I met Matt Perez in 2003 just as I was starting SKMurphy. It was the tail end of nuclear winter in Silicon Valley and folks were trying to figure out what was next. We kept running into one another at various networking events and as we got to know one another realized that we both had a passion for technology and innovation.
After I facilitated the Conversation Central roundtables on “Global Teams” at the 2009 Design Automation Conference I decided that a significant shift was underway where not only were teams in larger firms more often global but startups and small technology firms were going global much earlier in their life cycle than had been the case in the 1990′s. One of the enablers for this is a host of low cost collaboration tools. Some that are synchronous like Skype and real time dashboards, and others that are “quasi-synchronous” like wikis, distributed source code management and Yammer. These tools enable faster decision making because the team is able to maintain a “shared situational awareness.”
After a lunch with Matt in December where we had discussed this trend he agreed to share some of the ways that his firm, Nearsoft, was using Yammer and other collaboration tools to enable them to keep distributed teams providing development services and ongoing support in sync.
Q: Can talk you a little bit about what your firm does? I understand that your focused is on outsourced product development.
Nearsoft is a software product development firm with operations in Mexico. We work best as innovation partner to ISVs, SaaS companies and consumer-facing sites. These businesses understand that software is at the core of their business and they demand to work with people who are as dedicated and serious as they are about building great software.
We specifically avoid working with businesses that treat their software as a “backroom” operation or, worse, as a necessary evil.
Q: How do you work with clients?
We work in long-term relationships with our clients. We create teams around each client, with the right skills in the appropriate technologies. As the new team learns about the client’s business, they can contribute to all aspects of it, not just the raw coding.
Short-term, project-based engagements don’t work for us and I don’t believe they work for clients, either. It may work for doing something of the side, some throw-away code. But for the core product, you want to have a stable team of people that work well together.
We invest heavily in hiring the best and brightest and have created an environment that helps attract and retain that level of talent. A big part of that is because of the opportunity to work with leading-edge companies in the Valley as part of their core team. If we had people work on little projects here and there, we would not get the good ones; or, if we got them, they would not stick around for long.
Q: What collaboration tools do you use internally and with clients to support your methodology and your engagement model?
A: The first that comes to mind is Yammer, a Twitter-like system but for private use. Our folks are used to Twitter, so using Yammer was a natural. It works great for geographically distributed teams because it helps maintain a team presence.
In the situation where everybody in a team works out of the same office, team presence is a function of being physically in the office at the same time. Without consciously checking, you know when people are “there” and when they’re not. Yammer serves a similar function in that even if I am not reading each posting individually, I get a sense of people being “there” as the stream flows through.
It’s also a casual environment where people can jump in and out without much protocol. If I am looking for somebody, I can just ask “anybody seen Joe?” and one or more people will respond. Also, if people are joking around a particular event, you can also jump in and do the water cooler thing that’s part of social cohesion of effective groups.
Besides Yammer, we use Skype a lot. For example, a group of us keep a Skype “group chat” open all the time that we use a lot like Yammer. The reason we do it on Skype is that it’s easier to switch to voice conferencing when the text chats get too convoluted.
One of our client teams uses video all the time. They use both Skype and Adobe Connect.
Of course, we also use a number of tools to keep track of open issues, source code control, etc.
Q: What has been the impact of Yammer on your ability to deliver results?
Yammer and Skype and the rest of these real-time tools give us and our clients the benefit of being in touch constantly. Little problems and misunderstanding remain “little,” they don’t snowball into big, hairy messes. One person may say, “I am going to implement X using Y” and immediately another will jump in with “No, you shouldn’t use Y for reason Z.” They may go back and forth in the text stream, clarifying things. Then switch to voice or video. Misunderstanding is cleared before any major work is wasted building the wrong solution.
Without something as immediate as Yammer or IM tools, the question may sit in somebody’s email for a day before anybody looks at it. By then, the wrong solution may be finished only to be thrown away.
BTW, that is true for the folks working physically in the same office. In many ways, it is more convenient to casually ask a question or make a comment using one of the tools than in person. You can ask your question without “imposing” on the other people to drop what they’re doing to answer your question. The other people can choose when to respond. If they glance at it and see a “Google It” question, then they can just ignore it. If it looks important, then they can direct their attention to it at their convenience.
Q: What, if anything would you do differently?
When I started the company I tried several models before settling on the way we operate today. It would have been nice if somehow I could have gone through that part of it a bit more quickly.
We’ve had a couple of startup clients that didn’t make through the crisis in 2009. I thought they were dynamite businesses and wished they could have been able to stay in business. We helped all we could but in the end they didn’t make it.
Q: What else have you learned from working internally and with customers in this fashion?
The most salient thing for me is that cultural alignment is key. Effective communications include a ton of stuff that’s never said; it literally goes without saying. There’s a lot of “you know what I mean?” in there and it would be too costly, emotionally and in time, to explain every little subtlety that goes on in a conversation. Likewise, it can very expensive when people miss out any of those subtleties. To deal with this you need to make sure that everybody in the team is aligned with the goals of the business and that they “know” what it takes to get there.
One example I can think of is when a developer is asked when he can get something “done.” If we both don’t have the same understanding of what “done” means, then we are going to end up in hot water.
Q: Thanks for your time
For some outstanding examples of how to blend humor into an explanation of a complex service I would encourage you to take a look at two of Nearsoft’s videos:
I really appreciate Matt’s willingness to talk about some of the practical challenges in working in a geographically distributed organization. If you would like to talk about lessons learned from your startup or innovative business practices that you would be willing to talk candidly about, please contact me and we can explore an interview that would be of interest to bootstrapping entrepreneurs.