What works and what doesn't work in software development? For the first 10 years or so of my career, we followed a strict waterfall development model. Then in 2008 we started switching to an agile development model. In 2011 we added DevOps principles and practices. Our product team has also become increasingly global. This blog is about our successes and failures, and what we've learned along the way.

The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions. The comments may not represent my opinions, and certainly do not represent IBM in any way.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Working with a remote team

I'm having a little adventure this month - we just hired five contractors in Bucharest, Romania to work on my current project. They're new to our product, and we have to get them to a point where they're doing productive work very quickly. It's a challenge for sure.

I've worked with remote teams before, and this experience is re-enforcing a few rules of thumb that I have:
  • Time zones matter. Romania is 7 hours ahead of us, which means that my day starts at 9 AM and theirs ends at 10 AM. So, we've blocked off 9-10 each day to talk to each other. This is significantly easier than working with teams in India or China, where the difference is close to 12 hours. (Meetings at 8 PM? 7 AM?) However, it's significantly more difficult than working with teams in Brazil, which are only 1 hour off, or even teams in Ireland, which are 5 hours off. The Romanian team is working while I'm asleep, so I have to make sure they all have enough to do before I stop working the night before. Also, if they get stuck on something, it's easy to lose a day. So to keep them productive, ideally each of them should have a few things they could be working on. That way if they're blocked on one task they can work on another until we sync up again.
  • You should be in the same building as the people you work with most closely. Yes, you can talk to someone 4-5 times a day over the phone, but it's significantly more efficient if you can talk in person. Especially if your work sometimes involves drawing things, like design diagrams or GUI prototypes. It's also very helpful if your work involves making difficult decisions, because you can read people's body language in person. Reading body language can help you see if someone is sure or unsure of what they're saying.
  • Teach the remote team to be as independent as possible. If they get stuck on something, they need to be able to work past the problem on their own, so you don't lose a day. Also, it helps if they're working on their own set of files/features, so they're not interfering with people who they can't communicate with immediately.
  • Language skills are critical. One of the worst feelings is explaining something to a technical team on the phone, and hearing crickets in response. Did they understand what you said or not? Are they talking to each other on mute? Even a thick accent can make communication difficult, because you may have to ask someone to repeat themselves over and over. After a few tries, people may give up and try to guess what the other person is saying. That can lead to misunderstandings. You can mitigate this somewhat by speaking more slowly and carefully, and by rephrasing what you heard the other person say. But this just slows down communication, so it's best to hire people you can communicate with easily in the first place.
  • Meeting people in person, even once, helps a lot. There are people that I spent a week with in training sessions three years ago. I still go to them first with a problem, and they are more likely to help me than someone I've never met. And vice versa. In some ways, I feel like I know them better than people I've worked with for years over the phone. Meeting people face to face naturally creates a certain comfort level and familiarity that's very difficult to develop otherwise.
  • Training takes a lot of time and money. This sounds obvious, but it takes a long time to get a new set of people up to speed. On our product this ranges from a month to a year or more, depending on the specific assignment. The hidden cost is that the people doing the training are not able to spend as much time on their other assignments. This is an argument for retaining existing employees whenever possible! Also, when searching for contractors or new hires, you should put a high premium on people who already have a skill set close to what you need, even if they cost more. One other tip in this area - the time to train five or six people at once is similar to the time required to train one or two, so you should try to add people to a project in batches, not one at a time.
  • Record your training and demo sessions. We record most of our training sessions and demos (end of sprint demos and customer demos). We use Lotus Live/Sametime Unyte/Webdialogs, or Camtasia Studio, to record screen sharing along with the sound from the conference call. We post them to a shared server and link to them from our development wiki. We use those recorded sessions over and over again. They come in handy for training new developers and testers, creating beta scenarios, training sales and support teams, creating new training classes, etc. We get pretty good reuse out of the slide decks too.

Anyone else have some favorite tips? Maybe you could help me!

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