Tag Archives: Distributed Development

Distributed Development Enablers-Part 2

18 Nov

In the previous post, we examined People related enablers. In this post, let us look at Process related enablers.

  • Co-Located Meetings
  • Inception/Project Kick off Workshop

The importance of Inception workshop, though held perhaps only once in the lifecycle of the project, cannot be overemphasized as some of the key decisions which impact almost all aspect of the project are made in this meeting. These include business and technical scope, key project drivers such as time to market, cost, quality and so on. Moreover, arriving at a common understanding related to business vision, as-is and to-be processes, end user journeys, risks, dependencies, and assumptions also happens in this workshop, which is spread over multiple weeks. Not to be forgotten is the fact that relationships between stakeholders are cemented in this period, as most stakeholders get an opportunity to spend time with each other during and after business hours.

Obviously, it may not possible for the entire team, to participate in person in this workshop due to travel and logistical constraints. The exception would be when the team is quite small, and there is adequate travel budget. Nonetheless it is absolutely critical that all roles across all locations be represented in this meeting, in order to maximize the effectiveness of meeting the key stakeholders in person. No amount of documentation can be a substitute for the richness of conversations in person, and this benefit becomes even more important when team members are distributed. The team members who have attended Inception are in a much better position to pass the context to the rest of team in the respective locations.

The option of those not attending the Inception in person, participating in this meeting through Video Conferencing should be seriously explored. The time and effort invested towards this is bound to pay off big time.

Should the project span multiple releases, the option of those who have not attended the Inception Workshop going for Release Planning meetings should also be considered.

Inception Workshop turns a Group into a Team. This fact should be leveraged to the maximum possible extent, especially when team members are distributed.

  • Joint Stand-Ups

The importance of stand-ups meetings in effective working of an Agile team in undisputed. Stand-up meeting provides an opportunity for the entire team to get together and focus on the work at hand, progress towards the goals for the iteration, and risks and blockers, if any. This practice assumes even greater importance when the team is distributed, as the need for the entire team to be aware of who is doing what work, dependencies and blockers, if any, is critical.

Given this fact, the team has to strive to do standup meetings which include all members of the team. This can be quite challenging if the time difference between the locations of the team members is big. This is one of the main reasons to ensure overlap working time between the locations.

As far as possible, video based tools should be used for the joint stand ups. Dialing in to a teleconference number will obviously be the next best option.

As in case of co-located stand-ups, the team members should be to speak with reference to the story card wall. In case of a distributed team, an electronic card wall should be used as a reference, as it is the single source of truth for the entire team. Electronic story card wall is particularly useful in cases where team members are dialing in to the stand ups from their homes.

  • Joint Retrospectives

Just like stand-ups, the importance of this practice is heightened when the team is distributed. For things that have not gone well, it is very easy to fall in the trap of blaming the team members who are not part of the retrospective, if the retrospective is not held in a joint manner. Even a single instance of this has potential to cause serious dent to the trust between teams.

Given that the entire team is not in one location and consequently the nature of communication being complex,, the team needs to provide adequate time for the meeting. The complexity arises due to all team members being required to vote on action items, maintaining anonymity during ‘safety check’ etc.Strong facilitation skills are also called for due to the above mentioned reason.

A tool which helps in radiating information real time and which acts as the ‘single source of truth’ is a must for retrospectives of distributed teams. There are several tools available which serves these purposes, and many of them are free for use. E.g. Ideaboardz, Scrumble etc.

  • Periodic ‘Dev’ Showcases

By definition, a Showcase is supposed to be done at the end of iteration to demonstrate working software to the Business stakeholders. A practice which helps distributed teams to reduce unpleasant surprises and to build trust and confidence is for the teams to showcase their work in progress to those who are distributed, without waiting for the end of the iteration. It can be done on completion of each story, but it need not always be that way. Even showcasing code and interfaces through use of mocks, if necessary, adds a lot of value to the entire team. These Showcase meetings can be kept short and crisp and once the teams get into the cadence of doing these on a regular basis, the time taken for these will be minimal and non-disruptive.

This practice is particularly useful when iteration length is 2 weeks or longer. And it improves the predictability of iteration end demos.

