How to work with offshore teams

"We'd like you to manage an offshore delivery team."

It's a request that makes the blood of many a developer run cold, but the trend for offshoring shows no sign of abating, and having the skills to manage offshore delivery are consequently becoming an increasingly important part of a contractor's armoury.

Managing a team of developers that live in a different time zone isn't easy at the best of times, but there are a few pitfalls that can be easily avoided if you know what they are – and that's what we're about to tell you.

Your teachers might tell you that no means no, kids – but in IT, yes doesn't necessarily mean yes, at least not the way we understand it. In some cultures, a "yes" to the question "can you do that for me?" doesn't mean "yes I can". In general, it means something approximating "I understand you" or "I hear you".

"I'd ask a guy to do something for me and he'd say yes. Then I'd ask him 'have you understood me?' and he'd reply yes again – but he hadn't," says architect Jim Gillespie. The best way to avoid the problem, agree most, is to steer clear of yes-or-no questions.

An offshore team are far less likely to question your instructions – even if they suspect you've made mistake. They're not being lazy or difficult – it's simply that the culture of many countries, particularly on the Indian subcontinent, is one of a strictly hierarchical structure, where questioning your boss is unheard of.

"I once worked with an offshore team that would always agree with their management – even when they were clearly wrong," says offshoring veteran Ian Berry, MD of Xibit Consulting. "They failed to form opinions of their own or question what their management were doing. As far as they're concerned, you're the boss, and what the boss says, goes."

Putting yourself in the same physical location as the team during the initial project ramp-up can work wonders to break down cultural barriers and build relationships. Either bring over the more senior developers and have them live in the UK for a few months, or travel to the offshore location to oversee the team. Not only does everyone get the chance to put a face to a name, bringing team members over to the UK gives them a better perspective on the bigger picture. And someone with a weaker grasp of English can improve immeasurably in a surprisingly short time.

"It is easier to see if they are 'getting' it," says Berry. "Over the phone they will often say 'yes' and three days later it turns out they don't understand it."
Holding conference calls to update on status are a must – ideally twice a day; for instance, one at the start of your working day, and one at the end of theirs. Sometimes time differences can mean a late night call, but for the sake of your sanity they should be avoided where possible. "I was getting up at 3am for calls with my team," adds Gillespie. "I wasn't getting a proper night's sleep."

"If you have to bring new recruits onto your team, make sure you have a trusted colleague in the remote location interview them in person, if at all possible. The horror stories of the person arriving on their first day being a different person to the one you spoke to on the phone are numerous."

But most important of all, says one offshore coordinator, "Get them to send over Indian snacks… they are lovely."

Graham Taylor

Friday 14th Mar 2008