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In my first years of software development, the term "distributed development" didn't exist. At the mainframe company where I worked, every developer on a given project was in the same building, often with offices located along the same hall. My manager typified the belief that close-in development was good, often saying that communication breaks down at about thirty feet. Every member of our team was within shouting distance.
Today, this kind of centrally located development is rare, even strange. The pervasiveness of broadband Internet access allows developers to work remotely in small offices and even at home. Through acquisitions and mergers, geographically dispersed teams are continually divided and recombined to form projects based on developer availability and talent. Furthermore, the economies of the "global village" increasingly motivate companies to make the most of resources across time zones and continents. Distributed development is now firmly planted in our lexicon.
Distributed development raises some questions. Can distributed teams develop software as effectively as centrally located teams? How can team members achieve effective communication and coordination when they don't meet face-to-face? What tools and techniques can team leaders encourage to counteract distance, keep projects on schedule, and verify software quality metrics?
This article will provide some suggestions for keeping distributed software teams in touch and on target. In order to be effective, some techniques require buy-in and active participation by every team member. In other cases, planning and oversight on behalf of team leaders produce the best results.
Communication Is Key
Despite their geographic separation, distributed developers need to stay in constant contact. Conference calls and email are basic and important ways that should be used regularly. Even when time zone differences require some team members to participate during unusual hours, there is still no substitute for talking to each other.
However, today the networked team has some new choices to consider as well:
Threaded Discussions: Many software tools facilitate newsgroup-like discussions that allow multiple developers to communicate asynchronously on any topic. Better than email, threaded discussion tools focus debates on specific issues and save the dialog for later use. Some tools can link discussions to specific projects, tasks, or other development assets.
Instant Messaging: IM is starting to find its way into the business world as a valuable tool. Lower friction than the telephone, yet more interactive than email, IM is valuable for asking a quick question or holding an informal chat. Like threaded discussions, many IM tools can save dialogs for later review. To avoid privacy concerns of IM messages traversing public networks, teams should consider an IM tool that can be deployed on the corporate intranet.
Blogging: Web logging or "blogging" is the process of instant publishing to a Web page. "Blogs" typically contain short messages that follow a chronological order. Blogging was created by individuals wishing to chronicle daily work, personal experiences, or just random streams of consciousness. Like IM, blogging is beginning to find its way into the corporate setting. Team members can use blogging to publish their progress, and the Web interface makes it easy for everyone to see each other's notes.
Web Conferencing: When real-time communication is needed, conference calls can be significantly enhanced with Web conferencing. Web conferencing can be used for group presentations, interactive planning and review, and even unstructured brainstorming sessions. Both pay-for-use Web conference services and commercial software products that can be centrally installed are available. Depending on the software, Web conferencing products may include collaboration features such as white boarding, file sharing, instant messaging, and cooperative editing.
Depending on bandwidth availability, teams may also want to consider emerging technologies such as voice-over-IP and even video-over-IP. Anything that promotes effective team communication should be considered.
In typical projects, developers must share many of the assets used to specify, design, implement, and test software. In the past, network bandwidth and even the tools themselves prevented remote developers from having direct access to the same repositories used by developers operating behind the corporate firewall. Today, a broad array of software management tools are Internet-enabled. Combined with better availability of reliable bandwidth, these tools increasingly make it feasible for all team members to share common repositories.
Shared repositories provide developers with up-to-date information, thereby reducing conflicts. Internet-enabled, repository-centric tools are available for key development processes such as
- Requirements Management: formal requirement specifications, dependencies, responsibilities, and change history
- Source Code Management: versioned file assets such as design documents, source code, and binary files
- Change Management: bug reports, new feature requests, defect tracking, and traceability
- Project Management: Project schedules, task breakdowns, work assignments, and progress reports
- Test Management: Test plans, test cases, and test results
Moreover, some Internet-enabled tools that help to manage these processes are starting to provide integrated collaborative features, such as threaded discussions and peer-to-peer messaging. These tools further foster team synchronization.
Large projects and large project teams may require access to many corporate resources. In these scenarios, teams can benefit from resource portals that consolidate and concentrate disparate information sources. For example, Web-based Development Resource Portals (DRPs) can provide access to research materials and project information from multiple repositories, focused on the needs of developers. Integrated search and discovery capabilities provide a central place to traverse a broad array of information. For effective distributed development, the key is to surface information stored in corporate repositories to all members of the team.
Keep Remote Developers Involved
Perhaps the most important way to keep remote developers on track is to keep them included. Every team member needs periodic reassurance that they are important to the project. The more a remote developer feels in the loop, the more likely they are to contribute effectively. There are many ways to ensure that distant team members are on track while fostering their sense of involvement. Here are a few ideas:
Remote team members should periodically demonstrate their work via online presentations. They should also be included in training sessions, turnover meetings, and even customer presentations. Participation in important milestones such as these allows distant developers to showcase their work and demonstrate their expertise.
Reviews: Periodic design and code reviews are good ways to keep tabs on remote developers' progress. In order to keep them from feeling singled out, they should participate in reviews of other team members' work as well. One approach is to perform code walkthroughs, in which the author drives the presentation. This approach rotates each team member's responsibilities and maintains a sense of equality.
On-Site Visits: Teams shouldn't forget the importance of periodically inviting remote developers to headquarters or other development centers. Conversely, most remote developers appreciate having occasional team meetings at their locale. Digital collaboration and information sharing is helpful, but nothing can replace the interaction and camaraderie of occasional face-to-face meetings.
Distributed development teams are becoming the norm for today's software projects. In lieu of close physical interaction, distributed teams are faced with the challenge of keeping software projects on track and keeping remote developers involved. The same forces that have fostered the use of distributed teams are also yielding new ways to keep team members in touch. New forms of information exchange provide new ways for distributed developers to collaborate. Internet-enabled, repository-centric development tools give developers real-time access to up-to-date development assets. However, it is also important to recognize the human side of distributed teams, allowing remote developers to feel involved with team activities and to maintain a sense of importance. By utilizing available tools and keeping alive the spirit of teamwork, distributed development teams can be as successful as the centrally located teams of the past.
About the Author
Randy Guck is Starbase Chief Technology Officer. Serving numerous roles from programmer to Chief Technology Officer, Randy Guck has been developing commercial software applications for more than twenty-five years. He has contributed to large application projects ranging from distributed software development tools to mainframe database systems. Randy holds five patents in Internet eCommerce and B2B technologies and has authored several technical articles. He specializes in client-server, peer-to-peer, and distributed application architectures.
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