  • Maximize Overlap Hours

One of the biggest challenges for distributed teams is maximizing overlap hours across locations. The challenge is accentuated when time zone differences are significant, like between India and US West Coast, and also when onshore team members ‘push’ their offshore counterparts to adhere to what is convenient for them.

It is critical that everyone, regardless of location, is ready to demonstrate flexibility towards maximizing overlap in working hours. The advantages of synchronous communication while being at work far outweigh the compromises, within reasonable limits, which team members would need to make. The goal obviously should be to maximize overlap with a bit of sacrifice and compromise by each team member. Teams can come up with creative ways to do so-some team members, by rotation, coming early / going late, teams across locations taking turns to come early / go late, being flexible about taking calls from home etc.

Not only does maximizing overlap hours help towards improving communication and collaboration, but the willingness to compromise and be adaptable helps tremendously in creating the ‘one team’ feeling.

In the next, and last, post in this series, we will examine Tools & Infrastructure related enablers.

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Distributed Development Enablers-Part 1

7 Aug

Having examined the challenges of distributed development, let us look at some enablers that can help in alleviating the challenges under three broad categories – People, Process, and Tools and Infrastructure.

 

In this post, let us look at People related enablers.

 

  1. Proxy Product Owner

We all know the importance of having a Product Owner(PO) in the team. Product Owner provides business context to the team, ensures requirements prioritization and provides sign off on the developed features or stories delivered. However, in a distributed set up, it is most likely that the PO is located away from most of the team members. In this scenario creating a Proxy Product Owner role helps. Proxy Product Owner needs to be co-located with remote team(s). She needs to spend adequate time with the PO to understand the business context, the drivers for the solution and the key requirements in detail. Most important, she needs to win the trust and confidence of the PO.

The Proxy PO should be in a position to provide context and clarifications to the team, to a large extent. She will take the responsibility of being the single point of contact with the PO, and will continue to interact regularly with the PO on operational matters. While the PO may still be involved in bringing in new requirements in the backlog, making prioritization decisions in release and sprint planning meetings and signing off developed features, the Proxy PO can shadow the PO very closely in all of these and thereby, over a period of time, may play a key role in significantly reducing the dependency of the team on the PO.

 

An effective Proxy PO will lead to better collaboration with the business, faster decision making and an increase in end user satisfaction.

 

  1. Cross Pollination

 

A key to working effectively in a distributed environment is the level of Trust between the team members. People meeting face-to-face and spending time together is the first and most important step towards building trust. There are 2 major anti patterns, which need to be avoided:

  • Only onshore team members visiting offshore, implying that offshore teams members need not visit onshore. This is ‘one way street’ and will not bring in optimal results.

People traveling both ways, i.e. people onshore traveling offshore and vice versa is necessary for cross pollination to be effective. It gives people across locations an opportunity to understand and appreciate the context and constraints under which the distributed team members are working. Moreover, it helps in building stronger relationships among distributed teams.

The value lies in people spending time together not only in office, but also when they socialize together outside office hours. That is a huge enabler towards building trust.

  • The visits are for a very short period time, perhaps just a week. This is especially a waster when people are visiting from very different time zones-the jet lag does have a negative impact on the visit. In a week-long visit-the first day is spent in warming up and getting to know people, the next 2-3 days is when work momentum begins to gather pace, and the last day is spent on wrapping up and good byes.

Subject to visa and family constrains, the duration of visits should be anywhere between 2-4 weeks long, with preference for the longer time. Assuming that the necessary infrastructure, including communication channels are in place, the people traveling away from their home office should be able to continue their work with minimal disruption while they are on the road.

The main obstacle to people being able to travel is the travel budget constraint. Typically, leaders look at money spent on travel as an expense. In distributed development, the money spent on travel is not an expense, but an investment. This investment is necessary for people to be able to work better, in a distributed environment. And the payoff on this investment is huge.

  1. Cultural Sensitivity

When we discussed the challenges of distributed working, we examined how lack of cultural sensitivity can become a huge impediment towards people gelling together.

It is important to invest the time and effort to educate people travelling, especially for the first time, to a location which has a different culture from theirs. These orientation sessions can be done by outside experts in this area or even by those within the organization who are well travelled and have good exposure to the particular region in reference.

