Name: Tom Howlett
Tom Howlett is a Developer and Agile Coach at Lean Tomato in the UK and avid blogger at Diary Of A Scrummaster. We discuss how pair programming helps build trust, camaraderie, and visibility on his remote team. We also discuss tools, personality, work-life integration, and Agile.
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Powerful quotes by Tom Howlett
Our team started off working together in the same office. Then one guy said: “I don’t want to do this London thing anymore. I’ll make you a deal. I’m going to promise you I’ll be just as effective working remotely as I am in this office today.” And he went off and made sure that he was equally as effective. He took the responsibility on himself. If any of us were having private conversations and not including him, he was right on it during the stand up the next day. When the team saw that it worked, slowly but surely, the team started dispersing until we became 100% remote. And now we are definitely more collaborative than we ever were when we were sat together in an office in London.
Remote work is not going to fix a bad culture or a bad mindset, but if you’ve developed a good culture, then remote work can be better. You can work more effectively, especially as a programmer. There are a lot of things that suit programmers about being at home like having a bit of space when you want to go and work something out, or going for a walk. You can’t do that in an office.
You can’t work as a programmer alone. You need the collaboration. The stereotype of the programmer sitting in the basement with his head down isn’t the modern way of a programmer. Programming is a very collaborative and creative activity. And remote collaboration suits it perfectly.
It’s difficult when only part of the team is remote. As soon as one person on the team goes remote, everybody has to work as if they’re remote.
It’s not that Agile can’t work with remote. It’s that remote can’t really work without the collaboration that comes with Agile.
I think the pair programming is a huge contribution towards that trust because when you’re working together you’re completely open to each other and your talents but also your weaknesses are open to each other. That really builds relationship in a strong way. You’re just chained to someone doing something challenging together. You’re solving real problems together. I think the trust comes through that.
Often in offices, people are expected to just looking like they’re working, regardless if they’re motivated or doing anything effective at all. With this remote way of working, it doesn’t matter when you’re working, as long as you’re available for collaboration. And if you’re enjoying your work, you’re doing it because you love it, not because somebody is there watching you.
Lisette: Alright, so there’s thing like on Google, so we’re live. And welcome everybody to this remote interview. My name is Lisette. I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. And today I’m totally excited. I have Tom Howlett on the line.
Tom: Hello. Hello everyone.
Lisette: Great, so I said your name correctly. And Tom you’re in the UK and I can never pronounce the city that you’re in. I see it.
Tom: It’s Cheltenham.
Lisette: It says on your LinkedIn profile, I can’t even say it, the Gloucester.
Tom: Gloucester, so it’s in county of Gloucestershire and the town is Cheltenham.
Lisette: Okay. And something we’re definitely going to talk about, which is the pair programming. I want to dive into that pretty quickly. But first I want to talk about your anywhere office. I mean we can see, but maybe describe first a little bit about your remote way of working. What do you need around you? Describe your anywhere office.
Tom: It’s mostly a room in the house. It’s a MacBook. It’s a bunch of books behind. It’s this headset, this trusty headset, which is really a bit broken but I’ve had for years and I’m attached to.
Lisette: Reliable, I must say.
Tom: Yeah, it’s really reliable. It never goes wrong and I don’t want to lose it. I often stick it in my bag when I’m going out to work in other places and then I have to glue it back together afterwards. I really need a version that you can fold up but it’s fine. I’m mostly here, I guess. I’ve been in this office now for 5 years, I guess. I’m often out and visiting people maybe a day a week, and then the rest of the time I’m here, pair programming with people in the UK generally.
Lisette: Okay. So is your team then pretty…I read that you do your retrospectives face to face at a bar.
Tom: I guess to put a little bit background; I’ve worked with the team, the same team at the same company, which was originally a London-based software house. I worked for them for 13 years, and I actually left and went freelance four months ago. And I still work with that team for quite a bit now, but on a slightly more open basis and then work with other clients as well, doing similar things. But yes, that team they get together every two weeks, generally, for a day and mostly spend in a pub, to be honest. It’s mostly a socializing and the retrospective’s fairly informal these days. For years we did them. It’s an unusual thing because the whole team, 50% of that team is still together for over 10 years.
Lisette: Wow! That’s unheard of.
Tom: And I think a lot of that has got to do with working remotely now. We started together working in the office and then everyone started having kids and said “I can’t live in London anymore.” The first guy, he was a really determined guy. He said “I’m going to move to Dorsett. I want to escape to the country, have chickens. I don’t want to do this London thing anymore. And I’ll do you a deal; I’m going to promise you I’ll be just as effective working remotely as I am in this office today.” And he went off and did it and he made sure that he was as effective. He took responsibility on himself. If any of us were having private conversations and not including him, he was like right on it and stand up the next day, which then became a virtual stand up. He was fantastic getting the whole thing going with that team. And then when we saw it worked, slowly but surely the team started dispersing until they’ve became 100% remote. And yeah we worked out a way of doing that way. We were definitely more collaborative than we ever were when we were sat together in an office in London.
