Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part article. The second part can be found here: https://codemag.com/article/2011071

In this “Talk to an RD” column, Markus Egger and Dr. Neil Roodyn, two RDs sharing a long history and friendship, sat down virtually and had a rather thought-provoking discussion about the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. Both are involved with managing teams that are now working remotely more than before. Both are involved with customers facing the same issues. Let's listen in.

Markus Egger: How are things in Sydney?

Dr. Neil Roodyn: It's sunny in Sydney. I'm near the beach, which is a tough place to be. [laughs] Overall, in the scheme of where we are at this point, more than halfway through 2020, the Australian solution works out reasonably well for a lot of the challenges we've been encountering this year. I think it's important to remember that Australia really feels like we've been beaten up badly. We had fires and flooding and now the pestilence.

Markus: We have some CODE people in Australia. It feels like we'll be talking about locusts next.

Dr. Neil: Right! I guess the final thing is taking the firstborn males. But let's not get too side-tracked before we even get started [laughs]. All things considered, life is moving along. There've been a lot of changes. People are learning to work different ways.

Markus: Are you completely stuck at home? Can you go out and visit beaches and exercise and such?

Dr. Neil: Yes, we can go out here in Sydney. The government is now even trying to encourage people to go back into offices, but they are at the same time saying “if you can work from home, work from home.” So there's a little bit of mixed messaging in there?there has been through this whole process. You're told that you can go out to the beach and exercise as long as you're on your own or just with the people you live with. But then when you get to the beach, there's a huge sign saying “beach closed.” So are you allowed to or are you not allowed [to go to the beach]? [laughs] Then you call the council and they say, “you're allowed to, but the sign means you can't just sit on the beach, and you can't just go and play in the water. If you're exercising, that's fine. And there's a one-hour limit.”

That's all passed now. We're now allowed to do bigger group activities up to 10 people. It seems to be more and more relaxing. Restaurants are opening as long as there are social distancing rules and have seats spread out. You can sit at a table with the people you've come with as long as it's a group of 10 or less, but you have to be further spread out from other people than you normally would be.

Markus: Sounds very similar to how it is here [Markus was in Maui at the time of this conversation]. We're in a mode where a lot of places are allowed to open, but almost none of them are. Something like 95% of restaurants that can open are still closed. In fact, some of the ones that already opened up have closed down again.

Dr. Neil: It's similar here. A lot of places are still closed because it's not economically viable to open a restaurant. If you can only fit four tables into a restaurant space that previously fit 10, and you still have to have waitstaff and chefs, it just doesn't make sense. For some of the bigger places, I think it makes more sense and they seem to be doing quite well. There's also a certification process that the state government provides here [the New South Wales state government in Sydney] saying that a restaurant passed the Coronavirus Safe Location test. And that means they've validated that the staff has been trained on how to keep everything clean, how to handle people, how to make sure people are not standing too close together and are maintaining social distancing, and all the rest of it. You have to put in place hand sanitizers, access to sinks with hot water, and so forth, to ensure proper hygiene. They also do the same for other places, like gyms.

But I think for desk workers, people who can work from home need encouragement and support to be allowed to work from home.

Markus: I imagine it'll be somewhat of a lasting change going forward.

Dr. Neil: It certainly feels that way.

Markus: You know, when you think back a dozen years to the last big crisis, we optimized a lot of things. Perhaps we've gotten a little lackadaisical about that, but all in all, I feel we did optimize a lot of things. So now we're in this new crisis and we're all asked to optimize again. What can we optimize? It seems to me a) the expense and b) the overhead of having the commute to work. If you eliminate that, that can be a big productivity gain. I've now been pondering this for a while. That seems to be a big area of potential improvement.

Dr. Neil: I agree. I think it cuts two ways. One of the things I've been doing is trying to help different teams move to this culture. Historically, I've always been very big on development teams working in the same space and co-located because conversations happen that aren't planned that can add huge value. You overhear someone talking about some weird COM pointer error and you go “oh yeah, I used to know about that stuff. Let me see if I can help.” It's those kinds of transient activities that are not well planned that actually can be incredibly valuable.

There are also people who really enjoy going to work and being with their work peers in a world that's very different from their home life. You go home and you've got screaming children, or dogs that need feeding, or a spouse that needs your support and your love. It's a different environment. This separation of work life and home life?for some people?is very much how they've lived and how they enjoy it.

