AgileBill Krebs discovered virtual conferences in 2009 when his company ran into hard economic times and he had to look for alternatives to traveling for the trainings he was delivering.
AgileBill discovered a conference for educators and virtual world best practices in education. The conference was free and he could interact with more PhDs than he had ever met in one place before. The experience was so powerful that he got certified (virtually) by the University of Washington program in virtual worlds. His motivation was to determine how to use this technology for teamwork, collaboration, and project management.
AgileBill’s tips for navigating virtual worlds:
- Take the time to learn new ways of working.
- It’s only strange until we get used to it.
- Do what you can to have great sound.
Podcast production by Podcast Monster
Graphic design by Alfred Boland
Lisette: Welcome, everybody, to this Hangout On Air. My name is Lisette Sutherland and I’m researching people and businesses who collaborate remotely. Today, I’m interviewing AgileBill Krebs, an Agile coach from Raleigh, North Carolina. So AgileBill, welcome and thanks for the opportunity to interview you.
AgileBill: I’m excited to be in this show. Thank you so much for the opportunity.
Lisette: And if anybody has questions in the audience, you can ask them either through the Google+ page or just tweet to #remoteinterview and we’ll get your questions answered now or in the future. So AgileBill, I’d love to hear a bit about your background about who you are and the kinds of projects that you worked on. And then we’ll dive a little deeper into the remote working aspect of your work.
AgileBill: Okay, excellent! Well, I’m old as a hill. I’m been doing computer programming and then performance stuff and Agile coaching started a few decades ago when I was the age of three so yeah. I’m interested because I worked for big companies and we’re all remote. Even if you work for the same organization, you’re constantly forming teams on the fly, they are in different cities. And now, that they work for people from different companies so I love that stuff. So I’m an Agile coach which is a style project management works for everything. It started in software and to do that, I’d like to specialize also in the remote aspect of that.
Lisette: Well, what was your first experience with remote working? And I agree with you by the way that we are all working remote in one aspect or another but we’ll get into that into a little bit more detail but what is your first experience?
AgileBill: Okay, well I worked for a big company that had 400,000 employees with the color blue and I went on an assignment to Sweden. And when I came back, I worked on a project that required a lot of work between us and Germany and other cities. And I lived in Texas at that time. So I think that was the first project in 1987 for me that was particularly remote.
Lisette: Yeah, and that’s also very early with the technologies that we have today. So what did you use at that time?
AgileBill: Well we decided to let go of the punch cards and we would have in baskets email and that would continue to evolve. We started to adopt the new technology to PC and the rate of change—oh my gosh—just keeps getting steeper and steeper. I turn around and now it’s like my new computer kind of looks like this.
AgileBill: You got a 64-bit processor in the palm of your hand so the challenge for us is not to have the technology but for the human side to keep up with the technology.
Lisette: Oh, interesting. So in the beginning, it was the technology that was sort of the limiting factor. And now, the technology’s no problem or I wouldn’t say no problem based on my experience but the human factor is more the issue.
AgileBill: Our habits.
Lisette: I’m sorry. Say that again.
Agile: It’s our habits. Out habits don’t change fast enough.
Lisette: And can you give me an example of that?
Agile: Yeah. So I call it habitology. Why would I get on an airplane to visit and spend $6,000 to go to India? Well in some cases, that makes sense because of the time zone. In some cases, you’re close enough to me where we can have a call on Google like this and really get a lot of work done. But because of the way we’re used to working with people, it’s really nice to come meet you face-to-face and even have a meal together. Once we’ve done that and I love seeing your video because I get the expressions and I feel like we have a rapport, after that, I’m probably just good with your voice. But there are some innate habits that make me feel differently about you when I meet you face-to-face than if we just have a hangout. And there’s no logical reason for it. It’s all behavioral habit.
Lisette: Interesting, interesting. So what then has been the biggest benefit for you in terms of remote working? What is it that you love the most?
