Managing Distributed Software Development


Distributed development teams are becoming the norm for today's software projects. In lieu of close physical interaction, distributed teams are faced with the challenge of keeping software projects on track and keeping remote developers involved. This article provides some suggestions for keeping distributed software teams in touch and on target.

In my first years of software development, the term "distributed development" didn't exist. At the mainframe company where I worked, every developer on a given project was in the same building, often with offices located along the same hall. My manager typified the belief that close-in development was good, often saying that communication breaks down at about thirty feet. Every member of our team was within shouting distance.

Today, this kind of centrally located development is rare, even strange. The pervasiveness of broadband Internet access allows developers to work remotely in small offices and even at home. Through acquisitions and mergers, geographically dispersed teams are continually divided and recombined to form projects based on developer availability and talent. Furthermore, the economies of the "global village" increasingly motivate companies to make the most of resources across time zones and continents. Distributed development is now firmly planted in our lexicon.

Distributed development raises some questions. Can distributed teams develop software as effectively as centrally located teams? How can team members achieve effective communication and coordination when they don't meet face-to-face? What tools and techniques can team leaders encourage to counteract distance, keep projects on schedule, and verify software quality metrics?

This article will provide some suggestions for keeping distributed software teams in touch and on target. In order to be effective, some techniques require buy-in and active participation by every team member. In other cases, planning and oversight on behalf of team leaders produce the best results.

Communication Is Key
Despite their geographic separation, distributed developers need to stay in constant contact. Conference calls and email are basic and important ways that should be used regularly. Even when time zone differences require some team members to participate during unusual hours, there is still no substitute for talking to each other.

However, today the networked team has some new choices to consider as well:

Threaded Discussions: Many software tools facilitate newsgroup-like discussions that allow multiple developers to communicate asynchronously on any topic. Better than email, threaded discussion tools focus debates on specific issues and save the dialog for later use. Some tools can link discussions to specific projects, tasks, or other development assets.

Instant Messaging: IM is starting to find its way into the business world as a valuable tool. Lower friction than the telephone, yet more interactive than email, IM is valuable for asking a quick question or holding an informal chat. Like threaded discussions, many IM tools can save dialogs for later review. To avoid privacy concerns of IM messages traversing public networks, teams should consider an IM tool that can be deployed on the corporate intranet.

Blogging: Web logging or "blogging" is the process of instant publishing to a Web page. "Blogs" typically contain short messages that follow a chronological order. Blogging was created by individuals wishing to chronicle daily work, personal experiences, or just random streams of consciousness. Like IM, blogging is beginning to find its way into the corporate setting. Team members can use blogging to publish their progress, and the Web interface makes it easy for everyone to see each other's notes.

Web Conferencing: When real-time communication is needed, conference calls can be significantly enhanced with Web conferencing. Web conferencing can be used for group presentations, interactive planning and review, and even unstructured brainstorming sessions. Both pay-for-use Web conference services and commercial software products that can be centrally installed are available. Depending on the software, Web conferencing products may include collaboration features such as white boarding, file sharing, instant messaging, and cooperative editing.

Depending on bandwidth availability, teams may also want to consider emerging technologies such as

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