Lessons from QCon Part 2 – Working Distributed

The team I work on is split over 3 time zones, with an Office in London, Bermuda and Vancouver. Giving us an 8 hour time different to work around.So I was interested by the distributed teams track at QCon and I attended a couple of sessions to pick up some ideas about being effective with distributed teams.

The first related presentation I went to was “Technology is your office”  By Horia Dragomir, The focus of this talk was the various tools and technologies used to help smooth team work despite never being in the same location. Horia himself has always worked from home, and currently works with a small team distributed over 4 continents. The first thing I noted about this example was that the entire team were remote from each other. So not a case where some people are co-located with others elsewhere, and I think that has an enormous impact. Where everyone is just as isolated unless they make the effort, I think everyone is trying to make those communication tools work, and ALL communication has to be made via these tools so its easy to keep up with what you want to know.

This was quite the contrast to the other talk I attended “Ain’t not cure for the distributed blues”  by Dan North aka @tastapod. Whose team is a small team located in London, away from the primary location of the company in Chicago . In this situation communication is happening in local teams, but the issue can be how to get communication working across sites, and remembering to do so. Despite the differences, there were some common recommendations.

Over share.

Common failings of remote teams amount to assuming that people know what’s going on, because it seems like such an obvious thing that as perhaps been talked about a lot around you, it’s hard to realise that people in other timezones have not heard the same things. Rather appropriately about this time I got an email from our architect expecting me to be heading to a meeting with him. I thought I’d made sure everyone knew I was out at QCon, I had announced it at a scrum, but I’d failed to really make sure it had been communicated.

Get together!

Yes, being distributed most of the time can work, but there is no substitute for getting together in the actual same place occasionally to form the kind of bonds of understanding you only get by spending social time with people. Dan North said that he had been to the Chicago office 4 times in the previous year, and one of those was for 11 weeks. This he felt was crucial for developing and maintaining the group dynamic required to be effective for the rest of the year. Horia Dragomir said that his team occasionally books a house somewhere so that the whole team can just get together, even though they work during the day just like they would normally, they then make sure the rest of the time is spent being social, going for walks, going to bars, whatever just to build up social experiences with the team. He even recommended conferences, if any two of your team want to go to the same conference, send them, their working relationship will only improve for the experience.

One thing that Dan said, that related to other comments I’d heard about metrics, was that if you think working distributed is bad, why? what measurements do you have to back that assertion up? If you can measure the team effectiveness such that you can show the distribution is harmful, perhaps you can come up with good ideas to mitigate that issue.  He also said only measure anything that you can get a trend for and know that a trend one way is bad and a trend the other way is good. Any other kind of metric is a waste of time.

The one interesting benefit Horia pointed out for allowing very distributed, at home working, was that you can get talent from where ever talent is. If you are in a major hub (silicon valley) then that’s fine there is lots of talent, but they have lots of choices and they tend to move around. If you are prepared to take talent and let them work from wherever they like, then you open yourself up to a much larger talent pool. I can certainly see the appeal of living where ever I like, and simply working from there, rather than commuting to a central location, and I can see how you could really make that flexibility work for you in terms of team productivity and commitment.

Dan’s whole presentation was called ‘There ain’t no cure for the distributed blues’ and I think it boiled down to some of the same things that Horia said.
Distributed is HARD
keeping it together is hard
Communication is paramount.

4 responses to “Lessons from QCon Part 2 – Working Distributed”

  1. Thanks – I really need to think how to apply some of these. My team currently has one member in Toronto, who is always left out more than the local members. As a first step, I plan to force the company to buy some webcams, so we can at least visually include him in some of our meetings. I know you do this quite well in your team already.

    • We use skype loads, and gotomeeting is great. Also we now have video phones.But still i think the lesson of over sharing being better than under sharing is important because you still forget to tell people enough.