8.4 Remote Collaboration with CatPhones

Catalysts develops custom software. Because there is a lot of conversation and collaboration involved in software development, we need to be close to our customers – typically within a 2 hours driving range. I started Catalysts in Linz, so naturally most of our initial customers were from the close vicinity of Linz, some from Salzburg, some from Vienna.

In order to deliver those custom software development projects, we’ve been looking for the best software developers (see Chapter 5 about Coding Contests). Over the years, we have established offices in Hagenberg, Linz, Vienna (all in Austria), and Cluj (in Romania) – since all those cities have excellent schools and universities and we want to be close to where the best software developers get educated.

Some companies build huge campuses and ask all employees to relocate to the company headquarters. Our approach is different: we want to be close to our customers and close to the universities. That’s why Catalysts will keep opening offices in new cities (like recently in Frankfurt). And we know that it’s a competitive advantage for us and for our customers if we can collaborate smoothly across locations.

During my IBM years (from 2000 to 2005), I led distributed teams (a few software developers in Austria and a few in India). It wasn’t easy back then which led me to write an article about the “Challenges of Distributed Agile” in 2004:

  • Decreased communication bandwidth
  • Decreased visibility into project status
  • Problems with configuration management
  • Disconnection on project estimation
  • Cultural differences and teaming

Much of the contained advice is still applicable. So if you haven’t done yet, click on the link and read the article 😉

Over the years, we’ve been working hard at Catalysts to establish the right methods, techniques, best practices and tools in order to address many of the challenges of “Distributed Agile”. And we still keep developing new safety nets for various aspects (like more automated checks).

However, the decreased communication bandwidth proved to be a tough problem. Of course we’ve been using tools for audio and video conferences and tools for screen sharing. And we sent people from one location to another to get to know each other. Still, we were not satisfied.

Some of our partners and clients had established expensive video conferencing systems in their meeting rooms. We evaluated some commercial systems but found deficiencies in each offering. Finally, we developed our own solution to address the challenge of “Decreased communication bandwidth”: our “CatPhones” (initially called “CoffeeCam”)

Our solution is relatively inexpensive (hence we assembled 30 pieces). It consists of:

  • a flipchart stand
  • a 24 inch touch screen
  • a Mini-PC
  • a wide-angle camera
  • a good microphone
  • a small USV
  • optionally internet connectivity via a mobile modem (if WLAN and LAN don’t suffice)

It facilitates inexpensive physical presence across locations. One can move the screen up and down (like you can vertical position of a flipchart). By positioning a CatPhone right next to one’s workplace, you can virtually sit next to a colleague from another location – with the head being shown in natural size on the display.

It allows our team members to establish a video conference with one touch.

It is mobile, i.e. you can drag it from one room to another, e.g. a smaller meeting room.

By now, we have established CatPhones in all our meeting rooms and in most other rooms as well. We have brought some to our clients.

It has surely been an important step to improve remote collaboration. And we know that there is still room for improvement. If you have found other methods, techniques, or tools for a similar purpose, please let us know (e.g. via the comment section below)!

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