Support to n-Coders – A case study

n-Coders is a leading South West based software development company developing bespoke business automation packages for a wide range of companies in many different sectors. These systems have included amongst others: time management programmes for a large skilled workforce, software applications for a hi-tech gym system; business applications for financial; legal services with a need to automate man-hour intensive processes; and a booking system for a holiday company.

We were invited to work with the n-Coders team to look at three key areas: Strategic Planning, Operational Streamlining and Business Development.

Strategic Planning was something that the company’s senior management had made an initial start. However, as is often the case, the day to day pressures of delivering products and outputs to the customer had pushed this strategic development down the priority list. We were able to help. Initially by understanding what n-Coders did; its unique offer; its process for delivering that offer; its aims for the future. We were then in a position to write a comprehensive plan for developing those aspirations for the future; putting in place some realistic way-points to get there. We were able to set the team off on this course. Going forward it is essential that the plan is regularly reviewed and adjusted according to circumstances and progress.

At the same time we looked at Operational Delivery. As is often the case the company had grown organically from a very small and efficient 1-2 person team into 8 team members. This is fine until the demands of orders become such that a process needs to be established in order that manpower is efficiently used, quality is assured and output in delivered in a timely fashion. Building software requires all of these factors to be well refined and understood. This is what we did. Key within it was the process of build, test, merge and deployment of each version of software and importantly building a matrix by which each project had sufficient time allocated to it to reach deadlines required. Not easy and there were some difficulties however now there is a robust process in place which should ensure: Quality and Timeliness.

With all small teams there is often the need for team members to be double or treble hatted. So while delivering operational output, within the optimum processes that had been developed there was a need to also look for new business. We worked through this with the team; identifying time needed in which to reach out to new customers – attending business shows, online research, developing an online presence, through websites and social media. Importantly the need to maintain and upset to current customers is a must; they know how the company works, its products and hopefully are very content with what they have had developed previously.

Finally recruitment we helped to identify where and what priority the next team members should be. Technical operational lead was essential, the constant search for the right software developers and key administrative support.

The company has a full order book going forward and we maintain a close link with the senior management.

Remote Management Systems – Communications

Good communication between the manager and those being managed is key to the success of any business. Without good communication individual effort is just that: the multiplying effect of the whole team working as one is lost. Communicating at a distance brings many complications; broadly if you are not physically in the same work space then side-conversations and office chat is lost. Often these communications are important and should be facilitated somehow. An unevenly split team may isolate one or more other members of a team where ‘asides’ are happening and not captured unless discipline is applied. It is worth highlighting three interrelated problems that can occur in this situation: lack of the human interface i.e. the loss of facial nuance; the possibility of misinterpretation particularly when using email; a danger of duplication of effort unless clear direction is communicated.

Regular ‘meetings’ need to be scheduled. At least one formal team meeting a week where a well understood and repeat agenda is used to lead the discussion must be in place. This ensures everyone present knows what will be covered and by whom. Speakers are ready to contribute the key information they hold, no time is wasted and the maximum amount of information transfer is achieved. This in turn will elicit from the manager the direction and clarification the team needs. For example, the HM editorial team meeting is held on Monday at 0800 hrs GMT and 1600 HK, there is a set agenda and rhythm. This works very well as the Hong Kong have the morning to clear immediate ‘first day of the week issues’ and then are well placed and prepared to inform the weekly meeting at 1600 hrs. The meeting is prompt and succinct. It is also at this meeting where focused work for the week is confirmed and leads are designated.

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Beyond the formal weekly meetings it is important to schedule specific discussion group for the whole team or parts of the team to deal with particular detail on an ad hoc basis. These can be called when required, but importantly they must be an open forum to those that have a stake in the particular issue. If everyone concerned is not present at such a discussion group then information to that person must be communicated and any feed back captured. This in turn needs sharing with the group and can be usefully circulated in a short ROD email to all. Informal dialogue / banter is equally important to raising HR issues and staffing concerns; this interaction helps maintain a good working environment.

smartsheet project management tools

Communication using management tools (such as Smartsheet and Basecamp) such as tasking matrices, timelines and milestones, activity monitoring systems and an intuitive filing system which is reflected in emails and messaging all assist with the clarity of communications and adds a point of reference for all team members.

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Face to face meetings. It is important to have regular face to face meetings. Clearly not easy when the team is geographically spread. Primarily this is good for passing information but more importantly it is a key moment when relationships are cemented. It is also an opportune moment when difficult issues can be tackled, for example: where the manager needs to deal with specific HR issues.

Communication whether it be spoken or written must be delivered in plain English; when using jargon do consider whether others will understand it. This will keep the business of communication short and clear. We can all get bogged down in the language of our chosen sector and with this there is a possible danger of information becoming unclear.

In essence, none of this is complicated but it is certainly more difficult than it might seem. Concerted effort is required in order to maintain regular, clear and meaningful communications particularity when working across time zones and continents.

The next post will look at the technology available that has facilitated our ability to improve Remote Management for the HM Editorial Team.

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