Lisette: Interesting, because so many people say that it’s impossible and of course I’m out to prove them wrong, and so I love this.
Tom: It’s not going to fix a bad culture or a bad mindset, but if you’ve developed a good one or motivated to do it, then I think it can be better and honestly your life is better because you spend time with your family, you’re not commuting into London, which is really grim. But I think you can work more effectively, especially as a programmer. I think there’s a lot of things that suit programmers being at home, having a bit of space when you want to go and work something out – go and walk around the garden, take the dog for a walk, come back with your pair and then get that collaboration as well. I think you can’t do that in an office.
Lisette: Right. It seems like with programming it’s a lot of brain work. It’s a lot of thinking in the head. I would assume, I’m not a programmer but I assume that having all that noise and stuff happening around can be really distracting if you’re focused.
Tom: Yeah. It’s very distracting, but then also you need the collaboration. You can’t work as a programmer alone. The stereotype of the programmer sat in the basement with his head down isn’t the modern way of a programmer. It’s a very collaborative and creative activity. You need that ability to collaborate as well. I think this remote collaboration suits that perfectly.
Lisette: Let’s dive then into the pair programming. For people that aren’t IT savvy that may be watching or listening to this, can you describe what pair programming is and then let’s dive into how it works for you and why it’s working so well.
Tom: Pair programming is when two programmers are working on the same piece of code on the same problem, on the same screen basically, at the same time. And it’s one of those things that very few people do because it’s so hard to sell to management. Management will say “but you’ll go twice as fast as you’re independent. You’ll go half as fast because two people working on the same thing.” But actually it turns out, with the difficult thing like how programming works, complex, you end up going more than twice as fast plus the quality is so much better. And it’s this huge cognitive load on you, programming, it’s very complex. You’re constantly battling with complexity and when you’ve got 2 heads working on that at the same time, it becomes considerably easier and a lot less stressful and you tend to make better choices, which lead to better software and lead to less maintenance problems in the future and you just get through it more quickly and you don’t go off. I think maybe it has something to do with programmer personalities as well that we tend to go off down rabbit holes and we can get a bit obsessive about things. Whereas when you’ve got a pair there, he’s going “no, hold on. Back off. Let’s step back and take another look at this. Do you really want to go down that rabbit hole?” Pair programming is fun. Most people who pair program do it side by side, but I think it actually works even better remotely.
Lisette: And you work with the same person all the time? Are you pairing with the same person?
Tom: I do at the moment. But when we’re with this team, we would work with a pair and we would typically work with a pair for a day or two and then swap pairs around the team, working with different pairs on the team. Everyone has a shared knowledge of the software. Nobody goes “oh right, that piece. You’re going to have to talk to Jim about that. Nobody else would touch that.” You don’t get that when you do this pair programming because everybody is working with each other and everyone has some exposure to all of the code, which makes it much easier to maintain. I guess the thing about this team, we stayed together for a long time but we worked on the same piece of software for a long time. Writing bad quality software isn’t an option when you got to live with it for the next 5 years. Every poor line of code you write, you pay for it for years afterwards, every bad choice you make. The team was hugely bought in to making sure that everybody was doing a good job and we are all working together doing that, really. There’s pair programming but also we spend quite a lot of time together as a team, 7 or 8 of us, in the mornings, at the stand up, and then probably post-stand up discussions about things to really make sure that everybody was understanding what was going on, everyone was happy with what was being done with the software. It was very much a shared ownership of that piece of software.
Lisette: What happen when there was conflict and when somebody was unhappy? Did that happen very often?
Tom: Sure yeah. Originally when we started doing it, it was painful. Over the years, I think we got better resolving the conflict. We spend more time listening. And one of the things about working remotely as a team is we do it generally using video, so we would be looking at the same screen, we would be looking at virtual board or actually a piece of code and talking about a piece of code. We’re not generally looking at each other’s faces, although we did do occasionally. You can’t see the same body language and there’s so many contributing to the conversation you don’t know why. You don’t know if they’re disinterested, you don’t know if they’re just fuming with anger and actually don’t want to contribute because they don’t want to make it worst or they’re disengaged or whatever. You can’t see that kind of thing that easily. I was a Scrum master, as well as a developer on the team. People would say that this would happen and people would say let’s just go round with everybody and have a quick roundtable with the team and go “how do you feel about this?” Matt would go “I’m unhappy about this” or Jim would go “yeah I’m fine. Let’s just move on.” There are certain things working with a team remotely that you need to do, just practices that you need to bring in that just ensure that everybody is fully engaged with the time really, otherwise people become disengaged and frustrated and you don’t know anything about it because you can’t see their faces.
