It’s been almost four months now that I’ve been Chief Product Officer for VSee, a video conferencing and collaboration software and services that is based in Mt. View, California but is actually distributed around the globe. I’ll write at some future date about how our customers use VSee, but this post is about how we use our own product, together with other tools, to communicate amongst ourselves.
The core functionality of the VSee product should be familiar to anyone who as used videoconferencing systems such as Polycom, personal communications software such as Skype and Google Hangout, or presentation software such as WebEx: audio, video and text communication; presence; screen, application and file sharing; remote Powerpoint presentations. The difference is that VSee is optimized for ad-hoc conversations among groups of 2-10 people. Doing this well is more than just arranging the user interface in a convenient manner – it requires voice over IP that has sufficiently low latency that people can interrupt each other as they would in a face-to-face conversation, video of sufficient quality to be able to gauge facial expressions, and the ability to see everyone in a conversation at once, not just one at a time. The net result is a tool that can replace face-to-face meetings in a surprising number of contexts – not just phone calls and scheduled staff meetings but the kind of informal conversations that take place anywhere in an office, whether around a whiteboard or a coffee machine.
Since VSee meetings don’t require physical proximity, just an Internet connection (which could be wireless such as EVDO) they can take place from anywhere, such as a customer site, an Internet cafe, or most often, an employee’s home. This property allows the organization to function 24×7 and be very responsive to customers, but leads to a fluidity between work and play that may not be for everyone. Living on the East Coast and working with a group that is primarily on the West Coast rewards taking meetings at midnight over waking up at the crack of dawn, which suits me fine, although I do recall my family calling upstairs on Christmas Eve asking when I would come to dinner (it was still early in California).
Like any organization, VSee employees communicate through a variety of scheduled and ad-hoc conversations, synchronously via VSee or asynchronously using tools such as email, wikis, and Google Docs. Monday is the day for scheduled meetings: a morning meeting of the sales team and an afternoon review of engineering progress. Most people are calling in from their homes, although there are a few who work out of the Mt. View office on a consistent basis. Everyone can see everyone else on video, but the main focus is usually a document such as a list of customers or development tasks, displayed for everyone in a window the way people in a conference room would use a projector. An important difference is that multiple people can share their documents at the same time. For example, if the discussion involves another document or something on the Web, that can be displayed for everyone at once, without the awkward of passing the projector cord or distributing paper documents. It combines the best features of being across the table from someone, so you can see their face, with sitting next to them, so you can see their work. The efficiency comes not just from not having to travel to the conference room, but in having access to all the data that would have been left behind in one’s office. And if someone needs their own copy of something, you can just drag the file over their picture in the meeting and they have it right away. No running out to the copying machine, or fumbling with email or file sharing.
Even with all the technology at our disposal, it’s still good to get together in person occasionally. So every Thursday there is “VLunch” at a local restaurant or delivered to the conference room at the office. In the latter case, we set up a camera with remote-controlled pan, tilt, and zoom and those people who aren’t based in California can hang out via video. Given the time zone difference I may have an espresso (one of the advantages of working at home) while the Mt. View group is having lunch, and if the conversation drifts too far afield I may just leave to audio on while I get some work done, but it’s a good time to socialize. (I do get out to Mt. View in person occasionally, and am looking forward to the annual company ski trip – there are some activities that just need to take place in person).
After VLunch is VCafe. This is organized as a seminar around a topic that may be anything from meeting with a customer visiting from China to learning about advanced C++ development techniques. This is the one usage of VSee that is closest to the traditional conference room videoconference, with a presentation projected on a screen in the front of the room and the remote participants seeing everyone around a table.
The informal discussions are where the technology is really important in making a distributed organization productive. When everyone is working in the same office, it’s easy to see who’s in and who’s available, especially in an “open office” environment or one with glass partitions. It’s also easy to pull people together for ad-hoc discussions. Achieving that same level of interaction in a fully distributed environment relies on technology that makes finding people and inviting them into meetings just as fluid. When talking about ease of use in videoconfencing, people often use the telephone as a model, but to be truly useful video needs to be even easier to use than the phone. Consider the lowly conference call. Every PBX has the ability to bring three or more people together in a call, but who remembers what buttons to push? As a result, conference calls are relegated to scheduled meetings, and it’s rare just to “conference someone in” to answer a quick question the way you would buttonhole someone into a meeting. However, that’s exactly how we use VSee. If I have a quick question for someone, I look to see if they are online and click on their name to start a video meeting. Often that’s enough, but if we need to involve someone else, they are just one more click away. As a result we have less formal, scheduled meetings and more short, informal conversations which get to the point more quickly and save time, even before counting in the overhead of travel.
One interesting twist is the way we use text chat. Vsee is the first place I’ve worked in ages that does not use instant messaging (IM), i.e. buddy list + text chat in the form of AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) or Sametime. VSee does have those features but optimized differently, resulting in different usage patterns. A session in traditional IM system such as AIM starts with text and may escalate to voice or video, although this rarely happens. VSee starts with video, and then once in a conversation any participant can send text messages to individual participants or to the entire group. Since an audio/video link is already established, text is used to send detailed information such as URLs or phone numbers, or is used for private side conversations in a larger meeting. While a video call is perhaps more intrusive than a text message, it is also more personal. I’ve come to prefer it to text chat, but that may differ with the context and is an area we are keeping an eye on to see how our customers use it.
This is a somewhat longer post than I intended, and yet just scratches the surface of what’s possible. Not every company is a widely distributed as VSee Labs, every organization could benefit in some measure from tools which don’t just cut down on non-essential moving people about but improve the communication among people no matter where they are. We’ve learned a lot about how to take advantage of those tools to enable highly functioning distributed teams and hope to share more in the near future.