When co-location isn’t an option

Our Thinking Thu 20th October, 2016

When co-location isn’t an option: Equal Experts’ approach to working offsite

At Equal Experts, the vast majority of our work is delivered within enterprise environments, with our teams working onsite with our clients.

We believe that working side-by-side with clients not only aids our understanding of the problems that need solving, it’s what enables digital transformation to take place where it really counts – within the client organisation.

That means working onsite is nearly always the most effective way to develop software, and consequently it’s an arrangement we seek to work to wherever we can.

Nevertheless, several factors (which we’ll go into in a moment) are driving organisations to explore alternative ways to develop software, and we follow other approaches at EE when appropriate. In most cases, this means some form of distributed development – where our delivery team is split between those working onsite and those working remotely (often nearshore/offshore, but not always; we have teams around the UK working on a single client).

Even when we do remote development – where the delivery team works together, offsite – we still aim to have some team members working onsite with the client as an anchor point, ensuring regular, open communication between client and team at all times. For this reason, fully flexible working isn’t something we recommend, as it becomes much harder to keep this high level of collaboration up.

As an example of the kinds of set-up we are increasingly seeing, we work with one of our clients at several delivery centres all around the UK – with over 50 separate agile teams working on the same common microservices platform. In other words, it’s co-located and distributed delivery, all at once. This has required us to continuously improve our own approach to distributed delivery.

What factors are driving distributed and remote development?

As mentioned above, there are several factors driving organisations to distribute their delivery across multiple locations (or move it offsite).

Much of the drive towards this is coming from clients. Firstly, as development headcounts continue to grow, it is becoming harder to attract the necessary amount of talent to a single geographic location. Putting delivery centres in multiple locations eases this problem and makes it easier to scale. On occasion, we have seen the issue of office space come into this equation, too – more people naturally require more physical space, and providing it all in one place is not always practical.

Speed and cost variables also tend to be more flexible if a client prefers offsite development. Extending the work beyond the client’s immediate location can make it easier to put together the right team more quickly, meaning delivery happens faster. Considering nearshore or offshore development can also help the client to reduce costs, but it’s important to take into account all the costs of offshore that can sometimes be less than obvious – the blended daily rate of the offshore team is not the only thing to consider!

Some of the push towards distributed delivery is coming from our own side. The growth of Equal Experts means our community now spans some 15 timezones (as far west as Calgary, and as far east as Melbourne – with offices in New York, London, Manchester, Lisbon and Pune in between). We want to facilitate as much collaboration and opportunity between our offices as possible, wherever they might be.

A better work/life balance

Human factors are also important in the shift towards more geographically dispersed work. As life becomes more complicated for many people and their families in the modern world, employers must cater for their new circumstances. This is a responsibility that any mature consulting organisation must face up to.

We’ve been pleased to note that, by offering more flexible working scenarios, we’re able to offer challenging and worthwhile opportunities to smart, experienced people who might otherwise have to count themselves out. Since we only hire people with significant experience and expertise, this allows us to welcome a more diverse array of people into our organisation – a wonderfully positive development. A mix of co-located and distributed opportunities can therefore help us offer a better work/life balance to more people (and continue to be a great place to work).

Equal Experts’ approach to distributed delivery

We’ve established the many good reasons behind why we increasingly find ourselves making software away from our clients’ offices. But we are very conscious that it must never come at the expense of quality.

Equal Experts has a head start here, since our hiring criteria requires people to demonstrate the interpersonal skills required for close collaboration; technical skills alone are not enough. It’s well established that the unit of delivery is the team, after all.

Beyond that, here’s how we combat the issues that some still associate with distributed working:

  • We reduce the impact of time difference – at Equal Experts, team members are empowered to make decisions wherever they happen to be. There is no ‘us and them’ between the onsite and offsite members of a delivery team, for example (or local/nearshore/offshore team members). A little trust and autonomy goes a very long way.
  • We prioritise cross-team communication – we use modern collaboration tools across our entire business, making a conversations simple and natural across locations. Our Slack network has around 8500 messages pinging across it each day, with over 1.75 million messages sent since we fired it up back in November 2014.
  • We use the right technology. With microservices and APIs playing an ever greater role in systems architecture, it has become easier to compartmentalise work into packages that provide real value. This allows more flexibility in where and how work is delivered, with no impact to quality. The UK-wide project we mentioned above is a case in point.
  • We never lower our hiring standards. We apply the same stringent criteria to our interview process, wherever that consultant will be working.
  • Our culture is important – everywhere. We’re proud of the culture we’ve developed over the years, and our people seem to like it, too. For successful Distributed Delivery, it’s crucial to have an identifiable company culture that translates well across locations, while being able to flex to local norms. Whether you work with us in Lisbon or London, New York or India, you’ll find the same mindset.

As we said at the outset, we still prefer co-location where possible. But when it isn’t, we are confident that we can still collaborate closely with our clients – and each other – to solve the problems facing their businesses.