RALPH VAN ROOSMALEN calls himself an “innovative Agile enabler.” He is the CEO of both Agile Strides, a coaching, and consultancy firm and Management 3.0, a movement of innovation, leadership, and management. At the time of this interview, he was managing teams in the Netherlands, Romania, and the United States. He is a staunch advocate of treating teams fairly and equally.
His tips for working remotely:
- Always work on improving yourself. Keep experimenting and learn something new all the time
- Treat your remote teams fairly and as equals
- Admit when you’ve made a mistake
- Give everyone the proper equipment and train people to use it
- Have teams from different areas visit each other. Meeting face-to-face is important
- Hire good communicators
- Use webcams when talking to each other online
- Show up early to your remote meetings and test that everything works
- Assign buddies to new employees to help them learn about the company culture and processes
Podcast production by Podcast Monster
Graphic design by Alfred Boland
Lisette: Welcome everybody to this remote interview. My name is Lisette. I am interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely and just hearing their stories. And today I have Ralph van Roosmalen and you’re from the Netherlands, right?
Ralph: Yes, right.
Lisette: Even though I can speak Dutch, I still have this horrible American accent. So why don’t you pronounce your name the way it’s supposed to be said and tell us about your background because we’ve talked about it right before this recording started but it’s brilliant.
Ralph: Yes. First my name, it’s Ralph van Roosmalen. My background, you mean the physical background here?
Lisette: Yes. We’ll get into the other stuff in a second.
Ralph: It’s a wallpaper. We have one room in our company that is more decorated like a living room. We have interviews, relax, talk to people. One of the things that we did in this room is put a used wallpaper on the wall from the seaside, I’d like to think, yes it is. And I realize that you mentioned once that it is important to have a good background if I have an interview or a remote call. I thought about that, hey let’s use this room because I think it looks very nice.
Lisette: Yeah. I mentioned before, with the way that the screen is shimmering, it looks like there’s actually water moving in the background. I hope that comes across on the video but absolutely amazing.
Ralph: I’m really in the office.
Lisette: So nice. I’m really going to be fawning over this for a while. It’s so nice. I hope other people are inspired like this too. I think I’ll take a picture to inspire people to do this. But I see on your LinkedIn profile that you call yourself an innovated Agile enabler, which I want to ask you about, and also a management 3.0 enthusiast, which is how I met you.
Ralph: Yes indeed.
Lisette: The management 3.0 work. So what does innovated Agile enabler mean?
Ralph: I’m in management and I believe that management should enable to do their job, not to say what they should do but give them all the space, all the room to do their job and make sure that they get all the facilities they need. That is enablement. Innovative is the part that I love to experiment with new things, things that I read in blogs, things that I see at conference, things that I read in books, try to experiment and to poke the system and to learn from that and see what teams help, what things the team don’t help, and to make teams like that more productive, more effective, have more fun with the teams. That’s the really innovative part.
Lisette: And do you find resistance to that, these experiments? Or do people become really excited about it?
Ralph: Not resistance but more people are a little bit afraid of change, people really focus too much on daily work that they think it’s not for me or it’s too much of a hassle. But I believe that small things, small change can already make a big difference. It’s not that people are resistant, but it’s more afraid of the unknown I think.
Lisette: Right, or just oh come on, I just want to do my job.
Ralph: Indeed. And now you come with this experiment. “You want to try that? Just leave me alone. I want to do my job. I want to develop code and I do it already like this for 5 years so that is the best way to do it.”
Lisette: It seems like an attitude that needs to be changed, both for Agile reasons. I’m sure on an Agile team that kind of attitude isn’t very handy, but also on any team that wouldn’t be very handy.
Ralph: Yeah. I think this is not something related to RES. It’s related to most of the companies nowadays that people in general are a bit afraid of change. Why should we change?
Lisette: Also, change usually means that our rhythms are totally messed up, like the job ends or the project or you have to move apartments. These are big things that happen.
Ralph: Yes. That can have an impact on people. We definitely should not underestimate that. And I believe that you don’t have to change 20%, 50% in a week. But if you can change 1% a day, then at the end of the year you have changed a lot, improved a lot.
Lisette: So it’s really doing the little things.
Ralph: The little things. And also don’t be afraid to say that you made a mistake or go back to the old situation if that proved to be better. I did not say that new things are always better but at least you have to give it a chance and try it out.
