Pieter VanIperen of PWV Consultants: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space
Interview With David Liu
Over explain concepts when messaging and confirm there is understanding. Expect to have to go through a topic 2–3 times to make sure everyone understands. This is for clarity more than anything else, it’s important to make sure everyone is on the same page so that tasks are completed correctly.
We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?
In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Pieter VanIperen who currently runs a boutique group of industry leaders and influencers from the digital tech, security and design industries. Prior to that he has done everything from coding to secure software architecture to holding executive level titles at Fortune 500 companies. He has worked with law enforcement, medical facilities, government agencies and NGOs. Pieter is a certified ethical hacker as well as a professor at NYU where he teaches secure coding for coders, as well as the author of the HAZL (jADE) programming language. He also volunteers his consulting services to local healthcare and law enforcement agencies.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’ve spent well over half of my life immersed in the technology industry. I began coding seriously at the age of 12, first exposed to the art through a school program when I was 8. Something about coding just clicked. I have always been a builder, even taking household items and making new toys when I was a child. By the age of 16, I was working professionally. I balked at my natural path, trying to go a different direction, but by my 20s I was back to coding professionally.
Throughout the course of my career, I have done everything from running a dev shop to holding executive titles at Fortune 500 companies. It was through this experience that I learned the pain points and problems experienced on both sides of the consultancy relationship. When I set out with PWV Consultants, I had an entire list of what I did NOT want to do. What I DID want to do, was create the antithesis of the agency, to become the un-agency, as cliche as that sounds. But through the help of my team and the patience of the clients we already had waiting, we reverse-engineered the business and created something new in software architecture: transparency.
We don’t believe in blackbox development where no one sees the project until it’s completed. We believe that everyone should have access to all the information throughout the entire process. Radical Production Transparency (RPT) is at the forefront of everything we do, and it has led to a lot of success so far.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Honestly, I’m living the most interesting story of my career right now. I never shy away from innovating, it’s the part of me I could never ignore, the one that brought me back to this industry when I tried to go another direction. I have authored coding languages and frameworks, I have changed the way company’s function, I have automated tasks others thought impossible to automate. But right now, what we are doing is by far the most interesting part of my career. The philosophy of RPT, at its root, is deceptively simple. The complexity lies in achieving a change in ingrained methods, which is the most dynamic problem I have faced to date.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” -Winston Churchill
This is relevant to every entrepreneur, and something those just starting out really need to heed. 90% of startups fail, that’s a fact. If you fail and give up, you’ll never achieve success. Therefore, you should learn from it and put your enthusiasm and passion into making adjustments. Being able to keep going after you fail is the only way to be successful in life.
For me, this is pertinent to my entrepreneurship journey because failure is part of it. I’ve gone back to the drawing board more times than I can count on projects because it either didn’t turn out as expected, didn’t provide the desired functionality or marketing research did not bring expected results. But I kept going, I persevered and learned from those failures and mistakes, and today I run a very successful software architecture consultancy. To echo Churchill, you haven’t really failed when you fail, unless you also quit. Otherwise, you are just figuring out where to pivot next.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
This question is hard. There are several people who helped me along the way, but there are two people I credit with my success: My grandmother and my wife. My grandmother was a holocaust survivor who moved to America with her two children and not much else. She strove to create a better life for her children than what she had, so when things get hard, I lean on her spirit. She is where I derive my grit and determination. My wife has been there for me through thick and thin. Being an entrepreneur is hard, and in the tech industry there are often many turning points and pivots that have to be made. She continues to support me every step of the way.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?
Benefits of a team being physically together include immediate, real-time collaboration, the ability to build camaraderie, getting to know how people like to do their work, and, of course, there’s the social aspect.
On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?
When people aren’t in front of each other, it can be hard to gauge tone because communication is largely done on messaging systems and emails. Guessing meaning from text can result in tension between team members. Scheduling may be a challenge for some, and the onboarding process takes a little bit longer.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Use video so you can pick up on cues that are non-verbal. Human communication is more than just words, we use body language, tone of voice and facial expressions. When people can see each other, it’s much easier to tell if someone is being sarcastic, joking or serious. Context is crucial, and text alone does not provide it.
- Over explain concepts when messaging and confirm there is understanding. Expect to have to go through a topic 2–3 times to make sure everyone understands. This is for clarity more than anything else, it’s important to make sure everyone is on the same page so that tasks are completed correctly,
- Set meetings at mutually agreed times, don’t expect people to be available, like when you are at the office. You need to work a bit more asynchronously so that you can put questions to the side and get responses when the other person is available. When working remotely, it’s easier for a parent to take kids to appointments or attend school events, they know they can still get their work done at a different time. 9–5 isn’t a thing in remote work, so if you want to make sure that everyone is in attendance at a particular meeting, it is best to verify no one has any conflicts first. You’re not all in the office together, it’s not fair to assume that everyone works the same schedule.
- Trust that everyone is attempting to achieve the same goals. We often misread statements when we allow the context to deviate from our common goals. This can cause tension.
