Saturday, January 25, 2014

Agile and Geographically Separate Teams

It is common these days to have delivery teams who are geographically separate. This may occur because offshore resources have been selected for cost saving purposes or simply because teams are split across a region or country.
Scrum calls for co-located teams and the Agile Manifesto embraces face-to-face communication as the most efficient way for teams to communicate. There is no argument with this point. However, when teams are geographically separate, we need to find a compromise.
This article provides techniques for increasing the direct communication for teams who are geographically separate. This includes a mix of technical solutions and meeting logistics.

Be as Face-to-Face as Possible

Coordinate important meetings to include the whole team whenever possible. This approach requires additional costs because travel and lodging are required. Sprint and Release planning meetings benefit from having the whole team in the same room.
If the largest number of people are in a single location with a few other team members in other locations, use the main location for the meeting to save costs.
Schedule happy hour meetings to allow the team to get to know each other and to increase morale.

Use Video Conferencing Equipment

If teams cannot attend meetings in person, use Video Conferencing Equipment. This also has a cost associated with it but the benefit is worth it. This is best utilized when a team member operates a camera at each location. As people talk, the camera is pointed at the speaker. This really improves communication because body language is apparent and people are more likely to participate.
Teams can also collaborate using a whiteboard. Simply point the camera at the board so remote teams can participate.

Rotate Offshore Teams

This approach involves rotating a portion of an offshore team to the project site. For example, a member of the development team from India would spend a period of time onsite with the US team. This approach provides the offshore resource with valuable insight into how the US team operates and allows the remote person to get to know the team.
Later, when the offshore resource returns to India, valuable experience returns with him.
There is definitely additional cost associated with this approach. It is best to decide on this approach before an offshore partner is selected. During price negotiations, this point can be raised. Typically, a blended rate is a solution so the cost of the travel may be accounted for. This blended rate approach usually has a minimal cost effect on the project budget.

Use Technology to Reduce Friction

It is common for agile teams to work together in a shared space. This allows issues to be handled quickly as they come up. Since everyone is in the same room, this is easy. Of course, when teams are split, this is not possible.
Instant Messaging tools like Skype or Lync offer some solutions. Advise the team to Instant Message a person when a question arises. Screen sharing are also available on these tools, so it is almost as easy as huddling around a computer together to collaborate.
These tools also support groups of users. In one of my projects, we setup a DevChat group that the whole team were members of. When any questions arose, they were posted to DevChat. Anyone on the team who had an answer posted it back to the group. It was a very effective communication mechanism.

Keep Scrum Teams Together

When possible, keep scrum teams together as a single unit. For example, if an offshore team is being used to contribute to a project, it is better to have a single scrum team offshore than to split the team between multiple locations. This allows the single scrum team to gain the co-location benefits. 

Time Zones

Different time zones are a major contributor to team friction. When questions arise and some of the team are sleeping, there is an impediment to progress.
An obvious solution is to schedule some overlap hours when the whole team is available. To make this easier, select offshore vendors who are located in regions where the time difference is less of an issue. South America is becoming  a popular offshore region just for that reason.
It is also important to have a local resource on call from the offshore team. This should only be used in an emergency and only if the offshore team will be idle because of some situation.
I have seen times when the whole offshore team was idle for a day because a server needed to be re-booted. A call to the on-call person would have saved a lost day of productivity.

Geographically separate teams do make it more challenging for teams to work together, but it can be done using technology and some structure changes.

Learn More

How Rally Does ... Distributed Agile Meetings
How Rally Does ... Distributed Agile Meetings

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Some Considerations for Cross Functional Teams

The typical goal of forming Cross Functional Teams is to compose a team with a set of skills that are individually balanced and that meet the needs of the Product being developed. In Scrum, the term Team refers to the folks delivering the product. Scrum specifically mentions that there are no specific roles for Developers, Testers, Business AnalystsUX Designers or any other typical IT role. The team is cross functional and each person can pitch in to work on any activity that is necessary to complete the sprint.
In Sprint Planning, there is typically no consideration for individual capacity. The team commits to the stories for the sprint. This article explores some of the real world situations that arise when teams have specialized skills.


Specialists Exist

It is a fact that people in the IT field specialize in areas they find interesting and fun. Some people choose to become a Database Architect, User Experience Designer, QA Tester and so on. We need to respect these career choices people have made.
However, we can advise people to broaden their skills and grow their market value. For example, a Tester could be motivated to also learn coding skills that may be used in automated testing and development. A UX Designer could be convinced to broaden his skills and do some front end development. Whatever agreement is reached, it must be win-win.



When specialists are part of a team, they need to be consulted in the planning phase. From a timing perspective, the sequence of the tasks necessary to complete a story needs to be planned. Discuss this with the team and reinforce the cross functional aspect of scrum.
A person on a scrum team should be available to perform any task they are qualified to complete.
When we consider the above statement, we can begin to review our options. Testers can be involved in authoring User Stories and Acceptance Criterion. They can also work with developers and author unit tests.
BA's can help develop test scripts and help test the stories as well. Developers can help with requirements and testing. The goal is to spread the skills across the Sprints so the individual capacity of a team member is not a factor when planning.



When the skills of the team are balanced, individual capacity does not need to be considered in Sprint Planning. If this is not the case or if there are tasks that only a given specialty is qualified to perform, we need to consider individual capacity. For example, if we have one Database Architect on our team and he is the only one who can do database work, we need to be sure we do not overbook him when we plan.
Some tools have capacity planning built in. The screen shot below is Rally's capacity planning approach.

If your tool does not support this capability, you will need to use spreadsheet magic.


General Advice

Regardless of the skill composition of the team, the following points are worth considering:
  • Individuals on the team should not be allocated to other projects. There are many studies1 that show how inefficient task switching is.
  • The team succeeds or fails together.
  • The team decides on the details for executing the sprint and is Self Organizing in that regard.
  • The team should sit together in one large open work area2 with easy access to whiteboards, projectors and small rooms or pods for small team meetings.

Read More


  1. The Cost of Task Switching - Human Task Switches Considered Harmful (Joel on Software)The Multi-Tasking Myth (Coding Horror) , Is Multitasking More Efficient? Shifting Mental Gears Costs Time, Especially When Shifting to Less Familiar Tasks (American Psychological Association)
  2. Agile Work Areas - Team Room (Blog Martin Fowler),   Team Room Article (Agile Alliance)Team Room Article (Mountain Goat Software)Microsoft Team Room (Video)