On April 1, 2020, Very partnered with the MIT Enterprise Forum to host a virtual summit featuring the CTO of Vizio and our own engineering leaders, titled Going Remote: How to Develop IoT Products with a Distributed Team.
Watch the recording of the summit here:
- Mark Thirman, Board Member, MIT Enterprise Forum
- Bill Baxter, CTO, Vizio
- Bill Brock, VP of Engineering, Very
- Jeff McGehee, Director of Engineering, Very
Created to offer guidance for engineering leaders new to managing remote teams in the wake of COVID-19, as well as to provide compelling content ahead of MITEF’s Connected Things 2020 event in September, the event drew over 200 registrants from leaders at the top of their industries.
While we definitely recommend watching the recording of the summit above to hear some great dialogue from our panelists, we’ve also pulled out the highlights from their conversation to explore at your convenience.
Challenges Companies Are Facing in the Transition to Remote Work
We began the virtual summit with a question for our attendees to understand what brought them there:
What challenges are you facing as the novel coronavirus pandemic pushes more and more teams to work remotely?
Among the top answers were:
- Costs of implementation for remote work
- Non-stop Zoom calls back-to-back
- Difficulty prioritizing tasks
- Lack of “water cooler talk” to bond with colleagues and inspire creative solutions
Our personal favorite, highly relatable challenge we heard?
“Not being able to point to the thing on my client's screen that they need to click on.”
Honestly — been there.
Turning to our panelists, Vizio CTO Bill Baxter shared that because developing smart TVs already requires collaboration between teams all over the world (from China to Taiwan, the US, South America, and Ukraine), Vizio works well in a distributed environment.
However, the abrupt switch to everyone working from home has still brought unforeseen challenges.
“We didn't anticipate that everyone would be working from home, so you would have slightly higher productivity under certain circumstances when people are in the office,” Baxter said. “In the office, they’re able to have face-to-face stand-ups. They're able to get questions answered quickly instead of asynchronously. You can co-develop much easier in some cases, especially in the TV space, where the device itself is the thing you need to develop on, and there's a lot of diversity in the hardware and in the software on TVs.”
What Changes Can Companies Make to Adapt to Remote-Only Work?
In light of the challenges companies are facing, what are some concrete tactics leaders can use to tackle them?
Increasing Productivity and Staying Agile
At Vizio, Baxter shared the steps they’ve taken so far to keep productivity levels high, including:
- Making sure each employee has adequate space and equipment to successfully work from home
- Distributing guidelines for managers and individual contributors on working remotely, like:
- Answer questions in community forums like Slack instead of through one-on-one interactions so that information is shared with everyone more quickly
- Conduct multiple stand-ups each day to get a solid idea of where people are at and how projects are progressing
Bill Brock, Very’s VP of Engineering, reiterated the importance of making information readily accessible based on his years of experience as a remote manager.
“Any salesperson, any account manager, any project manager should be able to dive into our resources and see where a current project is at — the status of the customer relationship, issues and blockers on a feature level, or even budget and runway,” Brock said. “Transparency is one of our huge company values, and it makes operating efficiently as a remote organization much easier because you're not having to have a lot of one-off conversations.”
Managing Hardware Engineering Remotely
While companies across industries are encountering the “typical” challenges of working remotely, like lack of face-to-face interaction with colleagues or distractions at home, companies in the hardware engineering business like Vizio and Very additionally face some unique problems.
At Vizio, Baxter noted that some of the smart TVs that the company produces can measure up to 85 inches, and many employees don’t have enough space at home to perform necessary testing on a product that large.
“The logistics of distributing those can be a nightmare, so we've been working to ensure that we have the available resources for people to test,” Baxter said. “It revealed areas for improvement in our testing protocols that we were then able to shore up.”
Jeff McGehee, Very’s Director of Engineering, acknowledged similar challenges with performing hardware engineering remotely and shared how the Very team has adapted.
One important tactic McGehee said the Very team uses is to duplicate ownership of a lot of hardware, so every developer has the hardware that they need.
“We always try to err on the side of over-equipping a team member instead of under-equipping one, because when you're developing in this way on these complex systems, time is the most critical asset that you have,” McGehee said. “If you end up waiting a day or so for something to get shipped to you, that can be hugely detrimental to the project, so we generally follow a pattern of ‘if one developer needs it, probably everyone on the team will need it.’”
McGehee also shared the role that IoT hardware virtualization and emulation plays in Very’s development process.
“We're always looking for tools that allow us to work faster in a distributed setting, and any time you can simulate hardware it gives you faster feedback loops,” McGehee said.
McGehee noted that Very has leveraged Jumper for the STM family of chips, and firmware frameworks like Nerves that have good hardware abstraction built in, so engineers can do a lot of the development without the hardware.
Our moderator Mark Thirman from MIT Enterprise Forum raised another great question for our panelists: if innovation usually happens when people are clustered together in a lab or large open environment, how do you get great ideas to gestate and turn into a product when people are dispersed?
McGehee responded by talking about how the team at Very frequently pairs programmers across disciplines to come up with creative new solutions.
“We try to really design things so that our team members can work in a collaborative way and sort of mimic the office,” McGehee said. “A lot of interesting things come out of the hardware engineers and the software engineers trying to work together.”
Is This the Future of Work?
Finally, moderator Thirman asked our panelists: will the COVID-19 pandemic change the future of work?
Baxter replied that pre-COVID at Vizio, there was hesitation to allow for distance working, and they didn’t have the tools in place to measure whether it would be successful or not. Today, however, they do have those tools. They’re measuring their productivity, and they’re finding that productivity isn't dropping in the way they’d expected.
While there are definitely areas for improvement, Baxter noted that Vizio, like many other companies, was using multiple expensive facilities all around the United States prior to the novel coronavirus epidemic. Now, they have the opportunity to ask: is that really what we or our employees want and need?
“We have people that live in LA and drive two hours one way to go to work,” Baxter said. “Now we have the chance to give them back those four hours each day and see what it does to their morale and their productivity and their commitment.
“I do think it's going to become a new norm. If not because this may be a prolonged situation, then just because it's very practical.”
Looking for More Advice on How to Manage a Distributed Team?
We at Very have been working remotely for years, and along the way we’ve discovered specific, proven techniques that engineering leaders can use to improve productivity and engagement for remote employees. Check out The CTO’s Guide to Leading a Distributed Team here to learn more.