Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Making Remote Work: Tools

I recently wrote about my experiences working on a remote team. Within that blog entry you can find a more verbose version of the following text:
Communication is what I consider to be the hardest part of remote work. I haven't found an easy, general solution. A few teammates prefer video chat, others despise it. A few teammates like the wiki as a backlog, a few haven't ever edited the wiki. Some prefer strict usage of email/chat/phone for async-unimportant/async-important/sync-urgent, others tend to use one of those 3 for all communication.
As you can tell, we have several different communication tools. When writing, I generally prefer to include concrete examples. This blog entry will list each tool referenced above. However, I cannot emphasize enough that: this list is a snapshot of what we're using, not a recommended set of tools.

app: Github
usage: We use many of the features of Github; however, the two features that help facilitate remote work are (a) pull requests with inline comments and (b) compare. A pull request with inline comments has (thus far) been the most productive way to asynchronously discuss specific pieces of code. Almost all non-trivial commits will eventually end up in a pull request that's reviewed by at least one other team member. We've found compare view to be the best solution for distilling changes for a teammate with limited context.

app: Hipchat
usage: We have 3 hipchat rooms: work, social, support. It should be pretty obvious what we use each room for. The primary driver for splitting the 3 is for keeping noise down. Most team members look at chat history for work and support, reading anything that happened between now and the last time they were logged in. Social tends to be more verbose, often off-topic, and never required reading for keeping up with what the team is up to.

app: Cisco Jabber
usage: Within the team, we primarily use Cisco Jabber for video calls; however Cisco Jabber is also a great way for people within DRW offices to reach anyone on my team without having to know their location. Cisco Jabber is significantly better than asking people to remember to call your cell, or forwarding your desk phone to your cell - it provides you 1 number that anyone can reach you at, regardless of your physical location. There's not much to say about the video capabilities, they're there, they work well. Cisco Jabber also provides desktop sharing, which we use occasionally for "remote pair-programming".

app: Confluence
usage: Our backlog resides on a Confluence wiki; it's a single page with about 150 lines. The backlog is split into 3 sections: Milestones, Now, and Soon. There are generally 3-5 Milestones, which list (as sub-bullets) their dependencies. A dependency is a reference to a line item that will live in Now or Soon. Now is the list of highest priority tasks - the things we need to get down right away. Soon is the list of things that are urgent but not important, or important but not urgent. Both Now and Soon lists contain placeholders for conversations, each placeholder is around 1-2 lines. Below you'll find a contrived, sample backlog.
  • Deploy to Billy Ray Valentine
    • (market data 1)
    • (execution 1)
  • Automated Order Matching (stakeholder: Mortimer and Randolph Duke)
    • (execution 2)
    • (reporting 1)
  • Market data
    • (1) support pork bellies
    • support orange juice
  • Execution
    • (1) support pork bellies
    • (2) internally match incoming orders from customers
  • Market data
    • support coffee
    • support wheat
  • Reporting
    • (1) Commission summary
note: some things in Now need to be done immediately, but do not support an upcoming milestone. These things are incremental changes for previously met milestones.
Obviously we use email and other tools as well, but I can't think of any remote specific usage patterns that are worth sharing.

As I previously mentioned, each member of the team uses each of these tools in their own way. None of these tools are ideal for every member of the team, and I believe a good team lead helps ensure each team member is only required to use the tools they find most helpful.

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