Markus: It's a whole separate social bubble. That's a very interesting point.

Dr. Neil: It is! And it's also a separate intellectual bubble. They may not get the intellectual stimulation at home in the same way they get at work, but they don't get the emotional stimulation at work the same way they get a home. They get pieces of what they need to fulfill themselves from different places in their lives. I think that's very, very normal. What I see is that people are missing out on pieces of that, where they can't go for lunch with someone who's super interesting and have a really deep conversation with them about some technical aspect or even something unrelated to their work. But there are other aspects. They may be computer programmers in the day, but very interested in ancient history and they go and have some conversation around something they were reading. They miss that connection with each other [when they only work from home]. I think there are both business and human aspects that we lose from being physically disconnected.

At the same time, I think we're amazingly lucky that this happened at this time and not 15 or 20 years ago because of the technology we have. This discussion between the two of us is a good example. You're in Hawaii. I'm in Sydney. We're having this real-time video chat conversation. We couldn't have done this to any degree back then.

Markus: And we can do it with a large group of people and in larger teams. For my organization [CODE Custom Software/Consulting and CODE Magazine], we used to be very traditional brick and mortar, but over the last six to eight years, we've transitioned into a virtual company. We still have a nice office. In fact, we just built out a whole new office that we haven't gotten to use, but overall, we've been set up to be virtual and we routinely do things like a virtual cocktail hour where you have a screen full of different video feeds. And that certainly would have been very difficult to do not very long ago.

Dr. Neil: I think it's the ad hoc, coffee machine, water cooler conversations, the overhearing other conversations where people may be struggling with something that you could help with, or you're just interested in finding out what the solution was. You may overhear something and go “well, I don't know what it is.” And then the next day you overhear that the problem was solved and you wonder how. And he says, “oh, well, Sue helped me because she had done it before.” And then you can find out an answer to something that you wouldn't necessarily know existed if you weren't in the same environment.

Markus: It's quite interesting when I think of my own company's set up. We went through considerable effort and expenses to bring people together a few times a year for no particular business reason, but just to get that personal connection going. And we very specifically invested in that. Just before this crisis emerged, we did a small internal conference where we brought everyone out to Hawaii, for instance. We do it at different locations at least once a year. I have no idea how that's going to continue in the future because we found that super valuable. Like you discover that your coworker has the same hobby as you do, and now you have a completely different connection.

But to switch gears a little: I know you've been very involved with things like eXtreme Programming going way back. I know you're involved with sizable organizations where you're now trying to move some of those things that were traditionally more of a “let's do a standup in a room” approach, and now you're helping organizations doing that digitally.

Dr. Neil: Most people have a scrum or an XP, like standups or doing a retrospective, as regular things in their calendar, where they play a planning game or work out what the next sprint is going to look like, or however they're doing it. Those aren't so challenging. It really wasn't that much of a big deal to get to “this is MS Teams and this is how you use it and this is how you use a whiteboard in Teams. This is how you share it.” Getting that kind of stuff up and running was pretty quick and easy.

In fact, there was one group of a couple of hundred developers that moved from working in the same building or same campus space. In the past, they could all, within a short walk, get to each other. We were able to move them to an online virtual workplace within a week. They're all technically capable, so obviously, they have a starting point. But a lot of them had not used the technology that we're now using every day. I think the more difficult aspect was trying to solve for how people connect with each other more readily.

Any group of people of any size is going to have some extroverts that have no problem with clicking the call button and randomly just talk to people. And then there are some introverts that aren't really comfortable contacting someone by pushing a button and feel they want to know whether that person is available to talk to or not. All the social cues that used to be there because you could look over and see that they're at their desk or going for a coffee are gone. I always tell them “just don't worry about it. They can always not answer.” In fact, even while I'm talking to you, I've got another screen here and someone from another team has pinged me. I just said, “I'm on a call.” Easy.

One interesting observation that I've made is that some people who were very reticent or introverted, who didn't want to go and talk to people before in the physical world and are now much more vocal in the virtual world because everybody is virtual. Now they can get in a chat room and they can talk about this, that, and the other and blah, blah, blah, blah.

Markus: Do you see those people communicate more in writing, such as chats, or oral and aural?