It also crucial to hold cultural awareness sessions in general, across locations, to orient team members about cultures in other locations. This is because culture will come into play when people communicate. E.g. many people in India nod their head in a particular way to communicate a yes, which is very different from how people nod their head in many parts of the world for the same reason. If, for an example, a team is distributed between India and USA, it is advisable to educate the people in USA about this particular aspect of way of nodding in India, and also to people in India, it is important to make them aware how this specific way of nodding can be misinterpreted as a No by people in USA.

 

  1. Feedback Culture

Feedback is one of the key elements of Agility, and it becomes even more important when the team members are distributed. Positive feedback to team members helps a great deal to strengthen relationships and creating a ‘one team’ feeling, while feedback on what is not working or right helps to avoid misunderstandings and resentment.

Team members should be encouraged to give feedback, both positive and otherwise, as appropriate to other team members. The timing of the feedback is critical-feedback given late can actually become counterproductive.

Here is an example of how feedback on a small but important thing helped a team. The team was distributed between USA and India, and was quite new to working in a distributed manner. During joint meetings, the team members in USA would sit at a rectangle shaped table with the telephone in the middle of the table. The team members in India would be able to hear the people who were sitting closer to the telephone but could hardly hear those who were sitting at the corners of the table. This not only impacted the effectiveness of the meetings, but also made the team members in India quite frustrated. The team members in USA were absolutely not aware of this problem, until it was pointed out to them. Once they got feedback about the issue, the team members occupying the corner slots started either walking up to get closer to the phone or moved the phone instrument closer to them when they wanted to speak.

It is important to understand possibly why the team members in India did not give the feedback to their USA colleagues, until they were prompted to do so. It could be because of the ‘onshore-offshore’ syndrome, where the offshore team members have an inferiority complex (and the onshore team members have a superiority complex). Or it could be because it did not strike them that the problem can be resolved with some very minor adjustments. Regardless of the reasons, the team was getting negatively impacted. If the problem would have continued further, it might have led to the team members in India feeling even more frustrated and also perhaps resentful towards the USA team members.

 

  1. Leveraging Effective Communicators

It is a fact that working in a distributed environment requires superior communication skills.. It is also a fact that not everyone in a team has the same level of proficiency in communication skills.

It is important that a team takes stock of the communication skills of all team members and ensure that team members with better communication skills lead the conversation/communication. This is particularly important when

  • Team is new to distributed way of working
  • Trust is yet to be established with team members who are not co-located
  • Something unpleasant or negative needs to be communicated

 

Communication, particularly verbal, is not just about fluency but also about using the right vocabulary and tone. These can become very important in situations mentioned above.

 

While some people have a natural flair for communication, it is not a rocket science and the skill can be developed over a period through observation, mentoring and practice. While the team members with better communication skills may take the lead for some time, they need to consciously work towards capability development of other team members.

 

In the next part, we will examine Process related enablers.

 

 

Distributed Development Challenges – Part 2

29 Oct

In my previous post, we examined five challenges in Distributed Development.   Let us look at five more challenges in this post.

1.     Lack of Cultural Sensitivity

Distributed Development often involves teams spread across nations and continents. As we all know, cultures vary widely across the globe and ignorance of culture can lead to even an innocuous gesture, or lack of it, ill feelings among people.

 

An example will illustrate the point. People in countries like USA and UK are very conscious about maintaining a certain physical distance between people. Violation of this distance makes them distinctly uncomfortable. An apology/’excuse me’ is always given and expected for any accidental touch, regardless of who caused it, and not doing so is considered rude. On the other hand, in countries like Brazil, China and India, people, especially of the same gender, are simply indifferent to the distance maintained between them, as well as to accidental touches, thereby not offering any reaction when it happens. I have come across multiple instances of misunderstandings between people, due to lack of appreciation and understanding of cultural differences like these.

 

2.     Lack of ‘Big Picture’ View

This challenge typically occurs when the Product Owner and Business Analyst are in a remote location. While they may conduct a ‘big bang’ session to provide the big picture view, their conversations around the big picture may get ignored, and the most of the team members might just get to see limited pieces of the puzzle. The problem aggravates when a team might be doing the work as directed by the team at a remote location.

