A major development in recent times is the workplace is becoming distributed. Remote work is gaining ground because of the changing nature of work and advances in communication tools. Running a remote team has its own unique set of challenges and best practices, especially when it comes to customer support and training.
We held a Q&A with Lak Thiagarajan, a wireless industry expert and Director of Customer Training at SOLiD, on how he manages a remote team and uses video for customer training and support: what works and what doesn’t. Recommended watch for anyone who works with a remote team.
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This transcript has been edited for clarity.
SUNIL KOWLGI: Hey everybody, I’m Sunil Kowlgi from Outklip. Today we’re going to be speaking with Lak Thiagarajan, who is a wireless industry expert. He’s a sales and technical professional, and he’s a Director at SOLiD where he runs a remote team. Lak, thank you for doing this interview with us. Could you give us a quick intro to your company as well as what you do at SOLiD?
LAK THIAGARAJAN: Sure, absolutely. As Sunil just mentioned, I work for a company called SOLiD. We’re based on Seoul, South Korea and our North American headquarters are in Dallas, Texas. We are a wireless telecommunications manufacturer OEM. We actually make wireless hardware equipment that help enhance cellular wireless signals for operators and for public safety services within buildings. Especially in the era of high speed connectivity and data needs, which is becoming more of a requirement rather than a luxury. More and more buildings like airports, convention centers, stadiums, enterprise buildings, commercial real estate buildings, all of these require better connectivity and that’s exactly what we do here at SOLiD. We actually make the equipment, we help design the systems and then we work closely with the different operators both here in the US and elsewhere, around the globe, to ensure that these systems are functional and actually help serve and solve people’s problems. What I do specifically at SOLiD is I run, I’ve got a dual role, I’ve got two teams. One is the technical training team and the other is the RF engineering design team. My team, specifically on the training side, is involved with helping educate the customer base, that is both end users who use our equipment and also third party vendors who actually help engineer these systems as our representative if you will. So, we need to educate them on what the equipment does, what it can do, how they can actually operate to make it work, make it happen and so on. So, that’s a very high intensity technical aspect of the training group. And, on the design side, which typically is the first step to any of these systems being put in, is we actually design these systems from an engineering perspective to make sure that all the frequencies from all the operators and the public safety needs or any other frequencies that buildings may need are actually designed efficiently, they’re predicted, so we can actually run some predictive algorithms and modeling to make sure that these systems are intended to work the way they do, because obviously a lot of these systems are complex and expensive. So, that’s basically what the design team does. And, I’m responsible for both of them for the Americas, North and South.
KOWLGI: So, I understand you run a remote team. Can you tell me where your team is located, like how distributed are you, and if you’re in different cities, continents, you can give us some perspective on that?
THIAGARAJAN: Yeah, that’s actually been my background for the last almost decade in this industry. I’ve been with SOLiD for a little over 5 years but most of my time in the industry has been spent remotely, personally as well. And, ever since I’ve taken over these two teams, all my teams are distributed around the country. So, on the training side, I have a guy out in the east coast timezone, a guy out in the central timezone. On the design side, I have folks basically spread across East coast to West coast, across all timezones. So, we certainly work remotely, all the time. And, it’s second nature to me. I don’t even think about the fact that they’re not physically in a cube next to me or an office next to me, so that’s kind of how we’ve been doing things for a long time. Aside from all the work we support across the country, the four timezones within North America, we also do lot of support work for overseas regions, specifically on the design side. Obviously timezones become that much more of a factor when we have to collaborate or turn around deliverables to customers or our own colleagues serving overseas markets.
KOWLGI: When you say you’re supporting customers, could you tell us what kind of support you give them? Does it involve taking phone calls or are you in person at the field site helping your customers?