Dr. Neil: Both. With a large enough group of people, you're going to start to see these different aspects of how people react. To some people, it's not so scary now that they're on the other end of a screen rather than in-person. They feel more comfortable talking to each other. And that's interesting too, because maybe that's the kind of person that would be better spending more days working from home in the future, and maybe only come into the office once or twice a week when we go back to that normality. If we get back to that normality. Other people really miss being in the office. We just had a long weekend because Monday was a holiday. And I know on Friday there were some people, even though we're already seven months into this, who were going “well, what am I going to do on Monday?”

Dr. Neil: Yes [laughs]. There is some of that. It's also about teaching people that the informal activities are as valuable and sometimes more valuable than the formal activities.

Markus: Do you promote or use specific tools for that or a mixture of tools? I know you're using a lot of MS Teams. We use MS Teams and we also use Slack, Zoom, GoToMeeting, and others. We have a whole set of tools that we use and I often wonder if we shouldn't standardize more or whether we should stick with letting people choose what they feel they can be most productive with.

Dr. Neil: I've become a religious follower of MS Teams. I was using Zoom and BlueJeans for a couple of other teams and I got frustrated with them, partly because the platforms failed to scale very quickly when suddenly everyone was working from home in the first couple of weeks. I just thought, “who really has the ability to cope with this level of scale in infrastructure?” It seemed, through trial and error, that MS Teams was the one. I know a lot of people complain about it, but I really haven't had issues. I can quite easily swap among five tenants each day, having multiple calls and conversations, and just not struggle with it.

We get a lot of use out of Whiteboard in combination with MS Teams, especially when used with a digital pen.

The other tool that I use very heavily in Teams?even though it's technically outside of Teams?is Whiteboard. When you're working with a team and you want all the people to engage, Whiteboard works really well. I love using a pen. I'm a stylus kind of person and I've always been into the digital ink world.

Markus: Which is why we've known each other for ages.

Dr. Neil: That's right! We first met in the Tablet PC era.

Markus: That's right. We worked on digital ink and the first handwriting recognition.

Dr. Neil: I don't think it was the very first [use of handwriting], but it was the first on a Microsoft tablet. On Windows XP. [Laughs] Microsoft had a Pen for Windows that shipped on Windows 3.1 It was an additional product.

Markus: It was a little bit akin to the Apple Newton, probably.

Dr. Neil: Yeah. Kind of. It was in that era.

Markus: You got a lot of use out of that, I take it. [laughs]

Dr. Neil: Ummm….not so much. [laughs]. But it was interesting to me. I was attracted to it then because I'm the kind of person who thinks better with a pen in my hand than I do with my hands on a keyboard. It helps me think about what's going on and get my ideas down if I can just sketch.

We use Microsoft Whiteboard a lot. It runs on any Windows device and it runs on iPad. If you have a pen, you get the extra bit of nice functionality where you can engage. I think the other nice thing about Whiteboard is that, as different people are scribbling on the same whiteboard at the same time, you see their little icons popping up all over the screen.

You can track who's doing what. You can see a bigger picture emerge as multiple people scribble down. You can divide the page into columns and people can enter stuff in their own columns, or however you want to do it. You can create notes and move them around on the page. I found that a very useful free-form tool in the same way I've always liked having a whiteboard in a working space when I'm in the same room as someone. It encourages that wider conversation. I think sharing screens fluidly and being able to share screens between different people in the conversation is also very powerful. People want to share, whether it's a new UI they're designing or they want to have a conversation around some plan they've put together. Just being able to do that in Teams has been powerful.

Bringing in guests is also very powerful. Knowing that you can lock MS Teams down to people within your organization, but you can have teams where you can bring in guests in a controlled fashion is another aspect of it. There are lots of pieces of the puzzle that connect together to make what I've found to be a very useful toolkit that MS Teams has presented.

Markus: I believe you can use the Whiteboard product whether you use Teams or not, is that correct?

Dr. Neil: Yes. The Whiteboard product isn't attached to Teams. It's a separate product. It's attached to Active Directory. Most of the organizations I work with are enterprise-scale organizations. They have their own Office365, so we work with those inside their firewall, logged in as an AD under their domain.

Markus: Most people already have a license for it because it's part of Office.

