Managing distributed teams

Christopher Keene and Susheela Vasan, Gigster

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When it comes to delivery models, there’s a useful rule of thumb: If you want to know what’s going to happen in consulting in five years’ time, look at software development today. Many of the tools and the methodologies that get developed there eventually end up getting appropriated by consulting firms; agile, for example, started as an approach to managing developers, and now every consulting firm boasts of their ability to deploy agile teams.

Founded in 2014, Gigster is one of the companies redefining how software gets built. Its platform solution allows clients to assemble and manage teams of talented freelancers from around the world. So, to find out more about their approach to managing distributed teams, we spoke to Christopher Keene, the firm’s CEO, and Susheela Vasan, VP Strategy and Chief of Staff.
 

Could you describe for our readers what Gigster is and how your model works?

Christopher: Gigster's core proposition revolves around helping companies develop a culture of innovation through the ongoing development of breakthrough software solutions. We put together distributed teams made up of global top talent to deliver transformational solutions for our customers' employees and customers. Sometimes that takes the form of individual projects, but more often it's about a set of inter-related projects driving towards a common transformational goal. Gigster helps companies to develop a core competency of innovation as they provide constantly increasing value to their end-users.

Susheela: Our focus is on adding innovation skills and capacity to augment our clients' own capabilities. However, we're also expanding our platform to help clients better manage their own in-house capacity. In the future, I think our clients will make even more use of blended teams that combine resources from Gigster's network with resources drawn from their own internal talent pools. Our platform is not only about connecting clients with dynamic teams; it's also about helping them leverage team management tools to accelerate the delivery process, regardless of how the team is put together.

So, what are the advantages of that ‘distributed team’ model compared to, say, throwing the problem over to a big tech firm?

Christopher: I think that when companies are trying to do digital transformation—when they're trying to apply new technologies like machine learning to reinvent their products and services—they often have a really hard time getting the talent they need. And consulting firms can help mitigate that problem a bit, but it's not as if they themselves don't run into that same problem finding talent. The real solution to that problem, as we see it, is learning how to work with distributed teams. If you're willing to work with people who could be based anywhere in the world, you can much more easily put together a team that combines the exact skills you need for your specific challenge. There is an art and science to assembling these distributed teams and enabling them to develop breakthrough solutions with the end-user customer in mind. This is what Gigster does.

Distributed teams don't just help ensure you're working with people who have the right technical skills; they can also allow you to work with people who have a real passion for the job that needs to be done. One of the most compelling things that we tell clients is that when we staff projects for a world leading American motorcycle brand, we tend to get a lot of motorcycle riders; when we staff for a leading Japanese camera manufacturer, we get a lot of amateur photographers. We think that skills and passion trump geographical location, and we look to build relationships with clients who agree with that.

Susheela: People aren't the only part of the solution. You also need a platform that incorporates agile principles to keep the customer in the middle; and you need to be leveraging the latest tools and technologies in to your delivery process. Our approach at Gigster revolves around combining those three elements: It's not just the talent, it's the talent plus the Gigster Way, plus the technology.

There are difficulties that come with managing a distributed team; you’re working with people from very different cultures, who may live across many different time zones. How does your platform help clients manage those difficulties?

Christopher: Once you've made the decision that you're going to use the best people, regardless of where they're located, that puts you in a position where you have to commit to using the best processes and the most modern team management tools. And the technology landscape has changed a lot over the last few years; our platform incorporates tools like Slack and GitHub and Jira, but we're constantly scanning the horizon for new technologies.

The pioneers of the distributed team model were the big open source projects that really took off over the last two decades. All of those projects were staffed by volunteers working all over the world, so they had to develop effective ways of working together. Most big companies haven't yet fully adopted those methods—agile flow work, lean business models, new project management technologies—but we have at Gigster, and that's one of the big reasons we've been able to create value for our clients. We call our process The Gigster Way.

Susheela: There can definitely be challenges to working with a distributed team. But you can solve a lot of those challenges by taking a user-focused approach to the work. And that means putting a product manager—not a project manager—at the centre of the delivery process. Instead of a team leader that is just focused on project milestones; you want a leader who's excited about creating a product that's really going to make a difference to the end user.

Do you think the recent emergence of platforms like Gigster is because more people are willing to work as freelancers? If so, why do you think that is?

