Delivering a Cross-Site Project

by Dr. John Hannon - 7 Nov 2016

You may have heard recently from one of the many media outlets about the launch of Collabary, the content creator platform from Zalando. This showcases the perfect merger of enriched data with a high quality frontend application.

In this blog post I’d like to give my lessons learnt from being part of the team involved in this project, based here in Dublin. It’s always good to start with a short history lesson to get everyone up to speed.

At the start of the quarter my team, Labrador, heard about a prospective project that needed some crawling technology to help it acquire data. If we chose to be part of it, we would be inheriting a project SLA from another team with a launch date already set in place. This scenario was daunting, and being a small team of two we knew our only possibility to achieve this goal would be to heavily align our OKRs with the purpose of doing whatever was needed to get this project ready and out the door.

Some of the other lessons that helped keep us on target and focused were:

Get to Know the Stakeholders

Why are we building the project? Who needs it? What needs to be done? All of these questions needed to be asked face to face. In our case we hadn't heard of the project and didn't know fully what was needed.

We traveled to Berlin, had a whiteboarding session, put faces to names, and started building relationships with the stakeholders who we would be working closely with over the next few months.

Communication, Communication, Communication

It goes without saying that distance is a huge barrier in communication. We knew we would need a mechanism to filter down requirements, discuss bugs, ask general questions, and be open about current progress.

To allow communication to flow we used a few technologies: Hangouts were used for our daily stand-ups, we created a dedicated room on HipChat to raise issues, ask questions, and chat off topic (it’s not all about work!), and occasionally when we needed to take things offline and write down a set of Specs/decisions, Google Docs served us well.

Process

Process, process, process. It doesn't matter what your process is, it only matters that you have one and it's trackable and measurable. For instance, our colleagues in Berlin did Scrum, had Sprints, used JIRA, and were aided by a Producer, whereas on our side we used a flavor of Kanban that we evolved to suit our needs, using a lightweight Trello board and having meetings only when needed. In practice this worked out really well.

At our daily cross-team standups, we could respond and act immediately on a feature request and pull it into our current workday if we had capacity, or give an ETA when we could start. Having daily standups gave us the medium to discuss blockers, progress, or any other business that cropped up.

Pressure

You don’t want too much pressure, but just enough to give you focus. Having a delivery date as a target allows for prioritisation, strategic planning, and an immense urgency to get s*** done. Pressure, once managed, can be channeled into a focus factor with huge possibilities.

In this project there were many sources from which to draw this pressure. The product was being pitched and a launch date was already in place. One of our founders was backing the idea behind the project and getting it out to market first before our competitors, thus gaining market share was paramount. Pressure can often be seen as a negative if too large, but having the right amount along with a solid process means that teams can do amazing things in a short amount of time.

Celebrate

Celebrate the wins big and small. Launching a product is the perfect excuse to celebrate, but closing out tickets and clearing a backlog are also opportunities to celebrate small wins. We started to go for coffee and cakes in the afternoons, which increased our team spirit, cleared our heads to refocus, and increased my waist size but, that’s an aside!

As a team we went for drinks, praised each other's efforts, and we did our weekly wins in front of our office. All of the small wins topped up the tank and powered us on for that bit longer. Finally, our Collabary colleagues from Berlin arrived in October for a planning session and we definitely made the time to celebrate our wins then too!

Fin

Take what you want from the above lessons. These aren’t anything new or ground breaking and you may even find them in a textbook or two. Having said that, these few simple things allowed us to align our goals, produce software at speed, and be agile enough to incorporate change.

This isn’t the end of the collaboration and as we come into the next quarter we look forward to continuing the partnership and the possibilities that lay in front of us.

If you’d like to get in touch about our experience with a cross-site project, you can contact me on Twitter at @johnhenryhannon.

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