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How to Manage Remote Development Teams

The pandemic has forever changed the way we work. What was once a luxury, has now become the norm. What we are referring to is, of course, remote working. But there were companies that were working on a completely remote model long before the pandemic hit the world. In this webinar we have an expert panel, with years of experience in remote working, discuss matters associated with this model, and share insights with us that they have gained over the years.

The expert panel includes:

Mark Hahn, Director of Cloud Strategies and DevOps, Ciber Global (Moderator)
Rahul Subramaniam, CEO, DevFactory
Raza Syed, Head of Engineering, Microsoft
Bill Page, Global Operations Director, Ernst & Young
P J Singh, VP, Technology, Wells Fargo 

Here are some of the highlights that were discussed in the webinar:

  • Origins of remote working
  • Challenges in managing remote teams
  • Things you didn’t know that could be done remotely
  • How agile processes have adapted to being remote
  • The types of measurement that apply in a virtual environment
  • How to ensure new hires pick up the themes and the mission of a particular organization
  • Sococo and Microsoft Mesh 

Below is a detailed look at each of the topics that were discussed by our experts.

Origins of remote working

According to Rahul Subramaniam, the CEO of DevFactory, the practice of remote-working began in the late 90s and early 2000s, when offshore offices were established as a cost-cutting measure. They slowly evolved over time into multiple flavors which could be broadly listed out as remote, virtual, hybrid, and then time-zone-centric remote.

Challenges in managing remote teams

Speaking on the challenges in managing remote teams, Raza Syed, Head of Engineering at Microsoft, explained that he sorts the challenges into five categories. The first is about communication. “When you’re [working] in remote, teams are in different time zones. It is critical that you become more structured [in] sharing information more.” He also noted that the leadership should support different modes of communication and practice looping folks in, so that trust is built among the teams.

On the second challenge, Raza Syed elaborated that, it is critical to have a great rapport or relationship between individuals in a team so they can do their best work. “Building that social connection in a virtual mode is a different ball game.” 

Further Raza also noted that handling time zones can become very challenging.

On the fourth challenge, Raza Syed talked about the leadership style. “We are willing to make sacrifices, all of us, equally with equity. If that culture you build as a leadership you will have a very effective remote team.”

The last challenge that Raza Syed mentions is that of growth concerns among remote teams. “You have to make sure that you’re setting a culture in your organization that being in remote doesn’t hamper your career velocity.”

Things you didn’t know that could be done remotely

Rahul Subramaniam stated, “In our experience, we can do pretty much everything remotely.” Adding to Raza’s observations, Rahul says that traditional managers feel insecure about whether their employees are working or not. He called for a change in management style and highlighted the need for clear communication. “If you are very clear in your communication, in your expectations, then everything can work”.

“For individuals, there is a factor of discipline that has to come in, in terms of how you dedicate your time to work.” 

Rahul further emphasized that decision-making is the key when teams are working remotely. “Decision-making is one of those things that can make or break teams as they move to virtual. Making sure that everyone feels not disenfranchised (sic) when it comes to decision making is really important … I think decision-making has to become more async via more written communication rather than the off conversation that you have in the hallways or in the office.”

Raza added to Rahul’s comments, “Now you have to focus on making sure there is flexibility in your processes … what we are finding is, once your processes adapt to provide that flexibility … the potential that whole virtual environment, virtual teams provide you is completely immense. You can get to the talent from around the globe and have it part of your team and then you can effectively run those things. It’s pretty phenomenal but the primary thing as I said is your leadership style has to adjust, your infrastructure has to change and in some ways your core processes have to change.”

P J Singh interjected with his take on management style and emphasized that remote working has forced a change in the management style. He noted that companies are now moving away from the command and control management style to an empower and encourage style of management.

“There is a huge shift in general, regardless of whether we’re going virtual or not in the management style for a modern-day organization. It has become much more critical with the advent of virtual teams. Which is, move from command and control management style to empower and encourage [style of management]. The reason why I say it’s important is because, one of the foundations of how you can have command and control is through monitoring. And that is really much more difficult when your organization is virtual. And so you’re like forced naturally into more of an empower and encourage management style and leadership style … as we go more and more virtual … It has a number of ripple effects in general but that is one aspect of the leadership style that has been changing across the board naturally but has just been accelerated so much because we now have to manage virtual teams.”

Adding to Singh’s comments, Bill Paige said that businesses, in general, are moving to a production measurement rather than an hour measurement.“I think what we’re moving towards, not just in the remote and virtual world but in a lot of business in general, other than straight service; I think you’re looking at a production measurement rather than an hour measurement.”

How agile processes have adapted to being remote

Rahul felt that agile software development and remote working suit each other very well. “Agile is very conducive or actually very well suited to this complete virtual development mode because it hinges on a stand up that lasts about fifteen to twenty minutes and no more … Beyond that, as long as you are very disciplined about your communication and you can make it work in an async manner, agile can actually work brilliantly. Like everyone else has said before:

You can leverage talent that’s global not remote or local no geography. You can actually have work that is getting done literally 24/7 by virtue of the fact that your team is all distributed anywhere they like. And you can make use of that overlap.