THIAGARAJAN: Little bit of both, but I would say primarily at this point, weighted heavily in favor of customer support not so much being in the field. A lot of it can be resolved remotely, whether it’s phone calls or whether it’s remote desktop type connections. You know emailing obviously back and forth because the nature of the field, Sunil, ironically is when we’re interfacing with customers in the field they don’t actually have connectivity to connect with me to talk about their problem. The whole point there is to fix something that’s either gone wrong or deploying it first up. So, even if I wanted to there’s no way we have connectivity to actually connect, so a lot of times we’re actually relying on emails or a document that we have to send out to them to review on their own. Real time collaboration becomes much more of a challenge simply because that’s what we’re there to do in the first place.
KOWLGI: You mentioned some aspect of your customer support involves doing screen sharing or remote video, could you get into some details on that? Like what tools you’ve used, as well as where it’s been effective and some of the challenges you’ve seen with doing remote troubleshooting for your customers.
THIAGARAJAN: Yeah, you probably understand this well give this is the space you’re in, but, for a long time in the industry…when I started in the industry I was on the other side of the fence. I was the person onsite trying to call support, or trying to call my colleague or whoever else I needed to, need some help from or reference from. So, at the time we were mostly using remote desktop, screenshare, we obviously used GoToMeeting, we used Skype sharing, but it’s not one tool specifically, which is telling in the fact that it’s not one tool that solved every problem we have, it’s just whatever works at the time, it’s whatever is seamless, obviously that’s what we’re looking for because time is of the essence and morever I don’t want to be tinkering around with technology when I’m basically trying to get the work done. So, that really hasn’t changed much over the years. Now that I sit on the other side of the fence where I collaborate with folks on the field or my own designer team that I’m sometimes trying to work with. We’ve just gone through a plethora of different tools, most of it is real time collaboration, so it really is one of those things we understand the idiosynchrasies of certain tools and what they can and cannot do and we just make do. Nothing’s been a showstopper, we’ve obviously seen a couple tools which have given us a couple of road bumps and we simply move on to a different tool. But, I would say the tools I mentioned previously those are generally the tools we typically use.
KOWLGI: You alluded to earlier that you have a team that does customer training. Could you shed some light on what training you do for customers?
THIAGARAJAN: On the training side, we have a two pronged approach. One obviously there is this, in house, video based, self paced, take any time you want type trainings. These are prerecorded videos primarily educating folks, customers, both internal and external about our products, about the physicalities of it, what connections are, what components are. But it’s really a one way traffic, there’s no interactive mode or anything, it’s just video, mobile optimized and web optimized, they can just take it at any time as long as they’re connected to the network. And, then we obviously have our in person training. Given the nature of the industry we’re in, there’s a big hands on component to this. So, no matter how much I can show it in virtual space, the real world touch and feel, and being able to touch equipment and turn them up is going to be a very, very key component to it because ultimately that’s what the systems are going to designed and installed as. So, the folks come in for an in person live class, typically runs over a couple days or more, and they get to experience everything in the real world. Ironically the video baesd training it is a prerequisite to attend these hands on classes because we want people to have some element of knowledge around what they’ve seen in the videos previously and understand that and of course attend these classes. We do these in person classes pretty frequently, all around the country, every year.
KOWLGI: Since you’re in the business of physical boxes that customers have to use, you’d rather give them in person training. So how do you make up for that in remote training, where you don’t have the luxury of walking your customer through all the functions of your product? What do you focus on in your remote training and what format is it, videos, quizzes, that sort of thing? As well as how has the adoption been from your customers’ standpoint, how do they like the training you provide?