Lisette: Right. In fact, I have to say when working with Jurgen Appelo on his team, I would say it’s really 50% of stuff that we do doesn’t work out and then 50% of the stuff does work out. In that way, we learn so much on the way there and everything seems to progress.
Ralph: I agree. I think it’s really important to realize that 50% doesn’t work out and you have to have the courage to say okay let’s go back.
Ralph: Also try not to be too stubborn as a manager or as a coach and also admit that you sometimes make mistake.
Lisette: So where did you get all this great…I know you’re a management 3.0 facilitator, so clearly. But there must be other management training that you’ve done at yourself. How did you improve yourself as a manager? I think lots of other managers would want to hear how you do it.
Ralph: The question I always ask with reviews to people is how did you become a better developer last year or better tester? Because people always tend to forget that, focus too much on the project and tend to forget the development. It’s nice that you ask me that question now. What do I do? I go to conferences, visit conferences. I try to maintain my network, as we met in Rotterdam, with the presentation of [5:49]. To exchange experiences, I went to [5:52]. I try to visit conferences that can help me, where I think I can learn things. I try to read books, not directly related to software development but more related to people in general like non-violent communication, those kinds of books because I think as a manager you should look much broader than only management books or directly related to management; reading blogs, management 3.0, your blog, other blogs, Google+. And also try to, as I said, maintain my network and exchange ideas, exchange concepts with people. What do you think about this? What do you think about that? I think the most important thing to improve myself is to keep experimenting and to see what does it do with the people, with the team, what does it do with myself and try to learn from that. It’s easier said than done, but I think that’s one of the most important things, to have an open mind for things.
Lisette: I can imagine somebody just listening, they might think like “wow that just sounds like a lot of work.” But in my experience, and also from speaking with people like yourself, it seems like doing this is not…it’s a lot of work but it’s also inspiring. It gives energy when you do those things.
Ralph: Yes. It definitely does. It definitely does. And about how do I develop myself, it’s also going to the regular standard management training and a lot of things that you learn over there you can still apply in your current job and maybe they are old fashion techniques but it’s not said that they are bad. What you can do is try to apply them to your situation, to your project, and try to change them a little bit to make them more Agile or whatever you need. But for me, every training that I attend, I learn new things. Sometimes it’s just reminding things that I’ve already learned, put them on the toolbox and the toolbox grows and grows. And with that you get more experienced and when you enter or encounter new situations, you can use the toolbox. Your experiments so far, just try it out.
Lisette: Right. So now let’s go and move into your experiences with remote teams. Are you currently working with remote team or was that in the past?
Lisette: Oh it’s currently. Is this the team in Romania then?
Ralph: Yes. In RES we got 30 people working in Romania, our development department. And I used to work with company problem and there we had a team in India. So currently I’m involved with the remote team in Romania, in Bucharest.
Lisette: And you’re working with a team in the Netherlands. So there’s 2 teams, one in the Netherlands, one in Romania.
Ralph: And then a small team in the US, in the East Coast.
Ralph: We got 3 locations. We got 4 people in the US, around 45 in Den Bosch in the Netherlands, and 30 in Romania.
Lisette: Okay. So that’s a pretty big split. So now, tell me about what is really hard about this situation for people?
Ralph: What’s really hard? When you also look at the US, the time zone issues. That is really hard. The overlap that they have during the day, it’s possible of course but that’s one of the biggest challenges.
Lisette: If somebody is staying up late or somebody’s working later than the usual hours and somebody’s doing earlier.
Ralph: Indeed. And we just accept that the time felt is small but a lot of time people have to make sacrifice, indeed, as you said. I think the other biggest challenge is not being able to walk to each other to hear what’s going on in the room and to have the small talk. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges, because when the product owner in the Netherlands walks in and he discusses something with the team, everybody in the team is up-to-date. But definitely in the beginning, now it’s improving of course, but definitely in the beginning nobody thought about “okay let’s call the guys in Romania to also update them about the outcome of this discussion or about the fact that we even have this discussion.”
Lisette: Their thoughts are not included. They don’t even know what’s happening.
Ralph: Indeed. I’m in Romania every 3 weeks for 1 week to facilitate the team, to help the team, to manage the team. And I also notice that I miss a lot of information that’s going on in the Netherlands, things that are discussed at coffee corner that you don’t hear in Romania. The problem is that the communication is only going literally via a small line, phone line, Skype line, and that’s it. And all the information around it, about things discussed at the coffee corner, the water cooler – emotions of people, body language, a lot of things are getting lost.
