A Tale of Three Cities – London, Toronto, and Redwood Shores

photo by *spudballoo* via Flickr
photo by *spudballoo* via Flickr

It had all the earmarks of a disaster, a real career-sinker of a project. And here was my old friend and former colleague calling me up enthusiastically, on the phone: “Hey Lisa, we need a Technical Project Manager for this start-up I’m working for, in Redwood Shores… you’ll love the project and the team. It’s a fun environment and they treat consultants really well here – honestly.” Okay, Ted, what’s the kicker? “Oh, by the way, we’re short-staffed – you’ll have to code, just 20% of the time. It’s just lightweight GUI stuff; no big deal.”

“Ummm, Ted – I haven’t coded in over 6 years, that’s forever!” I moaned. “I’m a project manager now. Cannot do – seriously.” “Oh, you’ll be fine; I’ll show you the ropes – it’s like riding a bike,” he assured me.

Oh jeez. Well, you can guess – I was between gigs and it did sound intriguing. I had enjoyed working with Ted at Autodesk, and I thought, “How bad could it be?”

At any rate, after cramming on programming languages for two consecutive weekends and hosing one of my laptops (thank goodness it was a dinosaur), I showed up at the company. Ted was right, it was a great environment – just 32 people in the office and everyone was about the same age and at the same stage of life. We also had an office in Toronto and in London, making for 3 different development streams (counting Redwood Shores) that needed to be integrated in order to produce the company flagship product, a suite of software applications in the interactive TV space. All of the major customers were overseas in Europe and Asia.

So my major contribution was managing the overall program and pulling together an integrated schedule for Development, QA, etc…, controlling the budget, risk management, all the usual Project Management activities… and I also had to create the screens/UI for one of the applications.

I have to say that this was one of the most interesting and challenging contracts ever. I learned something new every day from the technical wizards, many of whom had worked at Oracle and Peoplesoft (they all went on to work at Yahoo and Google some years later.) By the end of the job, I was coding Oracle servlets with the best of them. It still remains as a high point in my career as a technologist.

But I digress…

What Ted hadn’t told me on the phone, and what I discovered a few weeks later into the project, was that the last Project Manager had quit – and not on good terms. He was “disgusted and frustrated with the state of affairs,” one of the developers told me. I soon found out why. We would have conference calls and the developers in Redwood Shores would sit around the conference table with their arms folded, feign listening politely, and make passive/aggressive comments. The folks in Toronto and London, on the other hand, talked up a storm, making jokes. For Mike and Tom, our lead developers in the U.S., the levity of the foreigners was just not funny – they had managed to lock the code branches they were working on, once again, so that the Redwood Shores team was unable to perform integration. What seemed on the face of it just some idle banter and typical team storming was becoming a real issue.

I decided to take the bull by the horns. I managed to get CFO approval to get the two non-domestic teams onto U.S. soil on a “Kumbayah Roadtrip,” as Ted put it – but I was betting the farm on the visit. I arranged for team-building activities, such as the now-famous “Trust” exercise of running and leaping into your teammates’ arms and trusting that they won’t let you fall. We went bowling and played miniature golf (yeah, I know, it’s corny), and had lots of working lunches and dinners. We even went to see a play at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. Somehow, at the end of the ten days, we had managed to bond and get past both the cultural differences and the quirky personality traits – all three teams had finally started to function as one, which was critical to both project success as well as the corporate bottom line.

What happened during the Canadian and British teams’ visit was truly amazing. Mike and Tom were able to air out their frustration with the overall sloppiness and lack of protocol with the development processes, and the Canadians and British took their criticisms to heart. I did have to play referee and adopt a “Gentlemen, get into your corners” attitude, but it was well-worth the initial less than optimal discussion.

It’s easy to misunderstand and make communication faux pas while on the phone, and not in person. It’s a lot harder to ignore someone when they’re physically sitting across from you at the table… and your body language can give you away in a way that doesn’t happen over a telephone wire. And it’s definitely easier to dismiss and malign another team member’s efforts when you haven’t met them in person.

Project Managers can set the tone and help facilitate the tough discussions when they are needed. We can help smooth things over and remind folks not to take things so personally, and to try to pursue solutions as a team. Perhaps most significantly, we can provide real business value by working to build bridges and relationships between team members, and ensuring that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole so that the project is delivered on time, within budget.


1 thought on “A Tale of Three Cities – London, Toronto, and Redwood Shores”

  1. User Avatar

    Lisa, you should bottle and sell your experiences, along with your great delivery. Have you thought about a book? Great stories and great lessons learned. Thank you for sharing.

    With so many projects being virtual and depending on modern tools (phone, Web and video conferencing, email, voicemail, IM and Twitter), we are, when you boil us all down, still facial-cue driven social creatures. There is really nothing quite like a good face-to-face to build strong relationships quickly, especially if organized and led by an expert such as yourself.

    Even though I’m a big believer in what is possible with virtual teams (http://commutezero.com), face-to-face is somehow just a bit more rewarding to many of us, even though 100% non-virtual teams are rare these days.

    Some day, perhaps, with truly immersive virtual-reality technology on every desktop, we’ll be able to achieve near parity between virtual and face-to-face teams. We certainly must try, as we are living in an age of planet-wide business.

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