Archive for March, 2012

Skype for Group Calls: Experience Report

We’ve been using Skype for regular calls between a group of ThoughtWorks technologists in North America, for about the past year. We’ve had good experiences so I thought I’d write a few notes about it.

First off, the tech itself. A typical call includes both video, audio-only, and PSTN dial-in participants. Here’s what you need:

  • Skype subscription. Allows me to host a group video call for up to 10 participants.
  • Skype online number. Allows someone who only has a phone (no computer, or no net connection) to dial a regular number and get through to me.
  • Decent internet connection and laptop to host the call. My Mac laptop runs about 50% CPU with an 8-participant video call, and uses up to 200KB/sec up and down bandwidth.

For call prep, I do these steps:

  • Find a quiet room. Kinda obvious, but important.
  • Get on a wired internet connection if I can. Wifi has worked fine in the past, but ethernet is better.
  • Plug in my laptop to a power supply.
  • Use headphones or a headset. A full headset is best but even basic earbuds help immensely. You should ask participants to use headphones too.

To actually run each call, I follow these steps:

  • A couple of minutes before the scheduled start time, find one of my contacts who will be using Skype and start a call with them. This ensures that I am the host for the group call.
  • As the call time begins, proactively add people to the call. I do this by checking in my contacts who is online, and using the little + button on my current call to add people.
  • Some folks will call me via Skype before I manage to add them, or call me from their phone. When I get these incoming calls, instead of using the green “answer” button I use the little + icon on the button to add them to the current call.
  • When people are talking, their video or icon will glow. I use this to find people who need to be on mute, and ask them to mute if they have a lot of background noise.

When I originally proposed Skype, I had a lot of concerns. What I really want to do is use a next-gen tool such as Mumble (used for low-latency online gaming) which has great voice quality. The feedback I got was that people would need to dial in frequently, because they were on client site, or without a net connection. This is why I added the online number so people can call in. What ended up happening was that for the vast majority of calls everyone is able to be on regular Skype on their laptop. Every now and then someone dials in using the voice number, and are able to participate as well.

I’ve found Skype to be awesome for this group call. If you can get everyone to use earbuds and mute when they’re not talking, the audio quality is massively better than our voice conferencing tech. We didn’t start off using video, but we’ve found over the last few calls that video adds a lot, and everyone seems to be able to handle it. If we did have a problem I’d ask everyone to turn off their cameras and fall back to voice-only Skype, but it’s been fine so far. We’ve had people in ThoughtWorks offices, at client sites, at home, and even on the road successfully conference in with Skype.

Having said all this good stuff about Skype, it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s not the only game in town. Brad Feld has done some A/B testing and found that Google Hangouts often work much better for him.

I do really think it’s worth trying harder with group communications. Don’t just settle for a crappy PSTN voice call. If the distributed meeting is worth your time, it’s worth using decent tech and demanding basic etiquette from the participants, such as using a headset and finding a quiet room.

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mike on March 6th 2012 in Technology