Apr 232012

Work­ing on remote, widely-distributed teams has its advant­ages (I can work from home in my base­ment, wear­ing whatever I feel like) but also, of course, its dis­ad­vant­ages. In par­tic­u­lar, when the team is work­ing against a hard dead­line, being sep­ar­ated means not able to gather in front of a white­board, or eas­ily meet to dis­cuss the prox­im­ate cause of some bug.

For the latest deadline-driven push to com­plete the test­ing and bug-fixing on time to deliver to the cli­ent, with a five-person team work­ing in timezones from East­ern Canada to Bris­bane, Aus­tralia (with a couple of us on Pacific time in the middle and the pro­ject man­ager on Chicago time), we star­ted a group chat using skype. Teams have done this for years, of course, using IRC, so the tech­nique isn’t new. Skype has the nice fea­ture that you can switch cli­ents (in my case from PC to Mac laptop to Android phone), and the chats auto­mat­ic­ally sync so you can catch up on what happened since you last logged on (in my case also answer ques­tions while sit­ting in a con­cert at my son’s school, or at the air­port). Yes, I’ve heard the con­cerns about secur­ity back doors with skype but the choice of chat sys­tem isn’t mine to make. 

Seven days, 2351 lines, and 29964 words later, we shipped. Coordin­at­ing the test files, regres­sion test­ing, bug fixes, and doc­u­ment­a­tion updates with the com­pet­ing pro­jects, late nights, and timezone issues would have been much more dif­fi­cult with any other means of com­mu­nic­a­tion. Yes, the chat got con­fus­ing at times with vari­ous issues being dis­cussed sim­ul­tan­eously amongst the three of us who were most involved, and there was a cer­tain amount of “can you remind what that issue was about again”, but some of that was due to the late nights and dead­line pres­sure rather than the medium of com­mu­nic­a­tion.

And it was fun, more fun than email mes­sages. Chats are more imme­di­ate, less formal, we made each other laugh and wandered off topic at times, which doesn’t hap­pen much in email in a cor­por­ate set­ting. It’s some­how easier to write “well done!” or “I need cof­fee” or “can you explain that again” in a chat than email. And in some ways it’s almost easier than being in the same room with people. With the amount of work in a short time, and late nights/long days, tem­pers occa­sion­ally get short and irrit­a­tion rises. In a chat it’s easier to step away and not say some­thing you’ll regret later; easier to say “I need a break, I’m going for a walk” than if you’re in the same office as someone else work­ing on the same dead­line.

Remote teams are often said to not be as pro­duct­ive as teams in the same office. After this exper­i­ence, I think some of that lack of pro­ductiv­ity is due to the people, and some to not fig­ur­ing out how best to use tools (even simple ones like chat) that are avail­able. Of course, every­one has to for­get their ego, and be pre­pared to say when they don’t under­stand or need more details (often easier in chat than face-to-face). And be under­stand­ing when things go wrong, while still work­ing to put them right again. A good pro­ject man­ager who knows when to keep out of the way and when to offer encour­age­ment also helps, thanks AM!

  4 Responses to “Deadline Chatting”

  1. real artists ship! con­grats! can i use this app or is it intranet hid­den from the pub­lic?

    don’t depend on skype text chat to auto­mat­ic­ally deliver mes­sages that were sent to you while you were off­line. 99% of the time it works, 1% of the time it doesn’t. To pre­vent prob­lems, always acknow­ledge deliv­ery and com­pre­hen­sion of mes­sages sent while you are off­line.

    • Hi Roland, it’s a highly spe­cial­ized health­care stand­ards app, so you’re unlikely to need it unless you’ve changed jobs since we last spoke 

      Thanks for the tip about the skype sync!

  2. Was fant­astic! Made me feel so much more con­nec­ted to you guys even though I’m so far away. Even read­ing your bad jokes a few hours later… 😀

  3. Yes!

    I’ve been doing global dis­trib­uted devel­op­ment for 6 years now with vari­ous teams. Chat rooms are essen­tial! (Use whatever chat room works for your team — most teams i work with use IRC with helper bots, but hipchat or skype chats work great too.)

    I’d encour­age you to use this tech­nique not _just_ when you’re releas­ing, but as a per­sist­ant place to exist. Backchan­nels are invalu­able dur­ing meet­ings and to let other top­ics con­tinue after the meet­ing. And for the many other reas­ons you describe.

    Chan­nels that allow bots are great — you can have bots that tell your team about events, or let you inter­act with them (eg: help­ing with links to your wiki pages or some­thing). Even a simple bot that responds to “weather yvr” is a fant­astic addi­tion to socially shar­ing the weather with your co-workers.

    Thanks for the write-up of this essen­tial com­mu­nic­a­tions chan­nel.


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