AgileBill: Well, the big thing for me is space. It’s not just faces; it’s spaces. Right now, I know we’re in a different room. The technology is really advanced now so I can see your face and get a lot of high bandwidth communication. I love that. But I know I’m facing you which is adversarial posture. If we were sitting together both looking this way at a shared object, it’s a different statement. See? And I feel different when you do that immediately. You know, face against me and then hey, that’s like literally on the other side of the “table.” If you’re sitting next to me facing the same thing, the same challenge, the same data, there’s a subconscious piece of my brain that says, “Okay, we’re working together.” So I like virtual worlds. Virtual world kind of were hyped a few years ago and now they’re like kind of simmering. But what I use them for is that spatial context.
Lisette: Intesting. Now it seems to me that most people can learn how to do a Google Hangout, most people can communicate over Skype. But a virtual world is another level. And it must be challenging to get people to use virtual worlds. And maybe let’s start by talking a little bit about how you got into the virtual worlds and what you’ve been using them for. I’m very curious about that.
AgileBill: Sure. Well we ran into some hard times in the economy in the late bit of like in 2009 and there was no choice. At one point, we’re looking at it for business conferences and then we had a job change and all the planes I would use for consulting and teaching, they went away. I didn’t have to travel anymore. I had to use it so landed right in the middle of the conference for educators, virtual world’s best practices in education, 1,600 educators every year for 6 years. And the thing was the conference was free and there was no travel. I could hang out with the most PhDs I ever met in one place. It was so exciting because there was a social aspect to make building the network quickly. We had a sense of co-presence because instead of facing each other, we were all looking at the presentation, and you can script your environment so I could actually click on things that have some data visualization come up. So that changed my life. So I went out, I got certified in that technology in University of Washington certificate of virtual worlds. The sole purpose is figuring out “Well, how can we use this for teamwork, collaboration, and project management?”
Lisette: And so it sounds to me that there is a bit of a downside in virtual worlds because you don’t have all the senses. You don’t have the smell and the touch so there is something lacking there but there must also be then. So do you find that, I mean there must be challenges with that besides just the technology and the hurdles of being able to use it?
AgileBill: Yeah, well the big thing like you mentioned is it’s easy to use Google Hangouts. I love talking to you this way. Remember habitology? People are used to talking on the phone. We think nothing of talking on the phone. Am I the same person on the phone as I am in person or is this going to like steal my spirit. And can you not trust me when I’m on the phone because you can’t see me? Well we’re used to the phone. That’s okay. A virtual world, it seems novel like we don’t trust it, we’re new to it. The other thing is it’s hard to use. There’s more information. So as a property of the build of your environment, you can make it simple. There’s a wide selection of tools that can be simple or complex. So I think we’re still learning on how to best use that kind of technology because it’s harder than a Google Hangout which is about approachable for everybody.
Lisette: And what are the challenges that you’re seeing that people most stumble with with virtual worlds?
AgileBill: I think it’s digital literacy. For example, I’m comfortable with the phone. I’m comfortable with email like with online call, we’ll have video. I kind of know how to operate in this environment. But there’s another set of skill about really mastering your video, your voice, and being able to move in a 3D web environment. And some people love it, and some people aren’t comfortable. And we have a team of ten people, everyone’s got to be comfortable with it. But you know, it’s not that different than what we’re doing today. You may have seen all these times where “Oh my gosh! The internet’s bad. We’re dropping voice packets. We’re dropping. Our sound quality’s not good.” You might get feedback. You might be hearing some dogs barking or something. So I think it’s not that different. It’s just another technology to master to get some new benefits.
Lisette: And do you have something you can show us what a virtual world looks like? For people that are completely unfamiliar with this, I would love to be able to show them.
