Leveling Up Sparkbox Through the Task Force Model

08-05-20 Lindsay Silver

Learn how we leveled up our team in accessibility through a task force model and continuous education.

A Beautiful Beginning

Sit with me for a moment and imagine the setting: golden light filters over a small patio, blue skies and verdant mountains surround us. My coworkers, Heather, Kasey, and I sit by a bubbling fountain, enjoying ice cream while recapping our excitement after attending an amazing web accessibility training in Logan, Utah led by the WebAIM team.

We learned so much about web accessibility in the two-day training. We deepened our understanding of the W3C’s WCAG guidelines as well as domestic and international laws relating to accessibility. We also learned how individuals with disabilities broadly use the web and techniques for how to tackle existing issues on websites.

We couldn’t wait to share what we had learned with our company and to add more web accessibility testing and remediation into our processes. The three of us decided to form a task force when we got back home. During the dedicated hours of professional development time that Sparkbox grants its employees each week, we would work on the following three goals:

1. Produce a few passionate experts of accessibility within Sparkbox.

Obtaining International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) certifications would be a major part of allowing Sparkboxers as well as clients to recognize certain people on our team as experts. The IAAP is a not-for-profit organization recognized for and dedicated to advancing accessibility professionals through education, certification, and networking.

2. Level up all Sparkbox developers to have a foundational understanding of web accessibility.

All the developers at Sparkbox should have a base understanding of accessibility when developing web applications so they can understand bugs that might be found and be able to fix them or find an expert to help.

3. Create a strategy for continuously educating Sparkboxers.

Like anything else on the web, to be able to create accessible websites, we acknowledged that we must be learning continuously to keep our techniques contemporary. We would lead learning sessions, workshops, and facilitate webinar watching sessions to keep everyone current.

The Accessibility Task Force

After proposing our Accessibility Task Force (ATF) to Ben and Rob (president and vice president at Sparkbox), we made enormous progress in the span of a year:

In the additional year since then, the ATF has grown to six dedicated people. We are giving ongoing microtrainings all the time to our fellow coworkers, on subjects such as new accessibility tools to try, understanding dyslexia, and becoming an accessibility advocate on projects. We facilitate ongoing lunch sessions where we watch accessibility webinars, and we have also written up internal resources that set new Sparkbox standards for web accessibility. Four more Sparkboxers plan to take the IAAP WAS exam in August of this year, and one project manager plans to take the CPACC exam.

The Task Force Model

The ATF was the first task force at Sparkbox, and it inspired the creation of five others that now focus on different web development areas, including HTML & CSS, Development Practices, Build Tooling, and Secure Development Practices.

Sparkbox has a culture of knowledge sharing, so supporting and creating task forces made sense for our organization. Even if your organization does not operate the same way, learning from our task force model and goals can help you level up your developers’ skill sets and modernize your company’s processes.

The Goal of a Task Force

At Sparkbox, the general mission of each task force is to advance our current development practices and each developer’s skill set through training, documentation, research, publishing content, and mentoring.

Task forces operate autonomously and are empowered by people excited about the subject matter. Sparkbox has recommended that task forces meet weekly, and each is appointed a technical lead that will help them set some qualitative and quantitative goals that they can accomplish over six-month intervals.

The Benefits of Task Forces

Cultivate Leadership and Support Professional Growth

Task forces enable excited individuals to spend time on web development practices that matter to them. Task forces also allow them to become experts in that area with the expectation that they will also level up others around them through teaching, pair programming, sharing resources, or even through new tools that they create. Through these requirements, task forces allow people to practice leadership skills, helping them grow in not just a certain web-specific area, but as a tech lead as well.

Additionally, the ATF has been able to share our findings even more widely and gain recognition outside of Sparkbox for our accessibility expertise. Kasey created the 13 Days of Accessibility to explain the difficult and cumbersome WCAG guidelines in a multi-day Twitter post and interactive website. Corinne presented on “How to Be an Accessibility Advocate” to hundreds of viewers at Sparkbox’s 2020 Unconference event. Most recently, the ATF put together a social media campaign about how to give an accessibility elevator pitch to stakeholders you might need to convince at your organization.

Keep Company Processes Contemporary and Innovative

By allowing people to flourish and explore areas they are interested in, the most up-to-date standards become incorporated into development processes and daily client projects.

The ATF is proof of how we were able to increase the knowledge of our development team. By allowing and supporting passionate developers like me to attain certifications, we have been able to come back to lead things like workshops and mini trainings at a company-level to educate our fellow developers on the subject matter.

We have also been able to write new standards, such as the Sparkbox approach to web accessibility and an accessibility onboarding document for new hires, both of which support new business proposals and give Sparkbox a more consistent approach and understanding of accessibility.

For the accessibility task force, we are also constantly bringing our learnings back to projects. We understand how to diagnose accessibility issues now and fix them. We also are working on new ways to perform audits, write up accessibility bugs, and incorporate automated and manual tooling into our daily and weekly processes.

Task Forces Produce Results

Whether you are hoping to produce some new expertise at your company, increase your developers’ understanding of a certain area, add a new facet to your project process, or just devote effort to a new interesting subject matter, the task force model can help you. Task forces provide a structured outlet for passionate individuals to invest time in a topic, which can then produce results across an organization.

At Sparkbox, task forces allow us to pursue professional development, gain leadership experience, and permit our organization to grow as a whole.

Sparkbox Task Force Resources

Accessibility Task Force

Build Tooling Task Force

HTML & CSS Task Force

Development Practices Task Force