The most significant development for thread.edu.au this year was to reimagine Thread for online learning. To take a product that successfully supports learning in a physical environment to one that would stand alone in the world of the Internet.
Upon reflection, it feels apt to have tested and immersed ourselves with digital tools to deliver this project. Like Melbourne Business School, we too would amplify our use of the web to get the job done.
Tom had just joined Cogent and was located in beautiful-one-day-perfect-the-next-Brisbane. We contracted in Dylan who worked from an endless beach somewhere in northern NSW. I think James, Brice and I copped the raw end of the deal being located at the Treehouse (The affectionate name we have for our office) in Melbourne CBD. But then there was also the business owner Ellen who was located in her office at Melbourne Business School in Carlton.
I genuinely looked forward to knowing how this distributed team would work out. I’d heard a lot about other teams being able to ‘manage it’ but I was keen to know for realz.
We used a bunch of awesome tools to help get the job done and I’ve described some of them below. However, it is an absolute truth that the people were the most important part of this project. Tom and Dylan came to Melbourne for a week when each of them started. We got ‘in the groove’ quickly and easily. We had flow. We embraced a new way of working and tried out a bunch of things to make it all happen. Dylan had a lot of experience working remotely and he really did model a way of working that I looked up to. Big-ups to Dylan for that 🙂
We had already ditched the physical wall for Trello. But I think we amped it’s use to the extent that it now feels like a big backward step to use a physical wall again. We tried it but it felt awkward, frustrating, cumbersome and inefficient.
We used many of the features within cards, and each card seemingly had a life of it’s own. For example, the purpose of a checklist in one card was very different in the next card. Sometimes it was a checklist of development tasks. Sometimes it was a list of fixes required. Attachments were used for final design, sketches and also to illustrate problems.
We didn’t have any rules that dictated use of a Trello feature. Even though we were remotely located, we were still a close-knit team who understood what we were building. I felt we were in a groove and that meant we all just ‘got it’.
Team Retros were strikingly awkward, so in rolled Trello to the rescue. We’d use Skype to video conference everyone in. The Retro Board was a simple 3 column board. We could all use it at once, adding in the equivalent of sticky notes as Trello cards. We’d use the voting feature to prioritise the most salient points, move cards around and edit them with everyone seeing the changes happening live. Checklist and discussion features within each card captured conversation, actions and people responsible. Instant documentation for future reference! And importantly I didn’t have to re-write and distribute retro notes (yes, I did this occasionally!!). Trello is now in the mix for Retros even when everyone is in the same room.
Skype is frikkin’ essential. We would Skype a video conference over 3 or 4 locations depending on the nature of the meeting. It’s always nice to see who you’re looking at! And it’s great to share your screen with others so they know what you’re talking about. James, Tom and Dylan paired a bunch and used Screenhero over Skype extensively.
Two key things we learned about Skype:
- Invest in a quality wide-angle web cam. I remember the day that James and I were Skyping Ellen with the Treehouse big-screen-TV. The picture quality was insanely good and we had visibility of Ellen’s entire office thanks to a HD wide-angle webcam. The camera makes the experience for everyone else but you, so it’s oh so important! That week we bought the same Logitech HD wide-angle webcam as Ellen. No longer does it appear as though we’re all crouched around a laptop on a conference call. And, a bunch of us can actually stand up at stand-up and be seen 🙂
- If you’re video calling or sharing screens, make sure the uploading connection is awesome. We ended up getting a 4G wireless box to make sure those wide angle HD pixels were being delivered crystal clear to everyone not in the room.
We used slack as you’d expect — to share and chat about stuff we were working on in the moment, to discuss and solve problems that didn’t warrant a conference call — but it was also a bit of a lifeline. It helped bind everyone together in a way that is much easier in person. Tom and Dylan would often be the first to get started in the morning so when I arrived, there’d be a “Morning” waiting in the Thread slack channel. We’d all let each other know when we’d be off to lunch, going out for a coffee or going to the fridge for a beer. We’d shoot the shit as they say.
The Thread-activity channel was suggested by Tom to keep up visibility, so we all knew what was going on. It was a busy feed and although I didn’t ‘see’ everything that ran through it, I felt far more in-the-know than ever before. We hooked up github, Semaphore, Zendesk and Trello. There was also a Thread-tech channel to keep tech talk separate from everything else.
Dylan was the screen-casting Master. He’d post a short screencast (often in slack) of the work he was doing and we’d be able to have a discussion around it and make decisions to keep Dylan moving. The screencasts were also something we could share with Ellen to get early feedback on story development before deploying to the test environment.
I really enjoyed working in a distributed team. The longer we worked together the more we learned, introducing changes to improve how we would work together. We have by no means reached the end of this learning adventure. I like where we’re heading and like that we’re able to bring our customers along for the ride.