You may have spotted that a Viking Helmet has become a symbol of developers at Unruly appearing on our flyers at recruitment events and in our selfie video for Silicon Milkroundabout. I thought I’d share some background as this helmet represents something that is very precious to our teams, protected time for personal learning and research for every developer.

At Unruly, every developer has the option to take one Gold Card day per week. Gold card days are spent working on learning and researching new ideas. Developers often pick something to work on that is directly relevant to work, such as new technology that we want to try out but it can be anything.

As anyone who’s experienced the intensity of pair programming knows, it’s nice to get a break and do some coding on your own but developers sometimes do pair up across teams too.

To illustrate what kinds of things developers choose to work on, last weeks Gold Card topics included: 

  • Selenium grid for iPhone/Android testing,
  • building a Grunt mini-plugin to help workflow around spikes,
  • Gulp,
  • using D3 for creating an interactive graphic to show tracking events,
  • studying mathematical foundations of type systems,
  • writing a custom type and provider in Puppet,
  • reimplementing targeting code in Vert.x,
  • trying out Robolectric for Android testing,
  • investigating big memory, learning Cassandra,
  • refactoring persistent queues,
  • Ice monitoring tool from Netflix OSS.

I appreciate that our practice sounds inspired by Google’s 20% time but Gold Cards were inherited from XP practices used at Connextra (presented as an experience report at XP Universe 2001). As a member of this team, I still remember the excitement in the team when our Gold Card scheme was announced by John Nolan our CTO (see photo) to the tune of “Gold” by Spandau Ballet.


Although I already did a write up of Gold Cards in “Agile Coaching” book, I thought it was worth another blog post now that I have seen teams at Unruly following this practice for such a long time -- it's a great benefit and part of the magic formula that helps us keep moving our architecture and products forward.

I haven’t worked at Google so I don’t know the ins and outs of how it’s actually implemented but I have heard that it’s often not taken during regular work hours. Please comment on this blog if you have some better information to share. At Unruly, there are ocassional times of hectic busyness when team members decide not to take Gold Cards but if this happens it usually comes up in team retrospective and balance is restored.

Unruly’s practice of Gold cards is different than “20% time” because it’s embedded in our team practice; we cover gold cards in daily standup and track who’s taken them on our team board along with time spent on support.

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We also have Gold Card time at the end of the week, where we gather in the dev area with beer and popcorn to share what we worked on with the team. We use a viking hat as our talking token and it’s a good time for us to connect with developers in other teams.