Book Review: I'm Working While They're Sleeping

Erran Carmel and Alberto Espinosa have written a gem of a book for anyone trying to work in a geographically distributed team: I’m Working While They’re Sleeping: Time Zone Separation Challenges and Solutions. They first start with an introduction to time zones, and explain why I am so confused when I travel. Everyone moves to daylight savings time at different times! Everyone has different holidays. Not everyone has the same work-week. No problem. Carmel and Espinosa have an answer for that. Make a time zone bubble chart and visualize the time zones.

They talk about the cost of delay when using distributed teams: delay costs, rework costs, and context switching costs. But the real costs are the

But these rational cost components don’t even begin to take into account the frustrating, time-wasting, common mistakes made in coordinating meetings across time zones, such as missing the meeting by one hour because of time zone computation error.

They discuss many tricks and tips to manage distributed and dispersed teams. I already discussed the zoner in Break the Email Chain. One that surprised me was this:

Mumbai at 13:00 is the center of the business world.

It is, but not for the US. Those of us in the US don’t normally think of ourselves as outliers. But in the timezone sense, we are.

Carmel and Espinoza have data, not arguments about whether there is delay and performance degradation about geographically distributed teams. Their answer? Yes, there is delay for distributed teams. There is performance degradation. Can you manage around it? Yes. You need to do some planning, around the calendar time you meet, identifying the scattertime in your organization, the zoners, and the timeshifting and who will do it. You cannot take any of this for granted.

Section II is Time Zone Strategy. This is where the book really shines. Carmel and Espinosa discuss Follow-the-Sun and Round-the-Clock. Follow-the-Sun is about the speed of development. Follow-the-Sun is where the item to be developed was supposed to be worked on 24/7, handed off from one group to another, never waiting. I’ve never seen it happen, and that’s because when you hand off you have to have a conversation about the handoff. That means I have to braindump everything in my head to you. What are the chances I can remember everything I am thinking of? Not so good. How long does it take for a handoff to occur? A lot longer than we think it does.

They haven’t seen Follow-the-Sun succeed either. They do recommend agile for it, if it could ever happen. (My personal opinion: highly experienced agile, really small stories, with kanban limits. Gotta keep the WIP down.)

Round-the-Clock is where you have coverage around the clock. In Round-the-Clock, you have no dependencies between the work items, so you don’t have handoffs. It’s why you can have a call center anywhere in the world.

In Chapter 7, they discuss Two Radical Options, the social contract between the organization and the employee (Establish a 24-Hour Culture When Far Flung) and simulate realtime colocation with always-on technology (Co-location for Overlapping Time Zones)

They also address the health issues of asking people to stay late/stay up late, wake up early, or time shift in some way. Some organizations are literally working their people into an early grave. Is it worth it?

When I come in as an outsider, I see projects that are over budget, over schedule, are not delivering. I have to wonder.

The first thing all the managers should do is read this book. Are you organized for success? Instead of randomly organizing or reorganizing people, look at the timezones and see if you can create teams of people who are closer. Then see what else you need to do.

Remember, you will be spending money. The question is where. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are going to save yourself a pile of money on project cost. Wage cost and labor cost are not the same thing on a project.

Read this book. Decide what you need to do on your project. And, while you’re at it, join  Shane Hastie and me in our geographically distributed teams workshop April 17-18, 2012. We can help you with these and other issues. We would love to have you.

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