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This chapter is from the book

Virtual Teams

According to researchers in the area of work life, virtual teams will become the norm in the future. Fewer and fewer real teams will physically come together to work on a project, and more and more teams will be assembled over the Internet. This has a lot of advantages:

  • Each individual project member is responsible for his or her own work space and environment. Although sometimes the client will provide the equipment, most often the individual project member will have to use his or her own hardware. This saves the client a lot of money.
  • You have much better access to different skills. You are not limited to people from your region or your company.
  • You are not responsible for the team in the long run. You only have to pay it for as long as it works for you. You are under no obligation to find its members their next job.
  • If the team is distributed all over the world, another advantage is that at any hour, at least one team member is most likely working on the project. There is hardly any project off-time.

The main problem with virtual teams is that they lack the most efficient mode of communication—direct communication. As Erran Carmel and Ritu Agarwal write,

  • Distance negatively affects communication, which in turn reduces coordination effectiveness.19

In virtual teams, the problem isn’t just communication with the customer; it’s also communication inside the team. It’s very difficult for a virtual team to get a common understanding and to pull together.

Distributed Teams

Large teams are always distributed in one way or another, just because they are too large to contain in one room. However, distributed development is somewhat more extreme, in that the project members are distributed over several sites and, as the term suggests, the project itself is developed in a dispersed manner. Sometimes, you might find a single team spread over several sites; other times, several teams are each located at a different site. Outsourcing is one example of a distributed team, as I discuss in Chapter 6.

One problem in this setting is ensuring that everybody on the team pulls together. On projects like this, you will often find that people blame one another, mainly because they do not know each other and therefore do not trust each other. Also, technical topics like version and configuration management are even more complicated in distributed teams. Of course, there are tools that can help manage these more complex areas of development, but they do not make up for the inconvenience and problems caused by distributed development.

If you must have distributed teams, the Internet is likely to be your main form of communication (e-mail, wiki Web, chat rooms), and video conferencing is also a good way to communicate. How-ever, be sure that people working out of different locations are able to meet with each other, at least occasionally. Communicating through the Internet will only work efficiently if people know and trust each other—and there is no better way of building trust than through personal contact.

Open Source

Open source projects are well-functioning examples of virtual teams. Possible reasons for their success are

  • All the team members are very idealistic. There is no need to motivate them or try to ensure that they identify themselves with the project. This all comes naturally.
  • Everybody feels responsible for the whole project and takes this responsibility very seriously.
  • There is a broad community that provides immediate feedback. This feedback is what drives the whole project. There is no difference in the value of feedback whether it comes from peers or from users.
  • Everybody who contributes to the project takes pride in his or her work.

The main underlying principle of open source projects, and the reason for their success, is the gift economy (the culture of giving away capacity and information). This means that everybody working on an open source project is doing so voluntarily. A lot can be learned from this approach, especially for use on commercial projects.

Mary Poppendieck once reported that a new project manager asked her for advice on becoming a successful team leader. She asked him if he had ever led a team of volunteers (of any sort). He replied that he had been a successful choir leader. Poppendieck continues,

I suggested that if he used the same techniques with his project team that he did with his choir, he would be a successful project manager. He said it was the best advice he ever received, and he blossomed as a project manager.2222

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