Breadfruit Story

Welcome to the Intrinsiq Story So Far

How Intrinsiq got to where we are now and tips when managing a geographically distributed team.

Our Goal

When I started with Intrinsiq three years ago, we were a very different company (in terms of our organisation and processes) from what we are now. This story is about how we moved from being a tiny group in an office, to a globally distributed team - the processes we needed and the tools we use. It will no doubt evolve to something (better) that I cannot reliably predict, but that's part of the fun.

I am not starting a debate as to the merits of remote versus traditional office - I just want to share some of what we did and what you may want to consider when building a team and a company, especially with a geographically distributed team.

Our Breadfruit

Camera fade in: A small office in Cambridge, UK

In 2015 Intrinsiq had a "serviced" office room in a bland, brown building you would not want to visit, just out of central Cambridge. Our room had a window that overlooked the hallway to the kitchen. If you wanted to make a private call you had to go to the "atrium" which was a concrete patch in the centre of the building with a small fish pond inhabited by three despondent looking koi.

It was a month before I met Jim, one of our team members. He so disliked the office environment that he rarely appeared in person.

Mark Milford had brought me in to manage the transition he had planned; he was emigrating to Australia. The idea was he would work with us, in glorious solitude in Western Australia, and we would carry on here in the UK/EU.

After his move, we quickly found that with a new and growing client base in Australia and the Pacific Rim market, we would need to rethink the whole setup. The idea of a "Cambridge main office" and Intrinsiq outliers was not going to work if we wanted to build a cohesive and global team and a global client base.

There was a danger of an "us and them" internal friction.

Although we had a majority of the team in the UK, there was a danger of an "us and them" internal friction with the nascent Australian team.

The importance of getting the right team

Mark was forward thinking in his appraisal that if we were to grow as global team we had to act like one. This meant rethinking "office" and the tools we were using to communicate, develop products, and best serve our clients.

I was against giving up a static office for reasons that now seem parochial: physical proximity to team members, a central meeting place... This was of course completely antithetical to our flagship IQ products that are globally distributed cloud platforms.

It hurts to say it, but, "Mark was right."

I quote the article by Wade Foster (find it here) which sums up our approach to building our team - and that meant hiring and firing and generally getting the people who understood what we are trying to build as a company. I like to think our team meets the criteria of the five points below.

  1. Hire Doers.
    Doers will get stuff done even if they are in Timbuktu. You don't have to give Doers tasks to know that something will get done. You'll still have to provide direction and guidance around the most important things to be executed, but in the absence of that, a Doer will make something happen.
  2. Hire people you can trust.
    Remote work stops working when you can't trust the person on the other end of the line. If you continually find yourself worrying what someone is doing, then you are spending brain cycles focusing on something other than the product. Trust is key.
  3. Trust the people you hire.
    The flip side of this is you also need to exhibit trust with the people you hire. As a manager, you need to learn to manage by expectations rather than by "butts in seats", so make sure you can show trust in those you hire.
  4. Hire people who can write.
    In a co-located office, a lot of information is shared in-person. In a remote situation, everything is shared via written communication. Communication is one of the most important parts of a remote team. Therefore, good writers are invaluable.
  5. Hire people who are ok without a social workplace.
    It'll be important to try to create some social aspects with a remote team. But the truth of the matter is that remote workplaces are usually less social than co-located ones. People on remote teams need to be ok with that. And the best remote workers will thrive in this type of environment.

It's not working from home

We now have people in the following locations:

  • Cambridge and Birmingham in the UK;
  • Perth, Sydney and Cairns Australia;
  • Islamabad, Pakistan.

When I am asked about our office I reply, "We are a distributed team that works remotely."

A frequent response is: "Oh, you guys work from home."

Sometimes. Sometimes we are elsewhere.

But we see it as doing our work from a space that suits our tasks and deadlines. I meet my colleague Alejandra at a coffee place once in a while, to change it up and talk in person, as our tasks are aligned. Mark comes to the UK for a tech bootcamp with the development team and spends a few days here (and for the British weather no doubt).

It is a subtle and important distinction to work remotely, not "work from home".

Tools we use

Aside from the people, you need tools to make this work. We try to minimise emails, and if I could, I would only use it in the last resort. Here's a quick list of the tech we use:

GitHub: Recently acquired by Microsoft, this has allowed our team to share and collaborate on all projects for our clients as well as make major framework upgrades in much less time. Our development team can also get up to speed quickly and also take advantage of software version control.

Freshdesk: Sure, our guys could have written something like Freshdesk, but this full featured support ticketing system integrated easily with our platform and allows the entire team to collaborate on projects and problem resolution right through to end user billing. Why reinvent the wheel? This system allowed us to streamline our procedures and add a huge amount of functionality.

Google Hangouts: Remote working can be isolating, but with Hangouts you can have video and voice chats at a click. We use this for weekly global team meetups, specific team (management, development, support) meetups and the casual chat to get an answer or discuss an issue one-to-one. It's quick, easy and I sometimes keep a link open for hours and my colleagues can reach me when/if needed.

Google Docs: Cloud based collaboration of internal and client facing documents is key to version control and communication with clients. This allows us to simultaneously edit, share and publish. If you are not using this, then ask yourself why not!

Trello: This collaboration tool allows the non dev team members in our company to get overviews of complicated projects with multiple stake-holders. We integrate Google docs sharing, and zoom from the big picture to the smallest detail. All on every device we use.

Nikabot: Powerful and detailed time keeping allows us to manage the time spent on projects - seamlessly integrated in other apps in our ecosystem. This allows us to clearly report on time/cost/delivery on a global or granular level for both our management team and also to report to the client if needed.

Process and communication

Teams using such tools need process and communication - we are working all the time to hone our processes internally - and that has a clear result with our clients. It's not perfect, but we are working to get near to that goal.

Using the above tools we are better able to have inter-team communication, thus giving us the ability to provide cohesive, consistent, clear messages and project reports to our clients. Some of the processes we have recently implemented using the above tools include:

  • Weekly, clear and responsive planning of team activities. Live updates on Slack to team members.
  • We can now update clients on project work on a more exact basis, which I think instills confidence with our clients.
  • Make sure the team learn from one another and share proprietary knowledge with each other.
  • Set aside time each week for our development team to work on non client work - personal research, new feature development.
  • Being flexible with work schedules whilst ensuring the deadlines are met. We think that grownups should be able to manage their work time.
  • We encourage team members to ask for help or support if and when they need it - this is a sign of a healthy working environment.

Do we still have problems and challenges? Sure we do. But we have come a long way with an international team spread across the globe. There are some times of course when face to face is the only option - not having the burden of office space rent means there is now some serious talk of a full team meetup - the problem that all our tools cannot help with is ... where?

Thanks for reading. If you have any questions, contact me via my Author Profile.

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True to the name, when it’s cooked this fruit smells like fresh-baked bread. A long time staple of the Pacific Islands, you can also find this starchy, nutrient-rich fruit in the Caribbean and Africa.


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