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February 9, 2021

Remote Dojo Tech Setup: The lessons we've learned from running remote Dojos

We look into the tech we use when running remote Dojos that help us recreate the in-person experience as much as possible.

Dojos level up your developers faster than any other learning environment. The deep, immersive learning that a Dojo provides allows you to build your team’s skills, strengthen their product knowledge, and create personal connections across the organization with more effective work than any type of instruction manual or webinar.

The challenge is, they’re traditionally done in-person.

But now, in-person Dojos are no longer an option (at least not until the end of the global pandemic).

So what happens when IRL Dojos are off the table? How do you build up your team when you can’t meet in-person? And how do you deep train your team and get everyone on the same page at the same time, from a separate location, without a 19-hour Zoom meeting where you can literally watch people forget how to blink?

We recently tested the limits of what we could do with a remote Dojo by coordinating a Dojo for one of our customer's development teams (seven members spread across three countries) to build an application for a client who was in a fourth country (and spoke a different language).

Communication, language barriers, VDIs, VPNs, and time zones. We ran the gamut of challenges. Yet we still pulled it off.

Here’s how we did it (plus the five painful lessons we learned along the way).

Lesson 1: Work is just as much about culture as it is technology

While in-person Dojos are still the most effective route, we’ve had to learn how to operate them remotely with our customers. Remote working means a lot of preparation, a lot of moving pieces, and an on-going effort to ensure coaches and participants have the proper tools to communicate well and collaborate effectively.

Unfortunately, there’s not an app for that.

In order for your Dojo to succeed, expectations MUST be set. You’ll need your team to minimize distractions, clean their background, and present themselves as they would in person. Clients should have a clear understanding of the times, the software, and the agenda. And please be sure everyone knows if they’ll be muted or on-camera before they enter the call!

A note about Hardware: how you should set up your work-from-home space.

There has been no shortage of information published over the last year about what your work-from-home setup should look like. Heck, maybe you even bought a ring light. But do not underestimate the importance of showing up strong. Because apart from bearing your personality, the key to remote working is having equipment that allows you to be present with your team.

And nothing drives this point home faster than fiddling with your setup and leaning into the camera to show your attendees a real-time close-up of your nostrils.

Lesson 2: Don’t skimp on equipment

Everyone in the Dojo should feel like they are a first-class citizen. Make them part of your team. This means they should be both seen and heard without struggling with poor tech—while learning about tech.

This also means teams should commit to being on camera as much as possible.

Headsets are helpful for anyone who doesn’t have a dedicated home workspace. And luckily, most laptops have cameras built-in. But, some enterprise customers may have laptops without webcams, so be sure to ask beforehand. If you’re running a remote Dojo, it’s essential that everyone on the team can be on video and audio easily.

As a coach, you must be comfortable and confident to approach your team on camera each day. The right equipment is a key component to moving you forward.

From our experience, this external camera works well—and you can grab it for about $80. The HD and flexibility of the camera helps if you’re a coach (and we’ll get to why below).

The Logitech HD Pro Webcam C920, 1080p Widescreen Video Calling and Recording

Having headphones with a noise-canceling microphone is crucial. Most home offices are a chaotic blend of everything from dogs to doorbells, so anything you can do to eliminate the noise is appreciated by others in the Dojo with you. This Jabra headset is a favorite over here. It’s comfortable, has all the features you’d expect, and with nearly two days of battery life, it runs circles around your trusty old earbuds.

We tried some basic options in the beginning. But having spent a little extra on webcams and headsets, we can confidently say, it’s worth it.

Pro tip: Enterprises and managers should be willing to invest in the team and make sure they have the proper equipment to fully engage and participate in the Dojo. This will pay for itself over and over again.

Apart from equipment, it takes an equal amount of commitment from everyone - particularly the coach - to establish a working norm of being present for your team. That being said...

Lesson 3: Video fatigue is real

It's unrealistic to be on video all day every day in the Dojo.

To avoid this, we recommend setting core hours of working together where the team agrees to be on video. Some people may feel embarrassed to “showcase” their home/life in the background, whether it’s toddlers running around or working from a bedroom. If this is the case, let’s all raise our hands in thanks and give a thumbs up to the tech team at Zoom for their AI background features! (We’ll get into this and other specifics in a future blog.)

Be sure your participants know that family interruptions are OK and part of our new normal (plus, nothing lightens the mood of a meeting like an unexpected dog).

Lesson 4: Being seen and heard — communication tools for your Dojo

Dojos are as much about communicating with people as they are about communicating ideas. Without tools to help your teams talk to each other and tools to help you share the ideas, you’re not going to get the most out of your remote Dojo experience.

Chat tools you can use

Once you have the equipment to be present with the team, it’s time to get the right technologies. The perfect stack will help you work together in the Dojo with visible and transparent communication, and it gives people a chance to share insights you might not even know.

In addition to standard remote working tools like chat and video conferencing, digital whiteboards and code co-editing tools will enhance the Dojo experience.

At Liatrio, we love Slack.  And we fill all the stereotypes with how we use it. But there are a few other chat tools available.

Most enterprises we work with have implementations of Microsoft Teams or Mattermost. The specific tool will make sense within the enterprise ecosystem (like Teams for Azure/Microsoft users). The important part is persistent, visible communication. We discourage the use of short-term chat like Skype or hidden communication using alternative, private channels. The problem with this kind of communication is that there’s no visibility. Sometimes, when you’re chatting or answering questions on private channels, you answer questions that everybody has. By keeping those answers in a place no one can see them, the value of your response is lost.