AgileBill: Yeah, I’m glad you asked as a matter of fact because seeing is believing. So what I do is I have this matrix of virtual worlds. Really, who cares what they are. They are just tools for communication. I start on the top left with simple stuff: the telephone. Why aren’t we using the telephone right now? What’s wrong with the telephone? Well I get more information if I get video. And right now, I’m sharing my screen, I can share my screen with these other cool applications: Microsoft link, go to these go to meetings, Skype, you name it. There’s [inaudible 10:02] on Google Hangouts. What are we missing with Google Hangouts? Do we need anything more or is this the Nirvana, the ending? You know what’s missing? That sense of space. It means something when I’m sitting across the table or I’m sitting next to you. It means something when my teammates are in a different room and I know where they are. I know they’re working on X because X is being done in that room, in that cubicle, in that table. Over here, we’re working on Y. We know what we’re working on. To capture that, I use the tool called [inaudible 10:37] and in the picture I’m showing, it looks like boxes with dots. You know what? It’s those dots that will tell you where the team member is and I like that because it means a lot to me to know who’s in the room, who’s speaking. That’s a simple one. There’s no complexity here. It’s just a dot and you can turn it your video feed. Now if we get a little fancier, what we can do is a virtual world with a 3D environment. There’s business hangouts that are great with Google. [Inaudible 11:16] engage has avatars meaning it has pixel puppet. You walk around in 3D. You can interact with objects. It gives you the spatial environment. TERF is another cool one. You get both video and you get the avatar, drag documents to the screen. So using these tools, I get a lot more information if I can think about how I need to portray it in a usable manner.
Lisette: Is this what you learned in [inaudible 11:43]? Was it at the University of Washington that you said?
AgileBill: That’s right, University of Washington. It was a 1-year course. It was 500 hours. We built a whole simulation based on cyber security and the movie was shown to the White House. So it’s pretty cool stuff. University of Washington’s iSchool which has a library school is like the 4th in the country. It’s [inaudible 12:08]. So they’re interested in this advanced use videolization in technology. So we use some technology Opens in. There’s other ones Cloud Party. Second one’s [inaudible 12:18] was interesting. Build young stuff, runs on mobile devices too. So that was the focus of that course. How to build something together, how to program your environment so all the objects you can see can be interactive, how to use it for education, how to use that for training, how to use that for collaboration, just a new frontier. I find it quite interesting.
Lisette: Yes, I do too. It really opens up the possibilities for very creative collaborations. We’re seeing it all over the place. Interesting. So one thing that I’m wondering is maybe let’s take a step back. Actually, let me ask. Do you work entirely remotely now or is it a combination?
AgileBill: Well, habitology, people think especially with Agile Software Development, they want to be colocated. That’s even in our manifesto. Try to be colocated. Really, what they want is high bandwidth communication. So we’re busy putting people together in cubicles and open spaces but you know what? More than half of our team is in India. Every day, I talk to somebody who’s working at home because they have to get a delivery of their refrigerator or something. Every day, we work with people in many locations so in my fulltime job, we work remote just like you and I are speaking now every day. And it’s very rare exception I have a meeting that’s only face-to-face. We’ve got people that work in one state because we want global talent. We want the best talent. I don’t care where they are. When I was a kid, the whole family moves together with one earner. Now you have two-income families. You have kids in different cities. You move where you don’t get to see your kids. So I think now, it very common companies acquire other companies.
AgileBill: I’m always working remote but the habitology is that we don’t. But really, I’m excited about what we were doing because it’s the first class citizen. We are remote somewhat by choice but also by circumstance. And I think people are still trying to use older methods to the new landscape.
Lisette: What do you think..? Oh, sorry. Go ahead.
AgileBill: No, you got me excited and you have to slow me down because I’m all wind up.
Lisette: No, bring it on.
AgileBill: So I like to walk the talk. Remember I talked about University of Washington? By the way, that was like 3,000 miles or 2,900 miles from me. I took that course for a whole year via remote. That’s in Seattle and I’m on the other coast. It doesn’t matter. We felt co-present in a virtual world. I’m getting my master’s degree in coolness which is closest thing I could find was such education technology. So that’s in Boise, Idaho. Idaho! That’s like one of the states I’d forget if you ask me to list all the states.
AgileBill: But it’s great stuff, very cool people and of course, the whole thing is remote. So do I work remote? I go to school remote, I’m working on my second degree remote, I work with people like you from other companies every day remote, and all the work I do for my Agile Training Enterprise Coaching, 95% remote. Thanks.
