Inspired by the Better Software magazine article, "Make Your Tele-team Work," I spoke in more detail with Nanda Lankalapalli about what it's like to be a virtual team member and what it took to create a "Virtual Nanda."
In their May/June 2011 Better Software magazine article, “Make Your Tele-team Work,” Lisa Crispin and Nanda Lankalapalli recount their experiences with building distributed teams that work. When Nanda moved to India, the team set up a device, the “Virtual Nanda,” that enables him to engage with team members almost as if he were in the same room.
Heather Shanholtzer: Who came up with the idea for the “Virtual Nanda”? What devices and tools were used to build it?
Nanda Lankalapalli: Lisa Crispin picked up the idea from some other team, and we customized it to our requirements. We used a laptop and connected a highly sensitive microphone and a webcam to it. We set up all the devices on a cart that could be rolled to wherever we want. We use Skype (premium) for video chatting, and VNC is installed for remote login. We talked about connecting to Internet through WiFi so that we didn’t have to plug into an Ethernet socket, but didn’t do it.
Heather Shanholtzer: What is your role on the team? Do you think this role lends itself to a virtual presence? Do you think anyone could work virtually like this, or are some roles better adapted to it than others?
Nanda Lankalapalli: I am one of the senior developers of the team. I know the system very well—as well as the team. I managed this team for four years before I moved to India. So, I can easily connect with what anyone is talking about.
In our article, Lisa and I discuss various factors that affect who could telecommute. This device solves only the communication issue with tele-members. However, there are other factors like trust, cultural differences, etc.
Heather Shanholtzer: In what ways has this kind of “presence” improved or simplified your day-to-day work? Are there ways in which it has made things more difficult?
Nanda Lankalapalli: I can be there for meetings whenever I want without the help of the team. I can call (just shout) to someone if I need to talk to them. I can look around sometimes to just feel that I am part of that team. On the other hand, I need to have the computer turned on beforehand. If I notice that it is not up, I ask someone to bring it up.
Heather Shanholtzer: Since your group began using Virtual Nanda, how has your relationship with your teammates changed?
Nanda Lankalapalli: I knew the team very well prior to when I moved to India. We did “video conferences” on Skype prior to having this machine setup, also. So, in my case, there was not lot of change in relationship with the people. However, now I can see whomever I want, while they are speaking. This makes me feel that I am more engaged.
Heather Shanholtzer: As the remote team member, do you take on more of the responsibility of staying connected with the collocated team members or do they?
Nanda Lankalapalli: Both the team and I take the responsibility. The team makes sure that the laptop that is used for Virtual Nanda is up and connected to the Internet, etc. I make sure that I am available for any meetings, discussions, etc. So, the protocol is that if everything is fine, I will just be there for meetings I should be in.
Heather Shanholtzer: This setup seems to work well with you as the sole telecommuter, but do you think the same technology would work if you needed to include multiple virtual teammates?
Nanda Lankalapalli: It works OK with more than one tele-member. Using a Skype premium account, we could do video conferencing with multiple members. If there are too many tele-members, more than one virtual presence device needs to be set up. This might require some coordination ahead of the time for any meetings.
Heather Shanholtzer: Do you think virtual teammates are better suited for agile projects or would they work in a traditional development environment as well?
Nanda: Lankalapalli This setup is definitely more suited for agile projects since communication is critical for the success of the project. In traditional projects, the team could use this device and communicate more. A traditional project could also use some of the agile practices to achieve better success.
Heather Shanholtzer: If resources weren’t an issue, what one tool or technology would you incorporate to improve your virtual persona?
Nanda Lankalapalli: First thing to make sure of is that you have good network bandwidth. When I am on Skype as well as connected through VNC, Virtual Nanda suffers from bandwidth issues. I would probably look for an alternative to VNC also.
Heather Shanholtzer: What’s the one piece of advice you would give to a team that is trying to set up a virtual team member?
Nanda Lankalapalli: Go for high-quality equipment like a highly sensitive microphone and wide-angle camera, etc. Without these, the experience won’t be that great.
Nanda Lankalapalli is an architect, Certified Scrum Practitioner, and an agile coach. He builds and leads high performance teams and is an active contributor to the agile community. Nanda is one of the founders of Agile Hyderabad user group and has spoken at several agile conferences organized in Hyderabad, India. Nanda is part of ePlan Services and telecommutes from India.