Acks-giving, or how we give thanks at Cockroach Labs

Acks-giving, or how we give thanks at Cockroach Labs

Every Sunday, my husband and I share what we are thankful for. While we give gratitude throughout the week, on Sundays, we make a point of saying our gratitude out loud to each other. “Sunday thankfuls” are a tradition we will teach our 9-month-old, and that we encourage our friends and family to join should they find themselves at our dinner table.

It’s important to us that we vocalize our gratitude out loud. Expressing gratitude in this way helps to keep us grounded by reminding us of the support networks, helping hands, and small acts of kindness that contribute to our overall happiness.

For many people, interactions in the workplace and connections between coworkers are deeply important to overall wellbeing. We learned in the early days of Cockroach Labs that expressing gratitude and praise for the good work of our peers was deeply important to our culture, and that there existed a desire to acknowledge and appreciate each other publicly. This developed into what we call “peer acks”, short for peer acknowledgments, a forum for celebrating the good work of our peers.

The evolution of peer acks is humble, and their origin, quite literally, treacly sweet. In the 2016 Q2 Employee Engagement Survey, engineer Raphael “kena” Poss wrote in a suggestion: “When people ask meaningful or insightful questions, peers can give them a cookie. Mini-stroopwafels.” 

We didn’t institute an actual cookie system, but this did get wheels turning on how to simply and publicly recognize peers for their work. In our initial iteration, employees could email in their shoutouts, and Ben Darnell, fellow co-founder and Chief Architect, would read them aloud at the weekly Tuesday all-hands, keeping the senders anonymous.

Jordan for quickly resolving a variety of TeamCity issues. We're quickly getting to the point where we can switch over to it.
-- The first peer ack (August 2, 2016)

Our company grew, peer acks flourished, and soon, managing the incoming acks became unwieldy. More often than not, they would flood in the afternoon of -- and frequently in the hour before -- our Tuesday all-hands, leaving Chelsea Lee, our Employee Experience and Development Programs Manager, to frantically paste them into the agenda document in the few minutes before the meeting began. A wonderful problem to have, and also a micro-tornado every Tuesday afternoon.

Andrei Matei, a CockroachDB engineer and early champion of peer acks, came to the rescue. He developed a simple web app, built on CockroachDB (one of the first internal apps to dogfood CockroachDB), that streamlined submissions, making celebrating the work of fellow Roachers even easier.


Peer Acks web app


The original web app included two submission boxes: one for single line acknowledgements, separated by a carriage return, and the other for poetry, which supported multi-line acks. Popular opinion suggests that “poetry” was likely an artifact of Andrei’s sense of humor, but nevertheless, “acknowledgements-as-poetry” are now a much cherished and anticipated echelon of peer acks.

Our Education (neé Docs) team, leveled up the wordplay with their Docs FixIt Day in early 2018, capping off a day of volunteer bug-hunting, documenting, and tutorial-writing with an evening of poetry. Each tech writer chose a particularly impactful fellow Roacher and celebrated their altruism with a long-form poem.

Time flies by
and productivity dies
when you wait thirty minutes for TeamCity to try
all of the links in your docs.

We were sitting ducks
waiting for our builds to finish like a bunch of schmucks
with very little fu– patience
left to give.

The build times were tragic
and the errors were idiosyncratic
until Nikhil came along and worked his magic
to get TeamCity down to a minute.

So let’s raise a toast
to Nikhil who can boast
that his ingenuity was the most
impactful to the Docs team– prost!

Today, peer acks are given through “/ack”, a homegrown Slack app written by one of our engineering managers, Ken Liu. Ken used the writing of the app to familiarize himself with Go, Kubernetes, and of course, CockroachDB, hosting the app on CockroachDB Dedicated to boot. And true to our open source roots, Ken open-sourced the app “Peer Acks v2”, with the repo available on GitHub.

Acks custom Slack app
While the system of delivering our acks has evolved since 2016, our intentions have remained the same: celebrating and giving thanks to each other. So perhaps it’s time for a rebrand from “peer acks” to “peer grats”. Because to me, it has always been about gratitude. Gratitude for my coworkers who have helped in a pinch. Gratitude for those who go above and beyond. Gratitude for our friends, family, and community who have supported us all these years.

/ack Thank you, and a Happy Thanksgiving!

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