Interview — What it’s like to work remotely in big-sized product development?

People say that developing products isn’t easy. Neither it is to build long-distance relationships. But, how about doing both, simultaneously?

I’m Bruno Teixeira, Lead Product Owner at Pixelmatters, the guy wearing the red jacket on the photo. I recently invited Andrew Scott, Product Manager, to talk about his experience in working remotely with Pixelmatters, based in Porto, Portugal 🇵🇹, all the way from California, US. 🇺🇸

During our conversation, I’ve asked Andrew a few questions about how it was like to collaborate remotely in the development of a product in such a complex industry like healthcare. The result was the diagnosis of symptoms usually linked to a successful collaboration.

Question #1 — What were your first impressions of Pixelmatters and the team?

It was one of the first teams I met on joining the company I was working with at the time. I had to get going very quickly and when I was introduced to the project, Pixelmatters had only been working with us for a couple of months, but they quickly earned my trust.

The company I was working with was a relatively new startup, so there was a lot that had to be organized very quickly, and the [Pixelmatters] team was very ready to get that going.

The company was growing relatively quickly, there were a lot of people joining us, so there wasn’t a lot of organization at the time. So not only did we need to get the product moving, but we had to stand up the organization and get key processes in place. The Pixelmatters team gave me a solid foundation to build from, not only in building the product but also establishing the processes and norms we needed to accelerate quickly and efficiently.

Question #2 — Considering the timezone difference between Porto (Portugal) and San Francisco (United States of America), how well do you think Pixelmatters was able to overcome this?

Over my career, I’ve worked with lots of remote teams in different parts of the world. That has always been a key part of what I have had to manage.

People often have this perception that being in a different timezone is a difficult thing. But I regard it as a really positive thing if you learn to manage how you work with those teams in the right way.

The Porto team was eight-hours ahead of my office in California, but I actually found that this provided a really positive advantage. We organized things in such a way that when I came in, the [Pixelmatters] team had prepared everything they needed me to review or questions they had.

I was able to respond and clarify so that when we got to SCRUM at 9 am Pacific time, we could discuss if we needed, and the Porto team could leave at their end of the day and my team in California could pick up and carry on. That collaboration worked really well and proved to be a real advantage, not an obstacle. It required we had a good plan, and we did!

Question #3 — Considering the remote collaboration context, how do you classify Pixelmatters team communication capabilities and coordination compared with other in-house teams?

I think having a SCRUM master — who just happened to be me — in the middle to coordinate, was actually key.

They gathered that information together and it came through one channel, which made it easier on my side.

There are always challenges when you have teams working that way, but it was essential that I had a strong leader on the Porto team that I could coordinate with directly. This team provided me both a strong project manager and lead developer who were key in making this work well.

Question #4 — Can you describe the product development process that was used during our collaboration, how it worked on a regular basis, and how our team helped in its definition and execution?

I have always been a strong agilist, and one of my goals with such a fast-growing team was to quickly establish a solid agile process. One of the greatest benefits I got from the Pixelmatters team was from their completely agile methodology.

Pixelmatters clearly has a very agile mindset.

I was trying to establish our agile process on our side of the fence and we started off very early on with a process to follow and having a monthly release process in two-to-two week sprints. We were working with the team to do a release planning session, which we did effectively.

We learned and adapted quickly. Pixelmatters really helped improve the process. We initially started with a four-hour planning session with the whole team working together, both the remote team and my team in California. I’ve done that before and it has worked, but it wasn’t working here.

The Porto team suggested that we meet initially to primarily review the requirements and objectives of this release, discuss and answer questions. I was able to leave the content with them, come back the next day and they would have prepared all the stories and the size of the stories, ready to actually meet the commitment to the work. I loved their independence and I trusted them well enough to let them do the planning, write the stories, and tell me “this is what we’re able to commit to”.

We certainly did plan and commit, we had all the ceremonies around SCRUM. We were able to SCRUM every morning, which was the last activity of the Porto team’s day. We religiously had mid-sprint reviews and we also had a sprint planning every two weeks. All of those meetings, we were able to do pretty successfully in the morning, in our coordination. And I would say it got to the point where it was so efficient! The team was well prepared and in the end, we were only spending 30–45 minutes in planning. We had refined a process that worked for both teams across the time zones and got me what I needed. That was one of the cool things!

