How a developer and designer duo at Deutsche Bank keep remote collaboration alive
When engineer leader Markus Kopf and design leader Sebastian Heitzmann joined Deutsche Bank’s Digital Factory on the same day four years ago, the pair instantly clicked. Both young and from fintech backgrounds, they were determined to disrupt the mammoth 150-year-old bank’s traditional approach and legacy tech stack. (Their computers even sport matching stickers that say: “Old school bankers hate me.”)
“What we tried to bring into the company was courage, which is necessary for taking risks and being willing to fail,” Markus says. “Without it, you’ll never innovate.”
“Work husbands” at Deutsche Bank – Markus Kopf, engineer leader (L) and Sebastian Heitzmann, design leader (R)
With this mindset, Markus and Sebastian championed a new, agile leadership. Their teams are responsible for the digital products at the forefront of Deutsche Bank’s ambitious digital transformation, and the duo made sure the customer is at the center of everything they do. Products are no longer defined exclusively by stakeholders, but rather the needs of customers and users.
Markus and Sebastian also redefined the way that developers and designers collaborate. Before they joined, an external agency designed the products and then handed it off to an in-house developer who would build in a silo. This workflow perpetuated the chasm between the two teams and frequently led to communication misfires.
“Markus and I changed that completely,” says Sebastian. “We decided to sit together, work together, and talk all the time as we build products. This way both sides learn the design and technical aspects, which creates a shared understanding and language so that work becomes seamless and fun.”
Now faced with Covid-19 and a distributed team, Markus and Sebastian need to maintain creativity and cross-functional collaboration without their most valuable tool: talking face-to-face. But never fear: They’ve figured it out. Here, the dynamic duo share their thoughts on keeping their partnership (and friendship) alive in a remote setting:
Abby Sinnott: What has the transition to working from home been like for your team?
Sebastian: Luckily, our teams had already established rituals, behaviors, and a tool stack that enables cross-functional collaboration between product, design and development to truly thrive in both an office and remote setting. Though not every team in the company had processes and tools in place that would set them up for WFH success—which made transitioning all of the bank’s 80,000 employees to a completely remote way of working in less than a week quite a challenge.
Markus: For me, it’s much harder to assess the current mood of the teams via a video conference rather than an in-person chat over coffee. I’m also a fairly social person, so I miss time with my colleagues. The positive thing about working remotely is that, apart from the many meetings, I often find it easier to do deep work and stay in the flow longer.
Abby: What are the secret ingredients for making remote collaboration work?
Sebastian: In any environment, collaboration first starts with trust and a certain mindset. Two or more people need to be willing to work together and talk. For remote collaboration, the other important factor is the right tooling. Even before the pandemic hit, Inspect and prototypes have been instrumental in reducing friction between our developers and designers.
Honestly, if we didn’t have those features in place before Covid, we would have been screwed. If I look at how communication between developers and designers has improved over the last five months since we started using Inspect and prototyping, it is truly amazing. Now developers and designers are actively collaborating and working in real time together to build better products and ship them faster.
Markus: Without the luxury of jamming around the studio table, we’ve started using Freehand in a multitude of ways—it’s our new “secret weapon.” Teams use it during strategy meetings, design sessions and brainstorms to create mind maps, flow charts, wireframe sketches, mood boards, and brain-dump boards. We also discovered a fun, non-work use for Freehand—the “cat game” where each player has 45 seconds to draw a word, which (obviously) needs to include a picture of a cat.
The team at Deutsche Bank uses Freehand for cross-functional collaboration and also to have fun.
Our teams work with Freehand every day, which has removed barriers and breaks in the workflow between engineers and designers. As a result, creative design work and creative development are much closer and have an improved workflow, which gives both disciplines more space and time, ultimately leading to better products and customer experiences
Meet the new Freehand
Abby: You call each other your “work husbands.” What’s the best thing about working with one another?
Markus: The best thing about working with Seb is that we trust each other unconditionally and on a highly professional level. Since we both have a wealth of experience in product development and know our craft, we share and develop ideas with one another. It’s just so much fun working with him.
Sebastian: As in any good marriage, it’s important that your partner understands you. Markus and I started working in the bank on the same day and when we met for the first time in the corridor, we just clicked and developed a strong professional and personal relationship. We can communicate non-verbally and read each other’s faces—we know what the other is talking about without saying it out loud, which has helped us in many meetings.
Abby: Why do you think it’s so important to have a work partner in development or design?
Markus: Design speaks to the user and technology enables the design to come alive. In order to build the best product for the customer, I need a “partner in crime” whom I trust blindly, otherwise it’s impossible to build a very good, or even good product.
Sebastian: Building products requires different skills, more than just design and development, including colleagues in business, management, stakeholders, infrastructure and architecture. Though in the end, it’s the developers and designers who breathe life into a digital product. For me, it’s those special moments when a developer and designer see the results of their work on a device for the first time, or deploy a website together. You look into each other’s eyes and “high five.“
Abby: You’re close friends outside of work and can often be found in the pub after work enjoying gin and tonics. Have you been able to socialize “remotely” and if so, how?
Markus: Seb and I meet remotely almost every day.. We also have to balance our time with our families, which I think is a challenge when someone is lucky enough to find a colleague to share their passion with—inside and outside of work.
Sebastian: Markus and I actually talk to each other every day outside of work via video chat. We review the day, ask each other how we’re doing, or just general nerd-talk as we share the same love for technology.
Markus and his wife Tanja have just become parents and his daughter, Jula also participates in our virtual meetings from time to time. For the time being, we still haven’t enjoyed any remote gin and tonics; we’ll save those for when the pandemic is over…