And as long as you have the right tools to allow for that async handovers in those communications, agile actually works really really well. Agile works better than when everyone is in an office together and you have that one slot where you have to make everything work. It forces you to go do your own thing. Do the stand up and then go do your own thing. Be the individual contributor or whatever, get your work done, then bring it all back. It enforces a certain discipline automatically. So again, I think agile is very well suited for this.”

P J Singh highlighted the importance of collaboration in a remote team that is operating on an agile development framework. “If we can create that collaboration and opportunities of close communication, within a virtual team, then we can keep the values that an agile organization brings even with a remote team.”

The types of measurement that apply in a virtual environment

Speaking about the types of measurement that apply in a virtual environment, Raza Syed said that a lot of metrics that apply to a physically present employee still apply to a remote employee. And he felt there was no change in the measurement of employee productivity owing to a virtual environment. 

“The good news from our perspective was whether you were remote or whether you’re in person a lot of those metrics still apply. So from my point of view I’d say is that, once you implement the remote model or culture effectively; the difference between if someone is remote or not will diminish. And so is the metrics. The culture you end up bringing is, if a developer whether they’re coming to the office or they’re remote, if they’re generating the same metrics … better in some cases, they can be judged just like any other physically present employee.”

How to ensure new hires pick up the themes and the mission of a particular organization

According to Raza Syed, one of the most important things to do with new hires is to give them an opportunity to engage and avoid the pitfalls of a one-sided communication. He also said that one should establish a culture of getting and providing feedback in an organization.

“You have to really group people with their mentors/peers depending upon which career stage they’re starting in. So that they spend quality time with those folk … we have increased the opportunity for one on one with managers as well as with the various team meetings so that they can hear more about it. Those are all the right steps. But one thing I would say is, it’s critical that you give them an opportunity to engage. So that it doesn’t become a one-sided communication … You have to establish a culture where they’re comfortable getting feedback and also providing feedback goes a long way.”

Bill Page added to Raza’s comments and says that his firm (Ernst & Young) firmly embraces the concept of diversity and inclusion. He felt that it is important for organizations to make new hires feel comfortable. And according to Bill Page, this comfort would yield much better performance in the organization. 

“Part of making this work is you have to have this feeling of belonging. That you’re not just sitting behind a computer at a desk remotely from everybody else … You gotta remember that those are people over there, they’re your team members, they have other life besides work. And to just talk about that casually, be encouraging, offer help when you can for something outside of the project you’re focused on … People will tend to ping each other during chats. It might even be a personal thing. Don’t discourage that … When you’re remote give the people the ability to talk about something other than the topic at hand. And talk about something personal that’s going on … You guys probably heard of an acronym D&I. Diversity and Inclusiveness. Our firm is firmly behind that. And that is, especially in a global organization and remote working. You have so many different types of people, so many backgrounds, so many different thought processes. By drawing out the diversity of thought that you have. And I am not just talking about racially or age or anything like that. It’s just everybody is different. And to make them comfortable to bring what they have to the table and that starts with that opening, comfortability, making you feel like you’re part of the team … You will get so much better performance. This is not really just for remote. That would be anything. But in remote it’s very important to have that time, let people talk a little bit of personal of what’s going on with them. Keep it airy and open. Little joke here or there. Something funny is always great. Keep it entertaining.”

Rahul added to Page’s comments and talks about a concept called “coffee morning” and a tool called, Sococo. 

“There are two approaches [that we take]:

First, almost all managers or senior managers within the org do something called a ‘coffee morning’. So for example, I run a coffee morning three days a week. It’s a half an hour slot where anyone is welcome to come join in. It’s like how we talk, we reserve that slot specifically for general conversation. Three days a week. It’s a thirty-minute slot that allows us to talk about anything. Anything about business. Anything about personal stuff. Vacations. Hobbies. Photography, Whatever. 

The second thing we found incredibly valuable is a tool called, Sococo, which basically gives us virtual presence. So we have models of our virtual offices where people actually show up in rooms. If the people are talking we know that they’re talking to each other. That feeling of presence you know where you want to see whether someone is in the office. The fact that they’re in the office. The fact that two people are talking to each other in a room and you don’t want to disturb them, when they’re actually talking. Things like that are incredibly valuable in building that social fabric around work which we missed when we didn’t have a tool like Sococo.”

As the discussion approached its conclusion, the moderator, Mark Hahn, asked Raza Syed about a Microsoft tool called, Microsoft Mesh. Raza Syed responded, “I think this is a great segue into what Rahul said. Microsoft Mesh kind of highlights that view. To be really effective in the virtual environment there are tools like Teams and Zoom that are great. Just turning on the video makes a huge difference … There are three other aspects that are becoming critical with things like eye contact and engagement that’s great. The second thing is experiencing things together. That’s the second part, how do you collaborate together? And we have tools like Whiteboard and most of the things you can write, you can write code together, but we need to turn the dial on that. And the third thing is, connect from anywhere. When we have meetings, someone may have sophisticated setups, such as with the HoloLens, and then there might be someone on a computer without any HoloLens and then someone might even be on a phone. So how do you create an immersive experience engaging across all these form factors? There are new sets of tools that are coming. Microsoft has announced Microsoft Mesh, check it out. It’s pretty cool. So that’s where the next generation tech is coming.”

With those comments from Raza Syed, the discussion/webinar was wrapped up by Max Bowen. To catch the full webinar, click here.


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