THIAGARAJAN: As much as I would like to have every customer who works with our equipment to attend an in person class, it doesn’t happen for a variety of reasons — timelines, costs, bandwidth. So many different reasons. Obviously that is still the holy grail, being certified on our equipment. But we have a lot of sessions that we do. Sometimes it’s an online webinar series, which happens once a month or once a quarter, depending on the customer’s need we would set some things up. Lot of these are powerpoint based, obviously you’re just presenting something, you’re sharing screens. We use Skype for Business, we use GoToMeeting. Normally I say the two main tools we have typically gravitated towards, we used to use other tools in the past but it didn’t work out, we have eliminated them. But, those are pretty common. In fact I would say those are much more frequent than the in person class. The in person class is much more scheduled and planned. A lot of the remote trainings and conferences where we typically work with customers, probably are first of all very focused on a specific topic or specific need, but also maybe it’s scheduled a few days or maybe few weeks out. There’s no set frequency, they happen as needed. Obviously we work with a lot of different customers, so it’s very frequent. There’s not a lot of quizzes or that sort of thing, we’re more Q&A type where we’re mostly trying to educate the customers about it. But, certainly since you bring it up, in our in person classes we do use some real time polling and Q&A quizzes, we use a company called Turning Technologies. Users have the ability to, with their devices, whether it’s a laptop or mobile device, actually respond to questions that are being asked in real time and we can see the performance in real time.
KOWLGI: You mentioned using video for customer training. How does your team go about creating content for training? Who makes it and what tools do you use for making it?
THIAGARAJAN: That is actually a big learning curve for myself. Since I don’t typically come from the world of video, but being part of training and understanding that video delivery of training is probably the most effective way of training individuals. I actually got my hands dirty about 3-4 years ago, starting to look out for video companies out there that do a lot of live action or animation interspersed with live actio type videos. We work with a company. We obviously still need the physical boxes of hardware that we set it up in our lab, bring a video crew, they shoot these live action videos. It’s a lot of obviously scripting and pointing to the equipment, lighting and then most of the work is in post production. Once this content is all created, we go back and edit it and make sure we add the appropriate annotations and call outs, and also have a Q&A at the end. And then we post it on our learning management system (LMS), which my team is managing and administering. So we sign up all our customers on to that and we have the ability to watch these videos. These videos have a long cycle to produce and create, and also a cost to it. But, once they’re final and as we develop and build products we create new video for that product as well.
KOWLGI: What kind of feedback have you received from customers about remote training, video training and so on?
THIAGARAJAN: It’s actually been phenomenal. It took me by surprise. It was a lot of work, obviously there was a collaborative team effort. Myself leading the effort with a couple of my team members but it was very telling in what people could quickly gain in a matter of 3 or 4 minutes without having to peruse a 60 or 70 page document or spec sheet or product manual. So, it gave everybody what they exactly needed and it was simple enough that non technical people could understand it. But also enough knowledge that if you were technical, it was actually useful for them to know some of the intricacies of the equipment as well. So, it was a primer, it was meant to hit all audiences so because of that it wasn’t segmented at any particular type of audience, so I think it actually worked out really well. The validation of the first few videos obviously continues to fuel the creation of future videos along the same format for me.
KOWLGI: Do you use YouTube for any of your customer training videos or demos?
THIAGARAJAN: YouTube’s primarily used from a marketing standpoint. We have a lot of case studies that we put out. We have a lot of product launches perhaps at a tradeshow. Normally our social media team or our marketing team is more involved with YouTube. Because the content I create is a little bit more specific, it’s not completely proprietary but it could be. It’s not typically public, which is our learning management system, we typically sign up people. The reason we do that is we track who are the individuals who are going and taking these videos, what companies they work with, what is their background. So, it’s more of a authenticated access if you will, so in that way it’s not just a free for all.
KOWLGI: I want to switch gears and focus more inward on how you run your team that works remote. How do you have meetings with your team? I’m sure there’s a lot of coordination involved in what you do. If you can take us through what happens in a typical week, what kind of meetings do you have, how do you select a time for a meeting given that people are in different timezones?
