The Difficulties of a Distributed Team
In May, Parse.ly’s co-founder and CTO, Andrew Montalenti, wrote a blog post titled “Fully Distributed Teams: Are They Viable?” Montalenti grouped team distributions into three categories: 1) Vertically Scaled: the entire team is located in one office space; 2) Horizontally Scaled: team members are distributed across multiple office locations; 3) Fully Distributed: no co-located or central offices. Montalenti argues that door number three is a strong option for technology-heavy companies, because there are good tools available for collaboration on software development and software engineering is often most efficient in a home office or private environment. But at Parse.ly, we don’t really fall into any category. We have a central office in New York City, out of which our sales and marketing team operates, along with a few engineers. Most of our engineers, however, work alone from distributed locations, including Canada, Germany, and Virginia.
In order to keep lines of communication open, our team talks all day over IRC platforms. Parse.ly engineers use GitHub. Every morning, we all post on Yammer what we plan on accomplishing for the day. And every evening, we post what we accomplished. On Wednesdays, we hold a team-wide video chat meeting. We call it a “standup.” Before June, we relied on Google Hangouts almost exclusively.
This morning, I tweeted to Christina Warren, entertainment editor at Mashable, about our Google Hangout woes.
@parsely yeah, to me, that could have been a killer feature. Actually, they should offer more participants as an upsell for Goog Apps— Christina Warren (@film_girl) July 26, 2012
@parsely because that’s what Microsoft is going to start offering with Yammer/Skype. And that’s killer— Christina Warren (@film_girl) July 26, 2012
When Google limited the number of Hangout participants to 10, it disrupted our s.o.p.—we have 15 team members right now. Although the New York team members could cluster around one camera and watch the hangout on a wall projection, it interrupted the flow of meetings and decreased our efficiency. We experimented with a number of other video chat programs—including a home-cooked platform!—but none came close to even an impaired Google Hangout system. We continue to search for a better solution, but with none forthcoming, we’ve settled into a new but still uncomfortable routine.
And IRC? Don’t even get me started. Our team depends on constant communication over chat networks. Grove meets our needs well, but—and there’s always a caveat—it stalls, lags, and refuses to reload throughout the day. Even small delays in communication can prevent the sales team from telling engineers about customer complaints and urgent issues. As with video chatting, we’ve been shopping around. Right now, I’m looking at our Flowdock channel. No verdict returned, yet.
So what’s the problem with a distributed team? Absolutely nothing, when the technology works like it’s supposed to; I don’t have a numbered list of all the hangups of hanging out with your distributed team members. Instead, how about this:
Small tech startups with distributed teams need their communication tools to function well.
That’s it. Simple. But apparently, there’s a lot of room to maneuver in the business communications space. Hopefully, Microsoft’s acquisition of Yammer signals new tools in the pipeline, like an improved Skype functionality that could fulfill our hangout dreams. Until then, we’re like a Goldilocks who never finds “just right”: all our proverbial beds and porridges are a little wrong. Unfortunately, in the B2B tech industry, a little wrong means a lot of time lost.