SXSWi 2010: Long-distance teaming with Google

Working remotely doesn't have to leave you feeling alone

From South by Southwest Interactive 2010: Google's Lisa Kamm and Alex Cook lay out their long-distance user experience for you.


Scott Laningham (, developerWorks Podcast Editor, IBM developerWorks

Scott LaninghamScott Laningham, host of developerWorks podcasts, was previously editor of developerWorks newsletters. Prior to IBM, he was an award-winning reporter and director for news programming featured on Public Radio International, a freelance writer for the American Communications Foundation and CBS Radio, and a songwriter/musician.

12 March 2010

developerWorks: We're here at South by Southwest Interactive 2010. I'm Scott Laningham from developerWorks with also Turbo Todd Watson. Hey, Todd, how are you doing?

Turbo: I am so happy to be back at South by Southwest Interactive. There's lots of people here this year, Scott.

developerWorks: You called me down. I was somewhere else, but you just heard this talk by Lisa Kamm, who is sitting here with us, and also Alex Cook, and thought it would be great to take a moment to speak with them.

Listen to this podcast.

Listen to Lisa and Alex's session at SXSWi.

You can "experience" the Google User Experience.

You can hear more about Lisa Kamm's philosophy of user experience design in this podcast; her Google profile.

Follow Alex Cook on Twitter.

They were talking about long-distance user experience, something that our audience obviously is greatly interested in and you and I, working from home as we do. So why don't you help us kick this off here. We've got a few minutes with them.

Turbo: Well, I mean, the reason I wanted to speak with Lisa, in the spirit of full disclosure, I know Lisa, but I also found the talk really interesting because this has been very topical recently at IBM®. We have a lot of folks in our Web organization that I work with that we're trying to manage projects, people, all over the globe.

And I think all of us are challenged with the spatial issues, the temporal issues of dealing with different time zones ... all of those things. And how do we kind of document and work with using our own technology and other technology.

So that's really how I wanted to kick this off. So maybe if Lisa could just tee up a little bit about first of all, why the session? It sounds like there's a lot of others dealing with this. But then how you guys at Google are really tackling this.

developerWorks: Lisa, what is your title there anyway, just so everybody knows?

Kamm: Hi. I'm a UX, user experience manager at Google. I manage the folks in New York and the other East Coast offices who work on user experience issues. So my team to begin with is distributed across many different offices.

And I do this presentation with Alex, who works in California, who technically I don't work with on anything whatsoever and don't work in the same office with. But we were traveling on a joint project and thought that how we've worked together, how we've worked with other people remotely, and how teams can work together remotely as a general thing would be a great topic to cover because we struggle with it. We've put a lot of thought into what are the best approaches and we've seen other people struggle with it as well. And we have lots of hard-earned knowledge often from making mistakes.

So anything we can do to prevent other people from some of these challenges we thought would be a good thing.

developerWorks: And Alex, your background in this?

Cook: So I work out in California. And I was actually working in a project in New York where Lisa was working and some of the people I was collaborating with directly reported to her. So I was spending a lot of time out there traveling a lot back and forth and I've had some other projects at Google where I got to go some really cool places like Zurich and London and get to work with some remote teams.

And the traveling has been fantastic, but there can be a lot of difficulty communicating with the teams and keeping in touch remotely. And so along the way working on the last projects, we picked up a couple things. Lisa was great to have around because we were able to talk about how the project was going.

And we basically came up with a couple of things that we thought were really important that we wanted to share with people. So we started bouncing the idea off people internally and people said "you know, that would be a cool talk. You guys should really go for it."

Turbo: I guess I would ask the question of all the things you talked about in the session, what would be some of your top five best practices or ways of thinking about to go this better?

Kamm: Well I think the very top point is figure out the best way to communicate and do it by meeting with your team, understanding your team's likes, dislikes, needs, schedules ... all of those sorts of things. It's not enough just to look at the time zone map, but ask when they like to meet. You know, have the basic communication. That's the first, foremost, and most important take away ... is communicate. And that includes about communication style and how you want to communicate. It's painful overhead, it's never the fun part of the working together you remember, is the figuring out how best to communicate. But if you do it up front, it makes such a difference to all the rest of the projects and all the rest of the things you work on.

Cook: I think the big thing is that we want to be designing products, we don't want to be talking about designing products. So anything we can do to move the conversation toward what we actually want to be doing because designing products is a really, really hard thing. It's not going to be easy. And if we can get some of these challenges from location and time out of the way, then we can focus on the problems that we really need to solve.

Turbo: Is it okay to sleep in a globalized environment like this? Are we allowed to sleep?

Kamm: Absolutely. We're not going to comment on the fact that many of our offices have nap rooms, so ... [LAUGHTER]

... you may not always sleep your normal local hours, depending on what works for you, what works for your team, but yes, absolutely, sleep's critical, schedule it in.

Cook: I'm going to have to channel Keith Richards here and say "I'll sleep when I'm dead."

Turbo: Mr. Palmisano, are you listening, nap rooms at IBM. In terms of technology which we all share an affinity for at this conference, what are some of the tools ... being Google I imagine there's some great Google tools that you're using, but what and how are you using to help effectively share information with your distributing colleagues?

Kamm: I'm sure this is going to shock you but we use a lot of Google tools. Some of the tools we use that are publicly available and are available to everyone, some of them are obvious. We use Gmail, we use Google Chat, we use Google Video Chat, we use sites, we use all of the applications.

Some teams are relying on Waves, some teams prefer email lists. It really depends on where they are in the project, who they are. Instant Messenger, Google Chat ... I mean that's the one that keeps coming up as the one I use ... I'm on constantly in Gmail.

But I don't know what I'd do without shared documents and shared spreadsheets and shared applications and Google sites to serve as our repositories and just the fact that it is less in less than 10 seconds you can create a new Web site and put all the stuff you need on it and need to share up there and anyone internally can get to it.

And that's something that we have to make available publicly as well, so it's not ... it's a product we've gotten we use internally every single day. But it's a public product too.

developerWorks: I was going to say Google docs. I mean, I don't know how much I really should expose how much I use it and we use it at work.

Turbo: I use a lot of Google products. This is a Google commercial from IBM.

No, I mean, we all use various technologies which is why I asked the question. There was one tip I really felt like was a nice best practice that I want to highlight for this audience and it seems so simple but I'm telling you I've seen it time and again especially in our groups. There's so much information around.

And you said we keep all the assets on a project at that single URL so that no matter what they're looking for, if it's associated with that project, it can be found there. I mean, that's pretty simple but it's important when you could be wasting all this time emailing basic design scopes or whatever all over the place.

Cook: I mean, in general what we want to do when we make design projects is we want to get as much feedback on them as possible and we need to find ways to get that feedback faster from everyone involved to be able to incorporate their comments and to make better designs and having the shared URL and the shared project site repositories really makes a big difference for us.

I think a big thing for anyone who is working in a distributed fashion is to think about what the other person on the other side of the phone or the other side of the screen is thinking:

  • What did they have to do to make that meeting?
  • How did they have to get there?
  • What are they doing to get their deliverables to you so that they can make the best product possible?

And the fact that we can have global collaboration now is just awesome.

developerWorks: Scott Laningham and Todd Watson at South By Southwest 2010 with Lisa Kamm and Alex Cook from Google. Thank you, guys, very much.

Kamm: Thank you.

Cook: Thank you.



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ArticleTitle=SXSWi 2010: Long-distance teaming with Google