Why Remote Engineering Is So Difficult

January 4, 2015

Steven Sinofsky also responds to the recent discussion on remote working and hiring:

Overall the big challenge in geography is communication. There just can’t be enough of it at the right bandwidth at the right time. I love all the tools we have. Those work miracles. As many comments from personal experience have talked about on the HN thread, they don’t quite replace what is needed. This post isn’t about that debate-I’m optimistic that these tools will continue to improve dramatically. One shouldn’t under estimate the impact of time zones as well. Even just coast to coast in the US can dramatically alter things.

The core challenge with remote work is not how it is defined right here and now. In fact that is often very easy. It usually only takes a single in person meeting to define how things should be split up. Then the collaboration tools can help to nurture the work and project. It is often the case that this work is very successful for the initial run of the project. The challenge is not the short term, but what happens next.

Sinofsky knows a thing or two about this. As a long-time Microsoft employee and former head of Windows and Office, he’s overseen two of the largest sustainable engineering projects of the past 30 years. He touches on an important point here that I agree with: at first, remote working can seem to work very well.

Anyone can work remotely for a few weeks, or on one small project. Sustaining a high-quality work ethic remotely over time is very difficult. I previously mentioned that my company has had good success with remote working, especially in engineering talent. The reason I think we’ve been successful: we’re a services agency and work on many new projects each year with small, focused teams. We are in the exact sweet spot Sinofsky alludes to where the workload is new, the team is typically always in the ‘initial run’ and we’re all working towards a concise common goal. Our formula and business model fit well with remote working but, as Sinofsky clearly notes, this doesn’t mean it works for every business and every model.