Lisette: And I know that there’s a lot of resistance to working remotely. I hear about it all the time. I see it with the clients that I work with as well and I’m wondering do you see it as well also or maybe because you’re in the software development industry, there’s more of a percentage of people that are totally fine with it, but do you see a lot of resistance to remote working?
AgileBill: Yeah, and I think there’s a tradeoff because if we’re together physically, it’s going to help hold my attention. We have good serendipitous conversations. We’ll just drop in. There is something about being together that’s very productive. On the other hand, I work 2 hours extra a day. I work at home. I have 2 hours extra that I’m not spending on the road. Carbon, we don’t really care that much but the planet may submerge under water and we’ll all die. Oh, that’s not a problem right now but I’m not burning carbon when I’m not flying around as much. I think that’s nice too. I’m saving money, I’m saving carbon, and if used the right tools in the right way, well that’s about our discussion here that’s not face-to-face.
Lisette: But you find in terms of the teams that you’ve worked with, there must be people who aren’t good at this. Why are they not good at this?
AgileBill: It’s a digital literacy. I’m used to my phone. I’m used to sitting down with you out over lunch. That’s just because we’re used to it. I tell you working this way since 2009, for me this is as natural as picking up the phone or stepping out of an airplane but I had to learn it. At first it was murder. I couldn’t get my sound to work. Oh my gosh, like for a webinar like this, the lighting would be bad. We’d both kind of give some thinking to our lighting and backgrounds. It’s something you learn. It’s not just something you know by habit. So I think that a lot of people have to learn how to set up their sound to get comfortable with this media. And you know what? You and I, no problem: 2 experts, no problem. You get the average team of 12 people and you have a couple people that are kind of new at it and uncomfortable, it’s going to be a different dynamic so got to get everyone working.
Lisette: Yeah, and indeed I agree. And how do you suggest that people do that? Is it just communicating every day? Is there a certain etiquette that you lay out when you’re first starting with the new team saying, “You can’t leave your Skype status or your Skype status to be accurate, or your IM status must be accurate,” I mean do you have tips and tricks that you give to people when you’re first starting?
AgileBill: Yeah, well, obviously, [inaudible 18:23] you’re writing, I think you’re a good source of expertise in this subject. Yes, that’s a plug. Secondarily, I call it the 2-step tango. We know there’s a delay. I think you’re not in North Carolina right now, right? Where are you?
Lisette: I’m in the Netherlands.
AgileBill: Netherlands. I think that’s so awesome because it doesn’t matter where we are. It’s the talent and the subject. But there’s a slight delay for the audio to reach from the United States to Netherlands and we know that so when I interrupt you, I make sure I give you an extra 2 seconds to respond because I know we’re doing a 2-step tango. The second one is how’s my sound, right?
AgileBill: I’m going to ask “How’s my sound?” because to me, it sounds lovely. It sounds wonderful. But what counts is “how does it sound to you?” By the time it goes through the microphone, through the internet, through the router, through the cloud, back through your connection through your router, through your router through your computer. That’s a lot of hops, you know. There’s a lot of chances for error. Some people, they put on Bluetooth headsets and walk out on their porch outside. No, dude, wireless is death.
AgileBill: So I think that two messages are the 2-step tango. Just remember there’s a delay. The second one is “How’s my sound?” The culture is you tell me how my sound is. Don’t be shy because I might need to turn it up here there because I can’t tell.
Lisette: Right. And I’ve been following somebody who writes in Germany called John Stepper and he’s working on a program called Working Out Loud which is basically getting people to expose more of what they’re working on at all times. So for instance, I might put what I’m working on as my Skype status so that my team that I’m working with knows exactly what I am working on at that time. Do you use techniques like this as well with the teams that you work with?
AgileBill: Absolutely. I love that. It’s very effective because what we’re after is high bandwidth communication. And this is where I’m happy because with the tool like that, it’s actually better than face-to-face. We put everyone in a big fishbowl aquarium like they have tables with no cube walls, I don’t know who they are. I don’t know what they’re working on. But right now if you’re [inaudible 20:41], I can see your name, how to spell it. I can see your hash tag, who to follow. I can see if you change your status, what you’re working on so it’s really, actually, new ways that are impossible in a physical environment that are more productive.