Lisette: Right. I did a webinar last night, in fact, where I recommended that people when they’re sharing the screen, you should use a tool that allows you to share your screen and see the video at the same time. Like Google Hangouts, once you start sharing your screen, the videos go away. That bandwidth between the communications.
Tom: Yeah it was interesting. We talked a lot about using video more and we occasionally did it. It was almost like a novelty and we kind of got used to not using it and working remotely without it. And I think people were kind of like “I’m happy without it. I don’t really want to…” it’s an extra investment. You’re opening yourself up more and people were really comfortable working without it. We kind of worked around it in other ways, just making sure in the conversation that everybody is on the same page.
Lisette: It’s interesting that people are so averse to the video. I understand that I had the same. In the beginning I had the same. When my collaboration partner first suggested that we do the video, I thought I’m in my running clothes or whatever the reason is and then slowly I found it so valuable that now I insist on it most of the time.
Tom: It’s kind of funny because with you it’s probably different. You’re talking to new people and you want to see them, but we were working with the same people every day for years. In my mind, we all knew what each other looked like. We knew each other’s mannerisms and when you spoke to each other, you could imagine them. That wasn’t a big deal. The main time we turn the video on is to show something new in our office. We’d like to share something. It’s like “oh look I’ve got a new lamp” or something like this. That’d be the main time you’d turn video on. Or come to see the new baby that’s joined the team, somebody’s had a baby or a new dog or stuff like that. It would be sharing new things that people haven’t seen before but I think people would kind of…just we knew each other well enough to imagine each other.
Lisette: Interesting. It’s interesting. And also you say something with being able to show off the new baby or the new toys that you get, which is also I find that with remote working that sometimes it can be more personal when we’re working from home because you would never get these kind of opportunities if everybody’s in the office together. You’d never see the new dog. You might hear about it. It’s going to be more…
Tom: Yeah it’s brilliant. You have this conversation you have at work, you’d say “I’ve got a new dog” but actually you can go “here’s the dog. He’s come in. It’s really cute. Look what he’s doing” and it lines things up in a way that you can’t really do in the office, I think.
Lisette: I thought it was interesting because most of the time people say when you’re remote you’re so distant from your colleagues and I thought well in some situations you’re actually closer in some ways. What I’m curious about though is really the challenges. People are always talking about the pain that they have with remote working. So I’m really trying to dive in with teams and just see that were the things that you guys really struggled with when you first went remote. It sounds like you had one champion who was like I’m going to make this work. I’m going to be extra in touch and extra communication. And then slowly other people started to do it. What did you guys struggle with when that happened? What are you struggling with now even?
Tom: I guess the first thing is when part of the team is remote and I think that’s really difficult. And basically as soon as one person on the team goes remote, everybody has to work as if they’re remote, in a way, if they’re going to include them. You come and just go off and scribble on a whiteboard and exclude that guy. That’s really difficult. That’s a difficult transition. That for us lasted…well it could’ve steadily happened. A lot of people still went into the office. Even today, people still go into an office on that team, but they work remotely. They just stick their heads. They may as well be at home. They just have a choice that they didn’t want to be at home, so it’s fine. But initially that’s difficult. And we fairly quickly established a protocol. If you want to have a group conversation or if you want to have a conversation, you go into chat and you say “I’m struggling with this. Does anyone want to talk about it?” There’s immediately visibility into that conversation and then people would say “yeah, I’d love to join. I’m at home. Could we do it on a headset?” Other people would go “I’d like to join. I’m actually in the office with you.” And then you could go and do the whiteboard thing if you want, if the other person’s happy, but you need to make that visible to everybody on the team and give everybody an open invite to joining that piece of collaboration. I think that’s the first challenge. People don’t easily do that because it feels like a bit of effort. But actually typing into a chat is not a huge amount of effort and it soon becomes habitual. So just making those conversations open. I think those are one those early problems.
The other thing really is when we’re starting off is tools, unreliable tools, taking a while to setup a screen share, things like that. I think the technology now has moved on to the point where it’s no longer a problem and it shouldn’t be a problem. I’ve used various pieces of software. We ended up with Microsoft Link because it was a Microsoft shop. And it’s fine. We had a good provider. And I think there’s so many good tools out there that that problem is hopefully over. But it’s just getting in the habit of using them properly; making sure everyone’s got decent bandwidth. I read a blog post about you saying going off into the mountains somewhere and struggling with bandwidth and things like that. Occasionally people would go off somewhere and have poor bandwidth and it’s really frustrating because you just take for granted that you can talk to people really easily and not have to worry about those technical issues.