Lisette: Right. Like “oh my kids are sick.” Those things they matter because you know like I know Luisa’s kids are sick and maybe she’s just not totally there today because she’s distracted but somebody in Romania would be like “what is the matter with this woman? Why is she…” they have no context.
Ralph: What did we do to improve that?
Lisette: Yeah exactly.
Ralph: Because I think we managed to do that. Our experiment is that as soon as people sign the job contract in Romania, we will provide them a training in Romania if possible. We will send our local trainer in the Netherlands to Romania. We have that training on-site for one week. And then we would like to have them as soon as possible for 2 weeks in the Netherlands.
Lisette: Ah, so they also come to you.
Ralph: Yes definitely. For me that’s essential to the success and there’s maybe one step before that, but let’s focus first on this one. Because during those 2 weeks, the main reason that they come to the Netherlands is to get to know the team, to get to know that that person has 2 daughters, that Dennis has a girlfriend, to get to know the people behind the people.
Lisette: Yeah, they’ll [11:57] and so and so.
Ralph: Yeah. They can talk about sports, they can talk about things they do in the weekend, to build that relationship in the team. And then the second goal of the visit is to get to know RES culture. How we do things, how do we do things at RES? How do we approach people? We just walk to them and ask hey I have a question; to get that feeling, to experience that. And then the third reason to visit Netherlands is to transfer knowledge. But transferring knowledge can also be done by Skype or by Link. We use Link, because that’s just transferring facts, transferring knowledge. Getting to know the people, really get to know the people, that’s so important in our opinion.
Lisette: So the knowledge transfer is faster in person.
Ralph: Yes. So they come over for 2 weeks. Then after 3-4 weeks we send one of the colleagues to Romania, to help them on-site again, to get them up to speed, but also to let the Dutch people experience how it is to work in Romania, that they don’t see everything that’s discussed in the Netherlands, that they are aware of that, that they know okay it’s like that to work remotely. And from that we try to have everybody, at least once a year, travelling between Netherlands and Romania.
Lisette: Okay. So really meeting face to face is very important.
Ralph: It is important.
Ralph: And webcam can replace a lot, Link can help a lot, but being able to see each other, being able to have a drink in the evening, at the bar, a local pub in Den Bosch and the city center, that’s so great and that helps build the team so much more. That really pays off in the end.
Lisette: I’ve been fighting this. I’ve been fighting this theory for a long time but it comes up almost every interview that people think meeting face to face first if you’re going to work remotely is critical. It’s critical for the teams.
Lisette: I stand corrected.
Ralph: It is. I think there’s one step before that, and that’s recruiting people. In the Netherlands we got a pretty good recruitment process. We did a talk about the [14:09] in the Netherlands and we got good comments and good feedback from people that you’re doing it professionally. In Romania, we try to do it the same. It’s a little different because the marks are a little bit different, but everybody we hire at Romania we interview ourselves because we want to know what kind of people we will have in the team. We could ask our partner in Romania to recruit people for us, but we don’t know if they know what kind of culture we have, what kind of people we are looking for. For us, being involved in the recruitment of the remote team members is also essential because there we already make the selection, because interviews in Romania are done in Romanian. That makes sense. But when they have an interview with us, when we are there or via Link, we do it in English. Some candidates really have issues with talking in English. That’s okay. I’m also not a native speaker, but it is essential to be able to communicate in English. And if during that interview the communication doesn’t work out because English is not good enough, that could be one of the reason to say no to a candidate, although it can be a very good, brilliant developer.
Lisette: Right. But they need to be able to communicate with the team in the Netherlands and the US.
Ralph: Yes. And we also have candidates in Romania that were very shy during the interview. In the end they said “yeah but you are the customer and I’m really a bit nervous.” Okay, but when you work remotely and you work within your team, you know the people. But you will have to contact people outside of the team, within RES, and then you just have to call them. You have to be there. You have to stand up and bring your message. You cannot be shy. So when you have an interview with us and you are shy, you cannot help it but for us it’s important that you can step over that shyness and that you can present yourself, because you will have do that remotely often. That’s why it’s so very important to recruit the right people.
Lisette: So language and also shyness. I don’t know what to call it. It’s not introverted necessarily, but it’s really being able to know that this person, if there’s an issue, they’re going to call or they’re going to reach out.
Lisette: Because the people who don’t reach out, that issue starts to grow.