THIAGARAJAN: One of the things I’ve personally believed in for a long time, not the least when I truly started managing teams was, anything to be accomplished should be done effectively in short time or less. We can’t spend a lot of time because time’s obviously valuable so anything that takes 60 minutes or longer is very very ineffective so all my meetings are 30 minutes or less. The idea being if we can accomplish everything that we need to in 30 minutes, it would make us that much more efficient for what we’re trying to do. So, for both my teams, every single meeting that I’ve ever hosted or ran is 30 minutes or less, internal obviously. Customer meetings are driven by the customer more so on what their needs are. We have a weekly standup meeting, that’s how I typically like to keep it, just to be able to quick check in, to be able to understand what the roadblocks are, what are the future steps to be able to take. It’s pretty much a standing meeting, time preselected that works across all timezones based on everybody’s schedule. 95% of the time we stick to it, obviously sometimes things change. Most of our meetings at this point are voice driven, call driven, because being in a remote area, being in an industry where we’re all constantly traveling, I can’t expect my team to be physically located at any given point. Whether they’re in an airport or whether they’re in a car, they should be able to quickly jump on the call. 30 minute call, mostly voice driven. Occasionally we do have some online collaboration that we want to talk about a specific thing, but most of the people are reporting just some of the deliverables that we’re working on and sharing this content. Because a lot of our work requires time to research or build, so that’s generally how a lot of our day to day goes by as far as our meetings go. I report on anything that I’m working on or our tools that I’ve possibly built out for the team, and given the technical nature of it, a lot of it does require time to validate it.
KOWLGI: Outside of meetings, how do you coordinate with the rest of your team. What tools do you use there and I’d like to hear some of the challenges in communicating and working with a remote team.
THIAGARAJAN: Ultimately the backbone of everything we do is making sure you’re connected. We understand that even more so given we’re in the business of connecting people. The irony is sometimes we can’t make these things work. We have meetings set up where technology is always a surprise, there’s no proper connectivity, the link doesn’t work, the app doesn’t work. It’s one of those things that you probably are well aware, it also seems to not work when the meeting is more important than others. So, we’ve had those issues and concerns. We’ve certainly got a lot out of it. To move on, a lot of our collaboration today from a corporate standpoint is Skype. We use Skype for Business, it works mostly. We obviously have some challenges with it but a lot of the collaboration at this point is just Skype. Obviously with external folks I can’t dictate that. So, we do screenshares a lot with Skype, we do remote control of the other person’s monitor if need be, obviously to quickly show stuff or talk about stuff, point out stuff. Some of the other challenges are I’m constantly sharing my screen and updating it, but the person at the other end can’t see those updates. Maybe they’ve lost the ability to do it, connection’s good but it’s just perhaps the software acting up. Some of it we don’t chase and solve the problems, let’s move on and find a different way to do it. It’s kind of how we go about it, but we do use remote desktop a lot. For design purposes, we have remote desktop machines that other people can remote into.
KOWLGI: How do you persist the tribal knowledge in your team? There’s folks who figure out certain ways to solve problems that they have encountered and it probably gets communicated in real time but also how do they put it down in writing or maybe a screen recording to show what they do so that the rest of the team can benefit from what they’ve learnt? Do you have ways in which you manage the knowledge base that your team’s creating all the time?
THIAGARAJAN: Just like anybody else we have app notes, white papers, how to documents, but Sunil, one of things I’ll tell you, I’m probably stating the obvious here but experience is probably the best teacher. I could put out as many documents or as many guides as you will, but until that individual is faced with the problem doing it, you’re probably not going to be learning as fast. There’s a good story here as well. I don’t mean to digress but in one of our in person training classes, which we typically hold at our headquarters, when the room was first built out we actually put together we built a mini refrigerator for the room. Unfortunately the way the refrigerator is set up is anybody who doesn’t watch their knuckles when they try to open the refrigerator they basically get their knuckle jammed in between the refrigerator and cabinet next to it. First class, before I started I told everybody to watch for this, pay attention to it. Probably a couple people took note of it. Second day everybody knew about it because they jammed their knuckle at least once. After that I realized, you know what, I probably don’t even need to tell anybody. Every class now, within about an hour everybody figures to watch for the refrigerator handle. So, I like to always take that as an example to say that I can tell people the rules, I can tell them to build all the content, and I too love people intrinsically motivated to go research, read up white papers, write up nice white papers, but over time because everybody is running so fast, there are a lot of bandwidth challenges, I’m not seeing mass utilization of all of these resources out there. Few people will, but a lot of them don’t. Until a question is asked by a customer or they are faced with a challenge. So, we have all these help guides. Obviously we have our intranet that’s got a lot of research but knowledge sharing has become difficult or inefficient sometimes. As there are more and more people creating documents, collaborating and updating it, I wish I could say there’s a perfect efficient way but unfortunately there’s not. I try to stay on top of it myself, I constantly remind my own teams about what to pay attention to, what to run into, and, it’s almost as you said tribal knowledge but doing it the guerilla style seems to be most effective. It comes to the experience I suppose, knowing what to look for and where to look and sharing that back up, sometimes floating it up once a month or once a week, depending on what the need of the hour is. I think it simply comes down to everybody is doing more and more in less and less time. The incentive to go look for something or to learn is much difficult. Sometimes you can call and say can you send me this or show me this, and that’s kind of how we would go with it.
