In last weeks update I talked about the project objectives, how and where we are driving value and gave a bit of detail about the technologies we are using. I also mentioned that we were losing a member of the team and questioned whether we could take that hit. The answer? Well, sort of!
Our solution is now the fire breathing and fully functional resource planning tool we wanted it to be, but it is suffering from two rather serious ailments.
Performance is currently too slow to make for a decent user experience
It is, at times, highly unstable.
To continue with the dragon analogy, the teeth are sharp and the fire is hot, but our dragon is currently too fat to run anywhere and throws a strop when asked to do too much. This makes for a sadly ineffectual dragon.
When considering that our dragon is actually SAP BPC 10, the initial performance and stability problems should be to some extent expected. The product is very young and still in ramp up, so there will be inevitably be initial teething problems with any implementation. So the he focus now lies on improving and refining these properties until the solution is slick and reliable.
This has implications for the allotted time in which we planned to conduct UAT, but all we can do is work as hard as we can to mitigate the delay and prevent too much schedule slippage. An additional challenge is the fact the team in Kuala Lumpur is on holiday for the Chinese New Year. This brings me neatly onto what I would like to talk about this week, which is how best to work on a software project from two continents.
The obvious facilitator to remote working is always going to be the use of technology. Assuming emails and instant messaging services are a given, the next step is conference calls, possibly with the use of webcams. Every Friday morning the Project Dragon team has its weekly meeting. Both teams use a combination of a decent speaker phone, external webcam, and projector to try and make the experience as seamless as possible.
This works to an extent, however using the technology and hoping for the best is not enough - conducting these meetings effectively requires discipline from all involved. You raise a point in these meetings and you raise it to everybody, not just to those in the room. It is easy to forget this, and invariably the meeting always gets out of hand at some point, with a conversation taking place entirely in one office, and at too fast a pace for those on the other side to easily follow.
My view is that the answer is to keep these meetings as small as possible except where it can't be avoided, as this encourages active participation from both sides and goes some way to staying productive throughout. Full team meetings still need to take place as they have value, especially in remote projects, but daily communication should be between small groups or individuals.
Another option in bridging the gap is the use of online collaboration tools, like SAP Streamwork. Whilst they go some way in bridging the gap between offices and attempt to tap into the feel that social media creates, they are not powerful enough to be a viable replacement for getting people into the same room. They require complete buy-in from all team members to be used as a decision making and action point tool, and without that they become no more than a place to share documents - useful, but no silver bullet.
Because reliance on technology alone cannot recreate the experience of working in the same office, the best way to mitigate it is by ensuring you communicate often using different mediums. To some extent this can be enforced by giving structure to communication between the teams - written handovers and work specifications in the evenings, calls in the morning, and instant messaging whenever possible.
It is also important to keep the atmosphere light - a casual rapport between team members does as much for morale as a healthy project schedule. Achieving this is always going to be more of a challenge when out of hours socialising is not a practical possibility. This heightens the importance of proper and regular communication and not just through email.
The temptation may be to implement a handover system (which is far from trivial to get right) and leave it at that. Allowing this means that other forms of communication are not there, so you lose all the value of a daily catch up. If nothing else, the informal nature of a webcam call or instant message chat results in people talking about things that are not work, and sometimes this does as much to overcome geographical differences as anything else.