VINCENT TIETZ is a senior consultant and Scrum master at Saxonia Systems in its headquarters, Dresden, Germany. Saxonia Systems has created the ETEO concept: Ein Team Ein Office, a set of best practices for distributed Agile teams. Part of this concept is the eteoBoard – large monitors equipped with cameras, microphones, and a virtual task board set up to simulate face-to-face interaction. The eteoBoard emerged from the need to improve daily stand-ups between teams based in different German cities. eteoBoards have helped teams get to know each other better, build trust, and stay on the same page.
Podcast production by Podcast Monster
Graphic design by Alfred Boland
Lisette: And we’re live. Welcome everybody to this remote interview. My name is Lisette, and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. And I’m super excited because today on the line I have Vincent Tietz from Dresden, Germany. And you are a Senior Consultant at Saxonia Systems and a Scrum Master. And I met you at the distributed Agile teams conference in Berlin in November of 2015. And you guys created this really amazing thing called eteoBoards, and we’re going to get into that. So welcome, Vincent. Super excited to be able to interview you and to learn more about your product and show the rest of the world too.
Vincent: Yeah, hello, Lisette. And nice to meet you again.
Lisette: Nice to see you again as well. Let’s start with the question I always start with, which is what does your virtual office look like? And what is it that you need to get your work done?
Vincent: Actually, our virtual office tries to be like a real office. Our first idea was to connect teams with the help of big videoconference system to simulate face-to-face interaction. And this is still the way we work together. Videoconference system is always active, and we can see directly each other.And the cameras are aligned in front of the TV sets. And the desks are [orthogonally – 01:26] aligned to the cameras. So everybody can see the whole office and each location.
Lisette: I was going to ask how many locations do you have with this sort of setup.
Vincent: Actually, connects two teams together. And with this setup, we create the feeling like to be one Scrum team at one location.
Lisette: Yeah, we’ll have to show people what this looks like. And I can put pictures in the liner notes as well. It’s really incredible. You really feel like you’re in the same room with another team of people.
Vincent: Yes. And we have big TV sets in HD quality with 80-inch displays. And with HD quality, we feel like viewing through a window to the other office. It’s very amazing and great thing.
Lisette: Yeah, super exciting. I’d love seeing it. Before we get into… And this is called eteoBoards, which is Ein Team Ein Office in German.
Vincent: Yes. Actually, eteoBoard is part of the eteo concept. Eteo means in German Ein Team Ein Office or One Team One Office. And this concept contains several best practices and experiences for distributed Agile teams. And the eteoBoard is one tool which is very important for us to get the work done in Agile teams.
Lisette: Ooh, we’re definitely going to dive into that. But first let’s talk about Saxonia Systems, the company that you work for, and a little bit about who you are and Saxonia.
Vincent: Yes, I’ve been a software developer and architect for about two years. And I’ve also been working in distributed Scrum teams. And now I’m a Scrum master and also responsible for supporting our distributed Agile teams. And I’m also a coach and a consultant. And I give workshops and talk also about distributed Agile teams at different conferences. The Saxonia Systems is a company with 230 people. And the main location is in Dresden. But we also have locations in Munich, Hamburg, Berlin, Leipzig and Görlitz. The company itself is rather distributed. Therefore, also, our projects are distributed.
Saxonia develops mainly custom solutions for our customers or with our customers. For example, we have a project in-house or consultants working at our customers. We do software development with Java and .NET and also SAP customization. And we develop UI front ends, for example, with JavaFX, and also back ends, and provide a general support for the whole software development cycle.
Lisette: Oh, man, that’s a lot. It’s big. How did eteoBoardscome about? Why did you guys build this?
Vincent: The eteoBoard was the idea of our developers. We were looking for a good support for the daily Scrum meeting. And some years ago, we didn’t find any tool. Therefore, we just implemented a prototype. And it was so cool that it is now a product. And you can buy it also. The eteoBoard is digital Scrum board. And it’s very important for our daily work.
Lisette: Okay, let’s get into how you guys work because distributed Agile teams are a big topic these days and I think getting bigger and bigger. I think in these next couple of years, we’re going to just hear a lot about it because you can’t help but work distributed in a lot of ways, and now we can. So what was really hard? What were some of the challenges for your team working in a distributed Agile way?
Vincent: The main challenge for teams is to stay in touch with each other. Building trust and identity is more difficult in distributed teams.Also, to synchronize the work state is always challenging.Also, in remote work, you are likely to lose focus. And it is really difficult to communicate the simplest things because the bandwidth of information is limited.So the usage also of all these tools is very challenging. Sometimes there are connection breaks or people don’t know how to use the tools. So the whole work is very complex.