KOWLGI: Part of the operation of any team is having a tight feedback loop. You have folks who are working on things and they might introduce bugs, they might make mistakes, and usually it’s some other team member that points them out. It could even be something the customer finds in the field and you need to communicate it back to your team so they can start working on it and troubleshoot it. Could you throw some light on how your team does issue reporting or bug reporting internally? What are the processes you have for communicating issues that people find, to the rest of the team?
THIAGARAJAN: Nothing moves faster than a customer calling you, right. Soon as it comes from the customer, every team is on alert, to get the message passed and then going. The severity of the incident or the severity of the issue is constantly monitored. Typically customers facing issues or challenges come directly to my support team. My team gets looped in depending on the need, but normally we’re not facing the customer day to day other than the training classes. My own team certainly collects a lot of the feedback on the training classes and funnels it off to the product team or engineering team or R&D team. With the design side of course we have a lot of bugs that are online and sometimes a customer points out. Because of the standard that I have continued to enforce and build in the team, I try to ensure that we are actually fixing these bugs or at least communicating a plan to fix these bugs as early as able because getting something fixed is great, but knowing when it’s going to get fixed is definitely as useful. It’s up to each of the individual teams that are part of our company, how seriously that’s going to affect their need or their customer’s interaction. So, we have a system in place, I almost want to say it’s not necessarily a written system, there are key subject matter experts in different departments in our own company who typically get roped in and they are able to effectively get the message out to the right folks to make sure there’s enough urgency and importance on the issue itself. Obviously, we’re a small company still, we have a mostly flat organization for the most part, so there are a few of us who connect frequently, once or twice a week sometimes to chat through high level items or challenges that we’re going with and everybody is mostly aware of everything that’s going on and who’s got a lead on it.
KOWLGI: Your team’s fully distributed, how do you keep everyone upbeat and energetic in the workplace? Just curious what you do for remote team building. How do you get everyone ready and pumped for the workday or for the week?
THIAGARAJAN: That’s definitely a challenge. Specially when you’re not collaborating with folks day to day, thing can be very unsettling for a lot of people. You go down your own hole and sometimes you’re really stuck and can’t see the bigger picture. It is certainly a challenge, I think the industry has morphed into a point where people understand that’s the baseline in what we do. In fact, most of our industry is pretty remote because we’re a very product driven, sales driven. So, being in front of the customer, being in front of those individuals. But, my team specifically, we do a lot of traveling but a lot of our travel is tied to very, very high intense sort of work in front of customers. Not a whole lot of time or bandwidth for socialization, but when we do we take it. When we get a chance, we certainly do engage, but not everybody on my team is in that position to do it. So, it is certainly a challenge, I don’t think I have a right answer for it. We try to meet up at least once a year, physically, so at least we can get out and try to do some activities for my team that takes the mind away from our day to day. But, high octane, staying motivated and staying productive certainly comes with talking about it all the time, and making sure that when we win projects we see that it’s communicated and there’s a sense of accomplishment. Obviously providing any sort of incentives, whether they might be monetary or they might be other types also certainly help. As with any remote team or any remote company, we probably deal with the same advantages and disadvantages. I think we just find the people who are willing to do it and we set up the expectations upfront, it’s not a surprise coming for the future folks. And, obviously folks who have already done this in the past, they know how to do it. In our industry is still close knit, so most people have already done this one way or the other, those are the ones who are typically moving around in different companies.