Ralph: Yes. And we cannot see that they have an issue because they’re working remotely, so they have to contact us. And now the team in Romania is 30 people, so we have more people over there that can help each other. But definitely in the beginning we had to find people that were able to contact us and that could knock on our door, hey guys this is not working well. You have to fix it.
Lisette: It seems like you might be a little bit hard to see if it’s that kind of person or not. There are the ones who aren’t going to do it at all, the really shy ones. You can tell that in the interview.
Ralph: Yes. That is gut feeling. That is experience. And yes, sometimes you maybe hire people who you think are capable of doing that and in the end it turns out not. And sometimes you maybe say no to a candidate because you think they are not able to do it but they are able to do it.
Ralph: There’s always a risk with recruitment, also in the Netherlands of course.
Lisette: In terms of hiring remote teams, you just never know with anybody. Everybody’s on their best behavior during the interview process. Once down the line when people start getting a little whacky, that’s when you find out. Interesting. So those are the things that are really challenging and difficult. What are the things that work really well? You guys are doing this for a reason. You could hire people all on the same place, probably if you wanted to.
Ralph: No, that’s a good remark. No. We sat 2 years ago. Within our department, we want to double the output of our department, R and D. And you can do that by improving your processes, etc. But the biggest impact will be growing your team physically, adding people to the team. At the moment, we’ve got 30 people working in Romania. I think that we will not be able to hire 30 people in the last 2 years in the Netherlands because of the local labor market.
Lisette: There’s just not enough developers.
Ralph: No. Not in our area. We cannot find them. Are we doing something wrong? I don’t know, but we cannot find them.
Lisette: I hear this from companies all over the Netherlands. There’s just not enough developers. And people aren’t willing to travel very far, so not only are you just looking in the Netherlands, you’re looking to developers close to Den Bosch.
Ralph: Yes. It’s a great place to work and we still have open vacancy, so if you’re interested, call us. But yes, you are right. That was the main reason for us to go to Romania, to go abroad, and we decided to go to Romania to find people over there. It’s not about that we weren’t able to find them locally. Things that work out quite well is the location. One of the reasons that we went to Romania was for less travel effort, because we could also go to India or whatever, but we find out that travelling to Romania is very easy to do; the 3-hour flight maximum and from door to door, in 5 hours you can be in the office.
Lisette: Yup, that’s pretty fast.
Ralph: That for us is very important. So in case of emergency or in case when it’s necessary, we can be quickly there or we can ask people to fly over to Netherlands is also pretty easy. And what we found out is that the people in Romania, when they have been abroad, to the Netherlands, it works quite well. We really have a great team over there that we can really be proud of. The corporation is really great. If that is because that we hired people on the basis on who they are, what kind of personality they are, or that Romanian culture and the Dutch culture had a good fit together, I don’t know. But it works out great. That is one of the things that is doing pretty well for us, the interaction between the people.
Lisette: Okay. And then with the US, why did you go to the US?
Ralph: Because US customers appreciate it, let’s phrase it like that, when you have local support.
Lisette: So people that speak the language, speak language without an accept that can help with their problems.
Ralph: But also the fact that they expect to have support on American soil, that we can be there when necessary.
Lisette: Ah interesting.
Ralph: That was the reason to open a small development center over there.
Lisette: In the US, that’s a much bigger time zone difference. I’m assuming that the difficulty is you’ve got Romania and the US, and it’s on the East Coast in the US?
Ralph: Yes in the East Coast, so that is 7-hour time difference.
Lisette: Right, so that’s pretty big.
Ralph: Pretty big. Fortunately the people in Romania tend to start a little bit later in the office than in the Netherlands. So they come in around 9:30, 10:00, 10:30. That’s totally okay. People in the US in our office they tend to start a little bit earlier, 8:00, 7:30, because of the local traffic.
Lisette: Ah right.
Ralph: In the end, I think we have 3-4 hours time overlap per day.
Lisette: Oh that works.
Ralph: That’s quite okay. The only issue is that when the developers in the US have issues with team foundation server or other facilities that we are not available anymore because we try to go home at 5:00, 6:00 in the evening. And when they have issues then they have to wait until the next day or when it’s really an urgent issue they have to call corporate IT to fix an issue, but that can sometimes be an issue.
Lisette: Well that can also still be an issue if you were working in the same…that can always be an issue, those kinds of things.
Ralph: Yeah indeed.