Christopher: The days of people wanting to spend their entire career working at the headquarters of a single company are pretty much gone. And as certain technical skillsets become more in-demand, the people with those skills get more and more power to work the way they want to. Part of what we're seeing is people making a conscious decision to be part of the gig economy, but more common is people thinking, simply, ‘I want to live where I want to live and still do the work I enjoy.’

Companies, by and large, are becoming more accepting of remote workers and are starting to build remote offices. But those systems hide a fundamental inflexibility: If I'm a remote worker at one of these big companies and my project ends, it's incredibly hard for me to figure out what other projects are available, or to understand where I can best be applying my skills.

The US treasury employs about 10,000 developers, and a lot of those work specifically for the IRS. But the IRS stops all active development for three months every year during tax season—and they have no way to reassign those workers. You see similar problems in the private sector: A lot of big companies will have hubs in the UK, in Central Europe, in Africa—but the talent in those teams is all locked up in silos. If someone in a senior leadership role said, ‘Tomorrow, we're going to start working on the most important applications in our whole business bar none and we want the absolute best people in our organisation working on them,’ they'd have no way of actually locating that talent.

At a lot of companies, moving people around is no easy task. Getting relocated between departments can take several months; it's almost as difficult as hiring a new person. That's one reason why companies have started using Gigster to manage their own teams. They can staff based on skills, passion, and availability rather than proximity—and if they can't find the resources they need within their own organisation, then they can tap into our talent network and bring in external support.

Right now, we’re in a fairly healthy global economy, but there’s increasing worry about the prospect of a recession next year. Do you think a change in the economic climate would make clients more or less interested in exploring these sorts of alternative delivery models?

Christopher: If you look at the story of digital transformation, it's a story of winners and losers. If you can innovate quickly and effectively, you win—and if you don't, you lose. In times of economic hardship, the difference between digital winners and losers become even more pronounced. Innovation, at the end of the day, is about finding ways to get closer to your customers and employees. The companies that have been willing to do that will be in much better standing going into a recession: If you're closer to your customers, if you're a more central part of their lives and you have more data on them that you're properly leveraging, then you can serve them more effectively from a lower cost base.

I think that in a recession, companies will be looking at two things. The first is how they can get closer to their customers; and the second is how they can maximize employee productivity. If you can learn to effectively create and manage distributed teams, you can get 30% higher productivity from your developers—so, from a pure cost perspective, a recession will heavily incentivise increased adoption of this model.

Susheela: There are two aspects to effective digital transformation: customer activation and employee enablement. Historically, a lot of transformation projects have focused on the former, but now many companies are realising that they need to invest in employee enablement before they can truly transform their customer proposition. You can't build compelling new experiences for the consumer if you haven't first figured out how to effectively unlock the talent in your organisation. Digital leaders are transforming both customer and employee experiences.

How do you see Gigster’s platform continuing to evolve in the future? Are there any specific new technologies that you want to incorporate into it as they become more sophisticated?

Christopher: Because our platform incorporates a number of different technology tools, it allows us to capture a huge amount of data on how team members work and how they interact with each other. We've started to use that data in ways that are both predictive and prescriptive. Right now, we're just scratching the surface in terms of what can be done with it, but this is going to be a key area of focus for us moving forward.

When we talk about predictive project analytics, we're talking about taking the data that we have access to and using that to provide improved visibility of project progress to the client or the product manager. We can look at all of the different metrics that are predictive of project success, and proactively flag any risks that might derail your objectives. Similarly, we can see the trends that lead to project success and suggest these changes to in-flight projects to make them more successful.

As well as predictive analytics, we can also use our platform in a prescriptive way. If you're a freelancer working on a platform, then we can assess all of your interactions and use that to automatically produce a report every two weeks. That report not only shows your progress against your technical objectives, but it also assesses more qualitative factors: Do your collaborators and your clients like you and gel with your way of working? Then we can go further and give you recommendations that will help further your career—and it's not just ‘learn Ruby on Rails’, it might be around developing communication skills, for example. We can say, ‘Look, here's what you're doing well and here's where you're running into issues; here are three different courses you can take that would help you work on those.’

Susheela: We're definitely interested in finding ways to take advantage of AI and incorporate that into our platform. I think in the future one of the key differentiating features for platforms like ours will be their ability to provide a rich layer of insights to the clients, and to produce actionable recommendations that allow for the continued improvement of delivery practices.

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