Lisette: Things just break down completely when the bandwidth is not good enough.
Tom: It’s just frustrating because it will work sometimes and it doesn’t work and it’d be better if it just didn’t work at all. It’s kind of like that. You spend all that time trying to make it work and then it’s just more frustrating. I think once you got those frustrations out of the way. I think once you got the collaboration right and those protocols okay, I don’t think it’s hard at all. Whether it’s suitable for some people and not some people, I didn’t really find anybody who really didn’t like working in this way in the end.
Lisette: Oh interesting.
Tom: I think it is suitable. I think it’s hard to not like it, really. If you’ve got the same level of collaboration, if you’re seeing people or chatting to people, just like you are in an office, you’ve got that freedom. I don’t see why it’s much different, except you’ve got time at home, family and friends. Some people like to be away from home during the day time but they ended up, as we were saying, working remotely in an office and just going through. They still wanted to go into an office but they effectively work as part of a remote team in that office. It’s still doing the same thing. I certainly like to be at home. We move to a beautiful place in England and I go for walks and see the family a lot. I prefer it.
Lisette: I love…I have this little beautiful office just like a tree house and I go running.
Tom: Oh wow!
Lisette: I could never go back. I tried, actually, a couple of years ago. I tried and failed horribly. I lasted 11 months and I just couldn’t take it anymore.
Tom: Right, yeah.
Lisette: I feel like I was in a box.
Tom: I kind of like going and visiting clients just for the day now, but there’s no way I’d spend the whole week, more than a couple of days with anyone, away from the home office.
Lisette: So you mentioned tools that you’re using Link and you’re right, what I hear one of the issues it seems to come up is that there are so many tools now that people have and knowing what to choose. It’s funny. Do you guys experiment with new things or you guys pretty much set with what you’re using, your set of tools now.
Tom: We went through quite a few different ones and various combinations of things. I think we started off with Skype and JoinMe, so Skype for voice and video and JoinMe for sharing screens, which was good. At that time we used GoToMeeting for group ones because those were kind of one to one, and that worked well. And then we went to Link. There’s a whole new generation of tools now that to be honest I haven’t really used much. I think communities, Sococo, things like that, I kind of looked at. They look fantastic, but I’ve not played with them, not largely.
Lisette: If the tools are working for the team, then there’s no need to change often.
Lisette: How did you make sure then that everybody was able…I mean was it a team decision to use the tools? Did team members introduce new tools? How did you get everybody using it, because I know that a lot of people struggle, like some guy wants to use HipChat and another one wants to use Slack, nobody can agree on which chat tool. How did you guys come to an agreement about what to do?
Tom: We certainly discuss. We chat everyday in the stand up and the pre-stand up. It’s the sort of thing. We talk about that. And people would suggest new things and a couple of people would go off and experiment with it and then they’d come back and report and then people would try it. It was no point in using a tool when the whole team isn’t using, so it would have to get team agreement to become a part of that team.
Lisette: How big is your team approximately?
Tom: I guess about 10 in total, of which 7 or 8 were developers. There’s 4 pairs basically, generally on that team.
Lisette: Interesting. What are the tools then that you’re using? There’s Link, you said now. And your chat system, I’m curious which chat system you guys use.
Tom: We use Link for chat, which to be honest isn’t a fantastic chat tool. It’s simple just having the one tool for everything, and you can have a group chat, you can have individual chat. And it’s nice that they integrate together. I think one really important scenario is you start something off on a group chat. You say “do you want to talk?” And then you can quickly turn that into voice and share a screen, without then having to go “okay, now I need to organize something.” It needs to be a click away. Often on a one-to-one chat, you start chatting, it’s getting a bit tiresome, some of you just hits the voice button, it turns into a voice conversation. And those transitions need to be smooth and seamless. I think the problem with using different tools is they can be okay, but I think having a tool where that transition is seamless really speeds things up. Things need to happen fast, as quickly as walking to somebody in an office, hopefully quicker. You can turn something into a voice conversation, share a screen. It mustn’t interrupt the flow of work. That’s important.
Lisette: And you said that you recently went freelance. So you work with the old team still, but then I’m assuming you also get new clients on board.
Tom: Yeah. Part of the idea of going freelancer is we have to start introducing this to other teams. I’m working with one team at the moment. That’s actually in Cheltenham. I actually go to them on site, and that’s not remote work. But I’m looking out for working with other teams who want to go remote or are remote and are struggling with it to work with them as well. I still love to code as a developer too. Originally I was thinking I will go full time kind of coach but I’m like I still love to code. The one team I’ve got at the moment, I go in and I coach and then I go away and during the week I go and built a dashboard showing the data of what they’re doing, and so next week I go in. This is what’s happening in your company. This is why things aren’t working and they’re like “oh right.” And I’m doodling some dashboard as well as kind of the company.
