The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Remote Software Development

October 22, 2020 Derrick Harris

Ah, the office. That place we arrive at after riding on a smelly train for 30 minutes, and where we get to share a bathroom with dozens of professional acquaintances. Or is it the place we arrive at after a brisk walk, and that helps us focus, collaborate with friendly co-workers, and provides free lunch and snacks? The reality is that it’s both—and probably everything in between—which is why the office closures forced by the current pandemic are so bittersweet.

In this episode of the Cloud & Culture podcast, we discuss the state of remote work (and, more specifically, remote software development) with Joe Moore and Paul Sullivan of VMware Pivotal Labs. Among other things, they discuss: their personal experiences working from home pre- and post-pandemic; how better tooling is facilitating better productivity for remote teams; and what parts of the current experience might live on even after offices reopen.

Keep reading for highlights from the episode and links to lots of resources for remote software teams.

Adapting on the fly to a whole new world

Paul Sullivan: “When I think about where we are today with being remote, I feel like that first phase was the uncanny valley phase. It was like we were taking all the things we wanted to do and just sprinkling a little Zoom on it. It was all the same rituals and all the same things, but it was happening through Zoom.

“And what I'm seeing teams are doing now, it's like I'm seeing some real innovation in not just sprinkling a little Zoom on it, but how are we rethinking some of these practices that hold true to the principles that we believe in, that underlie them, but acknowledging this new, crazy world we're living in, where people are homeschooling, they’re taking care of sick relatives and everyone's life has just been upended. So I've seen quite an evolution in how teams have adapted to this scenario over time.”

Making the most of meetings with Miro

Paul Sullivan: “Because the time that we're going to be spending together is by definition going to be less when people are dealing with all the fallout of the pandemic, the other trend I'm noting is … when we do get time together, when we are working on this really high-collaboration, high-value work, how are we making sure we're making the most out of that time?

“And some of the underpinnings of that has been toolings—there's a lot of really great cloud whiteboarding, cloud sketching tools that will give you a semblance of what it's like to do a super collaborative session together—so when we do get that time, when we do have a moment where we need to collaborate, how are we squeezing the most out of that time and how are we getting the right tools for the right job?

“For me personally, I do a lot of workshops with my clients. What I would usually do is get in the room, do all the workshops, and then I'd take pictures of all the things on the whiteboard, and then go back to the next day and do my deep thinking synthesis on, like, ‘What does this mean and how are we going to help this client?’

“And one of the things I love about this new world we're in is when I do a workshop in a tool like Miro, I have that artifact. I have no more pictures of whiteboards on my phone ... I don't have to go through and delete those anymore. That's a thing that came to mind for me of how we are taking these new constraints that we have to live with and turning them into new strengths so that we can be more efficient and help our clients better.”

Remote pair programming has benefits that will outlast COVID-19

Joe Moore: “It's no secret that VMware Pivotal Labs [is] very much about pair programming: You know, two programmers working together on the same problem to implement the best solution together, literally on the same computer. And then remote pair programming was doing that same thing, but across some kind of screen sharing and audio-video technology. And that worked well for, for years, and it's gotten better and better over time. 

“... I think that COVID, and we've talked about the flexibility people not just want, but need—people with kids at home, people with elderly parents, just the increased demands that the pandemic has put on people being at home—has meant that ... people's schedules might be all over the place. And something that has been observed recently is the idea of ‘mob’ programming, or some people call it ‘party’ programming, [where] you might have three or four people collaborating together on a problem. Maybe there's a really hairy problem and people are stuck or they can't decide on a solution, so they all join a programming session—four or five or more people all at the same time—and they're all working on the solution together. Some kind of in the backseat suggesting things, other people literally sharing a virtual keyboard, so to speak, writing code at the same time. 

“And the seamless nature of which you can jump between pairs. At my last project, I was in this role a lot where I would just sort of rotate throughout the day, dropping into other groups, helping unblock them if they were stuck, or just kind of seeing what they were doing. And I can kind of jump in and out of those scenarios a lot easier than I could if I was pulling up a physical chair and … we were all bumping elbows or something like that.”

Learn more

Resources for Remote Software Teams

Guides and Tips for Remote Agile Development

Miro Templates by VMware Pivotal Labs on Miroverse

About the Author

Derrick Harris

Derrick Harris is a product marketing manager at VMware.

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