Dr. Neil: Right. Microsoft made big move to make it free for everyone during this period. So that's made it useful too, in that if I have a team that's not necessarily hooked into the Microsoft ecosystem, I can add them as guests into my domain and bring them in to conversations.

Markus: That brings us right back to people working from home and wanting it to stay that way, which gets into discussions such as how you know what your employees are up to at what point in time, and then how much do you want to know and how much should you know, and how do you monitor productivity and productivity versus hours worked. What do you make of all that?

Dr. Neil: I think that's super interesting, especially in the kind of businesses that you and I are in, which are really creative businesses. Creative output isn't something that you measure by how much time is spent sitting in front of the screen. One of the most incredible developers I ever worked with probably spent more time on his back on a sofa than he did typing on the computer. He did a lot of thinking and then he would do some furious typing and then he would go back to thinking. And his code was insanely good, insanely high quality, with very few defects ever found in the code that he wrote. But he's not someone you'd measure based on how many lines of code he'd written or how many hours he spent in front of the keyboard.

You're not typing a document that you already know or that's being dictated into your head. You're thinking of new ways of solving problems. That's a very hard thing to measure in hours anyway. If you're of the mindset that you need to have people sitting behind their desk for a certain period of time, that's probably based on some incorrect assumptions to start with. Even with pure data entry, you're not really getting the most value out of workers that way.

Some of the teams I've been working with?and I like to think that it has to do with me supporting them over the years?had in place a bunch of measurements that help them understand how their dev team was doing. It could be things like defect counts. You know, very simple high-level things like “how many defects do we have reported a month?” or “how quickly are we fixing these defects?” or “what's the severity of the defect?” Is it severity zero where the whole system doesn't work? Is it severity 12 and it really doesn't matter if no one ever fixes it? Just measuring those things is a good starting point, but there are other things you can measure.

Teams that already had a lot of measurement in place when they moved into work from home transitioned quite smoothly because their productivity was very clear. We saw some spikes in productivity initially, which was interesting. People were like “oh, well, I don't have to commute now. I'll just do an extra half hour or an extra hour. I'll be sitting in my pajamas coding, but who cares?” And all of that turned out to be a positive.

Markus: I find that part highly interesting, because we tend to think of a work week as roughly 40 hours. A little more in the US, a little less in Europe. Whatever. But productivity output is not necessarily proportional to that. Whatever the case might be, we think of it as a 40-hour week. When you really think about it, the average worker probably spends about 60 hours on things related to work, whether it's the fact that you had to drive in to work or take an hour for lunch. There was really no reason to be in town for lunch other than work. Or the fact that we had to drop the kids off at daycare. That takes an hour a day. I think 60 hours is much closer to the real number that people spend “at” work. If you say, “let's reduce that to 50, but we get an extra 10 productive hours out of you,” that's a win-win for everyone.

Dr. Neil: Yeah. Although again, it depends on the kind of work you're doing. There's work with intention where I'm actually sitting here at my desk, thinking about a problem, trying to fix something, trying different things, coding different tests, making them pass. And then there's “sleep programming,” if you want to call it that, where I'm away, but my brain hasn't totally switched off. Although I'm not consciously thinking about this particular problem I'm trying to solve, my unconscious is still working through it. Software development, if you're really into the project that you're building, is the kind of thing that you might wake up at two in the morning and go “that's what I need to do!”

So what do you do? Do I bill my customer from 6:00 p.m. until two in the morning where it was ticking in the back of my head even though I played the guitar and watched TV and put the kids to bed or whatever? Do you bill for that as well? Clearly something was happening in the back of your brain that made you wake up at two in the morning with that sudden breakthrough idea that's worth a lot. It's interesting that so many companies measure software development by those traditional 40-hour weeks.

I've had lots of conversations with different product teams and senior leaders about this over the years, because I think it's very broken. We want solutions, outcomes. It's not a new thing. Google has been doing it for a very long time. Actually, it originally came from Andy Grove and Intel. The “objectives and key results” concept, where you have high-level objectives for your year and you have a set of key results that you're measured on, maybe quarterly. If you have the kind of business where you can set out those bigger goals and have some measurements over time, you can give people much more freedom because they understand “this is what I'm being measured on” and they can go away and think about it.