Lisette: In terms of the culture, have there been any cultural issues coming up? I don’t know if the Romanian culture, I don’t know much about the Romanian culture. Maybe it’s different than the Dutch or the US. Are there any weirdness there?
Ralph: I’m pretty even in that because I believe…yes of course there’s cultural differences. I think there’s already cultural difference but Rotterdam and Den Bosch. That’s a fact.
Lisette: Fair enough, yeah.
Ralph: But I also believe that every person is unique, and that every person, therefore, you could say has a different culture than me because you are different than me. I have to approach you differently than another colleague of mine.
Lisette: You could say that men and women are a different culture.
Ralph: Yes. So for me, as long as you realize that every person is unique, every person has a different manual. You need to approach it differently. It has different weakness and different strengths. I think there’s no issue. But you should be aware that there could be differences between how people do things. One of the things that I noticed in Romania, sometimes people try to be, when they tell something, to be complete. They want to give all the details. They want to give all the insights to make sure that they have a complete story. While we Dutch people sometimes think okay cut the crap, come to your point. What do you want to say?
Lisette: Right. I don’t need the back story. Just tell me what the…
Ralph: What’s going on? If it’s bad news, just tell me the bad news. Don’t give me all the details. But I know there are also Dutch people who would like to get all the details and would like to get all the background information.
Lisette: And that is the danger of stereotypes.
Ralph: Yes. Cultural difference with Romania, yes I think so. But does it bother us, does it bother me? No, I don’t think so. As long as you are aware that people are different, people can act different, people have maybe different values, I think it should not be an issue. And of course the cultural difference between the Netherlands and Romania are not that big. Between the Netherlands and India is bigger or China. For us it’s not really an issue when I speak for myself.
Lisette: That’s why I’m interviewing, perfect. I want your opinion. It sounds like one of the main things that you do to build trust on your team is this face to face interaction. It sounds like you guys are flying back and forth quite a lot.
Lisette: So you’re getting lots of face to face. Are there other things that you’re doing that you think help build trust on the team?
Ralph: All meetings that we do, we try to do with webcams, we try to do open and transparent so that everybody can see each other. Doing a retrospective in an Agile team without webcams, that’s not done in my opinion. I’ll always try to make people aware of that. Hey guys use your webcam when you call. Also, why are you not using your webcam, etc, also giving the example myself if possible. Other things that we do to build trust is try not to make a distinguish between people. I know there are companies who like to think about this development center, they can do the boring job, they can do the boring task, the easy task. No. Why? Because also those people want to have a great job. They also want to have challenges. Treat them as your equal. And when we celebrate a party in the Netherlands, we also celebrate in Romania. We have a company kickoff in a few weeks. We will also have a company kickoff in Romania. And in the Netherlands we go out for dinner, we will also go out for dinner in Romania, to make sure that we treat people in Romania as much as possible as same. And of course it’s a bit different also because the setup that we have with a local partner, but we try to keep the same as possible, as much as the same.
Lisette: So treating each other as equals and not as hey, these people will do the cheap work.
Ralph: No indeed.
Lisette: Who wants to be that person that’s being referred to?
Lisette: I wouldn’t either.
Ralph: No, and they also not.
Lisette: Of course.
Ralph: That’s very important for me. It’s sometimes difficult, sometimes challenging but that’s one thing I always try to focus on. Hey guys, treat each other as they are in the Netherlands. The only difference is they are 1700 kilometers to the east. That’s the only difference.
Lisette: Yeah. I really like the video, of course, because I’m a huge proponent of that. It’s just a huge step-up from not using video. And of course being in person is a huge step-up from video but if you have the choice, you should always use video, see the person.
Ralph: Yeah, you have to do it.
Lisette: Yeah. A lot of people don’t like it. I know a lot of remote workers say “but I’m in my pajama.” Get over yourself. Get out of your pajama. Put a shirt on, keep your pajama problems off.
Ralph: I once even called somebody who was even in bed.
Ralph: The bed maybe a bit too much but he was having to call from his bed.
Lisette: It’s interesting because one thing that’s been coming up with the person that I do a podcast with is our professional behavior online versus being in the office. We used to go to the office and we would wear suits and nice clothes. And then now with remote working, what of those things transfers? What is the professional behavior of remote working? And when you’ve said you had somebody joining from bed, it made me think of this webinar that I was on where there was this guy and he was in his bedroom and it was a really messy bedroom and he had like a waterbed in the back with turquoise sheets or something. He was saying smart things but I was so distracted by his messy room. I couldn’t really focus. I thought it’s interesting, it’s unprofessional behavior in some ways.
