December 8th, 2011
Last night I listened to the latest episode of Software Engineering Radio, "Distributed Scrum", with Rini van Solingen. Having worked on open source projects and having mentored in Google Summer of Code for three years, I've had my share of distributed teams, but I have never done distributed Scrum, so I was interested.
I've heard of Rini van Solingen through Jeff Sutherland's translation of his book "The Power of Scrum". It's not your generic Scrum book, it is novel with a proper narrative. Rini described that a fiction book is better suited at managers as stories appeal more to them than theory. Also, it doesn't focus on the artifacts of Scrum, but on the effects. I haven't read it, but it's supposed to be a quick two hour read.
At the start of the show the host and Rini tried to define what distributed really means. There were different approaches, I agreed with the criteria a distance over 30 meters. It doesn't really matter if you are 30 meters or 3000 kilometers apart, your chance of collaboration is highly diminished beyond a few meters.
Rini argued that this gap can be bridged by lowering the perceived distance. For example he mentioned Sococo, a company that offers virtual offices, where people hook up with their headphones and microphone, and whenever they enter a virtual room, they only hear the people who are also in this very room. You can also put up information radiators like Scrum or Kanban boards in these virtual offices. I would really love to try that.
You also have to take cultural differences into account. I learned this through Google Summer of Code, where some students were rather polite than honest. At that time, I wasn't really aware of this being a cultural thing.
So what did I learn, with respect to Scrum? The focus should be on the people, not the artifacts. Rini even said that he favored having a Scrum board in every location instead of just a single one, so the teams are forced to keep each other up to date. First and foremost, letting the team work things out for themselves seems to be more promising then imposing rules and reglementation.
In the end, face to face time is still crucial according to Rini. I laughed at his quote, that a group of people is not a team unless they got drunk in the same location at the same time. When I think of conferences or code sprints I have been to, this rings a bell. There is no technology yet that can replace sharing a common experience in real life.