Lisette: How have you guys worked on building trust with each other? It sounds like you have offices all over Germany, and you’re trying to coordinate work together. How do you guys go about building the trust getting everybody on the same page? Clearly, you use eteoBoards for that. But are there other things that you guys specifically do?
Vincent: I think the first important step is to get to know each other very well. So the first phase of the project is very important. The videoconference system, which is always on, also supports the trust in distributed team.
Lisette: Do you say the videoconferencing system is always on? You can always see the team.
Lisette: Was that weird to get used to it first?
Vincent: Yes, it’s a bit unusual at first, but you get very [common – 08:08] with it. Then it’s a part of our daily life and it’s okay.
Lisette: And can you simply go up to the screen and just talk to somebody who’s on the other side of the screen?
Vincent: Yes, you can do it. We turn off the microphone because of some noise which might disturb others. But if you want to talk, just switch on the microphone and talk to the others.
Lisette: Really cool. So now you’re communicating with people in a different office simply by turning on the microphone and just like, “Hey, let’s go meet at the water cooler.” Instead, you’re saying, “Let’s go meet at the eteoBoard, and we’ll just talk this out.”
Lisette: Brilliant, actually. It’s really a brilliant system. I was so impressed with [crosstalk – 08:54].
Vincent: This has two important things: the permanent video connection and the daily synchronization with the board. The board is an important institution. Every day, the whole team gets to the board. And the cameras are aligned in that way that you have the feeling to stand in the circle before the board. And this is the whole trigger, I think.
Lisette: To stand in a circle. So one team is in a half circle and the other team is in the other half circle.
Vincent: Also, for longer meetings, for planning and reviews, we also sit in a circle. And we stand up, go away from our desks, and talk to each other like in reality. Of course, we’ll never be the same, but of course even better than just sitting in front of one desktop and talking.
Lisette: Yeah, or sitting in a conference room standing in front of a microphone.
Vincent: In the conference room, yeah.
Lisette: Yeah, for sure, it’s a lot better. Maybe it’s not as good as being there in real life, but it’s certainly a good second best.
Lisette: Great, super cool. What were some of the challenges that you guys first had? I’m sure you didn’t just set up the board, and then everything went really smoothly. When you first set it up, how did you guys get used to it? I don’t know if you remember even if you were there, but I’m just curious. What were some of the experiments that you tried at first for getting used to using eteoBoard?
Vincent: The first thing was to set up the videoconference system and to try to synchronize the Agile teams with normal Scrum board, with papers. And this was very challenging and funny to synchronize the notes. But then we found out that we wanted a digital Scrum board. And this was the first step that we thought of, i.e. how we could make it better. And then we created the eteoBoard.
Lisette: Okay, so it’s a combination of seeing people as well as a digital Scrum board.
Lisette: Really cool. But you guys have your daily standups. You synchronize your tasks. You do it all together with a shared digital Scrum board that everybody is seeing in real time. So it’s basically just replaced the sticky notes on the wall.
Vincent: Yeah, the eteoBoard simulates the sticky notes. You can really align the notes. It is all synchronized in real time with other boards which are located at each location. Furthermore, the board, from the hardware perspective, is a Mondopad. So there’s also a camera with it and a digital whiteboard, which we also use sometimes. So it’s a really nice collaboration tool for us.
Lisette: So there’s probably a bunch of Scrum Masters, Agile people out there going, “But no, you have to have real sticky notes. There has to be… Give up your sticky notes?”
Vincent: We tried it with real sticky notes.But [it really – 12:12] could take half an hour. In the beginning, it is funny. But later on, it is annoying.
Lisette: Yeah, you want to get your work done [laughs]. So there are no issues in using the electronic sticky boards over the real ones. Do you miss it? Are there downsides to it?
Vincent: No, it’s okay, because [as a – 12:35] software development team, everyone has any way. It’s tickets and JIRA or Team Foundation Server. So it’s really smooth. So you can just use the tickets which are in the task management system. So you don’t have a break between papers and the electronic group presentation.
Lisette: Right, you don’t have the danger of sticky notes falling off the wall or being vacuumed up by the janitor. I saw the video on the Saxonia Systems website for eteoBoards, with Stephanie as the janitor vacuuming up all the sticky notes. It’s a brilliant video. I encourage everybody that’s listening [crosstalk – 13:22] really good. I was surprised. I sat there and watched the whole thing, which I never do. It was really good.
How many teams can you… Is it just for two distributed teams to work together? Or can you do four or five? How many teams can you…
Vincent: Best practice for us is to connect two teams because we want also team at one location. We think it’s important. But we also connected up to three part teams. And if you divide it with more teams, then I think it’s not really a Scrum team anymore.
