How to follow-the-sun to a bright future

How to follow-the-sun to a bright future

Bringing a product to market can be very challenging. Development takes time, but if a product is built too slow, users leave for competing products. Your team is working 8 hours a day to build a great product. But what if that is not enough?

When the time comes to grow your business, there may be more options than you think. Traditionally, a company hires more personnel, maybe it moves to a bigger office to accommodate for the growth, and eventually the teams will be distributed over multiple offices. But in 1999, Erran Carmel wrote about a different way to work globally with software teams[1]. In this book, he proposed a methodology known as follow-the-sun software development. The idea behind this methodology is that you have distributed teams working in different timezones, and these teams work alternating, creating globally distributed work load. When a team in one location ends their workday, they transfer the work to the next team, that has just started their day. The next day, the first team gets a status report from a team that has just ended their work day, and take over the development of the product.

Distributing teams over the globe can spread the workload over 24 hours per day instead of 8. This has many benefits, but also comes with a couple of important challenges.

This post will show you the benefits and challenges of follow-the-sun. First, we will take a critical look at what a company needs to be able to apply follow-the-sun. After that, we will explain how to start implementing follow-the-sun in your company. We then analyze common pitfalls, to help you prevent surprises. Finally, we will show what is possible if you have successfully implemented FTS in your company.

Sounds good, but does this fit my company?

The most important characteristic of the follow-the-sun principle, is that multiple teams work in multiple time zones. So if your company doesn’t have the capabilities to do this, then it is time to look for another solution. However, if your company is able to do this, follow-the-sun is a method to consider.

While the benefits of FTS can be promising, many companies that use FTS encounter problems. These problems are caused by lack of coordination, communication or because of cultural differences between the teams. These three aspects are the leading causes of failure in follow-the-sun[2]. But if you are willing to invest time and resources into avoiding or resolving these problems, follow-the-sun can bring many benefits, such as access to new markets, rapid software development and cultural exploration for employees.

Having said that, working in different time zones often means working in different countries, and therefore working with different cultures. Your company should be ready for this. Your employees should be willing to communicate and interact with colleagues in other ways than that they are used to, due to cultural differences.

Your company also should be able to guarantee support for all the teams around the globe. This means that not only the employees in your head-office should get support, but also the teams working on the project on the other side of the world, working while everyone from the head-office is sleeping.

When your company fits this profile, FTS can really speed up the process when your project consists of tasks that block each other. For example, suppose you have 2 teams, working in the same time zone and 2 tasks, where task 1 has to be finished before task 2 can be started. In this case team 1 can work on task 1 and team 2 has to wait until team 1 is finished. If these tasks both take 8 hours to complete, it takes 2 full work-days and both teams are waiting a whole day.

If the teams are located in different time zones with a difference of 8 hours, team 2 can start immediately with task 2 and it only takes 16 hours to complete both tasks.

How do I get started?

Deciding to start using follow-the-sun is only the first step. Now, you actually need to get started. Therefore, it’s time to pick a partner company elsewhere in the world. And this isn’t as trivial as you may think. A couple of factors need to be considered:

  1. There must be some overlap between the teams’ working hours to do a proper handoff of project status and ongoing issues[3]. If a team starts their workday without any idea of what happened since the last time they’ve worked on the project, this can cause surprises, mistakes and arguments.
  2. Different locations also implies different types of people. The culture of both the people working at the company, as well as their customers, can be of great impact on how employees can collaborate.
  3. You need to make sure the views of both you and your partner company align, to make sure the collaboration works.

What are the challenges?

As already mentioned, it is hard to have a successful FTS project. Most results of the FTS projects that are documented are not very positive, as they faced one or more problems in coordination, communication and/or cultural differences. We will explain and briefly discuss the biggest pitfalls in the video below.

Most problems in follow-the-sun projects can be categorized in three major problem areas: Coordination, communication and cultural differences[4]. Most of the pitfalls that are discussed in the video are part of one of these categories. It is important to focus on these aspects before the project begins, but also while the project is running. We will discuss each problem area and give some examples on how it may be problematic in your project.

Because the teams work in different time zones, coordination and communication might be the biggest challenges. It is already hard to coordinate teams inside the same company or even in the same building, but when teams work at completely different hours all around the world, coordination becomes even harder. It is important to have frequent contact with the other teams’ managers to make sure that you all want to achieve the same goal and the right decisions are being made. Let us give an example: Let’s say that you work with 4 teams that work on the same project and you have transferred the work to the second team. However, they have made a wrong assumption about the goal of the project and start to differ from the optimal solution. Then the third team will work further on their progress and they also might have a different view. And then there is the last team. So within 16 hours (the hours you weren’t working), most of the work must be changed to get on the right track again. So instead of being 16 hours ahead of the normal working method, you now have 16 hours of work to fix. This can be avoided by having the proper coordination and communication between the teams.

