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Choose the best tools for Agile virtual collaboration

Colocation is getting harder to achieve. Our expert, Yvette Francino, talked about what distributed Agile teams can do to collaborate from a distance.

The Agile Manifesto makes it clear teams must be "physically together," but what if they're not? In this podcast, SearchSoftwareQuality spoke with regular TechTarget contributor and Agile coach Yvette Francino in Boulder, Colo., about different ways to communicate and foster virtual collaboration.

The first step, Francino said, is to stop taking the Manifesto so literally. "Face to face is an efficient way to communicate, but I don't like the fact that people interpret the idea of colocation as a mandate and insist on it," she said. "That's a really big disadvantage and it puts people in the wrong mind-set. It becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy."

And also, it's just plain unrealistic to assume you can actually have a collocated team in any but the smallest companies, she explained. "We all are on a distributed team. People do not need to feel they cannot communicate well with someone because they are not physically present. There are definitely advantages of being a distributed team," she added. The secret is in learning how to take advantage of what she calls Agile virtual collaboration.

Thanks to social media, the cloud and mobile devices, it's easier than it has ever been for people to communicate -- and collaborate -- virtually. One example is Skype, on which you can have virtual face-to-face collaboration. "There are a lot of great tools available now, but some of them are complex, and most people want simplicity and speed." Her advice: Try everything and keep looking for creative ways to communicate no matter where your team members are located.

It is important to remember that even the best tools for distributed collaboration are going to require work and commitment, Francino said. Some don't allow team members to see each other's body language; others make it way too easy to multitask, and thus, are not fully engaged. "You do need to focus on the relationship over the tool and make sure that that's strong. You need an engaged mind-set to be there for the team."

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Which tools work best for you when it comes to virtual collaboration?
I had a great experience with Trello using it as an "informal" test management and bug tracking tool within sprints:
- it's fast and nice, easy to set up and use.
- cards were used for tracking of testing tasks, reporting coverage, questions to BA and Dev.
- Dev would convert items into tasks for bug fixing.
- Everything is highly visible and trackable.

Thus, for work-in-progress testing we kept track of everything while "official" quality metrics were used during System / Integration Testing period.

We use Rally for project management and story tracking, Webex for meetings, Jabber for IM and phone calls. Also, we use Ideaboardz to do virtual retrospective meetings each iteration. It's a lot of different tools, but it works.
I think the best 'tool' for collaboration is simply the willingness and experience in using whatever tool that the team finds useful.
To share a story as an example: When testing a web application, the project manager recommended using a Confluence table for notes on bugs, instead of writing detailed bug reports to Jira. We would briefly discuss found bugs over skype and add a row to the Confluence table. The Dev would mark it "done" and I would color it green once the fix had been tested. Since everyone was fully engaged with the single project, the table provided a good overview and was quick and easy to use.

For more serious bugs that required outside help, we would still use Jira.
Just this year at a conference I heard some experiences from distributed teams. It occurred to me that there's an agile part onsite and flexible (high turnaround) part in offshore. After a few more years we'll have more statistics to judge whether it's an oxymoron or not.
"The Agile Manifesto makes it clear teams must be "physically together," but what if they're not? " Actually that's not entirely correct. its one of the principals of agile that The most efficient and effective method of 
conveying information to and within a development 
team is face-to-face conversation."

Notice that phrase, face-to-face, it certainly helps, but we have all kinds of video conferencing solutions from AT&T, to Cisco, to WebEx, or GoToMeething, Hangouts, and Skype.  I think this principal has been taken too far to make people think they must be physical.  This is not so, but a team that can't communicate well via remote, may not see those problems disappear if they are all in the same room anyways.