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Professional Services: Lessons In On-Boarding Remote Teams

Back in December of 2014, my team and I were given the challenge to grow capacity within our Professional Services (PS) team.  The challenge was to double the size of our release train from 4 to 8 teams by the end of 2015.  While we had grown our teams in Burlington, adding two new teams in Dallas where we had no presence seemed like a big challenge.  At that time, a couple of other release trains had Dallas-based teams learning the Dealer.com platform or were hiring new teams.  While visiting Dallas, I asked several team members what was and wasn’t working for those teams.  One thing I heard was that sending someone down for a week or two of training wasn’t enough; there needed to be some level of dedicated support for the teams.  This heavily influenced how we resourced and approach on-boarding.

Q1: Making Some Mistakes

Right from the start, we dedicated one experienced Web Developer and Java Developer from Burlington to focus on on-boarding our Dallas teams.  During the quarter they made their first visits to Dallas.

While we had made our first few hires for Dallas, we didn’t yet have a full team making it difficult to give them work outside of small requests. This wasn’t necessarily the best way to learn the Dealer.com platform.  During quarterly planning we had a feature to build a custom website design for a new program that Web Platform took on.  The Dallas-based Web Platform team was going to own the feature and we saw an opportunity to get our PS Dallas resources involved in a substantial project. Therefore, we paired up the two teams.  Ultimately, this proved to be challenging as we had overlap at the ScrumMaster and Product Owner positions resulting in confusion about roles, responsibilities and ownership.

What we learned:

  • Dedicated resources for on-boarding ensured there was access to support and our teams appreciated it.
  • Splitting client work across release trains for on-boarding didn’t set our team up for success and ultimately made things harder instead of easier.

Q2: Making Adjustments

Dallas team members in Burlington for dinner
Dallas team members in Burlington for dinner – Stephen Jurnack, Sue Cronin, Garrett Martin, Aaron Dewberry, Charles Babcock, Darren Hollenbeck, Keith Porter, William Nielsen, Kathryn Hollingsworth

In Q2 we took back ownership of that new program build and had our experienced resources in Burlington, partner with the Dallas team members on that build.  We also had more face-to-face time with the teams in Dallas by planning 2-3 trips each for our Burlington developers supporting them.  Throughout the quarter we continued to hire for both our teams there.  By the end of the quarter, we fully staffed our first team and had our second team partly hired.  We paired them up on the same work as we grew the teams.

What we learned:

  • More travel equalled more face time resulting in better relationships and ultimately better communication between Dallas and Burlington.  Better communication equaled better learning.

Q3: Hitting Our Stride

At the start of Q3, we gave our first Dallas team their charter and they went through the quarterly planning process for the first time.  While they still had the support of the developers in Burlington, they had their own plan to deliver.  There were a few expected bumps during that first quarter but we gave them the space to make mistakes and grow.

We also tried something new with our second Dallas team that quarter.  The team suggested that we break convention and combine the new team members  in Dallas, some team members  in Burlington, and our two on-boarding team members onto a single team focused on the same set of features.  They felt that would maximize learning and client value.  In addition, the Dallas PS team spent a week in Burlington for additional face-to-face time and relationship building.

Additionally, for the second time in two quarters, I planned to be in Dallas for our PS wide quarterly meeting to have our Burlington resources get a sense for what it was like to listen to remote presenters and to ensure the Dallas teams felt appreciated.  I also wanted to experience the meeting remotely, apart from the rest of the release train.

Lastly, we had our Development managers travel to Dallas to meet team members and their peer manager so they could get a better sense of the Dallas office and teams.

What we learned:

  • Focusing the experienced developers and new team members on the same work reduced context changing for the experienced developers when questions were asked.  This made it easier for them and the new team members felt better supported.
  • The combined team had two Product Owner’s and ScrumMasters which can be problematic if it is for too long a period.  We kept it to a minimum and split the team and allowed them to function individually in preparation for Q4.
  • While splitting the team across two locations was difficult, the team confronted those challenges and it made both teams appreciate the importance of face to face communication even if it was through Google Hangout or HipChat video.

Q4: Teams Chartered

At the start of Q4, our second Dallas team was chartered and they went through quarterly planning on their own.  Our team members  who had focused on on-boarding, refocused on new teams they joined in Burlington.  Again we gave the new Dallas teams a reasonable amount work for the quarter to give them room to make mistakes and grow.

Gary Bland, Ed Kim, and Saif Masadeh of Strong Bad
Gary Bland, Ed Kim, and Saif Masadeh of Strong Bad

The Biggest Lesson: Dedicate Resources, Listen and Support

One overriding lesson through all of this was to empower and listen to our two dedicated team members assigned to on-boarding (thanks again Keith Porter and Sue Cronin).  They frequently had the best ideas and the greatest awareness of what was needed.  When they asked for more travel, we gave it to them.  When they asked to combine teams in Burlington and Dallas in Q3, we supported that decision.

Looking back, I’m incredibly proud of the teams we hired in Dallas.  They are a talented group that, with the right support, has gotten off to a great start and will have a major impact on client sentiment.  While we made some mistakes, we learned, iterated, and got better and ultimately met our goal.

At this point, we feel our Dallas teams would be able to lead the on-boarding of a new team.  The fact that our teams are so strong there and ready for that challenge, is a further indicator of the success of the on-boarding and hiring process.