If that means the best way for them to do that is to lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling for two weeks while they think about the problem and then furiously solve something and then lie on the floor for two weeks and furiously solve something, that's fine. And there are different types of people who'd prefer to slowly plod their way through the activity to get to those results. Measuring those goals and the success of reaching those goals is much more valuable than measuring how many lines of code he wrote or was she typing today or did she open Visual Studio today? Who cares, as long as you're getting the result that you're looking for? Maybe you didn't open Visual Studio for two days, but then maybe you coded solid for 70 hours. How do you measure that? There are people who work that way. I think productivity is a very difficult thing to measure. You need bigger goals and you need different levels of measurement. The teams that did well in their initial move to work-from-home were the teams that had more things being measured.

Markus: That's definitely something that will be interesting to watch over the next few years. You do need to measure as a business. We can't just trust all workers to be great. You need to evaluate it and make sure you get the kind of results that you want. As a business owner, I don't have any silver bullets at this point. I certainly have a pretty good feel for how some of my people are doing at home.

I think it depends a lot on the roles people play. For me, at least as a manager, keeping track is much easier with creative people such as software developers. I also run other businesses?a magazine, an escrow company, and a few things like that. How do I evaluate the performance of my customer service department working from home? By customer satisfaction, probably, but then how do I measure that whole interaction exactly? I think that's an area where there's huge potential for optimization for businesses going forward.

Dr. Neil: You use Office365, right? Do you get a report every two weeks or a monthly report of your activities in Office?

Markus: Yeah.

Dr. Neil: I think those kinds of things are already starting to be built into the tools. You get things such as “who am I collaborating with?” or “who am I talking to?” Also, how much time have I spent in meetings versus my focus time? The question is: How do you measure those things?

Markus: And how well do those tools integrate all the things you do versus just the Microsoft view of the world?

Dr. Neil: As we start getting more of this into dashboards, we can start rolling it up into bigger pictures of what people are doing. It will allow us to understand that “oh, this person is a communicator and look how much time they're spending, helping other people online in Visual Studio.” In Visual Studio Live Share, I can track how many people in a dev team use it, how many hours they used it, and what kind of activity they did. Am I seeing better results now that they're using Live Share? I think there's a lot of interesting stuff that we already have the ability to capture. As we start doing that, we'll find other aspects of what we're doing that are just as important.

The reality is that when we all worked in a single office, I had less of an idea of how productive my team was than I do in a distributed, virtual setup today.

Markus: One aspect that I find interesting is that people tend to think that because of the situation we're now in, all of this is going to change because everybody wants to work from home, and that reduces the ability to manage and oversee. But when I think back to the days where we literally worked just a brick and mortar company with everybody in one building across multiple floors and everybody went to work in the morning in a very traditional set up, I probably had less of an idea as to how productive people were or whether they were browsing the Internet while at work than I do today.

Dr. Neil: Yeah. I think that's true. A lot of that depends on how your team engages. It's about whether they're the kind of people who will reach out to you because you're not in the office. I think your culture had already started to adapt to that prior to this situation, because you were already moving to a set-up where you wanted the ability to hire the best people no matter where they were located. You were in Hawaii and you had people in Texas and in Europe, and so you were already moving to this more distributed set-up.

Markus: It was out of necessity back then as well, because we simply wanted to hire good people from around the world and certainly across the US, and people were less and less excited about moving to Houston.

Listen, I used up a lot of your time already. I don't want to take away from your productivity, although maybe in the back of your mind, you're thinking about other development problems and solved them by now. [laughs].

Dr. Neil: [laughs] Actually I've just finished this… no. Just kidding.

Markus: You and I used to get together in person all the time and have great discussions. I miss that. Hopefully we'll be able to get back to that again.

Dr. Neil: I think we will. It's going to change and it's probably going to be a lot less often going forward, because a lot of us are being a lot more cautious about travel too.

Markus: Maybe. Maybe we'll start valuing those travel opportunities more as well. Maybe my days of 48 hours in Australia can change to once a year and stay a month or two instead.

Dr. Neil: I've often valued spending more time in places than just going for a week or two weeks. By being somewhere for two or three months, you get a lot more value than just rushing off again like we used to do.

Markus: It's definitely true. Well, anyway, thank you very much for your time. This was an exciting talk.

Dr. Neil: Absolutely. Awesome. Thank you very much too.

Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part article. The second part can be found here: https://codemag.com/article/2011071