As the world adapted to work from home orders and began operating in more distributed, remote teams over the past two years, one common refrain from software developers was the lack of a truly remote alternative to a whiteboard.
Whether it is the dreaded whiteboard test during a job interview, or Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin’s apocryphal scribbling of the original Facebook algorithm on a dorm room window, the whiteboard has long been a key tool to help 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 problems, teaching sessions, and job interviews.
Getting that 1,000-feet view
“For engineers, the whiteboard is a powerful tool to help visualise different pieces of an application,” Jevin Maltais, engineering manager at fully-distributed automation software company Zapier, told InfoWorld. “Developing technical solutions means there is a lot of interaction and communication between various pieces of a system, and the whiteboard is a good way to visualise that.”
Kansas City-based software development agency Crema has been using the popular whiteboarding tool Miro for at least four years now (Miro is now a client of theirs), well before the pandemic forced employees and clients to work together remotely. But usage ticked up significantly during the pandemic.
“We have a wonderful office with whiteboards everywhere for project planning, technical planning, and troubleshooting,” Neal Dyrkacz, a senior application developer at Crema, told InfoWorld. Now, much of that work is done and stored within Miro. “Understanding a high-level architecture, what we need, the third-party APIs we will hit — getting that 1,000 feet view is valuable for everyone,” he added.
Lex Sanders, an application developer at Crema, found the Miro whiteboards hugely valuable during her early days at the company as an apprentice. “I spent a lot of time whiteboarding and doing collaborative work with mentors,” she said.
The shift from physical to virtual whiteboards is not seamless, however. One common problem is the simple logistics of adjusting from a physical environment, where it is always clear who is driving the session with a marker in their hand, to a virtual environment in which anyone can draw at any time. Maltais at Zapier admits this is still a challenge for engineering teams. “Coming up with cultural norms of who can draw when is still weird,” he admits.
Powering the asynchronous work revolution
AWS senior developer advocate Justin Garrison has worked in fully remote teams for a number of years now, but as a visual learner he often craved a simple way to explain things to colleagues visually.
As those teams have become more globally distributed, Garrison is looking for better ways to convey this information asynchronously, so that his 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 have out-of-the-box support for asynchronous recording and playback yet, something which is high on his 2022 wish list.
Maltais at Zapier has also been grappling with this issue over the past year or so. “Some of the powerful, non-obvious ways we use virtual whiteboards here is working in an asynchronous way to leverage the whiteboard as the visual tool, but allow people to contribute in their own time asynchronously” he said. “Digital whiteboards can be very long running. We can record the meeting, allowing that person to contribute to that whiteboard while they watch that evolve.”
Zapier has embraced asynchronous whiteboarding as it looks for better ways to engage engineers who only get to meet in person once or twice a year, pandemic allowing. “I think it is really important for engineers to be heard,” Maltais said. “They often work solo and don’t have the experience of being able to talk and ask questions, so finding ways to better collaborate and share ideas is really powerful.”
Which virtual whiteboard is best for developers?
“I like the ephemerality of it, it’s not documentation,” he said. “At a whiteboard you are having a conversation, 90 per cent of the value is what you are saying and 10 per cent is what is on the whiteboard.”
He has also had some success with Zoom’s integrated whiteboard feature during meetings, but doesn’t like how siloed the tool is. Miro was a key tool during his time at the Walt Disney Company, despite having some drawbacks. “It’s not meant for a pen, which means it’s not a whiteboard app for me,” he said.
Zapier is also trialing Facebook’s Horizon Workrooms VR tool for more immersive virtual whiteboarding sessions between developers. “The whiteboarding experience is really impressive in that setting,” Maltais said.
Hrafn Eiriksson, CTO at UK-based betting exchange Smarkets, uses three different whiteboards for different purposes. He likes a simple virtual whiteboard called Excalidraw for spur of the moment sessions, Miro for more formal meetings because of its full feature set, and HackerRank’s whiteboards for conducting technical interviews.
While the virtual whiteboard appears to be an unavoidable part of the software developer experience, as we shift into whatever the next iteration of work will look like post-pandemic, there still is no clear consensus replacement for the simplicity of a dry erase marker on a physical whiteboard.
“We’ve probably tried about a dozen different services for whiteboarding over the last couple of years,” Eiriksson said. “What I would say is that no matter which tool we use, remote whiteboarding really does not beat an in-person session.”