CTO Series: How to Build a Distributed Tech Team

The success of distributed teams is a topic close to our hearts at Andela. For this installation of our CTO webinar series, we sat down with Tray Lewin, Chief Technology Officer at Connect, to talk about what goes into building a successful distributed tech team. Tray has built and led distributed teams as CTO of multiple startups and Chief Architect and Product Lead at Accenture, so we were excited to talk to him about what he views as the three key components of team success: people, work, and culture.PeopleAt the end of the day, Tray says, “It’s all about the people.” Specifically, it’s about finding the right people -- and keeping them motivated and happy. After onboarding team members through a combination of traditional hiring resources and partners like Andela, Tray keeps team members inspired by cultivating a shared understanding of the team’s mission and linking it with that of Connect as a company.“People are motivated by different things,” Tray says, so it’s essential to “align the way you motivate them with what is really important to them.” For Connect’s engineers, the principal motivator is challenge. To keep the team engaged with their work, Tray takes notice when developers are becoming too comfortable and helps them stretch their skills by dipping into programming languages beyond those they’re most adept with.Work“Our goal is to have work structured and very clear, but not rigid,” Tray says. Connect employs Agile methodology, planning their work in two-week sprints with clearly identified short-term milestones and daily standups to keep everyone on the same page.With four Andela developers on Connect’s engineering team, team unity is essential. To reinforce this, Connect calls its Andela developers “Team East” and the team in San Francisco “Team West.” Collaboration tools like Slack, Aha!, and Jira are critical to team success, and team meetings are time-zone aware to ensure that everyone can participate.A key component of Connect’s success strategy is pair programming across time zones. To encourage collaboration and information-sharing, two developers work simultaneously on same computer, with one coding on the keyboard and the other asking questions, making suggestions, and looking things up as needed. For Connect, pair programming is a boon to productivity, especially when pairing two developers with different skill levels. “It’s the best possible way to bring people up to speed and share insights,” Tray says. “There’s nothing like learning by doing, and that’s what pair programming does for us.”CultureAt Connect, Tray says, “We want people to be people, not just coworkers.” His team embodies this philosophy through weekly rituals such as Un-Conference, which is held at the end of each sprint. Un-Conference allows anyone in the company to present something they’ve learned to the team, promoting team building as well as cross-functional learning. Another ritual is TGIF, a weekly meeting where everyone shares their wins for the week and recognizes those of other team members, keeping the team connected to their work and each other.Tray emphasizes that “rituals extend remotely,” with Team East involved in Un-Conference and participating in TGIF virtually through Slack, sharing wins and accolades. Above all, Tray says, “We work very hard to make sure they stay connected.”You can watch the full webinar here for more of Tray's insights into distributed team success. Interested in hearing more CTO perspectives on how to build and scale an engineering team? Check out our Resources page for past events in our CTO Series.

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