anyone?

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