TL;DR: this entire post can be summed-up with one of the twelve principles of Agile software development, which is that the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
Some Bad Experiences
When I first started in the corporate world as a restuarant marketing manager, corporate travel was generally frowned upon. Money spent had to be super-justified, trips had to be indisputable, and the idea of clearing people’s calendars was unthinkable. In my five years there I took two trips, and I had to truly make them count.
My first, to Vegas, had me awake for 23.5 hours on the first day. By the time I got to bed I was shivering from exhaustion. In Las Vegas. Since I was working in the corporate office for a restaurant company, all of my meals were to be had at one of our restaurants, so as to feed me at cost instead of reimburse me for a meal at another restaurant. My boss did give me the OK to have dinner at a rival shop, but it ended up being a big to-do – not something I was allowed to do on my second trip.
On that second trip, which was to Charlotte, my schedule was so packed that I didn’t even come close to accomplishing most of what I was there to do. On top of that, I was entirely alone. I looked like the evil corporate guy who tried to come in and dictate everything. I was just meeting people for the first time. Needless to say, it didn’t accomplish as much as I probably could have.
A Very Good Experience
This week I was traveling out to California to meet with a dev team that my office has partnered with, as well as some business stakeholders in our project. It was night and day compared to the first two trips, listed above. It was productive, and – with the exception of a few moments of very much anticipated tension – it was positive.
Without getting too much into details, I’ll say that – like any software project – things weren’t necessarily hitting all checkpoints. There were a lot of questions heading out there about how the meeting would go, and honestly who would try to cover their asses with politically-minded bullshit.
Instead, it was the opposite. The dirty laundry was aired within the first few minutes. No one hid from the fact that a few key people weren’t delivering, and as a result we came up with constructive steps that everyone could get behind. Where I expected there to be big corporate politics, there was honesty. And more importantly, where I expected egos to get in the way, I saw openness instead.
I had once thought that just about anything that could be accomplished in a corporate-sponsored visit could just as easily be accomplished over the phone – barring some location specific things, like the photo-shoot aspects of my first two trips. For the most part, the people watching over the travel budget in my first job agreed, which is why they only sent me out once we needed updated photography.
The problem is that a phone call is quick. It’s a blip on your day’s radar. It comes with mute buttons and little visibility into facial queues. As for video conference and telepresence, it reminds me of times when my brother and I would try to Skype with our mother at the same time. They was stiff, rigid, with no one knowing when to talk because of the network lag we were promised by tech blogs and magazines would eventually go away sometime around 2012. And still, in a corporate setting, there’s just as much that can be happening off-camera as is happening on-camera.
Even worse, neither of these connected communication methods actualy force someone to be focused on the speaker. If you’ve ever had a video chat at work, chances are you’ve figured out how to fake being attentive while actually focusing on something else. It’s super easy to just have an IDE window open on the same screen where your webcam lives.
With face-to-face communication, you know – very clearly – if someone is paying attention to you as you speak. Participation can’t be ducked, it can’t be faked. There are no mute buttons. When a problem comes up, there’s no escape, and everyone’s going to have to take a bite of that shit-pie, like it or not.
I’ve been party to a lot of fights over the phone – some that I was in, and some that I was listening to awkwardly in silence. There’s something to be said about face-to-face confrontation that can’t be replicated in digital form. On the phone, or in video conference, you can escape by shutting up. You can walk away after and not have to acknowledge what just happened. Or when you walk away, you get to leave things hanging out there, unresolved, while each side thinks the other is just being an asshole.
When you get everyone in the same room, they’re all in the mix. No one’s left out, even if they’re not the drivers of the conflict. It reminds me of something I heard in my concealed-carry class about active shooter situations, as told to the instructor by a Marine colonel in Afghanistan: “This is a fight, and you’re in it.” When the fight’s over, you’re all still sitting there having to breath the tension still hanging in the air. And as a result – at least in a mature setting – it leads to resolution.
