Somewhere over the rainbow — distributed teams


If you’re working in this century, and managing people, odds are pretty good that they’re not sitting in the same building as you. The odds are even better that many of them are not even on the same continent, with many working enough time zones apart that even having a conversation takes planning. Welcome to the working world.

The following post makes a compelling argument for working with distributed teams: http://toni.org/2010/03/08/5-reasons-why-your-company-should-be-distributed/ In general, I’m in full agreement, however believe that its important to understand what you’re getting into and be prepared to do things that reinforce good behaviors and strongly discourage the things you’d like to avoid.

Here’s some stuff to consider:

  • Make sure that you have the right people
  • Make sure that you have the right people
  • Make sure that you have the right people, and when you’re done with that:
  • Make sure that you have the right people,

When people are remote, it can be much more difficult to identify and mitigate performance problems. With the right people for the job, you can get a ton accomplished. In some cases, even more so than if people were sitting with one another, as the number of interruptions tends to be down.

When you’re hiring people who are going to work remotely, make sure that they have the right technical skills, communicate well (both in writing as well as verbally), and are comfortable delivering news, whether it may good or bad. Candor is particularly important, as it can take much longer to figure out if something is going sideways.

There’s also the side effect that days can get stretched & more hours can be worked (particularly for telecommuters, who no longer need to spend hours sitting in traffic). After you’ve taken care of that basic step, do the things that you’d expect to do even if everyone were sitting in the same room:

  • Be clear about roles and responsibilities
  • Agree on a well understood development process and methodology
  • Make sure everyone understands what it means to follow the selected process/methodology
  • Provide a good set of collaboration and communication tools. Services like Skype, webex, voice conferencing, live meeting, and others are invaluable.
  • Ensure that your IT infrastructure is up to the task
  • If you can, use video conferencing
  • Set aside some budget for occasional travel. Something as simple as having a beer with one another can make a significant difference in people working well with one another.

There’s quite a bit to think about when managing these sorts of teams. It can definitely be done and can be done very well. Just recognize that you may need to think about some things differently.

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About Mike Rodbell

I'm a technology leader, engaged in developing software for the telecom, online commerce, and business process/analysis markets. All of the teams I've worked with have had a great deal in common. They need to be good at what they do, listen, share, and collaborate towards a shared set of goals. This blog is dedicated to those activities. I hope you enjoy reading it.
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2 Responses to Somewhere over the rainbow — distributed teams

  1. Lee Ivy says:

    Good points all, but on the whole I am not as optimistic as you are. Here are a few thoughts:

    1. You will almost surely experience issues of cultural differences between your US-based team and teams in other countries. Our US culture supports “delivering news, good or bad”, people in other cultures are often not comfortable doing this so you may get a sugar coated description of how things are going. This can be mitigated if you are prepared, but it adds an extra challenge.
    2. Look for ways to split up the work to minimize inter-dependencies between teams that are not co-located. If heavy integration is required between teams on opposite sides of the world, the risk goes up.
    3. You mentioned “days can get stretched & more hours can be worked”. I’ve found this to be dramatically true. As a west coast based manager leading a team with groups in India and the east coast, my job became nearly 24×7.
    4. You said “If you can, use video conferencing”. My experience: save the $$$ on fancy video conferencing, make sure you have good audio connections and a good network, then rely on Meeting Place, WebEx, or other such collaboration tools that provide “virtual white board” functionality. Seeing people’s faces is nice, but for a multi-site eng team I really need the ability to share slides, charts, ideas, etc.

    I agree that multi-site development is here to stay, and it can be helpful, but keep a sharp eye on the overall productivity and make sure your “savings” is not being offset by hidden costs or barriers.

    • Mike Rodbell says:

      Lee,

      Those are indeed things to watch out for. I’ve seen them go well and go very poorly. In order of your comments:

      1. as far as cultural differences, those can indeed be a challenge, but aren’t always. I think that really depends on both the cultures you’re dealing with along with the way in which you engage. Some groups are fine being candid, some not. For those that are uncomfortable with that sort of open book, the thing that I’ve seen work is a tremendous amount of travel, planting westerners on-site. Not easy, but can be done.
      2. Yes, the breakout of work can be a benefit. We’ve actually seen some pretty good success with distributed scrum. things are still broken up, but we let the team and daily standups help ensure that things don’t go sideways. Seems to work pretty well.
      3. Wow, having no overlap at all can be tiresome. We don’t have it quite as bad, with the bulk of my team on the east coast (a couple of folks out your way), and the furthest east being in eastern europe. With that, the worst distribution is around 10 hours, which, while requiring coordination, can be managed (7 a.m. for you is 10 a.m. here, which is 5 pm with our eastern european friends).
      4. Haven’t used a lot of video at my current job, but it really made a difference in my last job, particularly in ensuring that people fully connected. Lousy video gear is worst than no gear (remember the ISDN based stuff we used back at CIENA), but I’ve become a believer in the newer HD video gear. Just gotta make sure that you have the right network circuits as well (as those can render really good gear useless)

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