Tom: The combination is fantastic. It’s having the visualization in Agile, I’m able to help them with as well, beyond just a board but actually showing the metrics. It’s a creative agency, so they have a huge amount of different clients. It’s really complex. I was thinking, I thought just one software project was complex but suddenly you’ve got 30 clients going at one time. It’s way harder. The visualization is much difficult, more difficult.
Lisette: Do you find that people do that very often, the visualization? Because I think it’s key. I’m a huge data nut, I’m a metrics nut. I don’t code. I just use whatever tools I can to visualize my own data. But I find that it’s crucial when you’re looking at the statistics.
Tom: Yeah. It’s great. When I first had a meeting with them, they said “we want metrics. We want to see what’s happening” and so it’s brilliant. I was like yes, you’re the client for me. Let’s go.
Lisette: I’ll code that for you.
Tom: Yeah. I can build that for you. The tools that they use we weren’t quite getting…the problem I think is there’s a lot of dashboarding tools now and they’re great. You can drag them but they’re compromise. You’re visualizing the way the tool allows you but by coding it natively and hitting their systems API, I can combine the data much more easily and build a much stronger visualization and we started discussing those a lot. What if we could see this on top of that? They’re great. They’re very mindful of making sure that every visualization, every pieces of dashboard is hugely valuable to and they’d act on that. And we have this rule. I’m saying “how will you act on that?” And if they wouldn’t act on it, we won’t build it. It’s not just pretty dashboard. It’s things that’s changing the way they work.
Lisette: And have you had an issues with finding clients that don’t want to work remotely at all or not open to it at all?
Tom: No. I work for one other client who are very traditional enterprise and they have a huge office in a business park about 150 miles away. As a software developer, I got to go into them for like a week, a day or two, and I spend some time with them and then they go away and build the software. If you looked at their policies it would say “no remote work” and they weren’t giving me access to anything remotely but I can still work around it. I build a software with fake data so I don’t need to access their systems, which is a good way to build the software anyway, has kind of interfaces and I stuffed things, stuff out, and I just go away and work remotely and they chat to me on email. And it’s bizarre because although they’ve got this big office, they’re not very collaborative and they’re far less collaborative than I’m normally am and I almost feel like I’m actually hassling them because I’m like “can we talk about this” and they’re like “oh yeah. We don’t normally talk that much. I write you a document and you go and do it.” I’m like no, this isn’t the way I work. I’m more collaborative. And it’s actually, even though I’m remote, I’m too collaborative for them. They’re at an office but they don’t talk to each other and they don’t collaborate in the same way.
Lisette: I’ve seen that in offices as well. People are just in their silo and after you’ve worked together for a long time, people have their routines and their ruts and their patterns.
Tom: But that’s because you are forced to be together in a way and you want that space. When you’re remote, you can take that space but then you can come back and you want to talk to people. If you’re stuck in the office and there are people around you all the time, you can’t escape from them, maybe you want to talk to them less. Maybe actually being remote is encouraging you to being more collaborative, because otherwise you’re just alone, aren’t you?
Lisette: I mean you could be alone in the office. I’ve been in an office, in my own little silo, dying to have meetings with people. It’s lonely there. It’s weird. You mentioned Agile and I just have to bring this up because the more I talk with Agile coaches and Agile teams, the more and more it comes up that Agile and remote don’t work together and clearly that’s not true because it has to work together, but so many people have told me you can’t be Agile if you want to be remote. It’s just not possible and I think…
Tom: I think when people are talking about remote, they’re talking about different things. We’re both talking about remote collaboration and that’s why I started blogging about it and I started just always calling it remote collaboration rather than just remote because remote is a word, it sounds like you’re not able to be collaborative but the way we’re working is more collaborative than most people sitting. Even in Agile team, it’s no different. The time with my old company, it was as good as Agile setup as I’d ever heard of. We worked as an Agile team there and it was all remote and it was hugely collaborative, always questioning, reflection, visualization, it’s all possible. I think people just haven’t seen it and people have seen poor examples of remote work where people don’t have the ability to do that. I think Agile can work great and I think actually it’s more in keeping with the philosophy behind Agile where it’s more about creativity. It’s more humane way of working. Able to work at home is more humane than being stuck on a commuter train for 2 hours a day. It’s more about the people. It’s respecting the people. It’s allowing them to work where they want to work, but also allowing them to collaborate effectively with each other. I think it totally fits with Agile for me. I think people who are saying that probably just haven’t seen it work and it takes effort to make it work, doesn’t it?
Lisette: It’s just a different way of moving, I think. To me, Agile shows us how remote working should be done. You have people over processing, in the planning. If you’re going to work alone, you should do it in the Agile way.
