Improving presence of a remote worker in our team

Posted by Marcus Hammarberg on October 3, 2012
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At my current client I am assigned 3 teams. Two of them have everything set up for a great team; they are seated together, they have a full time product owner, they have a great spirit and are all around great guys. These teams have a electronic board with Greenhopper on Jira.

Then there's another team. They also have all the things they need to succeed with a full time product owner, great spirit and a clear vision and goal. Awesome developers. Their product owner is seated in Germany and we are in Sweden. They have opted for a physical board.

I'm all for physical boards whenever possible so I really wanted them to succeed with that board. In doing so I have been setting up one end of the technologies to get a remote worker included a agile team.

It will never be the same thing as actually be there. But we're getting close. And it works pretty good. Finally - it didn't cost us that much either. No fancy video conferencing systems used.
At my current client I am assigned 3 teams. Two of them have everything set up for a great team; they are seated together, they have a full time product owner, they have a great spirit and are all around great guys. These teams have a electronic board with Greenhopper on Jira.

Then there's another team. They also have all the things they need to succeed with a full time product owner, great spirit and a clear vision and goal. Awesome developers. Their product owner is seated in Germany and we are in Sweden. They have opted for a physical board.

I'm all for physical boards whenever possible so I really wanted them to succeed with that board. In doing so I have been setting up one end of the technologies to get a remote worker included a agile team.

It will never be the same thing as actually be there. But we're getting close. And it works pretty good. Finally - it didn't cost us that much either. No fancy video conferencing systems used.
We have been focusing on 3 areas to get our product owner to feel more "in the room":

  • Being able to see and read the board
  • Being able to have great standups where it feels like he's in the room
  • Being able to chat and take a cup of coffee with him.

See and read stuff on the board

This was the first thing we started with and I think most team does. Let me give you some helpful tips or rather things that we've tried already:
  • Web cameras doesn't work for this. The resolution is just to bad.
  • Mobile phones of later branding (my Iphone 4gs for example) has good enough camera but the management of photos, to get them accessible to others in the team, is a pain. It often involved something like emailing them to yourself and uploading them to a share. Takes to much time each day.
  • Normal cameras also work of course - but then again you have the management of the photos once they are taken. 
The main trick is the resolution of the photo. You want something good enough to take one (1) picture of the board and then zoom in to read the details. I think about 6-8 megapixels does it. But it also has to do with the optics of the camera. 

We ended up buying a cheap (SEK 795, $125) digital camera (an Olympus VH-210) and equipping it with an EyeFi-card. That card just blew my mind when I first heard about it: a SD-card with WiFi inside it! Apparently they've been around quite some time but still. 

You pop the Eye-Fi into you computer and then you'll go through a wizard that helps you set up the card to upload photos and movies to a service of your choice. Two things to note here:
  • You need some kind of WiFi-access for the card. This one bit us since the only thing we got access to was a Internet-only WiFi. No shares and internal sites in other words. That had to do with us not wanted to hard code a user name and password onto the card
  • Secondly once the card is configured you can pop it into any device that take photos and it'll do what's configured on it. Downside is that there's no progress indicators while using the card. So you don't know if you're waiting for it to upload or if it's done. 
The supported services (via Internet) are plentiful; Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, Ftp-sites (accessible from Internet, mind you) and finally the one we picked Picasaweb. When photoing a board you probably don't want to share it to everyone. 

We created a Google account for these upload and hooked him (her?) up to Picasaweb. We then created an album in there and had it shared with everyone in the group. 

Pretty simple and works just fine. 

Problems

  • The Olympus VH-210 needed to be REALLY close to the WiFi-router to work. About 1,5 meters in fact. Got excellent support from the Eye-Fi guys trying to track this down.
  • The progress of the upload is really hard to track. Right now we just leave the camera there for 10 minutes and then check picasa for new files. 

Great standups

When we tried a web camera out for watching the board (don't work - don't try it) we ended up with a spare web camera. I bought a pretty descent one that wasn't too pricy (699 SEK, $110) called Creative Live Cam Social 1080

We then simply hook that up to any old computer for the standup and have our product owner call in via Skype. 

It work pretty good actually. 

We got an extension cord for USB to be able to move the camera around to improve the experience. The camera has pretty descent mic actually so it picks up people talking in normal voice all over our team room. 

Problems

  • Someone needs to bring a computer to every standup and hook up a call with our PO
  • The Creative Web Cam has an autozoom that takes some time to get settled in. That can be very disturbing to the one watching. Motion sickness may occur
  • People tend to "talk to the camera" instead of to the team. You have to watch that and just let the camera be just this other guy in the group. 

Great presence

Our room has a TV mounted on the wall. That gave us an idea to set up a kiosk where you can call into the team room. We also had a lot of the components to get this to work already in place. This was what we did:
  • got a computer that we installed Skype on
  • hooked the computer up to the TV and the Web Cam (with USB extension cord).
  • created a special Team Room Account in Skype (the same email adress that we use to upload the photos with)
  • finally we set the Skype account to answer automatically (standard configuration in Skype) to all incoming calls from it's contacts. 
This means that our product owner can hook up a call directly into the team room at any time. We can then skid down to the screen and have a chat or a cup of coffee with him. Or he can just be there and hang with us like any other (although with a much bigger head) person.

Problem

Yet to be found - this is just beginning. I presume that his presence will be much more obvious and apparent than others. Will that be a "problem"? Maybe. 

Summary

These we a couple of cheap investments to get the presence of an remote worker to be a little better. It's not optimal. Sitting together is always best and my top starting-with-agile-tip. But if that's not possible you'll have to do what you can. This was what we did.

This would not have been possible without great help and service mindset from the IT-department of my client. Thanks!

Love to hear your  comments for improvements or other ideas 



Published by Marcus Hammarberg on Last updated