3.     Lack of Visibility

Working from a remote location, it is quite difficult to get good visibility of work happening in other locations, as radiation of information across locations is a huge challenge. This can lead to ‘multiple sources of truth’, which can result in a lot of misunderstandings and unpleasant surprises.

4.     Lack of Collective Code Ownership

Collective code ownership means no single member of the team owns a piece of code – rather the entire team does. This means the code is up for refactoring to all team members.  Implementing this in a distributed environment poses 2 major challenges First, .unless appropriate tools and Version Control System is used, maintaining collective code ownership can be challenge across locations. Second, lack of trust between team members can lead to a highly negative consequence, viz. no code ownership by anyone in the team.

5.     Risk of unpleasant surprises when ‘Everything Comes Together’

When multiple locations are producing work which needs to come together at some point, there is a huge risk of things falling apart, unless Continuous Integration is practiced rigorously. Inconsistencies between locations in types of tools used, an unsuitable Version Control system and lack of common quality standards can become major impediments towards achieving integration which is surprise free.

 

Reading all the above, it might appear that Distributed Development is doomed for failure. However, many organizations have worked towards implementing measures which significantly help in overcoming these challenges, if not fully eliminate them. I am going to share these best practices in my subsequent posts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Distributed Development Challenges – Part 1

13 Oct

By definition, Distributed Development is difficult due to the ‘tyranny of distance’. In fact, in the early days of Agile adoption, some purists believed that Agility and Distributed Development could not co-exist, going by the principle “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation”. Distributed Development is a reality today. In most cases it is a necessity due to some very convincing reasons. Despite all the technology advancements related to communication and collaboration of virtual teams, distributed development still has challenges as people are ‘not in the same room’. Let us examine five of these challenges in this post.

1. Barriers to Communication and Collaboration
Distance between teams not just inhibits face-to-face communication, but poses some additional challenges as well. If teams are working in vastly different time zones, e.g. San Francisco (US West Coast) and Pune (India), the challenge is about overlapping working hours. Either or both sides would have to start work early or end work late, and this can lead to another problem, i.e. resentment.

Another situation can be where both teams are different parts of the world, and their primary language is not the same. E.g. A team in China, whose mother language is Mandarin, while the other is in Brazil, whose mother language is Portuguese. These teams would have to use a language common to both, say English. Given that it is not the primary language of both teams, the ability to communicate clearly and crisply, and keeping an accent as neutral as possible can become quite challenging.

2. Requirements Misunderstanding
In a Distributed Development environment, it is possible that the Product Owner and sometimes even the Business Analyst are located ‘onshore’ while the rest of the team is located ‘offshore’. This can naturally lead to higher documentation for communication requirements, and clarifications over phone. This poses a huge risk of requirements being misunderstood, especially if there is no common primary language.

3. Low Morale
This is typically seen at offshore when onshore has a superiority complex. When onshore team members carry the belief that the work done by offshore team is relatively of low value as compared to their work, they seldom appreciate the team across the shore. This can lead to a feeling of being taken for granted and result in low morale.

4. Lack of Trust
Developing trust between team members is a ‘chicken and egg’ problem. When people are separated by distance, there needs to be more trust between them to work collaboratively. And trust cannot be built between people unless people connect in person and spend meaningful time together. Absence of trust leads to ‘throw over the wall’ mindset and finger pointing when things slip or fail. In this situation, there is a very high risk of negative feedback being given or taken in the wrong spirit.

5. Lack of Co-ordination
This is an important challenge when teams are distributed and have high level of dependencies between them. Imagine a day when a team in Pune(India) leaves behind a broken Build as the other team in the San Fransisco starts the workday. This will result in loss of productivity for the team in San Francicso. There would be very reason to believe that leaving for the day with a broken build was an inadvertent slip up by the India team, it could easily result in US team feeling resentment, thereby leading to other problems like increasing the trust deficit.

Distributed Development Best Practices

12 Sep

Deck which I used for my talk on Distributed Development Best Practices at Agile Brazil 2012 at Sao Paulo, on Sep 7, 2012.Distributed Development Best Practices