Tom: Exactly. It’s not Agile can’t work with remote. It’s that remote can’t really work without the collaboration that comes with Agile. We don’t even need to call it Agile, but it’s collaboration.
Lisette: Right. So have you found then, management techniques, everything that we do when we’re remote is slightly different than when we’re in person. I’m curious about any sort of management techniques because the trust issue seems to come up all the time. How are people trusting each other and I know that you’ve written a blog post about trust as well. I’ve read this blog post. What are the types of things that you do on your team? You guys have been working together for a long time, so maybe this is a hard question. You’ve got the trust because you know each other so well, but for other teams, how would you go about building that or managing people in a way that builds trust?
Tom: I think the pair programming is a huge contribution towards that trust because when you’re working together you’re completely open to each other and your talents but also your weaknesses are open to each other. We’re working together. “I’ve no idea how to do that.” “I can help you with that. I’ve done this before.” Those are the kind of conversations that are happening and you have to be open, you have to be empathetic towards the other person. That really builds relationship in a strong way. You’re just chained to someone and you’re doing something difficult together. You’re solving problems, real challenges together. I think the trust really comes through that. I think working individually where I couldn’t see what somebody else is doing, the trust would be difficult. I imagine a lot of teams struggle with that. But when you’re working so intensively together, it’s not really an issue. As far as management went on the team, the team was largely self organizing. We had a development manager. She was really a facilitator in helping us get the things we needed in that sense and she said she wasn’t checking up. She saw what was coming out of the team. And we chatted every day as well in the standup. It wasn’t really a standard format where we go “I did this yesterday and I’m going to do that today.” But you would talk about that. You would go through the boredom, you’d see what people were working on, how well they were getting on and people will be helping each other. I think as long as you’ve got a way of having visibility and able to spend a lot of time together, then I certainly understand more about what was going on in the team that I ever had in an office previously.
Lisette: Because you’re really over-communicating, because you have to in some way.
Tom: Yeah. And also chat is nice for that as well. I’m intrigued by chat. We were quite anti-chat. We’d always jump to a voice conversation very quickly. We’d use chat to say “I’ve got a problem with this, I’m doing this” but we wouldn’t have long chats. I spoke to another developer recently who maybe you should talk to as well actually. He’s really interesting. He works for a games company and they develop racing simulations and it’s a huge team, 60-70 developers. They never talk to each other. They work completely on forums.
Tom: I was like “I don’t get this. I don’t know how you do this. This is incredible.” And he showed me the forums. He went through the conversations and actually it’s good in a way because they can look back over the conversations. It’s not synchronous. One of the nice things I find about chat is a group conversation and maybe someone’s a bit dominant in the conversation, they really want to get their point across. You do that in a chat and anybody can type in at any point. A strong personality can’t dominate the conversation in the same way. It’s much more free for everybody to say what they want to say or not say what they want to say. I think actually chat is quite an interesting form of communication; typing chat is an interesting form of communication as well. I think actually it’s got some interesting advantages.
Lisette: I like the idea that somebody doesn’t dominate the conversation because that comes up actually quite often. If you’re doing a remote retrospective for example then sometimes you have one or two people that completely take over and anybody else that may not be feeling as strong or maybe they’re not as extroverted somehow, they don’t get heard or they get bored in the conversation.
Tom: That’s going back to that thing I talked about earlier. Just go around the table. As soon as you hear people, you don’t know whether they’re engaged or not, go around the table and that works beautifully.
Lisette: And just have everybody contribute something quickly.
Tom: Yeah, just everyone say a word or two just to get back into the conversation.
Lisette: The other thing I like about chat in particular, and this form of chat that I’m thinking about is the institutional knowledge that we have. The conversation is forever immortalized, which is sometimes good and sometimes bad, but I think it’s mostly good, I would say. You know why decisions were made. You can go back and be like “oh that’s what they were thinking.”
Tom: Yeah you don’t have that “what did we decide? We have to have that conversation again now.” Although often in those situations where you can’t remember what you decided, it’s actually worth go and have that conversation again because it’s still unclear in your mind.
Lisette: Right. I have a client actually, we had a conversation a year ago and I just went back for a meeting just this week and they’re still having the same conversation and I feel like oh man, how long have you guys been talking about this? This is horrible.”
Tom: Just go and do it.
Lisette: Just do it.
Tom: Actually that’s another thing on the management thing and I don’t know if this really much to do with remote but I’d often just shout let’s do an experiment, always an experiment. If people can’t decide, let’s do an experiment and talk about it again tomorrow. Somebody go off, give something a try. Just suggesting the experiment can end those conversations really quickly.
Lisette: Are people open to that?
