Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Virtue of Necessity. Canary, sublime your company.

The past July 16th I participated in the Tenerife LAN Party, in its section Tenerife Innova, invited by the Free Software Office of La Laguna University, included in the track titled (free translation from Spanish) Open Source from the Canary Islands, stories told in First Person.

This Free Software Office is well known in Spain for managing the biggest KDE deployment in Spain with 3k computers spread in several computer labs, laboratories and libraries, among other internal projects.

My talk (20 min) had as title something like: Virtue of Necessity. Canary, sublime your company. You can find the slides (in Spanish) in my site or in my Slideshare account.

What was the talk about?

The natural growth path for a software company is creating a site, grow until it reaches a point in which, a second production site is needed. Meanwhile, departments like sales and technical support might grow distributed. As the company grows, the number of production sites grow  with it. The organization structure vary with the nature of the company, sometime production teams are replicated across different sites, sometimes different business units are divided per site and others a particular site host teams that take care of different products-(micro)services.

In general, if the company follows an "agile" approach, it will try to reduce the inter-sites communication needs by placing the team members together in a particular site. Based on my experience and how FOSS has been developed, depending on the market you are playing, turning your company into a distributed environment might be a smart move. 

Let's start providing some context and definitions.

What do I mean by sublimation in this context?

Sublimation is a state change in which a substance transit from the solid state to the gas state without going through the liquid one.

What do I mean by a distributed environment?

In most agile literature, in fact in most software development management books, distributed environments are multi-site distribution. But in Open Source, we refer to a different environment. I have came out with the following (subjective) definition:

A distributed environment/organization:
  • Has no site with a significant number of employees (developers). Most of them work remotely.
  • Access most (if not all) corporate application though web, not through VPN, that is, are WAN environments, not LAN.
  • Uses chat-IRC (or equivalent) and video conferences as the default synchronous communication channel.
  • Employees spread across several time zones.
  • Multicultural environment, having English as the default language.
  • Organize regular face to face sprints (as we understand it in FOSS=hackathons), maybe even a corporate event where the whole company or business unit get together.

Open Source as distributed environment

Free/Open Source Software has a geographically distributed nature. As you know, most of the relevant communities, no matter which size are we talking about, are formed by developers located in many different countries, working from home or a company site. If we take a look at the most relevant ones, they are truly global. Every tool, every process, has been designed (intentionally or not) having in mind this distributed nature.

Now that Open Source is everywhere, more and more companies are embracing it, participating on its development, collaborating in global communities. from the process perspective, they are being influenced by the Open Source way, including its distributed nature.

Many of the companies that are embracing Open Source are understanding that adapting to this new environment makes collaboration easier. It reduces the friction between community and internal processes. There is a long way to go but I believe it is unstoppable for a variety of reasons (out of the scope of the talk). We are starting to see more and more organization that are fully distributed and start-ups that are born with such structure in mind.

Canary Islands, a fragmented market.

The Canary Islands is a group of 7 islands in the Atlantic sea, with two major ones (900k people each) and 5 smaller, for a total of 2.1 million people and 11 million tourists per year. Obviously tourism is the main industry, so there are 6 international airports, two national ones and 10 harbours, half of which regularly receive big ships/cruises.

Data connectivity has improved a lot the last 10 years but, due to the difficult geography, it is unequally distributed across the islands. Even within the main islands, Tenerife and Gran Canaria, there is a significant percentage of surface with zero internet coverage.

So it is a very fragmented market and, although with first class communication infrastructure, travel across the islands takes a significant amount of time, it is expensive and connectivity might be a challenge. In general, the transportation strategy has been designed to bring people from Europe not for internal mobility.

This means that, as a software company, consolidation/growth in such market is tough, very tough, even if you focus on tourism.

Software companies there expand following the "natural" approach, which is by creating a software production centre in one of the main islands, providing support from there to the other islands. Until you consolidate your position, software companies cannot afford to have developers/technical support in the second main island. If service/support is required in one of the small islands, you simply travel there. The limitations that software companies has to face due to the market conditions, rarely allow you to create a second software development centre in the Canary Islands.

There are very few Spanish cities with daily direct planes from/to Canary Islands throughout the year. Madrid and Barcelona are the biggest markets but also the most expensive cities. The flight takes 2:30 hours to Madrid and 3 hours to Barcelona, which is a lot for European standards. So opening a second development centre in the mainland keeping the headquarters in the Canary Islands is a real challenge.

In other words, if you want to scale your business, you need to assume bigger risks than companies based in the continent, despite being a cheaper place and having plenty of professional due to the existence of two Universities.

... but,

In my talk I tried to show that all those limitations can be turned into advantages if organizations, early in their consolidation process, or even from the very beginning, adopt a distributed approach. These constrains offer a first class laboratory to experiment with some of the key variables that need to be managed when scaling up your company, while leaving aside some of the most complicated ones, related to great extend with the internationalization of the organization.

I made a call to sublimate your company, going from an "on-site" to a fully distributed state, ignoring the multi-site state. Even better, create your software company as a distributed environment since the very beginning.

Why sublimating your company in the Canary Islands?

I summarized the advantages of sublimating your company if you are based in the Canary Islands, Spain, in the following statements:
  • Distributed environments adapt better to the Canary Islands environment.
  • It will prepare you earlier for the internationalization phase, keeping a smaller size.
  • Distributed environments adapt well to certain business models and support needs, that are becoming popular nowadays.
  • If your company want or is already heavily involved in Open Source communities, adapting your internal processes to those collaborative environment you participate on is easier.
  • Talent attraction is less difficult.
  • Some of your fixed costs turn into production costs, that is, you gain flexibility.

Which variables will be affected by subliming your company?

These are the most relevant variables to consider:
  • Cost per employee: reduction of fixed costs per employee. Increase of travel costs.
  • Organization chart: from vertical to horizontal
  • Human Resources policies: training, coaching, people management. From f2f to online.
  • Data privacy and security: adapt to a WAN environment.
  • Tools: adapted to distributed with higher latency environments
  • Schedule / availability: culture shift, from presence to availability
  • Development and support methodologies: from f2f conversations to remote synchronous/asynchronous channels. From agile to FOSS? Is FOSS agile?. From 8-10 hours or rotation to a higher daily production/availability window.
  • Costumers relation/engagement: from tradition account management to "community" engagement management. Engineers interface customers.
  • Transportation and connectivity: employees need to be connected and travelling demands will increase. Accountability/reimbursement processes will be more complex.
  • Business model: your business model might need to adapt to your new distributed nature.
  • Potential market: the presence of employees in new areas and the fact that your processes are adapted to distributed environments might change your target market and/or nature/size of potential customers.
  • Competitors: the influence of your new distributed nature might alter your positioning against competitors.

There are more but these ones are the ones that should be considered carefully before subliming your company in the Canary Islands. As you grow, internationalization will knock at your door very soon. There are other variables to consider in that case. They are not the scope of this talk:
  • Time zones
  • Multiculturalism
  • Language barrier
  • Retributions and incentives. Cost of living.
  • Fiscal and employment legislation differences
  • Travel and accommodation costs and reimbursements
  • Accountability and taxes
  • Many more...

Summary

The Canary Islands is a tougher market than the mainland of Spain. Adopting early in the software company life cycle a distributed nature allow you to adapt better and faster to this environment, preparing you better for later stages too, specially the internationalization phase. Sublimation provides you a competitive advantage, specially if you develop Open Source and participate in open collaborative environments.

There are a number of variables that should be carefully considered though. Managing them correctly is a requirement to succeed.
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