“Here” Means Longitude

Test-drive development
agile
extreme programming

Mechanical Orchard has gone from 0 to 60 in less than a year. We're remote, and spread across at least 6 time zones. Yet, our teams are operating and delivering customer results as if they were all in the same room.

How can we grow so fast, and sustainably, but without the constraints (and cost) of physical offices, and the all-too-common tensions around returning to them?

In a nutshell, because of XP.

In his last post, Kent talked about how it (and the values XP espouses) is just as relevant as ever with remote teams. But XP doesn’t just work on remote teams, it actually makes remote work better—and more sustainable on a human level.

It’s a communication structure and a culture builder: it helps create a sense of belonging in a remote work environment that can be very isolating.

Beyond Project Management

At a basic level, XP provides just enough structure to break large projects into small, prioritized tasks or intended outcomes that deliver value incrementally, with a continuous feedback loop woven throughout. A team in the same room can talk to each other to figure out what to work on next, but a geographically distributed company can’t.

Turns out, while Kent and colleagues “invented” XP to complement teams in the same room together, its specific practices lend themselves extremely well to remote teams like ours, precisely because they foster communication and “mattering”.

Here are a few of the ways:

A highly visible, fine grained story backlog (in Pivotal Tracker - still our favorite project management tool) means that there is continuous, concrete progress every day. This means less wondering who’s working on what, earlier feedback, and a slew of other obvious benefits. But it also creates a tangible sense of accomplishment on a daily, or even hourly basis.

Team story estimation at the weekly XP planning meeting (or “IPM”) helps to uncover divergent assumptions about the given story. Aligning around assumptions means less rework, and fewer unnecessary clarification conversations - which matters more when you can’t just walk over to the PM’s desk or shout across the room.

Collective ownership means shared context and the ability for anyone on the team to pick up the next story in the backlog or work on any part of the codebase. This enables efficient self-organization, with a pull versus push resource allocation model, and reduces the communication overhead that often serves as a bottleneck on remote teams.

Most importantly,  collective ownership also helps to foster a sense of being part of a greater purpose—a primal human need and one of the biggest challenges of working remotely.

Pairing by Longitude

Pair programming is one of the most fundamental aspects of XP, and the “glue” that makes all the elements of the practice work together. It brings focus and high team cohesion - and also makes working remotely much more social.

We tackle pair programming by time zoning: we cluster teams for at least six core hours where everyone is online. Pairing can still happen outside of those core hours, thanks to our friendly AI robots, and end-of-day asynchronous video recaps (in Loom) help with continuity.

That means our teams can work relatively normal hours, from home, with a level of quality conversation and collaboration that combats feelings of isolation. And we can grow faster by hiring globally, from a more diverse candidate pool, without sacrificing the effectiveness of our teams.

Feedback and High Fives

Knowledge and communication silos occur more often in remote organizations, which can make it more difficult to spot things that are not working well. XP-styled weekly retrospectives serve as a continuous constructive feedback loop, allowing the team to recognize issues before they become problems.

Better yet, they’re also a place for celebration, creating a sense of shared accomplishment and a feeling of closure for the week that takes the satisfaction of closing your laptop on Friday afternoon to another level.

Remote but Aligned

From an evolutionary perspective, humans are at their best when solving problems together in small groups. We’re hardwired for this, and we thrive on the feelings of shared purpose and recognition for our contributions. The outcomes exceed the sum of the parts.

When working together in an office, we get some of this effortlessly, even if we’re just sitting next to each other but working individually. That disappeared when we went remote, and we’ve all felt the effects of isolation.

XP is a framework that enables effective team communication and collaboration, and fosters a sense of shared purpose and connection through the values it espouses. This transcends physical boundaries, and makes remote work effective and sustainable.

It doesn’t replace the need to meet in person, at least occasionally. But when we do get together in person - even for the first time - there’s a very tangible sense of belonging, and it feels like we’ve known each other for years.

Will you be there at our next offsite? We’re hiring!

Conversation

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