Tom: Yeah, I found, especially programmers because they didn’t want to be talking. They want to be coding. As much as they also want to have their voice heard and they want to try something, they really want to get away and type some codes. So just say let’s do an experiment, suggest the experiment, talk about it again tomorrow with some fact, with data. Back to the data thing.
Lisette: The thing that comes immediately to my mind when you say that though is we can do experiments but at some point you’ve got a deadline or at some point you only have so much budget. I don’t know if those things ever get in the way. I’m a huge fan of experiments. I just love the concept of it. Okay, let’s try it. But then you have to balance that, I suppose, with deadlines, budget, time.
Tom: What’s the cost of the experiment? The experiment is hopefully very cheap, compared to getting that decision wrong. What’s the cost of going down this path that we’re really not sure about? I think you weigh those two up. It’s the Agile thing, isn’t it? Fail early.
Lisette: Right, build fast. Interesting. Alright, well let’s see, I’ve got one thing – productivity and work-life balance. It’s something I like to discuss because people always say “when we’re remote we don’t know if they’re working” and what I find with remote workers is actually the total opposite is true. Most people struggle with always being on, not working enough. It’s just not an issue it seems.
Tom: Yeah. To be honest, I’m enjoying my work. And that’s partly because it’s remote work. I do tend to do a few hours in the evening as well but it’s like a hobby as well. I feel like it’s work together. I don’t have this 5:30 switch off. I’m thinking about it. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing if you enjoy your work. If your work is hellish and stressful, then yeah you need to switch off at 5:00 and you need to spend some time away from that.
Lisette: Probably looking for a new job.
Tom: Yeah, exactly. Some people have that luxury, it’s difficult. You do need to just get away from it, but I love this work and I sort of think about it in the evening and then often my wife goes to bed and I stay up for a couple more hours and do some of the most enjoyable, creative programming stuff. I’m writing dashboards to this client and that kind of thing in this early hours. I really enjoy that. I like the freedom to have to do that and work when I want. But we do, this tem works a fairly standard 9:00 ‘til 5:00, 5:30 hours where everyone is together and everyone is chatting so that you don’t have that issue of where they’ve gone. And if somebody is going out to pick the kids up, they will just put on to the chat, just popping out for 20 minutes to pick the kids up and they go and do that. That’s trusting as well, isn’t it? It’s much better to give it a certain level of accepted flexibility, but then people be quite open about it so you’re not sneaking off to get the kids. You’re just going on to the chat, I’m off to get the kids.
Lisette: It’s more human. I have children and a life and work is integrated.
Tom: Yeah. I quite like to blur the boundary a little bit. I think it’s good.
Lisette: And do you have any productivity things that you do for yourself? Do you have a routine or a…
Tom: To be honest, when I’m not pairing I struggle with productivity, unless I’m really passionate about what I’m doing. Yeah, I don’t particularly have a routine. I do tend to sit down on my desk. I tend to, in the morning mostly, I take my daughter to school, walk the dog, which is fantastic so I’ve got out of the house and I think maybe that’s an important thing. If you move from your bed to breakfast straight to the desk, it’s a bit like…so actually getting out of the house for half an hour or an hour of walking around is fantastic. I do struggle a bit if I haven’t done that. I would suggest, and always at lunch hour. At lunch time I go for a walk up. Luckily we live on the edge of Cheltenham, so I’ve got the hills just behind so we can walk up into the hills or mountain bike or whatever at lunch time, which is joyous.
Lisette: It’s funny because so many people in the office, there are facilities in many offices to allow us to go out for a run at lunch or go do something and come back and take a shower and continue to work, but I’ve never seen anybody do it.
Tom: No, yeah.
Lisette: Somebody might run in or bike in the morning but never go in the middle of the day for a jog or something.
Tom: Yeah. It’s hard, isn’t it? I think it’s part of the culture though, isn’t it? People don’t really expect it. You’re free to do, you’re free to work the way you want to work when you’re remote. [39:31] judging and that kind of office thing.
Lisette: Yeah there’s a lot of peer pressure, I think, when you’re around everybody, if you’re gone for an extended period of time. I love to go running in the middle of the day. It’s just my thing. And sometimes if you’re going strong, I don’t want to stop. I want to keep going so I can be out for 2 hours, in an extreme. If you’re really going strong, you want to keep going and I think in an office there’s the pressure of it. You’re gone for 2 hours and then you have a 30-minute shower and getting ready again. That’s like a significant portion of the day and people really frown upon that.
Tom: Yeah. Often in the offices people are expected to just looking like they’re working, whether they may not be motivated or actually doing anything very effective at all, whereas I think this way of working doesn’t really matter when you’re working, as long as you’re available for collaboration. And if you’re enjoying it more, you’re doing it because you love it, not because somebody is there watching you.
