Don't Leave Your Collaboration to Chance

There is a lot we can learn from Nick and Michele’s story. They started working together from the same location and then progressed to becoming a virtual team.

Michele and Nick have been creating the real-time whiteboard Sketch Together for virtual teamsfrom their very distant bases of Italy and the USA. Their work is intense and requires a lot of bouncing ideas off each other and excellent communication, but they’ve conquered the difference in time zones by fine-tuning their collaboration process.

To listen to their story, check out episode 57 of the 21st Century Work Life podcast.


Michele arrived at Nick’s Department at the University of California, Irvine when he was looking to complement his own research. As a computer science PhD student working on a tool to help dermatologists with melanoma detection, Michele was searching for a tool to create mockups in real time with his lab mates. After looking for the right tool for a long time, his web searches led him to the experimental work in Nick's lab, and off he went, to join him and his colleagues.

Once Nick and Michele started working together, they discovered that their mutual interest in making the world of work a better place could result in a new venture: How to help teams be more productive and cohesive while being miles apart.

Time Together

Michele returned to Italy and the pair realised that in order for the product to have a chance, they needed to kick off their collaboration with some collocated time. It was Nick’s turn to spend some time abroad.

The first month was intense. They did indeed find that they needed to spend a condensed period of time together, dreaming of the future, exploring the possibilities, nailing down what exactly they wanted to achieve. Integral to their creative process was the whiteboard.

We drafted ideas, created lists, drew funny faces, listed our hopes and dreams on the boards too.

We worked together for I don’t know how long, my wife probably knows better than me.

After many, many hours of conversation and hard work they were ready to make the move to working from different areas of the globe.

The Sketch Together founders continued working hard not just on the product, but also on their own, now remote, collaborative process. They had actually (consciously or subconsciously – or a bit of both) absorbed each other’s way of working when they were sharing the same physical space. It was now time to see how much of it could be replicated online.

As they knew the whiteboard had been key in their co-located creative process, Nick and Michele got down to working on the virtual version very early on in their remote collaboration.

“Once we were remote, even by the second week, we recreated the whiteboard interface in a prototype of our app and started our old habit again. The first months of our start up were spent drafting mock-ups (the very thing Michele tried to do before meeting me), drawing box-and-arrow diagrams to build computer algorithms, and simply doodling together.

To us, using the whiteboard was just as critical a part of working together as voice, video, email and chat.”

As they continued to refine their remote collaboration process, Nick and Michele found out that they were more comfortable being able to see each other and so incorporated a second monitor to their set up, where they could see the face of their colleague.

They also realised that during those times when they were coding, they needed to have access to each other quickly, and so they introduced push to talk.

In this way, when they needed to speak to the other person, all they had to do was push a key and open a live communication channel (instead of having to call through and wait for an someone to answer a call). Of course all this is not easy to do when you have nine hours difference between you.

Michele and Nick experimented with a range of ways of staying in touch. At one point they tried sending voice audio messages to each other, but that didn’t work and so they moved onto Slack, a chat-like collaboration tool which has the ability to integrate a range of other tools. (Indeed now Sketch Together integrates with Slack.)

While recording audio snippets to each other didn’t seem to work, every now and then, they still record the conversations one of them might have with clients and users of Sketch Together, so that the other person can also have a listen.

Even though they seem to have solved how to do most of their work through asynchronous communication, Nick and Michele haven’t let go of the fun they have talking to each other in real time and they still catch up over one hour conversations on Skype. When I met them over Skype next year, they hadn’t seen each other in person for two years, but they still felt pretty much like a solid team. Not a virtual team. Just a team.

You can listen to the Sketch Together team tell their story and more, here: