Software practitioners familiar with the rules of extreme programming know that moving people around, or the process of continually appointing team members to work on different parts of the solution or to serve in different team roles, can effectively shuttle knowledge between team members helping to ensure a common level of understanding in both the problem and solution domains.
Moving people around serves as a force that effectively destabilizes the team and continually engages them towards establishing a new comfort zone. In the process, team members cross-train towards improving their skills, are deterred from complacency, become more aware of project status, while becoming more responsive to project risk. In this series, Moving People Around, I’ll discuss the challenges and opportunities that resulted from my own experience with a similar destabilizing force as I moved from a colocated team setting in New York City, to a teleworking setting in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I’ll discuss how our team overcame the resulting challenges and amplified the opportunities towards ensuring the successful delivery of our software projects.
Prior to my moving, our team was composed of 4 members, 3 superb programmers and 1 tech lead/hands-on project manager (me). Our efforts were focused on delivering a .NET analytics platform which was in beta release.
We regularly incorporated agile software development practices including frequent software deliverable, daily meetings, daily interaction between business people and developers, continuous integration, no overtime, refactoring, and face-to-face team conversations.
Following the move it was clear that we had also improved our practice of collective code ownership while becoming better at moving people around. We lost the benefits that come with face-to-face team conversations but overall our system had matured into a production release and we signed our first customer.
The immediate impact following my move was surprising. In these first few months, we experienced a team surge that saw us sprinting through 4 development iterations, invigorating the project and more importantly, introducing breakthrough features that singled out the product in the marketplace.
I believe this surge was directly related to positive effects that resulted from my move to a teleworking environment and I wonder whether the same intensity could have been achieved had the move not occurred. The catalyst behind this surge included:
- Eliminating commute time gave me more time to focus on developing the product.
- The team raised its performance level in order to prove effectiveness in a virtual team setting.
- Three hour timezone difference allowed us to benefit from “Follow the Sun” development.
- Daily group chat sessions eased the recalcitrance and shyness that sometimes occurred in face-to-face conversations, empowering all members to speak up. The result was continuous feedback that improved our team-intimacy, awareness to project risk and productivity.
After this initial surge and as the year progressed, some of the challenges facing teleworkers and virtual teams began to set in, specifically team intimacy began to suffer as the lack of face-to-face meetings, coupled with the transition of part of the team to separate projects began to disconnect and disorient us all.
To counter these effects, we:
- Introduced a weekly meeting with business leads.
- Transitioned my original role as tech lead to a colocated member, allowing me to better focus on clearing obstacles that were preventing colocated members from maximizing their productivity and brilliance.
- Increased my visits to the office.
- Decreased project velocity to achieve a more sustainable pace.
Subtle adjustments also helped counter the effects of my moving to a remote work environment. For example, I could sense a collective relief from business leads (as well as increased call volumes) once my Argentine ring tone was changed to sound like the standard USA ring tone.
Looking back, I do believe the initial team surge was directly related to the benefits agile promotes in moving people around. The intensity of this surge was largely a result of our response to the changing circumstances. As challenges arose, it was critical to address each quickly and decisively. In my new role as a teleworker, I can confirm the importance of continually reaching out to all stakeholders, make them feel comfortable that you are accessible during their work hours. The move to a teleworking environment also gave me time to focus exclusively on writing code while transitioning my role as tech lead to a colocated member. In the process we improved our practice of collective code ownership.
While this move served as an extreme case of the challenges and opportunities that result when you move people around, more traditional examples more would show team members owning different portions of the system or fulfilling different team roles at different times in the development lifecycle. When effectively managed, the benefits will be distributed across individuals, their team and the stakeholders they serve.
This concludes the series Moving People Around.