Global Workgroups

It takes both tools and processes for developers to collaborate long-distance

It's great being able to draw upon your best programmers from throughout the world. SimSci-Esscor, the industrial process simulation and control unit of Invensys PLC, will assign personnel from any of its offices to assemble the right team.

"Our development projects operate in a virtual mode and [gather] people from multiple sites based on project needs," says Joe Ayers, director of development services at SimSci-Esscor in Lake Forest, Calif. "It is common for projects to utilize developers from three different time zones in a 'follow the sun' development mode."

The approach allows Invensys to find the right talent for the project, and work is done in an efficient way. But managing those far-flung developers can be a nightmare.

"Invensys had brought together multiple companies with different cultures and processes," Ayers explains. "Some of the issues we have had to address include duplication of source code, multiple tools and processes in use, and limited network connectivity and reliability."

To tackle these issues, Invensys created a virtual development infrastructure for 135 developers in five locations. To facilitate communication, it incorporated desktop-sharing tools, instant messaging, conference calling and voice-over-IP technology.

For working on the code itself, the company deployed three products from Telelogic AB in Malmo, Sweden: Synergy/CM for controlling project-configuration items, Synergy/Change for controlling change requests, and Synergy/Distributed CM for synchronizing change requests and source code between databases at multiple sites. It also implemented a wide-area file-sharing system from Availl Inc. in Andover, Mass., for other documents.

"With this development structure, we have the ability to add or remove changes to software builds at the last minute, with no project-delivery slips attributed to distributed development complexity over the last year," says Ayers. "We've been able to lower project start-up time and project costs."

Experts say managing distributed development teams requires a mix of processes and tools. "Rarely is it a problem with the technology, though that used to be a major hurdle in the past," says Dale Karolak, vice president of product development at Intier Automotive Inc. in Novi, Mich., and author of Global Software Development: Managing Virtual Teams and Environments (Wiley-IEEE Computer Society Press, 1998). "Most problems now are with communications, documentation and alignment." Intier is a subsidiary of Magna International Inc.

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