7 CTOs Share Their Insights On Managing Distributed Teams

distributed teams

“One of the secret benefits of using remote workers is that the work itself becomes the yardstick to judge someone’s performance.” Jason Fried (Co-Author Of Office Not Required)

Remote development teams are an asset for entrepreneurs and businesses looking to expand the talent pool. Rise in remote work opportunities helps you in connecting with experienced developers across distributed time zones. Also, it’s the best way of identifying and filling the skill need-gaps. 

But is it easy to hire talented developers and maintain a distributed development team?

This is what we asked seven talented and experienced CTOs from various industries. Moreover, they also revealed specific management strategies that can facilitate long-term stability to let you retain and nurture a great remote workforce while minimizing risks when outsourcing.

1. Austin Wang, CTO at Groove.co

Team Collaboration Solutions Facilitate Seamless Communication

Our HQ is in San Francisco, but we have engineering teams in Seattle, San Diego, Nairobi, as well as individuals in Lagos and Poland. We are 80% in house and 20% external. On the tools side, we rely heavily on Slack and Zoom communicate, Google Drive and Quip for documentation and collaboration. 

On the process side, we have daily stand-ups for the engineering team as well as annually we do company offsite where everyone can meet in person and get to know each other more intimately.

As great as the tech hubs are, there’s plenty of great talent and engineers outside of the big cities. Also, as things get more and more expensive, people just aren’t able to afford the lifestyle they want or to do things like buy a house or raise kids. This is particularly true for San Francisco, and Seattle to a certain extent. As such, being able to have team members be remote allows people the flexibility to live the lives they want while working for Groove which is the most important.

2. Joe Conley, CTO at BuySide

Persistent Communication Helps In Bolstering A Positive Remote Work Culture

Yes, I currently have three teams reporting to me. One is an outsourced development shop, the other two are internal teams that I’ve built out.  For the internal folks, I have 7 direct reports (about to add an 8th), 4 are full-time remote, 2 are half-remote/half onsite, and 2 are full-time onsite.

All of my remote staff is internal and I try to drive alignment by using Slack and Hangouts for communication. We spend a good chunk of our day in Slack, and the understanding is that the engineers will be reasonably responsive and active on Slack during the afternoons so we can have impromptu design meetings, communicate any company updates or wins, work through JIRA tickets, etc.  We use Hangouts for our weekly staff meetings and 1 on 1’s, and try to ensure we have all of our cameras on so we can have a more personal experience.

From a process perspective, I make a concerted effort in both my weekly staff meetings and 1on1s to ensure that the remote folks are up to speed on any recent company developments or “in-office” goings on.  

I’ve done remote work previously and I understand how feelings of isolation can creep in, so it’s paramount to be over-communicating to help cement a positive culture and workplace.  Even small things like news or sports discussions (having a nice geographic spread can make for fun debates about sports teams!) can go a long way towards making remote work more enjoyable.

I’ve also recently tried to ensure that mornings are relatively uninterrupted as most of my team (including myself) tends to be most productive in the mornings with blocks of time to work.  Remote work is certainly conducive to this as well as it’s much more effective to simply turn off Slack for an hour rather than, say, shut your office door (I know from experience as CTO that closed doors aren’t very effective, they can still find you!).

Simple economics have dictated that if your local market has a lack of resources or resources are too expensive, you have no choice but to look elsewhere geographically if you want to maintain a higher standard of quality at a reasonable cost. Quality has to trump geographic location (and other concerns as well), as the difference between a senior and junior engineer is massive from a pure cost perspective (both implicit and explicit).

Furthermore, finding engineers who specialize in a niche or specific technology can prove challenging if your local market doesn’t have the expertise necessary.  Luckily, the aforementioned tools make remote communication much easier, so the plan to go remote where necessary is certainly feasible.

3. Nigel Brown, CTO at Sparkt

Developing A Robust Process Along With Continuous Integration & Deployment Is Essential

I have both in-house and external remote engineering teams. I manage both teams as one unit even with time zone differences. Collaboration stays high by allowing offshore teams to work at minimum 3 hours aligned with in house teams. Creating a solid process along with continuous integration and deployment is essential for keeping my teams synced.

Companies still feel that “seeing” people equates to work getting done, but it’s just not true. Engineers I argue are more productive  remote because it encourages them to get work done and collaborate  effectively so they can keep the flexibility of being remote. You also find they unconsciously work more because they are remote so you may find pull request commits at midnight just because a lot of engineers  are “late builders”.