Lisette: Okay, so it’s ideal for two, maybe three. If we have two different teams working together, there are plenty of people with this scenario. So I can imagine that, really. I’ve talked to a couple of people who have installed webcams in their offices. So they actually have webcams so they can see each other. But nobody that I’ve spoken to yet has set up a place where they can interact with each other so easily, so quite advanced that you guys went ahead and did this.
What are some of the things that eteoBoard has improved for you as a team? I can imagine your communication is much smoother and the tasks are much smoother. Are there other things that have really improved since you’ve installed it?
Vincent: It just enhances the communication [daily – 14:52].So the [daily] is very smooth. It’s very fast. We can talk about the task. We can open the task. We can look into details which might be in the task management system. It’s very, very nice just to use the board as a daily tool.
Lisette: And are the boards set up in a conference room at each office? Or are they out in the open space? How are they set up, in what kind of area?
Vincent: Sorry, can you explain?
Lisette: Are the boards set up in a conference room in particular or in each office?
Vincent: No, in a real project room. One team has one project room. And each team has one of these boards. And it is always there. It is always on. So you see the tickets and the work which is currently done, which is also important for the identity for the team and for the synchronization of the work. And they can see that someone is also working on items which are important currently.
Lisette: I can imagine just being able to visualize the work together would be really powerful.
Vincent: So it’s really a replacement for the real Scrum task board. It has the same intention. It’s an important device finally in the project room.
Lisette: I can imagine. Are there any downsides to having it?
Lisette: [Laughs] I expected that answer. How hard is it to get it set up and learn how to use?
Vincent: Of course, you cannot interact like with paper. You cannot draw something on the notes and so on. Of course, it’s not possible. But it’s really an enhancement for virtual teams, I think.
Lisette: Oh, sure, you don’t have to get one team to travel to another team. This is so much better than not being able to see each other, trying to do this over a phone or conferences. And lots of teams are still doing that right now. So this would be eye-opening for them.
Vincent: Yeah, face-to-face meetings are still important. So we need each other, for example, also for retrospective, from time to time, just to freshen the relationships and talk to each other. It is still important, of course.
Lisette: Yeah, I hear that a lot. So how difficult is it to set up and use? Do you really have to have a lot of technical knowledge? Or can you just say, “I want to purchase the eteoBoard for these two teams.” What is that like?
Vincent: Yes, you need a task management system such as JIRA or Team Foundation Server. And you need to install a plugin there. And then you need to establish a server which synchronizes all the data between the clients. And then you just install the eteoBoard client on any device. It must not be a big touch screen. And then you can go build it.
Lisette: Okay, so you don’t have to have the 80-inch touch screen, but [crosstalk – 18:17].
Vincent: You don’t have to [laughs]. Of course, it’s nice to have one.
Lisette: For sure.
Vincent: Also, for using the digital whiteboard and so on, bit touch screen is very nice.
Lisette: So how often do people interact with each other on the eteoBoards during the day? Is it kind of constant people talking? Or is it just in the morning? And for meetings, how often does that work?
Vincent: Every time a team needs it, of course, for the daily. And you can also use it for meetings.[unintelligible – 18:53] big conversion of the project room. We have a separate videoconference system with big TV sets. And [unintelligible – 19:02] the conversation with this videoconference system. But we use, of course, Skype for one-to-one communication and a wiki for sharing ideas and documentation and so on.We also use the standard tools that are used in virtual teams.
Lisette: Then eteoBoards is a way for you guys to connect really on a personal level and to help things go more smoothly and to communicate better as a team. That’s how you’re using it, sort of a way just to get everybody together every day. I think it’s brilliant, love it.
Vincent: Thank you.
Lisette: I really wish you guys a lot of success. I think it’s really great.What advice would you have for teams who are just starting out, a distributed Agile team who is interested in eteoBoard? They would contact you. What advice would you give them for starting with using it though?
Vincent: Tools are one thing. They are important. My first advice for teams that would start in a virtual setting is really to get to know each other as much as they can. And my second advice would be to also get to know the aims of the project. And you can usually combine these two advices with the help of a [kickoff phase – 20:33]. And maybe the team works some weeks together. And also, to clarify the team [roles] and talk about values. We have also one tool, for example, to create a team logo or something like this. This helps to build the team identity, which is also important for virtual teams. And then I think the team should consider the project room, of course. So how do we want to work? And where is the conference system? And which tools do we want to use? You should evaluate the tools because there are many, many tools out there. And you should also learn to use them.
Lisette: Okay, yeah. But you guys are programmers. There are a lot of developers there. So it seems like developers come in, and they know how to use the tools. But do you get developers that don’t know the tools very well? Where do developers struggle with these kinds of things? To me, developers seem like these magical creatures that really understand technology and tools. But maybe I’m wrong with that assumption.