Ralph: Yeah. I think it’s not about clothes. One should dress off normal and decent. I don’t have issues with casual clothes. But as you said we also did remote interviews with people via Skype in Spain and Italy and also in the US and indeed you are having an interview with somebody in his bedroom and exactly as you said – books on the background, some mess. It’s not professional.
Lisette: Right. The advice I gave somebody who is asking me “how do I start working remotely?” And I just said make sure you have a great remote setup so that when your clients call, they have full faith in your capabilities, that you have a nice webcam, that you have good sound, good internet quality. Just the basics really goes a long way.
Lisette: Do you guys give equipment to your remote teams?
Lisette: Okay, that’s something that you also do. Interesting.
Ralph: They all got a webcam, they all got a headset. Some of them even take the headset from home if they want to have a better headset. Yes, we take of that, because otherwise you cannot ask people to work remotely, in my opinion.
Lisette: Right. You have to take care of them.
Ralph: You need to give the right tools for [28:48] to make something, also with the guys that work for our team. We have a dedicated Scrum room in Romania where people can come in. They can start up a Link session right away because that machine is always running, the same in the Netherlands, to make sure that the effort that’s required to talk to each other is as low as possible.
Lisette: So it’s lightweight. I don’t know if you’ve seen the video where it shows an online meeting in real life. There’s people leaving the room and dropping out. It’s horrible.
Ralph: People are getting used to it. In the beginning, people at the meeting at for example 1:00, they come in at 1:00 and then they need to setup Link, they need to connect the laptop, etc. I said guys come on, if you have a remote meeting, you have to be in 5 minutes before the meeting to prepare everything because at 1:00 you want to start and you don’t want the hassle with all the kinds of cables, etc.
Lisette: One of my favorite tips, yeah.
Ralph: Also if setting up the communication takes more than 5 minutes, then people are already thinking “okay leave it” because that is too much effort. It should be as low as possible.
Lisette: Right, so that you’re not spending 30 minutes making sure all the cables are…which cable is it.
Ralph: Yeah that’s terrible.
Lisette: It’s a total waste of time. We all have work that we need to be doing. That’s the worst kind of work to be doing.
Lisette: Speaking of this, it brings up the issue of tools. You say you use Link for the meetings. What are some of the other tools that you guys use? As an Agile team, I’m assuming you’ve got some sort of sticky note board or a…
Ralph: We use [30:25] Studio for tracking also the task, team foundation server. We have a setup that everybody with a laptop can just plug in this cable, a network cable, and then he’s on the network. It doesn’t make a difference, again no difference if you work from the Netherlands or from Romania. You got the same access to the network, etc. Other remote tools, not really. We have discussed about the option to put an effort to install webcams in the team room, we have view on the room. But some people in the Netherlands are not in favor that because they were a bit scared about the privacy etc, so we didn’t do that. We experimented with whiteboards, but also there we had issue. How do you make sure that people on the other side can see the whiteboard? It didn’t work out. We are not that far with tools as I like us to be. We’re still a bit behind. The only tool that we really use is screen sharing with Link and that’s it. I know there are some electronic whiteboards that you can use to share whiteboards on both sides, we really need to take a look at that because having a whiteboard and being able to draw on it and the other side to see it, that’s so much value.
Lisette: Yeah. There are some great virtual whiteboard tools out there. That’s for sure. But one thing that came up in an interview a couple of weeks ago from another Agile coach in Belgium is he said they each had the whiteboard in their own office so that each person could see it, and they took a picture a couple of times during the week to send it to each other and to see, and it’s identical whiteboard. And he said what’s interesting is most of the time everything is in sync but every once in a while things aren’t in sync, and those were the things that the team needed to talk about because the other things were in sync and so as a conversation starter. I thought wow interesting. That’s an interesting in-person non virtual way.
Ralph: Yeah true. That’s a good idea. It didn’t work for us until now, so we really need to take a look at that.
Lisette: Every team is different. That’s why it really stood out for me when you said you like to experiment all the time. Actually I think that’s one of the key things. That’s really important that everybody experiments because you’re right, this worked for this one team but it didn’t work for you. It’s not good or bad, it’s just is.
Ralph: Yeah. Because you can have the same setup with 2 whiteboards on each side and then have people link together, if one person on one side moves a note, then he should inform his colleague on the other side. Hey you’re my buddy, you should also move that note to keep it in sync. We’ll do that.