Question #5 — Do you feel our team had the skill set and the right mindset to prepare and work on the product?

Yes. I’ve worked with teams in the past where the offshore team is just delivering code, whereas the Pixelmatters team was always very invested in the product.

Not only were they delivering code, but they were helping me develop my ideas.

That’s what I’d expect from any team, but having it from a remote team that is really not part of our company is exactly what I want from a team that’s working remotely with me.

Question #6 — How would you classify Pixelmatters delivery speed and quality comparing to other realities you’ve faced in your career?

It really goes down to that whole commitment thing that I mentioned previously. I’ve had issues in the past with teams that are just looking to deliver code, but the Pixelmatters team was very invested in the project.

We followed the agile process religiously, they were committed to it. Like any agile team, we had issues when we didn’t deliver everything we committed to, but over time we got the process down very well. I was very confident to leave them with work they committed to it and we delivered it. I think we were meeting commitment at an 80 to 90% delivery each time. Any time we didn’t, there were reasons why, but I had no problem leaving the team to deliver what I had planned for them at all.

Question #7 — Have you felt that Pixelmatters team product knowledge increased during the time we have worked together, especially considering how complex the health market can be?

Yeah, totally. Not only were they delivering the actual code and functionality, but they also wanted to learn along the way. I think by the end of the project some of them actually talked like subject matter experts, understanding the workflows, using the correct terminology, and sounding like an end-user!

We regularly had discussions about why I wanted things to work that way, why the workflow was the way it was… They really started to learn and understand what we were trying to achieve here in the US. It just shows that they’re invested in what we’re doing, not just delivering code.

Question #8 — How do you think Pixelmatters team contribution helped you establish better standards for a quality product delivery and to forecast potential releases?

A key thing for me during the project was to try and establish processes. It was hard, but because the Pixelmatters team was an established and organized team, we could focus on following the process, sticking to the process, and showing that the process we built worked.

For me, they became my flagship. They were my great reference point for everyone else that said “well, you know, this can’t work” and I would say “well, it does work over here”. They were a cohesive team and I was able to use that to my advantage to show that this process does work if you work as a team. And as we all know, teamwork in these projects is key.

Question #9 — If you could describe Pixelmatters team in three characteristics what would they be, and why?

Cohesive, committed, and driven. I’ve never been part of a remote team myself, but, I’ve worked with many teams and it’s a hard job for a team that’s often seen as the outsider. It can be hard at times to be that remote team and remain committed and driven. And that’s really what I saw from them.

When we worked together, even though there were frustrations at times, the team remained committed and they rolled with what happened. They didn’t change their attitudes or approach, they remained committed to delivering and working with us to get what we needed. It’s obvious that they are a cohesive team.

They all support each other, they like each other, they work well together and that’s half the battle.

It’s such a powerful thing to see a team that is obviously happy and that likes to work together.

Question #10 — If you had the opportunity to work with Pixelmatters team again in the future, would you do so and why?

Yeah, absolutely. Having had the experience I’ve had, I know that if I’m going to be signed up to a brand new team again, and if I’m looking for a resource to get up and running quickly and is committed to agile, and that it’s going to deliver me a cohesive team, I’ll get that from Pixelmatters.

The other thing I would add that we didn’t really talk about: not only the team that was working with me was committed, but Pixelmatters was also committed to making sure that the team was always the right team working with me.

They were very concerned not to just find another developer to put in, but that it was the right developer. The right fit for the team that was already working in the project, and the right fit for what we were doing

Keeping the continuity and focus on making that an important part of what we did is also key because I don’t want a team that’s just going to give me a bunch of developers and keep swapping them out. So that was that something else that I’d be wanting to find when looking for a new team.

Wrapping up — Andrew, do you have any additional notes or something to share?

The only regret I would say I had is that I didn’t get to meet them all. Early on in our project, I got to meet you and a couple of the people, but I was so new to the company and we didn’t really get to spend quality time together. But by the time I left I really felt I got to know the team that I’ve been working with. And it’s sad that we didn’t get to meet, that’s just the way it is, but one day we will. I really liked the people and I missed the fact that we didn’t get to spend some time together because I appreciated it.

We cannot thank Andrew enough for his time and the kind words about us. Such a testimonial is a cornerstone of our work. It was a pleasure to work with Andrew, one more ambassador of Pixelmatters around the world. 🧡

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Bruno Teixeira
Head of Product