4. Jake Hoffner, CTO at Qualified.io

A Solid Management Strategy (Objectives and Key Results – OKR) Can Make All The Difference

Our team is 100% remote. I do have an intern that I work with in-person on occasion but other than that, we are all in different cities across the country (and in Canada). We use Slack as our core communication platform.

We have daily status reports within our #status-report channel. We are divided into teams based off of job function. Every week each team gets together to conduct their OKR (Objectives and Key Results) check-in meeting. Every other week we have an all-hands meeting, where teams share progress and make asks to each other. OKR is our core process for alignment. We use Ally to track our OKRs.

The cost of living in key tech hubs such as San Francisco and Seattle is sky high, and these markets are highly competitive. Meanwhile the barriers to remote work are constantly being broken down by improved tools and process. Why compete within a local candidate pool when your company can expand regionally, nationally or even globally and expand your access to great talent?

5. Andrew Waage, CTO at ReSci

Regulating Team Processes With An Iterative Approach Helps In Growing A Remote Engineering Team

We have a remote team in Poland, with the team lead being here in Santa Monica, CA – ReSci’s headquarters. This structure, with our lead engineer based locally, has been an important part of ensuring alignment and coordination of the distributed team. 

We leverage frequent Slack calls, video + chat apps to talk frequently. In addition, we aim to have some amount of time overlap daily, to facilitate any discussions or meetings. It’s important to note that we see this as a constant work in progress. We recognize that there are imperfections to our process that we must adjust as we go.

There are many benefits from hiring remote engineering teams. These include leveraging a larger, global talent pool, increased distributed team diversity, lower office overhead, and more. With today’s technology tools, this is easier than ever before. 

A major determining factor for a successful remote team is whether you can adjust team processes accordingly. It’s natural that hiring a remote team brings many challenges as well. It’s important to be reflective and take an iterative approach in growing a remote team.

6. Runik Mehrotra, Co-founder & CTO at Viseai

Organization & Communication Are The Two Key Driving Forces To Remote Teams Success

Yes, I currently work with both external and internal remote teams. We have a few remote engineers in-house (Ph. D researchers and a couple of full stack engineers) and have worked with a few external remote engineering firms in the last 12 months. 

To ensure alignment between our internal development team and our remote developers, I use a couple of key techniques. Everyone is required to join a 10 minute stand-up call at 10 AM PST, no matter the time zone. In this call, everyone quickly gets on the same page and describes any blockers they have. 

We also agree on a set engineering process ahead of time. For example, we have 2 week sprints on JIRA and get everyone’s buy in (including external development teams) on ticket guidelines. Everyone communicates on Slack and JIRA and is held responsible for the tickets assigned to them. This process allows us to utilize external developers as if they were our engineers working in the office. The key to remote teams is structure and communication.

In today’s market landscape, there is a significant shortage of engineering talent. The norms in the industry are to pay a quarter of a million dollars a year in total compensation to a software engineer out of school. Even though engineering bootcamps like Lambda School and App Academy have helped alleviate this shortage, the only sustainable way to grow an engineering team as a company in the Bay Area is to hire remote engineers, either in the United States or abroad.

There are definitely disadvantages to hiring remote engineers and managing distributed teams, especially engineers abroad. Engineers have a 60 day ramp up period until they can significantly contribute to a code base so every time we hire a remote engineer, we very much invest time and resources in training/on boarding them. 

We’ve had multiple cases where we’ve had to let remote engineers go, costing our company tens of thousands of dollars. However, with a robust hiring process and if a company sets key communication guidelines and structure, remote engineers can be a very effective way to scale an engineering team quickly and effectively.

7. Boris Paskalev, CTO at DeepCode

Routine Meetings To Monitor The Progress Of Your Ongoing Project Is The Ultimate Fix To Remote Team Misalignment

Yes, I currently do have remote engineering teams but those are completely external. Alignment is done through regular meetings and making sure they are working on fully autonomous products that can be clearly specified and isolated from other work.

I do see a trend  where more companies would hire remote engineers especially for larger teams with a more established business, strategy, focus and maybe longer running projects. But not for highly agile business units that are innovating every-day.

Anubhuti Shrivastava
 

Anubhuti Shrivastava is a content writer at Arkenea with insights into topics related to healthcare technology and software development in general.

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