Lisette: Right. It seems it’s a different mode of working. It’s people who really love what they do instead of just having a job. It seems to be there’s a shift in the culture and mostly the people who love what they do that are going remote because they love what they do and they want to integrate it more. A job tends to be like I need this job because I’ve got a mortgage. It tends to be a different frame of mind somehow.
Tom: Yes, it’s traditional, isn’t it? It’s the culture that’s been going for hundreds of years and it’s taken a while to change but I feel I see us working more effectively.
Lisette: [41:00] do think for remote working? Why are people resisting it so strongly?
Tom: I think they haven’t seen it work effectively. Often it’s hierarchy getting in the way. I find hierarchies usually get in the way of change, people that used to do things and expect the new generation to do things in the same way, certainly in the more traditional companies. And then the whole level of trust, unless they’re going remote as well, unless they can see and haven’t seen the tools, I guess. Change is always really hard, isn’t it? It’s fine with small companies or small teams where they’re young and open minded, but especially a larger company where people have done things a certain way for a long time, I think. Those generations will go and the new generations will replace it, I think. I don’t think they’ll really change.
Lisette: It seems to me, now with the ability for people using sites like Freelancer.com or Elance or oDesk, where you can find work from anywhere. I think companies really are going to have to start worrying about oh my God, if we don’t offer something that makes this place a great place to work, our top talent is going to go off and find work where they want to do because you can now.
Tom: Going back to that team, I said that after 10 years 50% of the team is the same, partly because we’ve gone remote and it was so hard. Nobody really wanted to work anywhere else. There were so few other teams that have that great way of working. It wasn’t anything else. It was really down to that quality of the way you can work.
Lisette: Do you do anything extra for the team building on your remote team? Do you guys do virtual beers together or do you get together often enough now? I guess [42:49].
Tom: Yeah. We used to get together occasionally. The other thing that we do is the stand up, I think we’re used to 9:00 now but we did 9:30 and people would join about 10 minutes earlier and have a social chat, which those 10 minutes were fantastic. And people would generally come into the stand up early and then talk about what did you do last night, that kind of thing. So you have that 10-minute social time before the stand up, which I think I’ve heard other people do with physical stand ups as well. People will come in early and have a chat. I think that in itself is every single day. That’s where the team building comes from.
Lisette: I like that, just like non-mandatory hey if you’re around and you want to just chat with people, we’re here. Otherwise, we still have the 9:00 stand up.
Tom: People sort of knew if they join. It’s no trouble anyway. If you’re going through emails or whatever, stick your headset, join anyway. As people come on, you go like “morning” and it’s more informal and you can have a little chat about the latest Lego you’ve been building and stuff like that.
Lisette: The new toys you’ve got. I just got this new 3D webcam that I’ve been totally excited about. I’ve been showing people how it works and it’s just super fun. I can totally understand. I guess one final question, which would be if people want to learn about you and how to get in contact with you, what’s the best way?
Tom: My website is leantomato.com. There’s also a blog, which is really a history of 8 years of that time on that team and going from being pre-Agile non-collaborative to very Agile, very collaborative and remote. That’s called diary of a Scrum master. That’s got 120 posts over 7 years of doing this. If you want to contact me or work with me now, leantomato.com; if you want to see the history of this team, diary of a Scrum master.
Lisette: It sounds like that could even become a book, your journey of pre-Agile to collaborative to remote.
Tom: Yeah, I’ve written it, Lisette. It’s written,
Lisette: It’s written?
Lisette: Is this your Programmers Guide to People book?
Tom: Yeah. That’s pretty much all that is. Originally I was working with a publisher and I was going to get published and then the publisher disappeared. She lives on a boat in San Francisco and that remote working, I don’t know where she went. It’s never been published but it’s on Lean Pub at the moment. So if you wanted to read that, Programmers Guide to People on Lean Pub.
Lisette: Okay. That seems like a really good book for people to check out. I know I’ll totally check that out because I love the idea that the journey went from pre-Agile to…and you never knew. It’s not like it was planned. It was just…
Tom: Yeah. It happened and the team did it. Nobody came down and said “you’re going Agile.” All the manager’s ever said was “we’re not very effective, are we?” And we went no. Let’s do something about it. That start was an experiment. And we started. We broke off into a small team, tried a bit of Scrum. “That’s really working, let’s do that with the whole team.” We worked like that. It just happened from the team. It was great.
Lisette: That’s the best way, self organizing. When that happens, it can be really magical.
Lisette: Great. I totally enjoyed speaking with you today, if there’s anything else that I missed, then let me know.
Tom: No, I think we’ve pretty much covered.
Lisette: I have a list of all the different things I wanted to dive into. Alright, I really appreciate it. For everybody watching, until next time, be powerful.
Tom: Cheers, bye.