Allocation of Resources
There are two sides to this coin, and both are extremely important. The first is deciding who should be on a trip. It’s a tough call, since a company might easily spend upwards of two grand per traveler, on top of their salary. It’s also going to result in lost day-to-day productivity, which sometimes can’t be sacrificed.
The question should then arise, why have people travel in the first place? Your company should expect the result of the trip to be far more valuable than the thousands spent on room, board, and expenses, as well as far more valuable than the lost day-to-day productivity. And the trip this past week certainly was – so much so that we’re now mapping out monthly trips to make sure the same people have more of these face-to-face conversations in an effort to gain more of that added value.
But the second part to allocating resources is making sure the people on-site will be available to those visiting, and that was where things really fell apart in my trips to Vegas and Charlotte back in the day. The folks running the restaurants were far too concerned with their own day-to-day productivity to take time to talk marketing. Even worse, that was encouraged by the leadership. I was told to see if I could get an hour of their time, but they were never told the same.
This trip to CA was the opposite. Some of the people I sat down with for entire days on end have a project hitting a release next week, and they were encouraged to book time with me so we could work through problems. They helped me with mine, I helped them with theirs, and each of our projects were all the better for it. Think about it in terms of numbers, and the results of these face-to-face meetings end up being far more than the sums of their parts. While their release next week will be tight, we were able to accelerate development moving forward, which should drastically improve productivity for their next release, and certainly will for mine.
Introductions and trust
There’s something to be said for shaking someone’s hand. I’ve really come to see the difference between jumping on the phone with someone for the first time, and sitting down with them for the first time. Despite how many phone calls, telepresence conversations, or Jabber chats you might have had, the first time you shake someone’s hand is when you’ve truly been intoduced.
Phone calls, and even telepresence conversations, don’t really offer any vulnerability. Defences are high, with everyone generally putting on the airs they want people to see. Project management types are generally aggressive and in control, dev types are generally quietly sitting in the background, and dev managers (some, not all) usually try to make their teams and themselves look good with claims of flashy features being “done”. Competitiveness is high.
In person, I noticed a lot of those dynamics slip away within the first hour of a two-day workout. There wasn’t much to hide behind. The status of the project was clear, and no matter how people tried to present themselves in whatever form of digital communication, their true personalities and understanding of the project was made clear at some point between 9am and 10am Pacific on the first day of our pow-wow.
As those telepresence shields melted away and true personalities came forward, we started to see trust form within the group. Some of the dev managers who claimed to be in charge of the fastest moving teams during telepresence demos were honest about how far behind their teams were. Architects who had previous claimed to have thought out entire data flows started to speak up about potential problems that they needed help with. PMs let their aggressive fronts fall to the side, giving way to more inviting personalities than I would have expected.
In addition to the benefit of trust forming within the group, we also saw trust forming between individuals. And some of those individuals had been the most confrontational with each other in every digital meeting leading up to the in-person workout. By the time I left California, I had formed bonds with people I never expected to get along with. Ultimately, that’s not only good for them and for me, but also for the benefit of the project, and productivity.
You could say that trust could only form because we all dedicated the time necessary to meeting with each other, forcing us to open up. When I went to visit the restaurants in Charlotte, I never had the chance to form that trust, because the folks there were too busy to sit down with me. The one time I asked them to, it lasted 15 minutes before they got distracted and had to end our conversation abruptly. One of them would go on to accuse me of stealing an iPad.
I used to hate corporate travel. I really did. And to some degree, it’s still not my favorite. I don’t like being away from my wife. I don’t like flying. I don’t like lugging a suitcase around. And there’s still that day-to-day productivity that ate away at me while I was out there.
But in all fairness, I’m looking forward to my next trip in a month. What was accomplished this past week in California couldn’t have been accomplished if we were scattered around the country, working on our own things or attempting to work together. The benefits were clear, and we’ll all be more productive for it.