Every software platform, piece of hardware and back-end system developed at my company has required coordination between tech development groups spread across the world. Our primary hubs are located in India, Serbia, Germany, the U.K. and the U.S., but we have people working in more than 20 countries worldwide.
Tech staff in California are just waking up as team members in the Philippines are turning in for the night. Messages ping around the globe as we move from concept through proof of concept and from pilot programs to full-scale rollouts.
When people from all over the world are involved in the collaboration, we have to pay special attention to communication, coordination and connection.
New technology is making it easier than ever to run global operations, but companies still face major obstacles when trying to integrate international tech teams. Time zone differences are the most obvious. Setting up meetings and sharing information can be serious challenges, but the Earth’s rotation isn’t the only roadblock.
Fragmented reporting structures can leave people out of the loop. Sometimes developers report to local senior management, but product owners in another country are tasked with driving the project to completion. Orders and instructions from multiple sources compete for developer attention, and work suffers as a result.
Linguistic and cultural barriers can also impede progress and create problems within a team. It’s not just about speaking different languages. Words can mean different things in different contexts, and unless everyone has experience within that context, messages can be misinterpreted, harming team unity.
Conventions about days off and holidays can create difficulties, too. For instance, Easter in the Eastern Orthodox church fell a week after it did for other Christian churches in 2019. And in 2021, the celebrations will be almost a month apart. Our American developers will have forgotten all about their Easter weekend in April by the time our Serbian team celebrates in May.
Differences in time, language, culture and values can and do present potential hurdles for international tech teams. However, thoughtful companies know to develop team structures, engagement models and communication protocols that avoid the pitfalls and instead promote the success of these groups.
Here are three strategies I’ve found valuable:
1. Choose the right leaders.
Leadership and vision are the keys to successfully integrating tech teams across cultural and geographical borders. Technology might speak across languages, but the right people are needed at the top to instill excitement and enthusiasm.
When we’re looking to hire new leaders, we don’t just look at who is committed to bringing the project to completion. While that’s a fundamental requirement, we look beyond it to identify people with the skill set needed to unify a team and keep everyone aligned and engaged in the process. Empathy might not seem important when developing a new app or data management system, but it can keep the team working well together. Giving it an appropriate value when choosing team leaders can go a long way toward driving team unity.
2. Keep team leaders aligned.
Team leaders who share the same vision and work to the same priorities build better solutions. Our team in the U.K. might be working on one piece of a larger solution suite, while developers in India are simultaneously building another. It is vital that their respective leaders be aware of that, have a deep understanding of how the various pieces of the larger whole fit together and sustain productive working relationships across those borders. Otherwise, they might end up developing incompatible platforms that attempt to solve very different problems.
Communication is key to keeping everyone on the same page. At my company, we hold regular meetings and place a high value on keeping discussions open and honest. We ensure tech development leadership stays involved at all stages, and we use messaging systems that keep everyone in sync and in the loop when change is needed.
3. Create a strong product requirements document.
This goes without saying within the development world, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth restating. A product requirements document (PRD) is essential to aligning all project stakeholders early on in the development process and ensuring that any disagreement down the line — and there is usually at least a little bit — can be addressed with the help of the PRD acting as a rudder.
We put a lot of time and thought into creating the PRD, and then we socialize it and turn it into a strong foundation and driver for our development. The PRD is the arbiter and reference for the project. It helps us maintain focus and keeps everyone on the same wavelength, even when they’re on different sides of the world.
Building and running an international tech team might seem like a logistical challenge, but with the right structures in place and the right leadership, there is much to gain from combining varying skills, ideas and strengths found in people around the world. Diversity of culture, language and values can be a huge asset when combined in the right ways. International teams can forge strong bonds, and better products can certainly be the result.