When it comes to connecting your remote team with a central office, flashy can be fun — but also expensive and potentially unnecessary. How do you build an infrastructure that enables your team to succeed wherever they are, without going overboard?
Gordon Thomas, oDesk’s IT manager, takes a practical approach to this issue, drawing inspiration from an unlikely episode of Cold War history.
When Russian pilot Viktor Belenko defected to the West in 1976 with a newly built MiG-25 “Foxbat” fighter jet, American engineers were "astounded to discover that the Russians had used rivets on positions of the wing instead of welds — [the latter being] a much stronger, but more complex and expensive, way of joining metal together,” Thomas recounted.
“However, the Russians — due to their comparatively limited resources — had discovered where they needed to use welds, and where rivets would suffice,” he continued. “That story has always stuck with me, and I constantly ask myself: Do I need to use a weld here? Or will a rivet work just as well?”
Thomas says people have a tendency to embrace new IT systems and solve problems that may not actually matter. Instead, he recommends that each business “look at how they work versus how they want to work, and focus on creating a simple, reliable platform to support their ideal.”
How does this simplicity manifest at oDesk headquarters? In this Q&A, Thomas explains the values that have shaped oDesk’s IT backbone, and how they might transfer to other businesses.
How would you describe oDesk’s IT setup?
Our IT team strives to embrace oDesk’s core values regarding freedom and loving the way you work. We do everything we can to create a level playing field between our remote users and those in the office, so individual employees can decide how and where they want to work without being hindered technologically. Naturally there are some physical items, like printers, that are still "office only." But in every way possible, we try to move systems and security beyond our office walls.
oDesk has a very open, collaborative office space. Is that something that also factors into your IT planning?
Everyone, from founders to interns, sits together in workspaces in a large open environment. That means there’s a lot of physical movement as people shift between common areas and conference rooms to collaborate across different teams.
The resulting need for portability led us to really embrace ultrabooks; the light weight and long battery life is essential for this sort of environment. We have also heavily invested in our wireless network — especially when it comes to roaming between access points — so users don't feel tethered to their desks. Conference rooms are probably where we invest the majority of our resources, though. We have a home-grown telepresence system that we use to connect our users from around the world with each other and the main oDesk office. We are constantly trying to improve the fidelity of these systems; we want our employees to feel like they can be a part of a collaborative team no matter where they are physically located.
With such a focus on remote work and flexible workspaces, what are your primary considerations?
In general, it requires powerful collaboration tools and a concerted effort to move data/security/compliance away from physical networks as much as possible. We try to move everything we can into redundant cloud environments.
This is also good for security: we have a mindset that every device and network is potentially hostile and compromised. As a result, we don’t take for granted that anything is ever “safe,” and aggressively target threats in a systemic fashion.
Where do you think businesses can splurge? Where can they save?
I don’t think there is ever a reason to splurge on anything — you either need the technology, or you don’t. Deciding which requires a lot of observation and research. Also, something that makes a lot of sense one year might be a poor investment the following year.
Planning and diligence can do a lot to reduce costs. Sometimes a crisis is unavoidable, but there are ways to plan for crises and have a solution ready. It’s also important to remember that cash is not the only cost that technology can incur — downtime and training, for example, are all costs to consider.
What technology do you use to connect your remote team members? Share your solutions in the comments below.