Lisette: Right. I want to go back to the virtual worlds for a second. I find that very fascinating. And what kind of events and what kind of things do you do in these virtual worlds? You mentioned conferences but I’m assuming with this degree at University of Washington, you actually take classes in a virtual world?
AgileBill: Yes, we did. They were all in a virtual world. We started off with a phone. This is in the best practice and we get people used to things on the phone then we switched the inherent voice over IP in the environment because it’s spatial. If I walk away, the volume diminishes. That gives you a sense of presence and also gives you great breakout rooms. So it was in a virtual world because we had a better sense of who’s in the room. I can profile surf, I can join your groups. It was great. It was like almost too much information but we could also work on objects together. We could program together. We could build things together and we had a formal graduation in that environment. And it was just like you put on a gown so [inaudible 22:14] would walk through there. That’s a powerful thing psychologically that made us feel like a group in a team so it’s great stuff. You know I like user card trick and this may come out backwards.
AgileBill: But it says spaces. It’s not just faces. It’s also spaces. It’s not for everybody but I think for some people, they’ve got a lot of interesting ways to deliver it [inaudible 22:41] those environments.
Lisette: And can you tell if somebody is distracted in a virtual world? I mean sometimes I’m in meetings and with video, it really keeps you on this. I must say over the phone, I remember when I worked in an office and had to do my meetings over the phone, I’d be looking at things or maybe doing something else, and I would get distracted. Over the video, it’s harder to do. What if what happens in a virtual world exactly.
AgileBill: Well, sorry I got a call. I was on mute. What was the question again?
AgileBill: Yeah, what happens in a virtual world is you’re in one room showing a one technique and then you walk to another room and the person’s left behind is AFK. They’re not paying attention. And there was a [inaudible 23:27] that came to training, formal training in negotiation. He had a bill talking about [inaudible 23:32] and how they negotiated baseball contract and we were in like a sports box and he had a poll, interactive poll. And then we went to another room with an orchestra. It talked about how a conductor does things. Well, there were two people that didn’t make it. They were in the other room. Now in some technologies actually, the avatar will slump over and says “Away.”
AgileBill: The bottom line, I can tell people aren’t paying attention and it give you feedback as a teacher. If you’ve ever taught a class online, you can’t see any of the students, it’s really hard. With these environments, there’s a lot of gestures that people can use to make it really better for teachers too.
Lisette: Can they nod in agreement when they think?
AgileBill: Yes, yes.
AgileBill: So sometimes, it will scan what you type and if you say yes, it will play an animation that will make you nod. You can also type a command so I can overtly raise my hand. There is a tool called [inaudible 24:29] that will have 60 cross-cultural gestures so I could nod, I could wave, I could do this, I could do all of these things. So a lot of worlds, some of them, they’re simple and they don’t have that granularity. Some of them have a lot of special things, animations that really convey more meaning.
Lisette: What are your favorite, absolute favorite tools to use whether it’s in virtual worlds, or what is it that you use the most on a day to day basis? I think that’s two separate questions actually: your favorite tools and what you use the most.
AgileBill: Yes, oh I love that question. That’s great. Well I have to say like collaborative tools like Apple’s new iWork and Google docs and I’m sure other companies. I can get into a document spreadsheet and I could see your cursor and see you type, that’s very collaborative and that works well in remote environments. The second one would be my mix of spatial environments. And I will dodge the question because for some cases, I like something like [inaudible 25:32] which is flat and simple but spatial. I know what room you’re in. I can just drop in, say, “Hey, guys, how’s it going?” what we’re talking about because I know I’ve got people talking and I know those people. I know what they’re up to or how I can help them. Then I want a 3D environment for some things because I want to program interactions, some objects, and get breakout rooms. So there’s a long way of just saying Google docs were the equivalent and [inaudible 25:59]. The industry is the Wild West right now and there’s not one tool but I like them all. I got them all so come over and I’ll give you a tour.
Lisette: Well that is if somebody wants to get started so if you’re in a workplace where it’s not allowed, what are some of the resources that people should know about that they can go to to help maybe convince their boss or their colleagues to try this?
