Virtual whiteboards prove vital for remote developer teams

As the world adapted to working from home and began operating on more distributed remote computers over the past two years, a common saying from software developers was the lack of a truly remote alternative to a whiteboard.

Be it the dreaded blackboard test during a job interview, or that of Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin. Apocryphal scribbles from Facebook’s original algorithm on a bedroom window, the whiteboard has long been a key tool in helping programmers understand and explain the complex systems they are designing and running.

Now, as developer teams continue to become more distributed, remote, and asynchronous, the virtual whiteboard is becoming a key tool for collaborating on technical issues, teaching sessions, and job interviews.

Getting that 1,000 foot view

“For engineers, the whiteboard is a powerful tool to help visualize different parts of an application,” Jevin Maltais, engineering manager at fully distributed automation software company Zapier, told InfoWorld. “Developing technical solutions means that there is a lot of interaction and communication between various pieces of a system, and the whiteboard is a good way to visualize that.”

Kansas City-based software development agency Crema has been using the popular Miro digital whiteboard tool for at least four years (Miro is now a customer of theirs), long before the pandemic forced employees and customers to work together remotely. But use increased significantly during the pandemic.

“We have a wonderful office with whiteboards everywhere for project planning, technical planning and problem solving,” Neal Dyrkacz, Crema’s senior applications developer, told InfoWorld. Now much of that work is done and stored in Miro. “Understanding a high-level architecture, what we need, the third-party APIs that we will achieve, getting that 1,000-foot view is valuable to everyone,” he added.

Lex Sanders, an application developer at Crema, found the Miro whiteboards invaluable during his early days at the company as an apprentice. “I spent a lot of time writing on whiteboards and working collaboratively with the mentors,” he said.

However, the shift from physical to virtual whiteboards is not smooth. A common problem is the simple logistics of adjusting from a physical environment, where it is always clear who is leading the session with a pen in hand, to a virtual environment in which anyone can draw at any time. Maltais at Zapier admits that this remains a challenge for engineering teams. “Stick with the cultural norms of who can draw when it’s still weird,” he admits.

Driving the asynchronous work revolution

Justin Garrison, a senior developer advocate at AWS, has worked in completely remote teams for several years, but as a visual learner, he often longed for an easy way to explain things visually to colleagues.

As those teams have become more globally distributed, Garrison is looking for better ways to convey this information. asynchronously, so your colleagues in Tokyo or Rome can catch up when they wake up.

“You can’t schedule a meeting for everyone and doing something interactive is also difficult,” Garrison said, noting that existing tools don’t yet have out-of-the-box support for asynchronous recording and playback, which is very important to his wish list. of 2022.

Maltais in Zapier has also been dealing with this problem for the last year. “Some of the powerful and non-obvious ways that we use virtual whiteboards here is to work asynchronously to take advantage of the whiteboard as a visual tool, but allow people to contribute in their own time asynchronously,” he said. “Whiteboards can last a long time. We can record the meeting, allowing that person to contribute to that board while they watch it evolve. “

Zapier has embraced the asynchronous whiteboard to find better ways to engage engineers who only meet in person once or twice a year, allowing the pandemic. “I think it’s really important that engineers are heard,” Maltais said. “They often work alone and don’t have the experience of being able to speak up and ask questions, so finding ways to better collaborate and share ideas is really powerful.”

Which virtual whiteboard is best for developers?

Garrison has done more virtual whiteboard test than most developers, and his personal favorite is the very simple Whiteboard Online (WBO), along with a tablet and pencil for drawing.

“I like how ephemeral it is, it is not documentation,” he said. “On a blackboard you have a conversation, 90% of the value is what you are saying and 10% is what is on the blackboard.”

It has also had some success with Zoom’s built-in whiteboard function during meetings, but you don’t like how isolated the tool is. Miro was a key tool during his time at the Walt Disney Company, despite having a few drawbacks. “It’s not designed for a pen, which means it’s not a whiteboard app for me,” he said.

Zapier is also testing Virtual reality tool Horizon Workrooms from Facebook for more immersive virtual whiteboard sessions between developers. “The slate experience is really impressive in that environment,” Maltais said.

Hrafn Eiriksson, CTO of Smarkets, the UK-based gambling exchange, uses three different whiteboards for different purposes. He likes a simple virtual whiteboard called Excalidraw for impromptu sessions, Miro for more formal meetings due to its full feature set, and HackerRank whiteboards for conducting technical interviews.

While the virtual whiteboard seems to be an unavoidable part of the software developer experience, as we move toward whatever the next iteration of work looks post-pandemic, there is still no clear consensus replacement for the simplicity of a scoreboard. dry erase on a physical whiteboard.

“We’ve probably tried about a dozen different slate services in the last few years,” Eiriksson said. “What I would say is that no matter what tool we use, the remote whiteboard really is no better than an in-person session.”

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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