KOWLGI: To wrap up, I have a personal question. This is hitting on the personal front. Can you tell us about some of the challenges you’ve faced working remote as well what are the benefits of working remote, that you personally really enjoy?
THIAGARAJAN: Save the best for the last, right. Let’s talk about what doesn’t work or what the issues and challenges are. Being around your teammates and colleagues can sometimes be something that you really miss. When it gets monotonous right, staring at the same screen and the wall all day long. So, this is my home office where I’m in right now. Collaboration is almost really, you have to motivate yourself to pick up the phone and call somebody. Because, we could tap away at emails all day long, which is what we do, but to be able to say aha, to be able to walk around your cube across the office floor, water cooler talk, miss that certainly. I don’t get the water cooler chats any more. That’s something that certainly breaks up the day a little bit. You get a chance to have a routine going where in the office you have all this stuff to do and then you come back. Over time all of these come as part of the process and I don’t think about it any more. But, I can certainly tell you the benefits of the way I see and probably why I’m doing it for so long is probably lot more than the disadvantages. The benefits is, I don’t think it’s a good thing for my family, but I feel like I get a lot more work done, which means I also work longer hours. Because there’s nobody around, which is good but also bad because sometimes it can be distracting, people stopping by or people talking to you. So, I get a lot more done, I get a lot less interrupted. Sometimes to do a task, Sunil, you probably understand this as well, to do a task it might take you 5 minutes but to get the train of thought to do it might take you 20. And, that’s probably the biggest advantage you have working from home. You are on your own schedule, the commute is literally from my bed to my table, which is about 3 steps, but there’s no traffic, there’s no any of that wasting time in and really getting amped up. So, I think that helps. And, let me be on my own schedule. I have the freedom to run errands or appointments as needed, but I’m still able to take care of the work as required to be able to deliver. I would certainly encourage a lot more people to be able to in this world of remote working. I think it’s a great way to police yourself with all the freedom that we have. The traditional back in the day work, boss was around you worked and it’s almost like when the boss left, everybody felt a sense of relief. But these days your boss is yourself really. I may run a team, but ultimately each one of us on our team actually are accountable to themselves before they’re accountable to me. They have a sense of responsibility, they have a sense of accomplishment that they want to achieve and grow in their career. Especially the young folks getting into the industry, should check out remote work because lot of people think it’s not for everybody, but I think it could be for everybody. It saves a lot of the time. A lot of the times I’ve gone into the office trying to solve a problem but the person I need to talk to is either stuck in traffic or is just in the office but not in the right mood because of traffic. So, you have all these challenges, sometimes you spend a half hour talking about it but I need the work to be done. So, I think it plays into the whole role of everybody working in the office is still needed. I think some teams still require that element, but we’ve found a way to synergize and sync up pretty well remotely and measure those progress because that’s important. We have a lot of metrics that we measure quarterly and annually, what worked or what didn’t work, and I’m a firm believer in I don’t need you to be at your desk 8 to 5 every day. Some people work really well at night, some people work really well in the daytime, some people work really well in the afternoon, so why put a wall around hours right. If I need the work done, I don’t care if you do it 8 to 5 or midnight, or 7am, whatever it is I think is the biggest advantage of it. Especially today’s world is much more connected than ever, so why not.
KOWLGI: Awesome. Alright, Lak, thank you so much for sharing with us how you work and how you run your team. I learnt a lot from your experience and your stories.
THIAGARAJAN: Pleasure is all mine. Thank you for your time as well.
KOWLGI: This concludes the interview, alright. Hope you enjoyed it.