AgileBill: Well there’s a journal of virtual worlds education and research. There’s a virtual worlds best practice education conference. Really what I do, my site, you’re welcome to check it out but mine’s called Meetup.com/Agile3D. I mean you have to plug it but that’s what we do. We try to teach you something of interest. In this case, project management, but the way we teach is supposed to give you practice in some of these virtual worlds. So you can try and see what you think. And we’ll give you tips on all that. So we start off in a simple world like [inaudible 27:00] and we make the tour and show you the different spots. So if you’re just getting started, really come to my Meetup and we’ll talk more, assess your needs, and say, “Hey, you might want to try this one.”
Lisette: So you can put people on the right direction, then.
Lisette: So it that the best place then for people to get in touch with you if they want to get in touch with you? Meetup.com/Agile3D?
AgileBill: That’ll work. That’s a good way to do it. My goal is to help you save money. I want you to collaborate better and save money doing it. I just find that very fulfilling.
Lisette: Great. Yeah. It’s very exciting world. Okay, well that’s all the questions I have right now. Is there anything that I’ve missed that you’d like to say while we’re still in the call?
AgileBill: From your experience, do you feel like working remote will become even more common than it is today? What’s the trend?
Lisette: From what I can see from the articles that I’ve read, it’s only getting more and more, and more. In fact, I was speaking with somebody who works in the Dutch Government in the traffic system of the Dutch Government just over the weekend. And he was saying that the government is rolling out programs to encourage businesses to allow their people to work from home in order to stop the traffic jams that are happening everyday on the roads. So it’s an environmental issue and it’s also a traffic jam, it’s a traffic issue. So they’re saying maybe you could work at home for the first 2 hours of the day and then go into work.
AgileBill: I love that.
Lisette: Yeah, I was really surprised. And I asked them what is the main deterrent from keeping people from doing that and they said that actually what ends up happening is they wait for the younger generation to increase so this is what happened let’s say for instance with drinking and driving campaign that they were working on or the seatbelt campaign. Both of those needed to wait one generation so that the younger kids were encouraging their friends or their parents, “Hey, you should be wearing your seatbelt” or “Hey, you shouldn’t drink and drive. I will be the designated driver for this.” So he’s thinking that it could be a generational thing and that maybe it’s just a matter of time. But for me, because I’m a huge advocate, so for me in my experience, I think that remote working is the way to go or some sort of hybrid model for a variety of reasons. I’m trying to be fair to both sides but I can’t see the upside of having to show up in the office every single day.
AgileBill: Yeah. Well I think the hybrid works. I do work better after I’ve met you but you know what? If people are at home, they’re not really working effectively, I think that’s a problem with the assignment in the management and their leadership. I think if they’re bored, they could be bored at home or bored at work, either way. So I think we need to make sure we have good psychology, good leadership, good motivation that really keep people skills growing and then excited about the work they’re doing regardless of where they’re sitting.
Lisette: Agreed. Agreed. Yeah, I think if they’re not doing their work at home, then that’s a problem with the employee in general. They’re probably no doing their work at the office either.
AgileBill: Right. And who’s problem is that because we’re not solving some need they have. Is that a failure of leadership? Is that a failure of the employee? Or both or the technology or where they’re sitting?
Lisette: Right. And I think for every business, it’s a little bit different but the point is it’s a solvable problem.
AgileBill: Yes. Well I’m trusting you to solve that. Let me know when it all gets fixed.
Lisette: I’m on it. Alright, so just for the future, I want to point out that people if you have questions for Bill or questions about remote working, please—oops, wrong direction—please send a tweet to #remoteinterview and we’ll get those answered. And again, if you want to find Bill online, it’s Meetup.com/Agile3D. Did I get that right?
AgileBill: That works great. And if you find that LinkedIn or some other way, I’m everywhere, Twitter, you name it. You can find me and I’m happy to work with you on some of these because I want to learn how to do this better for you.
Lisette: Great. Well thanks everybody who joined us today and I wish everyone a great remote working experience. Signing off.
AgileBill: Thanks so much! See you online.
Lisette: See you online.