Sentinel has team members in the UK, Spain and mostly in Serbia where the design and development teams reside.

In this article we review the kind of tools required for a business model that is becoming more and more commonplace, since it allows companies like Sentinel to drive down the operating costs and compete in an ever more competitive environment. To achieve an optimum level of efficiency in all senses, including time and cost of sale, the team must be able to operate as if they were all in the same building. There are a number of tools to facilitate this:

Skype (www.skype.com)

The latest version of Skype now allows group chats, including contacts on landlines or mobile who are called into the group via Skype Out. Group conversations can even have screen-share and live video now, too, which is perfect for demonstrations or “white board” sessions.

Team Viewer (www.teamviewer.com)

This tool is superior to Skype in that it has better quality screen sharing and far more control over who can control the target machine. This is clearly more useful for interactive working sessions, presentations and so on. Audio also works fine although sometimes we have had to revert to TeamViewer visuals with a separate group Skype call for the audio. Be sure to switch off computer sounds (option appears at the top centre of the screen when you move your mouse near) to avoid echo.

Atlassian Confluence (https://www.atlassian.com/software/confluence)

With all these conversations and documents, you ultimately need to choose a central location to store all your knowledge. We moved (very) quickly away from file system or shared document repositories and have used Confluence for the last few years (previously we used TRAC).

If you do not have a knowledge base somewhere, get one set up as a matter of urgency. Email is not an information store. It is purely a transport mechanism for notifications and communications. Any decisions arising from an email conversation thread should be logged in the Confluence wiki.

We structured our workspaces by creating a folder for each client. As a top level we store basic contact information, company overviews and so on. Under this we then create work order folders containing requirements, developer clarifications, proposals and any other assets relating to a particular job. This means that there’s always a place for a piece of new information to go. No more post-its and no searching through emails. If you’re doing that right now, think carefully about where your business knowledge is actually stored.

Atlassian Jira (https://www.atlassian.com/software/jira)

Each client we have has one or more JIRA projects associated with them. This allows us to track work for that client at every level, from high level campaigns and features, right down to individual tasks. We ensure that no task is going to take more than a day, giving us very fine control over features and sets of tasks. We also use Jira Tempo plugin for time sheets, allowing us to track the cost (and therefore efficiency) of our processes.

Google Drive (https://drive.google.com)

This facilitates an extremely fast way of collaborating on drawings, spreadsheets and documents all in real time (how do you think we wrote this article?). We generally don’t store final document versions there (proposals, contracts and agreements, etc) since these live in our Confluence Wiki. However its an awesome tool for real-time collaboration allowing our team to “blitz” a document in a kind of virtual brainstorming session. Documents are easily shared and exported too, making the whole system click nicely into a distributed team environment.

Tips and Tricks

  • Remember – email is the communicator, not a knowledge repository. Decisions made in emails should be logged in the wiki and time spent in email conversation logged under a task in JIRA. This prevents email becoming a “hidden cost”

  • Make sure you have a shared calendar. We use Google Calendar and the Atlassian Confluence calendars as appropriate. Scheduling at a basic, high level should be made very easy otherwise it won’t be taken up by the team

  • Separate communication hours from work hours. This gives your team the freedom to work when they are feeling creative, while always being available if they are needed for urgent questions or assisting with estimates.

  • Set up group mail for fast notifications (outages, away from keyboards etc)

  • Remote working has its disadvantages too, and human contact is essential from both a personal as well as a professional perspective. Encourage meet-ups where possible

Conclusions

Once you have the right tools in place, you should not even notice them. They are part of our internal language (Skype Steve, or “Could you please put that idea in the Wiki?”). In short, if you find yourself having to think too much about the systems, or you are still resorting to sticky notes on your monitor, you need to review your tools!