Lisette: Right, and that happens. But it doesn’t sound like you guys are suffering too much.
Lisette: It sounds like it’s enough to have this communication Link and screen sharing.
Ralph: Yes, because I know when people don’t have the right tools they will start complaining.
Ralph: It’s simple as that.
Lisette: Interesting. So I’m looking at my list of topics, let me open my management topic because you’re in management, which brings up something. In a lot of interviews, people say, and I say what’s the barrier to remote working in your company? And they say it’s the leadership, it’s the management. And clearly you’re the management in this situation and there isn’t resistance. Was there some sort of management resistance in your situation as well to remote working or it was just clearly the right decision?
Ralph: It was the right decision that we made 2 years ago with the management and with the team itself also because starting up a new software development center in Eastern Europe or India can be seen as a threat. Hey they’re going to move our jobs to Romania or whatever.
Lisette: Right. That could have an effect on team morale, I can imagine.
Ralph: So what we did is with the whole department at that moment, okay guys we want to double the output of the department. What can we do? And we had I think 3 or 4 brainstorm sessions with the team to think about it and they could generate ideas. There were ideas from finding interns, improving our process, more documentation, to train new people, including also setting up an external development center. And what we then did was take a look at the result of it and the effort that it takes. The effort to set up a new development center is high. You need a lot of investment. The results, the outcome, the impact is huge because if it works we can hire a lot of new people. That’s how we did it with the team and indeed setting up a new development center was on top left, top right. But everybody was involved in that discussion and it was also clear for everybody, and it still is, that it was all about finding the right people. It’s not about cost because maybe in the end you are even more expensive with the travelling and maybe a little bit less effective than people working on one location. The team was in. Management gave this assignment to the management of R and D. With that exercise, with that project, how we approached it, also having the people involved and thinking what can we do to set this up to this challenge, we had no resistance. And of course we had them beginning to resist – I don’t want work with people abroad. We think it’s scary and I don’t want to speak English. But that took just a few months to get everybody in and to get it up and running. There was not really resistance from people.
Lisette: But it sounds like because you included everybody in the decision making process so that you were working through the concerns and challenges together.
Ralph: Everybody was involved. And of course we did not start with the whole department at the same time. We started with one development team or two development teams with our colleagues from Romania. What we already did in the beginning is we’re going to hire developers and test is over there. We have a team that suggested we have 2 locations as equal as possible, so they really had to work together. And we also made it clear to them in the beginning, hey guys the tools will not be perfect from day 1. We will have some problems with Skype, Link, whatever we’re going to use. But give us time and we will try to improve. And we did, week by week, month by month, until where we are today. And today we’ve got 30 people in Romania. We’ve got 45 in the Netherlands. It’s equal and we are working together on a daily basis. And we still are with the people in the Netherlands and Romania.
Lisette: So starting small and then growing out, so you’re not making this huge massive change.
Ralph: No because we are just a small department, we were a small department before the 45 people, so hiring 10-15 people at once, it will stop the department from working. It’s too much overhead to get all those people on board.
Lisette: All the on-boarding, that means a huge amount.
Ralph: Yeah. And last year we hired 15-20 people in Romania and what you already see is that teams are a lot disturbed and are really in the storming phase, to get to know each other and to get himself up and running.
Ralph: We tried to add people, every month a few people to different teams to make it a little bit more gradual.
Lisette: That makes a lot of sense actually, because you’re right. The on-boarding is really time consuming. It takes somebody a lot of time.
Ralph: Yeah. Because we got 30 people over there now working as remote team, together with the Dutch people, they can also onboard themselves. When you start with one person, you don’t have any knowledge about the process, about the culture, about your product over there. But now we got a lot of knowledge over there. People are experienced. People already working 2 years at RES so they know our product also, so they can help each other now.
Lisette: Is there anything special that you do with the on-boarding process of new members? Clearly you do the face to face, which is super important it sounds like. I’m sure as a company you’ve got a whole on-boarding process outlined by now with all these people.
Ralph: No, we do it Agile.
Ralph: What we do is we give people an introduction indeed. We have some papers about what we expect them to know in the first week, in the first month, first half a year that they can look at. You need to get access to your best. You need to know how to do your best work. You need to know how the HR system works, etc, so that all challenges, things that they can find out themselves. They do the tutorials that we have available of our products skills and the training to Romania to get them onboard. For the rest it’s really get them as soon as possible in a sprint team, in a Scrum team, and just work with the team. Just do some small task and see what you can do and slowly grow. I think adding people to a team, assigning them to a team and having them work in a team, an experienced Scrum team, that’s the best way for new people to get themselves up and running.