- I can’t stress this enough, respect deadlines and expectations that are mutually set. This alignment allows for trust to continue in a work environment where oversight is limited. Along with this, you need to escalate and be transparent when there are misses.
Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?
Our company has not experienced any issues with communication. Most of our work force was open and remote prior to the pandemic. However, it was very interesting to be in a position to help clients who were used to having everyone in their organization sit shoulder- to-shoulder figure out how to function. We fielded a lot of questions early on about what software to use, how to keep up morale, how to make sure things are still getting done and how to deal with suddenly conflicting schedules.
Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?
*** I think Zoom is the obvious choice here. Slack is obvious, too, as many people in offices don’t spend all day getting up and walking around to handle simple questions. I think what is more interesting is collaboration software around shared docs, and even shared whiteboards. There are a variety of vendors. Luckily, this wasn’t anything new either. There are global companies that work with teams across the world, even if they are in their respective offices, they are remote to each other. So, these solutions aren’t suddenly coming to market, they are simply having a moment in the sun that will likely continue for a while and become somewhat permanent.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
The hardest part of remote communication, in my opinion, is figuring out escalation. When in an office setting and an emergent situation happens, you can walk over to someone and quite literally interrupt them to let them know. My first feature would be a way to mark levels of urgency in communication. This makes it easier, especially for managers and senior executives, to triage and prioritize. Along this same line, I would add a way to click to call someone’s phone. Not a Slack call, a phone call. Even a way to text the phone not as a message from the app would be beneficial in an urgent situation.
The second feature involves the cruft around having pocket conversations. Zoom and Google Meet stole the videoconferencing market from Cisco and Citrix, so most businesses and educational systems are using one of those two platforms. Both have dropped breakout rooms, although Meet seems to be bringing it back. In an in-person environment, long working sessions take place in a conference room where groups split off and accomplish different tasks. Having a way to simulate this, like a breakout room, is incredibly beneficial to users. Otherwise, teams are forced to wrangle jumping between several different meetings at the same time.
My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?
Honestly? Meh. I think Google missed a real opportunity in buying Slack. But the truth is, Teams is the only unified communications platform, and it’s a little TOO unified. The problem is, unification means sacrificing features, ease of use or simplicity. So, it ranks below feature-rich, easy to use and understand forms of communication. Very few companies are good at keeping all of those together, and unification was going on before the pandemic. It wasn’t popular then and, frankly, if Zoom came out with messaging or calendars tomorrow, I wouldn’t switch!
The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?
I work in both VR and AR fairly extensively. Meetings in the spaces are really hard still, and the tech is not quite there yet. It can serve a purpose but, for instance, avatars in an artificial VR world aren’t going to have non-verbal communication cues we see in-person. However, if you need to look at the 3D spec of something, or positionally train on how to do something together, it can be very helpful.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
No, I think the world is becoming more specialized, more globalized and more open to balancing life and work. I think remote work combined with VR and AR, as they develop, will replace frequent travel and the need to co-locate everyone in urban hubs.
So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?
The vast majority of our business was phone and video calls, with occasional travel. Generally speaking, this hasn’t changed much, we simply aren’t traveling and doing more video meetings. I think chatbots and messaging apps were replacing frontline calls for customer service orgs prior to the pandemic, and I think they will continue to do so. I also think customer service is likely to majoritively stay remote.
In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?
Wording is important. No one likes criticism, even if it is constructive. People do not like to be told they are doing something wrong, so using words that avoid negativity are important. One way to do this is to find something positive about their work and tell them that first, like, “Hey, we really liked that presentation you did. Next time, could you [add change needed]?” Another tactic would be to ask someone why they do something a certain way, is there a reason for the way this was done? For example, “That’s a really interesting thought process, can you tell me how that came about?” As they explain their logic, you can think of ways to incorporate whatever improvement you are looking for. Also, take advantage of video. There isn’t much you can’t pick up on via video.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
There are a few ways to build camaraderie and unity in a remote team. It’s important, first, to have a dedicated team channel for “water cooler” conversation. This is for non-business conversation or where things of interest can be shared with the team. Running contests is a great way to engage, one year we challenged our team to share a photo of their Thanksgiving spread, the winner would receive a gift card. Have video meetings when possible, it’s not exactly the same, but seeing people’s faces helps garner personality traits and mannerisms. Host virtual happy-hours or virtual games to encourage relaxation and having fun. Getting to know each other as people outside of work helps build internal relationships, so it’s important to have a place where that camaraderie can be built.
Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Be kind. In the era of social injustice, equality and COVID-19, you never know the battles people are fighting. Whether internal or external, everyone is going through something, everyone is struggling with something. An elderly parent whose health isn’t good. A parent working from home while the children do virtual school. A wife who suddenly lost her husband. A family broken by crime. People don’t wear those things on their faces or sleeves, those battles are hidden from the world but may affect someone’s mood no matter how hard they try to leave it at home which is now their office. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes and be kind. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean those battles don’t exist.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
They can follow me on LinkedIn, Twitter or visit my blog.
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.