Friends from Foes:

Integrating an International Software Development Team

It is August, 480BCE. The air is dusty, cracking lips and parching throats. Crammed onto a narrow road between mountains and sea are thousands of men, chatting to each other in a dozen different languages.  

This vast body of men has conquered its way from modern-day Iran all the way to Greece. In three days, a combination of Egyptian spearmen, archers from the Black Sea, Syrian sailors and Iranian heavy infantry will burst past a disparate coalition of Greeks and stand poised to conquer the known world.  

It seems then that international co-operation is older than history itself. Why then is it so difficult to make an international software development organisation work?  

There are problems with making software development work wherever employees are based. However, there do seem to be consistent problems peculiar to global teams. Let’s look at the three most significant issues.

 

 

Bad Communication

Everyone has been on those Skype calls. It has taken days to find a time that works for everyone; at the last minute a key player has cancelled. The product owner starts to speak, to ask questions and then nothing. Silence. He feels he is giving an undergraduate lecture. No one is responding. No one is challenging or coming up with new ideas.  

Four thousand miles away the developers are on the same call, not knowing why they’re doing what they’re being asked to do, and not feeling there is space to add their opinions.  

Everyone is communicating without empathy, talking in their own natural style. One person might think the team is unengaged when the team thinks they are listening. Another person might think someone is rude when that other person believes they are sparring with the team to improve the solution. After every call, the team leaves feeling frustrated, confused and demoralised, it won’t be long until those communication issues balloon into something destructive. The problem isn’t different nationalities, it’s conflicting cultures; sometimes co-operating workplace cultures from the same street also suffer.  

Watermelon Reporting

Everything is fine until it isn’t. The project manager has provided clear instructions, at every sprint meeting functionality is demoed and seems to work fine. This time, this project, things are going to go well.  

The product manager decides to show his great work to the wider organisation at a lunchtime meeting. The room smells of peppermint chewing gum and stale coffee. The product loads up onto the screen, and it looks beautiful. The product manager logs in. 

Nothing happens.  

The product manager tries again. It just gets worse. Animations don’t happen, and static images shake like iPhone apps about to be deleted. A full code review reveals a project that is months behind where it should be. Everyone, including the development team, is at a loss to explain how this happened.  

That is watermelon reporting, the symptom of poor communication and one other problem, commonly found when working with an international team: ‘the stranger phenomenon’.

 

 

The Stranger Phenomenon

‘The stranger phenomenon’ is where the project manager might know the name and the picture of the people supposedly building this business-critical functionality, but otherwise, that person is an unkno2n. You get a report from them once a week, they are quiet but polite on the phone and, even if their work is good quality, the development experience is transactional and unenjoyable. The project lead doesn’t want to push them, to ask them questions, because the project lead doesn’t know ho2.   

How can you work with someone that you don’t know?  

All three of these issues stem from the same problem. No one believes they are working towards the same goal. Furthermore, the ‘team’ does not have its own culture; the little jokes that break the tension, nicknames for each other or codewords for different functionalities.  

Wouldn’t it be brilliant if there was a solution that built amazing teams across the globe that worked as they promise? ProArch agrees, and that’s why we built TeamX.

At the heart of TeamX by ProArch is a concept called ‘Coaching for Brilliance’. It is more than the usual ‘cultural training’, which teaches people to think that believing lazy stereotypes is enlightenment. Instead, it is about getting the whole team together, in one physical space. It is about having meals together, drinking beers around a whiteboard together, architecting new solutions together.  

How do you integrate an international software development team?   

Make sure they’re a team.

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