Lisette: That seems really like a great idea actually because I know a lot of people will show up for work that first day and sometimes there’s just nothing at the desk. They haven’t been cared for at all. I showed up at a job once and my first day I basically sat there in the room. Nobody said anything. They said here is your desk and I thought I know how to work but I don’t know how to start. I don’t know what your processes are. It was a very awkward situation.
Ralph: We have all set in place. We got laptop in place. We got the headset, everything in place. And we always send an email to that person a day before they start or a week before. “Welcome to the team. This will be your buddy, probably sitting next to you, where you can ask questions. We expect you to do this and this in the first week. Enjoy your time at RES software.” And we do that with the people in Romania and the people in the Netherlands, again the same approach, same process.
Lisette: Love it. That way people aren’t lost. Something that came up in a previous interview is that it’s important for people to feel cared for, especially on Agile teams where it’s really about people over process and interactions and communication and…
Ralph: Absolutely. And also because the people in Romania when you make them feel at home as soon as possible they will feel part of the team, they will feel part of RES, because it’s even more difficult for them to become part of the RES team because they are working remotely.
Lisette: Right. And they want to have pride in the work and confidence in their leaders.
Ralph: Everybody does.
Lisette: It’s sort of a basic human need in some ways.
Lisette: Right above Wi-Fi and food.
Ralph: Nowadays yes.
Lisette: I love that. Alright, it looks like we’re nearing the end. I wanted to keep the interviews a little bit shorter because people are saying 1 hour is too long and of course I could talk forever about this, so then it’s my fault. I ramble too much. Is there anything that maybe I didn’t asked that you want to tell about your team, like a challenge or something that really worked or did we cover almost everything?
Ralph: What really works? Good question. What we did last year, that was a really great defense. Also, again face to face, only we did it last year 2014. We had a swift release, so we released all our products in February, 4 products. And what we did in March, we invited all the teams, all the people from R and D, from the US and from Romania to the Netherlands. We have, at that moment I think 70 people in our office downstairs. That was way too many people in the office. It was really crowded, 2 people sitting in one desk. Of course we worked and in the evenings we watched movies, we went out, we had some coding sessions, etc. And on Thursday we had a great team event here in the surroundings of Den Bosch with all kind of things they could participate in. In the evening, [42:33]. Great day. But that week, again, everybody – US, Romania, and the Netherlands, in one location, that gave the team such a boost. That was a really great event. We’re going to do it again this year. But that’s again, as you said, face to face because if you can work together as one team in one location, that is such as great feeling and that’s going to give the team a push. That’s very important. Now it costs a lot of money to fly in everybody and it is crowded in the office, etc, but people are willing to accept that because it’s such a great moment that week, a resounding success.
Lisette: And for people that don’t know Den Bosch, it’s beautiful. It is a beautiful town. You’re in this beautiful setting with woods and places to walk and the pubs are lovely.
Ralph: That was a great event that we did last year and what we’re also going to do this year again and probably also for the next year because that’s given the team a boost as a distributed team.
Lisette: What a bonding experience.
Lisette: Okay, well then I’m convinced. I’ve been trying to say “no you don’t have to meet face to face.” Of course you don’t have to but if you can…
Ralph: It helps so much.
Lisette: Yeah, everybody is saying that. I got to say it.
Ralph: Yeah so maybe it’s true.
Lisette: It must be. I’ve asked the experts and this is what the experts have said. I got to go with that. One last question, which is if people want to learn more about you or want to talk to you more, what’s the best way to get in contact with you?
Ralph: Via LinkedIn, I think. I also have my Twitter account and they can always ask me questions or contact me for whatever reason and I’m always willing to help and to answer questions.
Lisette: Okay, so LinkedIn. Go to LinkedIn, your Twitter is listed there and all the stuff is listed there.
Lisette: LinkedIn more and more seems like a great place for people to learn a network of people. I’m liking it more and more myself. And Twitter, my God what a great networking tool. Alright, thanks. I really appreciate it.
Ralph: You’re welcome.
Lisette: I’ll end the recording. Thanks for listening everybody. Until next time, be powerful.
Interview, Managers, Podcast, Teams