Out of Site Shouldn’t Mean out of Mind

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A CTO on the challenge of working remotely.

By Karen Tegan Padir (Chief Technology Officer, Progress Software)

When I was growing up I was encouraged to go into math and science. It was something I enjoyed and in which I showed talent. However, in third grade, I got some context for my interests when a teacher wrote on my report card that I was good in mathematics “for a girl.” I asked my mother, who coincidentally was a math teacher, what the comment meant – did it mean I was good at math or not?

I’m still not sure what my teacher meant – but I know I am good at math and I stuck with it, majoring in computer science when it came time for college. I shared the distinction of being one of two female computer science majors in our graduating class. The biggest “problem” was that we stuck out. It was impossible to miss class or show up late because our professors would always notice our absence. With that additional incentive, the two of us made a pact to never miss a class and always sit in the front row, no matter what. It was a strategy that helped us both achieve far more than we would have otherwise!

Not Gender but Distance

Gender issues have never entirely gone away, however, in math and science, perhaps more than most fields, being competent, talented, and right is valued and respected. The fields are fact-based, knowledge-oriented, and, in my experience, open to newcomers. As a consequence, the more substantial challenge that I faced over the years was not gender but distance.

In several cases, including my time as part of Sun’s Java development team, I worked remotely, from a satellite office far from where the decision-makers sat. To ensure that I didn’t end up as just part of the supporting cast, I had to hone my communication skills and become more active in the team. I needed to make sure I didn’t miss anything and that my voice was included in discussions. Not being near the “water cooler” I had to find other ways to stay thoroughly in the loop.

From that experience, I learned that the smartest people on the planet don’t necessarily all live in the same place. Talents are widely distributed and, furthermore, sometimes the people that aren’t sharing the same water cooler at headquarters end up making the breakthrough contributions. In fact, those individuals who sat farthest away from the “main” effort could often see the problems more clearly or think outside the box a bit more easily.

In the end, we were able to make critical contributions to the platform from thousands of miles away.  This worked best when we understood the scope of work and planned clear points of integration between different people and different teams, so that we all stayed on the same page.

The experience taught me to communicate, interact, and integrate — early and often – and not to wait until the end to get feedback.

Managing the Geographically Challenged

As more organizations sprawl globally, organizations are beginning to recognize the challenge and opportunity of coordinating complex tasks across wide geographies. They are growing more adept at supporting and valuing women and men who work in dispersed teams, often far from headquarters. This is good for individuals, and great for organizations that now get the very best work from some very good people who just happen to be “geographically challenged.”

Remote work teams are, for the most part, a relatively new phenomenon – less than a generation old. Without the electronic bandwidth that is available now almost everywhere, communications and control would be insufficient to support people so distant from each other working “closely” on the same project. Tools like Skype, Facetime, instant messaging, and mobile phones have helped to defeat distance.

I believe that innovative companies are now modeling the best practices needed to embrace remote workers. They are the organizations where everyone has a voice, a practice that tends to be at odds with traditional hierarchical organizational structure. For innovative companies to succeed in embracing remote workers they need to have leaders that are comfortable with a lot of cross-talk and cross-pollination and are willing to accept alternatives to everything being run straight up the chain of command.

Still, businesses are not democracies, so the chain of command still matters and you need to know who the decision makers are and be able to work with them. Remote workers can find it harder to understand where decisions are being made in an organization and how – so individuals in these organizations need to pay particularly close attention to interactions and ask the right questions.

However, leaders also need to create environments where the best ideas bubble up to the top, no matter where they come from or from whom they originate. That is what we did successfully with the Java team at Sun.

As I continue to grow in my career, I work hard to make sure that I’m open to ideas from all sources and, in particular, ready to accept the contributions of people who work off-site. These work patterns are already becoming more and more accepted and at some point should become fully integrated into normal business practices almost everywhere.

Have you worked remotely or managed a dispersed team? What are your tips for making it work?

Karen Tegan PadirAbout the guest blogger: Karen Tegan Padir (@kpadir) joined Progress Software in 2012 as senior VP and business line executive for application development. Prior toProgress, Karen served as executive VP, products & engineering, at EnterpriseDB; as a senior VP of software infrastructure & MySQL at Sun Microsystems; and, a founding members of the J2EE team.