Vincent: I think developers also like to work distributed. The development environment which we use or the distributed source code repository and so on, these tools are all useful for distributed work, just naturally. So I don’t think that there’s a big problem. But, however, if you use a more sophisticated collaboration tool, such as a wiki or whiteboard, you should try it and learn to use it so that you don’t have big troubles when you want to perform a meeting where you need to get done in time.
Lisette: Yeah, so really take a step back and learn how to use all of these different…
Vincent: Of course, we are techies. So we play a lot with tools. It’s not such a big problem, but you should try it before [crosstalk – 22:52] get productive.
Lisette: It’s kind of like just being prepared for your meeting. You know what everything needs to be and try things out. Do you experiment a lot on your teams with different tools that you want to use? Or do you have a pretty standard set that most people use? I mean 230 people is quite a lot of people at one company.
Vincent: We tried some tools such as SharePoint. We use conference and so on. So there is some experience within our project. During the project, we also try new tools. And if they are good, then we give a recommendation for other projects. And then we develop such kind as a standard toolset. But it’s also changing. It is necessary.
Lisette: Okay, so it’s encouraged to experiment with new things and bring in new ideas.
Vincent: Yes, of course. It doesn’t make much sense to say to the team, “You must use this tool.” If people are not satisfied with this tool, then they won’t use it.
Lisette: You say, of course. And it makes perfect sense. But there are so many companies where this is not the normal way. So it’s really nice to hear that it’s like this. And for you, it’s like of course you should play with these tools. Of course, you should experiment. Why wouldn’t you do that? I think the same thing. But there are lots of companies that I’ve run into that don’t.
Before I ask my final question, I should ask you is there anything that you wanted to tell people about eteoBoards that I didn’t ask you about today? Maybe I forgot to ask an important question.
Vincent: Maybe not about eteoBoard but the eteo concept as complete. We try to be complete, the eteo concept for distributed Agile team. So the actual thing that tools are not the solution for all things. The tools are one important thing. But also, the project room is important, especially when you use videoconference system. And finally, you need to consider in distributed Agile teams how the roles perform their task in this setting. For example, a Scrum master cannot divide himself or herself, can only be at one location. And how can you remove impediments at another location, for example? So the whole organization stuff also needs to be considered.And finally, also the team. You need to create it first for environment and team identity. We think these four things are in fact really important to be successful in virtual collaboration.
Lisette: When you say eteo concept, is this something that you offer? How do you offer this eteo concept?
Vincent: It’s[likely – 26:12]eteoBoard[for you to] develop the eteo concept for us. But now we also go to conferences with the concept. And we also want to provide workshops for other teams which can come here and try the virtual setup, the Scrum setup. You know the legal workshop from the conference. So this is one part which we want to perform here and to sensitize the teams and work remotely and to support them to find solutions for their virtual work. This is an idea which we’ll try to realize in the future.
Lisette: Oh, it’s great. So if any distributed Agile teams are listening here, then contact Vincent to go take a workshop because it is really impressive, the setup and the way that it worked, especially when we saw it at the conference, distributed Agile tools conference. It was very impressive how…
Vincent: It was very amazing.
Lisette: Yeah, really. It just felt like, “Whoa! Look at what we [can do – 27:18] now.”
Vincent: So we need to build a Lego city in a distributed way. So how could we do this? Why should we do this? And finally, there was a very nice city, a Lego city.
Lisette: Indeed, and a lot of laughter.
Vincent: [Crosstalk – 27:39] [laughs].
Lisette: [Laughs] I think it’s also very important that yeah, we can do great things together. But as a team, we can also have a good time together and enjoy the process of…
Vincent: And this is very important, to have fun. Always have fun. It’s very important.
Lisette: Yeah, this is what we do during the day. It’s our living. So if we’re not having a good time, then it’s such a shame. So I like the idea that this really helps teams connect and build trust and all of that. And it’s fun.
The last question is if people want to get in touch with you and learn more about eteoBoards and the eteo concept, what’s the best way to reach you? And where should they go?
Vincent: You can find me on LinkedIn, or XING, social business network in Germany. Of course, you can Google for eteo, and you’ll find some information about the eteoBoard and the eteo concept. And I also write blog articles. Maybe you can follow me on Twitter also. And finally, you can also write me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lisette: I’ll post it in the liner notes so that people know all the information. It’s just good for people to hear it. So you’re all over the Internet if people want to learn more. There’s no excuse. You have to go check it out. And I really encourage people to check it out. This is a very impressive system, especially for distributed Agile teams. And I know there’s a lot of those people listening to this interview.
Vincent, thank you so much for talking with me today. I really wish you guys the most success. I think it’s a great concept.
Vincent: Yeah, thank you too, very much.
Lisette: And to those out there listening, until next time, be powerful.