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Tools for Distributed Development


Jason is a project leader and Certified ScrumMaster at Macadamian Technologies. You can reach him at jason@macadamian.com.


When it comes to working on distributed teams or one with global development partners spread around the world, you need to use every tool you can to make interaction easier. Here's my list of tools that can bring two points on the globe just a little closer.

Intranet Wikis

Because a well-maintained wiki can take so much work off a project manager's plate, I have a secret fear that someday I'll be replaced by a wiki. At Macadamian Technologiges (where I work), we use Atlassian's Confluence wiki and have a wiki homepage for each project that we do. This grabs all the project documentation and puts it in the same place -- how to set up, how to contribute, issue tracking -- everything a team member needs to ramp up fast is right there. When I need to get new team members set up, I just send the link to the wiki page and tell them to come see me if they have any questions.

To be really useful, a wiki has to be crammed with documentation of the processes that work at your company, and by making it part of your corporate culture. We do this by creating standardized project dashboards, so that all team members know where to find information. We also document everything that is humanly possible and work hard to ensure it is always up-to-date.

For around 50 percent of the questions that people ask me, my answer is the same: "Did you look in the wiki?" After hearing that a couple of times, people start looking in the wiki before asking questions, which saves everyone time.

When the answer isn't in the wiki and I don't know it, I use the "teach a man to fish" technique. I tell the askers to find the answer themselves, and then send me a link to the wiki page they use to document the answer after they've found it.

A wiki is a key tool for success with distributed resources. Not only will it answer your global partners' questions while you're asleep, it also shows your partners how you go about doing things. A wiki spreads your corporate values in open and subtle ways, showing your partners how you work. This helps your partners incorporate the values of your company into their decision-making process.

For example, if your company values getting customer feedback at an early stage, your global partner keeps that in mind when it's the middle of the night Eastern Standard Time and they have to choose between developing the error-message logging system or the settings UI component. A wiki also shows the difference between how you say you work and how you really work. For example, if you say you value open communication, but half of the pages are locked and users need approval for editing them, you're sending a different message.

By nature, wikis reveal the truth about the day-to-day aspects of working at your company. Our wiki homepage currently shows all the contact and time zone information for each of our six offices (we value communication with our global partners), the presentations at our upcoming pizza lunches (we value continuous learning), a random lesson learned (making mistakes isn't fatal -- but show others how to avoid them), and a poll about whether the DJ (a Macadamian employee) at our 100th employee celebration rocked it out (we value social interaction as team-building). There's also a report on a recent tradeshow (we find out what our customers want), and yet another posting about how to make good coffee (without caffeine, we would grind to a halt). Seeing this helps our global partners know us. Because we don't just talk about our values, we put them into action; our values speak for us when we aren't there.

Because we show communication at work, our global partners communicate with us. Because we don't consider the slightest mistake to be fatal, they are open with us when things don't go exactly as planned. And speaking of tracking things....


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