Leveling the Playing Field at Sun (and elsewhere)

The Sun Global Technology Conference in Bangalore last week included a session on Global Engineering during which we discussed the challenges around building and running an effective, widely distributed engineering organization. I'd like to share a suggestion I made during this session. It addresses only a specific aspect of the global engineering challenge, but I believe it could deliver real value for Sun, Sun's employees, and ultimately Sun's customers.

In a nutshell: Ban the use of conference rooms at Sun for meetings with multi-site attendees.

It would cost a modest amount to ensure employees have headsets for quality, full-duplex audio, but if we are serious about being a global company, this suggestion should be studied carefully.

For our senior executives, it's probably been awhile since you've been stuck on a phone, dialed into a conference room full of people who you can't hear, who haven't remembered to email the conference materials, and who use whiteboards you can't see. If you can get past all that, now try to actually participate in the conversation instead of just trying to listen. It doesn't work. And better conference room audio systems are not the answer.

As a senior technical person, I find such meetings annoying, but I make it work as best I can. I'm not shy about insisting that the meeting materials be sent out or about being aggressive in inserting myself into the conversation, despite the difficulties of being heard on the phone. But what about our less senior engineers? Or engineers in countries where such aggressiveness isn't part of their culture? Sure, they need to step up and participate in Sun's engineering culture, but why not remove a significant barrier to their full participation? One that we can easily address with a small technology investment.

In terms of how meetings should work, I've been involved for several years in several standing meetings where everyone is required to use a headset even though these meetings involve groups of people on each of the Burlington, Menlo Park, and San Diego campuses. We could use three conference rooms, but we don't. And what a difference it makes:

Conference materials must be sent out to everyone. And the audio playing field is completely leveled, allowing everyone to participate equally. It's true that tools must be used to share online demos and do whiteboarding, but such tools allow everyone to participate, regardless of location.

Some may argue reasonably that this is a lowest common denominator approach which removes the benefits co-located attendees derive from sitting in conference rooms together. While that may be so, there are other ways for co-located employees to replace that in-person meeting interaction, for example through hallway conversations, after-work socializing, cafeteria lunches, etc. That problem is a lot easier to fix than the remote ("remote" is headquarters-speak--there are no remote employees) distributed collaboration problem.

It doesn't take a corporate ban to start levelling the playing field. I don't like big policies like this anyway. If you run a meeting with distributed attendees and are serious about allowing all your team members to contribute equally, make the change. Just do it!


Comments:

I find it amazing that after the many years Sun has been trying to push distributed collaboration that this is still an issue. I think the number of meetings that have an in person contingency have significantly been reduced since I started attending distributed meetings. Though I feel the technology for leveling or increasing the interaction between attendees in distributed meetings really haven't made much strides. It's been my experience that the tools I've used suffer from one or more of a vast number of problems. I normally use vnc even though it has certain revision and control issues. I find tools like meeting central interesting but it suffers from scalability and buy-in issues (that is convincing everyone to use it). One day I hope mental telepathy will conquer this issue and make it so one can transfer thoughts directly without relying on tools and keyboards. Though then people might see really how messy my mind is.

Posted by Terry Dontje on July 31, 2006 at 12:39 AM EDT #

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