The most thought-provoking session, I attended at Agile2009 was on the Distributed Agile stage entitled "Using Virtual Worlds for Distributed Agile".
Now, I'm not normally a fan of distributed working because communication between team members deteriorates with distance. Alistair Cockburn came up with the neat metaphor of erg-seconds as a way of captures the cost in both labor and time to get a question answered. These erg-seconds (and argh-minutes) are often a hidden cost when a distributed team attempts to apply Agile. However, sometimes you just can't avoid distributed working and I've certainly done my share of skype calls. In fact, when Liz and I wrote our book on "Agile Coaching" months would go by where we didn't meet and instead collaborated via Google Docs and Skype.
Most distributed teams need to brush up on their facilitation skills to make meetings via teleconference bearable (see earlier post). However, at State Farm Insurance, teams have been experimenting with virtual worlds. At Agile2009, Keith Voos and Ami Hileman demonstrated a virtual world used by an agile team to collaborate with team members in multiple locations. I was impressed by their findings; for example, conversations in the virtual world were better quality than a conference call and internet access was lower bandwidth than for webcams.
Keith and Ami showed us a virtual team room that a team has been using for activities like:
- Creating stories
- Estimating tasks
- Radiating information
- Tracking work
- Daily Scrum meetings
The space looks very much like a physical team room with colored sticky notes posted up to create a virtual story tracking wall. The developers have also used the virtual world for remote pair programming. There are typical team artifacts: a whiteboard, a burn-chart, a lava lamp showing build status, a calendar, a clock, even some Dilbert cartoons! I've pasted some photos below.
It hasn't been all roses, they have had experience of accidentally deleting walls and also removing avatar clothing. And, of course, virtual worlds don't solve timezone differences. However, the team finds this way of working is fun. On Fridays afternoons, they also play a bubble-shooting game in the virtual world which has helped team building.
I was impressed by the amazing potential of virtual worlds for distributed agile teams, so many people who work in software industry are gamers, it seems blindingly obvious that this is the way ahead for more teams. The tools shown were Qwaq and SecondLife but there are many others out there. And who knows, you may find the cost of these tools cancels out some of those dreaded erg-seconds.