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5 ways to unite distributed IT Ops teams

Bill Doerrfeld Consultant, Doerrfeld.io

In today's global economy, geographically distributed teams have become the norm. Companies appeal to employees' more flexible lifestyles with new approaches to work-life balance. And with the adoption of cloud-based infrastructure and tooling, there's a greater likelihood that IT operations work is done remotely, too.

Companies want to increase productivity; this means ensuring that development and operations stay in constant contact. But with communication and collaboration essential for DevOps to function, distributed teams may be wondering whether they can truly embrace a DevOps regimen when they don't all work under the same roof.

Thankfully, there are several ways to make testing, QA, monitoring, and other IT Ops tasks work well for distributed teams. By increasing communication and automation and leveraging collaborative utilities, even the most nomadic teams can build an effective IT Ops process, regardless of time zone. Here's how.

The issues of distributed IT Ops

How can a standup occur for a team working out of Europe, Asia, and North America simultaneously? Also, some groups face challenges making distributed operations work in their company culture. For agile teams, testing requires a short feedback loop.

If a team is distributed across multiple time zones, who can fix things when something goes wrong? Quick error resolution is another operational faculty that requires significant forethought for a distributed team, leading some to argue that ops cannot operate optimally in a distributed setup.

Lastly, a high-performing IT Ops team is tight-knit. Can everyone be united on the journey if teams have cultural and language differences (a situation that is especially common if outsourcing is used in a distributed labor model). Assembling teams on a per-project basis or working with outside consultants increases onboarding time and adds to inefficiency.

5 methods to unite a distributed ops team

Fear not, for fully distributed persistent teams abound, including Gitlab, Basecamp, Zapier, Articulate, and many others. Github is a shining example. Its largely distributed engineering team (58% remote) deploys new code 40 to 70 times per day, with rigorous automated tests along the way.

If one of the most trafficked sites on the Internet can outperform using a distributed team makeup, then so can yours. DevOps emphasizes communication, collaboration, and company culture, so here are ways teams to retain those qualities, even when the geographical boundaries are wide.

1. Chat: Localize conversation

Consolidating group communication onto a single chat platform is arguably the most important, and easiest, way to unite a distributed team. DevOps emphasizes collaboration and teamwork, and group chat is a catalyst for transparent communication.

A main point of the Remote Manifesto is to communicate asynchronously. Most teams already use Slack, Hipchat, or Skype to localize disparate team members. With notifications, groups, and plugins, chat apps provide an effective, modern asynchronous communication technique that eradicates the daisy-chain side effects of email.

2. Tooling: Adopt cloud-based collaborative ops

Manual testing is very labor-intensive. Add to that a distributed team with intermittent communication, and things can get hairy quickly. To avoid this, adopt automated testing infrastructures to reduce time for unit tests and parallelized functional tests.

Upwork notes that moving QA teams to an agile environment increases adaptability and encourages better collaboration with developers. Test-driven development can also prepare code for testing early on to dissolve these concerns. However, testing is only half of the ops battle. Monitoring software in production is key for responding to usage spikes or security threats.

3. ChatOps: Put tools into conversation

The next logical step toward improving collaboration is inserting cloud apps into the chat interface. Slack has plug-ins for many of the tools you likely use: Google Drive, Dropbox, Trello, Basecamp, Datadog, Asana, etc. This can help you create a unified ops experience, making important notifications transparent for all to see.

Enterprising project managers who want the ultimate in automation can use chatbots to programmatically interact with these apps. Bot extensions such as Hubot are helping IT operations teams mitigate issues and resolve errors.

Other tools, such as time-zone converters and X.ai for automating meeting scheduling, are time-saving godsends.

4. Expectations: Build the culture

Teams may be distributed in geographical, socio-cultural, and temporal terms. All this can cause a subconscious us-versus-them rift if no culture exists to unite members.

Of course, you can't replace person-to-person contact for building strong relationships, but clear expectations go a long way toward setting the work tone and environment, which can foster positive behaviors.

Martin Smith describes the philosophy underpinning remote DevOps as "a culture of trust, transparency, and accountability." Many remote workers thrive when there is accountability for their actions. However, clearly defining operations roles—QA engineer, monitoring roles, testing responsibilities, etc.—is still absolutely necessary.

On scheduling work shifts, James Betteley reminds managers to "make sure that there's as much overlap as possible between your developers and infrastructure engineers," since these roles must collaborate closely.

Jason Fried, co-founder and chief executive of Basecamp, says its about setting up the team for success.

"If you have the right tools, the right trust, and the right team, you can work whenever you want; it really doesn't matter." 
Jason Fried

5. Transparency: Security matches roles

Lastly, transparency is critical for any distributed team. Think of your employees as requiring the same self-service that SaaS aims to deliver for end consumers. Both need the internal information that their job requires.

Increasing transparency could involve code reviews, retrospectives, workshops, and more knowledge-sharing activities to keep staffers informed.

With a cultural change toward open transparency, however, comes nuanced security concerns. Especially for larger teams, access must be provisioned according to the permissions of particular job titles. New chat and web apps must provide segmented security abilities.

Making ops work in a distributed team

With distributed teams on the rise, managers need ways to unite disparate teams, especially ones involved in critical operations maintenance. I've outlined above some strategies you can use to respond to this cultural shift while maintaining agility.

Since remote-first is the new reality, companies must adjust their approach to internal communication. Specifically for operations, teams can ignite efficiency by adopting self-service tools and making a slight cultural pivot.

The debate is about whether the distributed team environment generates better productivity. There is much to be said for keeping a team size to two pizzas and a Nerf ball. This stance recently led Reddit and Yahoo to cancel remote working policies.

To counter, ITPro states that "org charts and personality trump geography." Essentially, bringing everyone under the same roof does not guarantee great teamwork.

In fact, employees are generally happier working from home, where there is less distraction and no wasted commute time. Greater freedom amounts to a higher quality of life and increased overall output.

It comes down to trust. If your operations teams adopt clear roles, transparent communication, and cloud-based embeddable functions, they will flourish well beyond a single happy hour.

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