To aid with solving the coordination issue, many FTS companies use some form of time-shifting, to increase the overlap in hours. Time-shifting means that you may work on a different time in your day in order to bridge the timezone difference to a minimum. If one partner starts a bit earlier and another a bit later, there is a considerable longer window

On top of these problems comes the cultural differences between the teams. It is very unlikely that you are able to find perfect teams all around the world where each team has the same cultural background. One tool that is great to compare cultures (countries) is the Dimensions of national culture by Geert Hofstede[5]. This method uses a relative scoring mechanism for six dimensions:

  1. Power Distance Index (PDI).
  2. Individualism vs. Collectivism (IDV)
  3. Masculinity vs. Femininity (MAS)
  4. Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI)
  5. Long Term Orientation versus Short Term Normative Orientation (LTO)
  6. Indulgence vs. Restraint (IND)

Each country gets a score between 0 and 100 where 50 is the midlevel. So if a country scores below 50, then it scores relatively low on that scale compared to the other countries. There are no good or bad scores, it is just an observation which can help you to understand how other cultures behave. However, be careful with extrapolating these scores to an individual level. Every person behaves different, so this method should only be used to get a first impression. To explain what each dimension depicts, we will compare the Netherlands with India.

The PDI for the Netherlands is 38, which means that people do not take hierarchical order for granted, whereas in India it is very normal that there is a clear difference between the boss and his employee. That is why India scores 77 on the PDI scale. This can be useful when communicating with the different levels inside the company, where a manager in the Netherlands will be used to critique from his/her employees, but in India this will likely not happen.

The next dimension, IDV, shows how individually people operate in their daily lives. In the Netherlands it is normal to do most things in groups, where help from others is normal. Therefore it scores 80 in this aspect. However, in India people tend to do things more individually. That’s why they score 48. Compared to all countries, India scores around average, but compared to the Netherlands we can say that there is a big difference.

The MAS index shows whether people are driven by “becoming the best” (masculine) or “liking what you do” (feminine) [5]. Again, we can see a big difference between the Netherlands (14) and India (56). This means that, in general, Indians are more aimed at competition than Dutch people, who will tend to do whatever they like.

An index where the difference between the two countries is relatively small is the UAI, which indicates how much people want to avoid uncertainty. Dutch people in general score a 53, meaning that they tend to slightly avoid uncertainty. India scores 40, meaning they accept imperfections a bit more than average.

The LTO index indicates whether a culture is focused on the short term (low score) or the long term (high score). India is somewhere in between, being pragmatic on one hand, but quite religious on the other hand. The Dutch, being quite a pragmatic culture, score 67 on this index. That means they try to change the future by educating the future generations, and adapting to changing conditions.

At last, the IND shows a big difference between the Netherlands and India. The Dutch, scoring 68 on this index, tend to enjoy leisure time and go out a lot. Cultures scoring high on this are often more optimistic, whereas a culture such as the Indian, scoring 24 is considered to be more pessimistic. They “put less emphasis on leisure time and control the gratification of their desires”[5].

It is likely that one or more of these things will happen in your project, but if you can recognize the problem and act quickly on it, then you will be able to continue doing FTS in your company for a long time.

I use follow-the-sun! What now?

So when your company is successfully working with a FTS approach, there are multiple options to make it even more successful. Some of these options will be explained in the video below.

One of the obvious options is to add more teams in the mix. Open up a new office in a country that lies in a different part of the world where you are not represented yet or hiring a team that works from home (from example). However, adding more teams makes the communication even more difficult, as can be read from previous sections, so this might not be what you are looking for.

Another possibility is to refine the current process even further. Speak with your employees and try to find more issues to can be solved. This step is already baked in the agile way of working, but sometimes it is necessary to do a larger investigation to really pinpoint where things can be improved. Doing this every quarter can be very helpful, because not only projects evolve, but the teams as well.

Round up

Using Follow-the-Sun in your company can be a big help in bringing your product faster to the market, but perfecting the implementation of this technique is quite challenging. Communication is key in doing so. Even with the best people in each team, if the communication is bad, the product will be bad. This is where management will have a big role, managing the project as well as the people working on it. Spend time in educating the people on how to work best in such a demanding environment.

In this post, we have tried to explain when FTS is a good approach to implement and why. We covered most of the pitfalls that could occur during the project and how to prevent them. And finally, we showed a couple of ways to improve the process even further. We hope this will be all the information you need to consider FTS and maybe even start doing it, but remember: When using Follow-the-Sun, every second is worth it.


[1] Carmel, E. (1999). Global software teams: collaborating across borders and time zones. Prentice Hall PTR.

[2] Kroll J. (2011). Researching into Follow-the-Sun Software Development: Challenges and Opportunities. IEEE Computer Society.

[3] Carmel, Erran, J. Alberto Espinosa, and Yael Dubinsky. “”Follow the Sun” Workflow in Global Software Development.” Journal of Management Information Systems 27.1 (2010): 17–38.

[4] Kroll, J., Hashmi, S. I., Richardson, I., & Audy, J. L. (2013). A systematic literature review of best practices and challenges in follow-the-sun software development. Global Software Engineering Workshops (ICGSEW).

[5] Hofstede G. (2001). Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations. Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications.

Source: Medium:Remote Working
How to follow-the-sun to a bright future

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