Visibility is a huge part of the success of a Dojo. Don’t be afraid to ask questions in public (there are no stupid questions) and don’t be shy about sharing the knowledge you have. The goal is to create a shared knowledge base.

While Liatrio has been enjoying the benefits of Zoom and its “Brady Bunch view” since before the pandemic, many of the other video conferencing tools have caught up to it. When it comes to features, Zoom has breakout rooms, which is perfect for helping teams to work in subgroups. But note it currently lacks the ability to hop in and out of breakout rooms at-will.

After trying every option we could google, the technique we landed on is starting the day on one video call, then spinning off into multiple simultaneous calls so members and coaches can jump back and forth between work items.

Whiteboards will change your life

For in-person Dojos, it’s no exaggeration to say that whiteboards get used as much as laptops. But, presenting while coding, hopping between tabs, explaining yourself, dealing with built-in microphones, and running a live whiteboard session is about as easy as patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time. While hurtling through space. On camera. While hiding an angry honey badger in your pants. On a Tuesday.

Mural (or its competitor Miro) is the best option we’ve found. It’s an easy win and plays nicely with your screen share. It’s a great tool for the Dojo coaching team to leverage across the entire experience, from consult and chartering to whiteboarding. However, for individuals within the Dojo team, the steep learning curve, along with a per-user license doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Pro Tip: Unless you’re a Dojo coach, you likely don’t need to purchase a Mural license. (Look for a future blog where we’ll go through how we use these digital whiteboard tools throughout the Dojo journey.)

Make code sharing as easy as possible

Co-editing features like Visual Studio’s Live Share can help recreate the pair programming experience by simplifying real-time collaborative development. But, because of security concerns around implementation, we don’t have a lot of experience with it at the enterprise level. We use it internally on occasion, and from what we’ve seen, it has pros and cons.

The benefits are clear - it’s fast and task-switching is minimal. However, working in the Dojo isn’t a race. It’s an immersive learning experience for your team. Live co-editing could come at the cost of a collective, single learning experience. Ultimately, code co-editing isn’t a necessary tool for remote Dojos, but there is value when done well.

If you decide to use co-editing in the Dojo, it should be to minimize overhead of shared learning and should not be used to work on multiple things at the same time.

Once again, as a coach it’s your responsibility to work with your organization to ensure platforms are accessible, technologies are in place, and accounts are set up for the team to work well together.

Lesson 5: Pro tips for Coaches

The challenge we face is maintaining control through sessions and providing clear direction from one activity to the next. These recommendations are a mix of technologies and practices that help us emulate an in-person experience.

Command control with a standing desk

Just as an in-person coach controls the room, a remote coach can duplicate that same experience by standing in front of your desk. Apart from the physical benefits of standing, it helps you lead effectively and communicate clearly.

It can help to start the day off standing, as well as getting on your feet during some of the core hours (like when that post-lunch food coma kicks in). But remember, standing all day can be draining. Between using a fatigue mat, or just sitting down, be sure to give yourself a break.

Basic mats are available for occasional standing, while higher quality or wobble boards are available for longer periods of time.

Minimize task-switching with multiple monitors

Running a remote Dojo requires multiple applications and dozens of browser tabs. Having a second monitor provides more real estate to keep your eyes on the many moving parts.

  • Running the stream
  • Monitoring the chat
  • Tracking the team’s backlog
  • Reviewing pull requests
  • Running pipelines
  • Updating Dojo status on wikis
  • Creating whiteboards

The reality is, running a remote Dojo needs a decent amount of screen real estate. Things get complex. All of this is much easier on 2+ screens. In fact, we recommend at least three monitors. By simply having an extra screen available, you can have one monitor to focus on communication channels and information radiators, while your primary monitor is divided into the screenshare and active work.

The challenges of real-time whiteboarding

It can be difficult to use video conference tools for whiteboarding, compared to Mural (although, we are huge fans of using Zoom’s overlay annotations during screenshare). And while Mural is helpful for templated whiteboard conversations, a simulated whiteboard is preferable.

You can also use your iPad and join the video call as a second user. Different video conferencing tools allow you to sign in simultaneously on multiple devices. Otherwise, you may need to join as a guest or use a second user account. By joining on your iPad and using Apple’s Pencil, you can screen share and easily recreate the whiteboard experience.

The problem with this approach is that iPads aren’t cheap and you have to go through the extra step of signing in twice with separate devices (not to mention the kind of wonky setup you’d need to use this effectively).

A drawing tablet, like a Wacom, is a much better option. They’re cheaper, for one. And, you don’t have to go through the hassle of logging in as a second user. It can act as a digital whiteboard through screen sharing.

Final Thoughts

With a few minor adjustments, your remote Dojos can work as well as ever. After a year of exploring the what, whys, and hows of the technology required to run remote Dojos we’ve found that, when adopted correctly, these technologies enable an immersive experience. Teams can still learn together, collaborate effectively, and apply new technologies and patterns to their products.

But let’s not hide the challenges. When it comes time to implement the gap from idea to reality, teams may use tools differently than expected (not always a bad thing). And you may still need to manage red-tape within the enterprise (no comment).

As a coach, we recommend you do as much as possible to work in this new and collaborative way. Commit to being on video for several hours each day - even when no one else is on video.

It may seem strange at first, but leading by example is a great way to build your team.

In our next post on remote Dojos, we’re going to be talking about templates that you can use in your Dojo. Until then, reach out if you’d like to learn more!

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