Saturday, July 14, 2012

Observations of an Offshore Team

There's certainly no shortage of offshore teams in software development. The stereotype of an Indian sweatshop of programmers and the garbage code they produce is well known throughout the industry. And I'd be lying if I said I hadn't seen that stereotype in action again and again. But I can't let that sour my perception of all offshoring in general. Particularly because my company now has an office in the Philippines for providing low-cost development work.

First of all, the Philippines is a far cry from India. The country and the people are vastly different in every way. I'm not going to compare apples and oranges, and besides that's outside the scope of these observations anyway. I was in the Philippines, not in India. So I can't speak to the latter. But hopefully what I've learned in working with the former can be applied somewhat universally.

The difference between working remotely with an offshore team and actually going there is profound. The perceptions, from both sides of the proverbial fence, change entirely when sitting in the same room. And I can't recommend the experience enough for any company which partners with an offshore team. Naturally, it would be cost-prohibitive to always work face-to-face in this situation. But sending at least one or two representatives to work directly with the team makes all the difference in the world.

If any company or team expects that they can simply toss requirements over a fence and expect production software to be tossed back over at a specified date, they're deluding themselves. It's an absurd notion to begin with, and years of industry headaches have confirmed that. Just being able to have casual conversations over lunch or dinner regarding the business domain and intent of the project can save untold costs in what would otherwise have been software that didn't capture the actual business intent. Understanding the why is vastly more important to software development than meeting a set of defined specifications.

There's also the psychological aspect to it. A team is more of a team when they know each other. Prior to this trip, everyone in the Manila office was a name and sometimes a voice, nothing more. An IM window, an email, a conference call... That was the extent of it. Now they're not just names on a form somewhere. Now I dare say I can call them friends. Or at the very least colleagues. A forced workplace joke over a conference call pales in comparison to a Friday night out to grab a drink or two. The social aspect of the team helps us to communicate and to understand each other more readily. The "fence" is torn down.

(As an aside, I regret to point out that I wasn't able to socialize nearly as much as I had hoped. So the fence is still partially there. Oddly enough, I ended up socializing more with members of adjacent teams than with my own, which is a bit unfortunate. But even going out to lunch with my team from time to time was still markedly better than IMs and emails.)

But even just the perception from "our side of the fence" entirely changes when you go there and meet the people on the other end of the emails. It's one thing to memorize someone's name, but it's another thing entirely to shake their hand and have a conversation with them. It's one thing to be numerically aware of the time zone difference, but it's another thing entirely to work the same shift as them and experience what it's like to have time-shifted hours. (After all, it's easy for us to label a rowdy background din on a conference call as being unprofessional. But honestly, what do you think an office of software developers who are all friends with each other is going to be like after 9:00 PM?)

Then there's the change in perspective on the little things around the office. What does the office look like? How is it laid out? What sort of equipment are they using? What assumptions do we have about our own "normal" office environments actually translate to that office, and what assumptions don't? You might be surprised.

For example, there's a labor/tools anti-symmetry between office environments in the US and many office environments abroad. In fact, this anti-symmetry is specifically why companies in the US delegate work abroad. To put it simply, and hopefully not disrespectfully... people are cheap. In the US if there's something slowing down a team and it can be solved by the purchase of some technology, the choice is clear. Don't let anything get in the way of the people. Tools are disposable. But in many offices abroad, tools are expensive (more expensive than they are here, actually, due to varying market forces). But people are easy to find and easy to replace.

It's harsh, and it's distasteful to me, but it's a reality that pervades the industry. I like to think that my company is different, and we're aware that it's going to take some time to convince our new team members of that fact. As I've said many times before, I hate referring to people as "resources." People are individuals. They are contributors. They are team members. They are not "resources." And actually meeting your team and getting to know them helps a lot to make that distinction.

I really like our team. And I truly believe that there's real development talent there just waiting to be nurtured. I don't want to simply delegate tasks to them. I want to work with them. And that difference, I believe, will make all the difference in the resulting software. Maybe not on the first project, maybe not on the second, but in the long run.

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