Overcoming Us Vs. Them: Working with Multiple Distributed Scrum Teams

By Christine Brouillard | Member

Neither the Scrum Guide nor the Agile Manifesto—two of the foundational documents for Agile development methodologies—mention anything about distributed teams. But working with developers in remote locations is becoming more and more common. There are books, white papers, and blog entries devoted to the topic. Many of these writings focus on the increased need for communication in these situations. Technical communicators are expertly equipped to help bridge the great divide among distributed Scrum team members.

Adjusting to the New Normal

When my company adopted Scrum as our new Agile development methodology, we created twelve development teams with software engineers, product owners, and Scrum masters. Since we had only six members in the technical documentation department, some of us had to cover multiple teams. Some of the teams had programmers who lived in other U.S. states, but I was lucky enough to be assigned to two of the teams who had developers in Europe. On each of these teams, at least half of the resources are located in a distant time zone with English as a second language. Team 2 has three developers in Romania, Team 11 has four programmers in Switzerland, and the rest of each team is located in Connecticut. So how do you optimize this situation? How do you get the information you need for quality documentation?

Use Communication Tools
Figure 1. Modes of Communication
Figure 1. Modes of Communication

Communication can be a challenge even for Scrum teams who are co-located and regularly benefit from the nuances of face-to-face communication. Adding time zone and language differences just compounds the issues. Since sending all of the team to one location or the other on a regular basis typically isn't a viable option, the next best alternative is to use technology to bridge the gap.

At CNC Software, we use video teleconferencing and GoToMeeting to create virtual meeting spaces. Our conference rooms in Connecticut are equipped with large plasma screens, wide-angle webcams, and high-quality conference phones. We have had some issues on the other side of the ocean with connectivity and equipment, but the developers in Romania and Switzerland now have their own webcams and headsets for attending meetings. The developers often use Skype for one-on-one conversations during each sprint.

For Shannon Wallner, senior technical writer at Four Js Development Tools in Texas, the idea was similar but the implementation was different. "The important thing I learned is to not introduce new tools, but to figure out how you can work with the tools your developers already use. For collaboration, I like GoToMeeting, but the developers use Skype, so we screen-share on Skype and I use a recording software called Evaer to record the meeting if needed. I get the information I need without putting an obstacle in their way."

Figure 2. An Agile team teleconference
Figure 2. An Agile team teleconference

A common data storage platform for the team is also helpful. Team 11 uses a combination of a Wiki and Google Docs to collaborate on projects and do team planning. All the teams store their backlogs and sprint data in VersionOne, which is often displayed during standups to help answer questions. Wallner's team uses a similar online tool. "I would like a more robust content management system, but we have instead learned to use JIRA. By working in the same platform, we feel more connected to the overall product plans and more in sync with the developers. Since moving to JIRA, we have improved our topic review processes because we are able to set up the reviews as JIRA tasks and assign them to developers no matter where they are in the world. By looking at how we can work with the tools familiar to them, we've made good strides in improving communication, collaboration, and the deliverables we publish."

Be the Translator

Even the best teleconferencing equipment won't always overcome language differences. Technical communicators can often put their skills to good use by trying to paraphrase from one side to the other. When you get to a sticking point, reiterate what the team member said and see if you got it right. Another method I use often is to start typing a document that the whole team can instantly view and revise. This information is often part of the research you need for your deliverables, so the effort helps both you and the team.

Videos are a great way to share information, especially on potential software defects. We often use the video tool in SnagIt or Jing to make quick videos to share. It is typically much faster than typing out all the steps to show the problem. Or if you happen to have the right people in the room, open the software and work through the problem in real time. We've found that these visual techniques really cut down on frustration levels.

Respect Differences

Just as you would research a new product you're writing about or a new company you're working for, take some time and research the other countries and cultures of the people you're working with. As Monica Yap noted in her white paper "Successful Distributed Agile Team Working Patterns," cultural barriers can be challenging to overcome. "When team members come from different cultural backgrounds, these differences can easily create misunderstanding and generate mistrust among team members."

One example of this happened during a sprint review with the team from Switzerland. In an attempt to give some constructive criticism on an area in the code, a developer in Connecticut used the word "silly" and the entire Swiss team was horrified. The team was uncomfortable around each other for weeks, and it took a formal apology to set things right.

Your research may include learning about their holidays, understanding their definition of work/life balance, or learning a few key phrases in their language. Being able to say "good morning" and "thank you" in Romanian went a long way with Team 2. But be careful and recognize that jokes, slang, and colloquial phrases in English may not translate well. There were many times that the team in Connecticut made a reference to a movie or song that the Romanians did not know. We often took this as an opportunity to educate them in American culture and ended up watching a short YouTube video or playing a song in iTunes. It made for team bonding moments.

Time differences are also important to respect. John Collins, senior UX strategist at Rosetta Stone, worked with a team that included members in Korea, France, Virginia, and Arizona. "Flexibility is obviously a key for all parties. Be willing to stay late or come in early occasionally. My localization manager worked much of this summer from Switzerland and compromised in his work hours, partway between the Swiss time zone and my time zone."

Find Common Ground

Finding places to meet doesn't just apply to time zones, but to team members as well. Establishing trust is a crucial component of a high-functioning Scrum team. As Monica Yap explains, "When a team doesn't possess a minimum level of trust, it's more difficult to deal with the challenges as they appear—it is often easy to blame and criticize the ‘other' groups and the teams break down into competing tribes."

No matter where you are located, we all have celebrations and challenges in our lives. Use these life events to create connections between team members. On Team 11, we've sent gifts for new babies, sent flowers for funerals, and celebrated team birthdays. We joke about the numerous public holidays in Switzerland and make a big deal when we finally have a national holiday in the US. During the sprint retrospectives on both teams, I started the practice of adding a bonus question. It's always a more personal question to bring out information to connect the team members. Questions have included, "What was your favorite part of the summer holidays?" and "What's your favorite type of music?" When we asked the second question in Team 11, we learned that one of the Swiss developers plays in a brass band in his hometown and has recorded albums!

Wherever your Scrum team members are located, participate as much as possible and get to know them. Making connections helps communication during the Scrum process.

Christine Brouillard is a senior technical writer and has been at CNC Software, Inc. in Tolland, CT, since 1997. She has experience in management, project management, localization, and Agile practices. She became a Certified Scrum master in May 2013. She was named one of the 400 Most Influential in #Techcomm and #ContentStrategy on Twitter in 2011 (cebrouillard). She was a speaker at the STC Summit in 2014 and the WritersUA East Conference in 2013. She has also been a judge for the International Society for Technical Communication competition.

Suggested Reading

Cohn, Mike. 2010. Succeeding with Agile: Software Development Using Scrum. Ann Arbor, MI: Addison-Wesley Professional).

Eckstein, Jutta. 2010. Agile Software Development with Distributed Teams, Perfect Paperback.

Rubin, Kenneth S. Essential Scrum: A Practical Guide to the Most Popular Agile Process. Ann Arbor, MI: Addison-Wesley Professional, 2013.

Scrum.org, https://www.scrum.org

Scrum Alliance, www.scrumalliance.org/.

Starr, David. 2012. "Distributed Scrum," http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/jj620910.aspx.

Woodward, Elizabeth. 2010. A Practical Guide to Distributed Scrum. IBM Press.

Yap, Monica. 2010. "Successful Distributed Agile Team Working Patterns," www.solutionsiq.com/docs/successful-distributed-team-working-patterns.pdf.