5 C’s of offshore success

I just got off the phone with David, an old friend of mine and a VP of engineering for a stealth startup in Boston. His team is doing very well, and who knows, we all may hear about him and his company pretty soon. Needless to say, after half an hour discussion of his great idea and the business model we dove into technical aspects. My friend’s technology stack selection is of no surprise – RoR, MySQL and DynamoDB running on AWS. His SDLC is also far from innovative – SCRUM. What I found rather unusual for this stage of the game was a heavy utilization of offshore that he described as one of strategic decisions he made early on. Over 80% of his engineering workforce is based in Argentina, and given the fact that he’s never been outside of this country, it was somewhat a surprise. David rates his experience of using offshore as “one of the smartest moves I’ve done”. We let the time be the judge of that, but in meanwhile a few observations –

David’s motivation for using offshore was very common – bootstrapping the company with current local salaries is close to impossible, finding local talent is not easy and far too time-consuming, especially, getting agile web development skills. So offshore seemed like a sensible path to take. Near-shore preference came from his “control freak” nature. “I just want to see them on the Skype, want to be able to check, ask, re-focus in real time. Time zone differences is not for me.” Having gone through a lot of “bad” and very little “good” experience with offshore he used a small advisory firm to find partner and manage the offshore relationship. But that was not the key to success. “What makes us successful in using offshore are the 5 Cs -

  • Clarity – know exactly what the goal / objective is, what result/outcome you expect – in a great level of details.
  • Conviction – be absolutely sure that you can achieve your goal / objective – research, analyze, what-if to death, and then cut off alternatives and move forward.
  • Commitment – be prepared to put the effort required to achieve your goal / objective; the problems will happen, don’t let them deter you from the path you’ve chosen.
  • Consistency – execute with persistence, keep your eyes on the ball; do not drop best practices, even though they seem at times to be nothing but unnecessary overhead.
  • Collaboration – make sure that every aspect of your activities has been properly communicated to every member of your team, discussed and accepted by them.

I asked David whether it’s possible that he just got lucky with his partner, but he did not support that idea – luck has no place here since it begins with L :D

Offshore Fears and Disaster Recovery Planning

fearThe most common emotion associated with introduction of outsourcing in organization, running offshore engagements, and even terminating relationship with an outsourcing vendor is fear. At least that is what I’ve observed over the years. Fear comes in many shapes and forms – anxiety, worry, distress, alarm, panic, paranoia and so on. We worry about so many things – deadlines, turnover, communication failures, key contributors… the list goes on and on.

We worry about many things, and most of them never happen. As a matter of fact, experience shows that 99% of things that we worry about to do not happen, and when things do happen events come at us so fast that we have no time to worry.  Yet we continue to live in paranoia thoroughly convinced that outsourcing world is out to get us. Continue reading

Another Offshore Manager Daily Routine

daily routineA good friend of mine, Alexey, is an “offshore manager” for a mid-sized technology company with offshore offices in Ukraine. After reading my last post he decided to sent me his daily routine. I put “offshore manager” here in quotes since it’s my friend’s role, not the title. Anyway, in his case ODC is wholly owned by his company, and he has a full time job of overseeing development and QA activities performed by the offshore team.

Interestingly enough, Alexey is not an engineer, but for all intents and purposes is a project manager, very good one. His team in Ukraine is over 60 people and is responsible for product that generates at least 50% of his company revenue. Alexey’s offshore team is doing exceptionally well and is considered one of the key ingredients of the company’s success.

I think in a large degree offshore team success is due to Alexey’s work, leadership and unyielding dedication to quality. And now without further ado let me present slightly edited Alexey’s daily routine –

  • 15 min Categorize (not read) emails received
  • 90 min Participate in up to 3 daily SCRUMs (high risk projects)
  • 30 min After SCRUMs I usually have 1 or 2 one-on-one meetings with my team members scheduled at this time. My goal is to follow up with each tech / QA lead at least once a week, with every other member of the team – every other month. Most often via Skype. Meetings are scheduled in advance as recurring appointments.

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Offshore Manager Daily Routine

Last night I met with Chris, an old friend of mine who manages relationships with a large group of software developers and QA engineers located in Campinas, Brazil. He’s been working with this team for over a year after being brought in for a short term contract – an offshore “rescue” operation. The relationship between his client and offshore provider was going nowhere quick. Milestones missed, quality of deliverables deteriorating, blame shifting and finger pointing proliferated. The relationship was clearly falling apart and management frustration reached a point where they no longer were prepared to deal with the vendor.

Apparently the history of the offshore relationship for Chris’s client was rather consistent – find a new vendor, go through 3-6 honeymoon period, then things start braking here and there, the company attempts to improve situation by assigning one of the employees, s/he attempts to salvage the situation, but after a some period of temporary improvements things go from bad to worse and the search for a replacement vendor is initiated… and the cycle repeats. By the time Chris came on board his client was on fourth vendor, this time a small company from Brazil.

The problem was “100% with the vendor” – “lack of understanding of the company’s objectives, poor English and overall communication skills, high turnover, mañana attitude, etc., etc.” – at least that what was what the client told Chris.

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The Bottomless Pit of SEO

bottomless-money-pit-seo-If you are a novice blogger, an affiliate, or plan to make a killing by placing Google ads on your site you may believe that SEO will bring you tons of money. It may, but unless you watch every step and invest a great deal of efforts in building the traffic, it won’t.

A couple months ago I started a mid-sized SEO project. I guess by now, after going through a few dozens of SEO engagements I should not be too worried, yet I was. The SEO world has changed a great deal since my last project. Also this time I needed to start from scratch – new site, new for me, very competitive market, and as usual very small budget, both in terms of money and my availability. So, eLance / oDesk here we come.

As it’s typical for SEO engagements I started getting responses to my project almost instantly after I submitted it. 20 or so proposals came in the first hour, about same in next 24 hours, and about a dozen afterwards. Most of the proposals came from India with cost ranging between $5 and $15 an hour. Pretty much all proposals I got were boilerplate documents some of which were slightly modified to acknowledge my name and the project. For follow up I picked about 10 companies with near perfect rating and high number of hours billed in the last year.

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Finding VAs just got easier

Activities that call for out-tasking, ad-hoc outsourcing or “outsourcing your life” inevitably bring us to a not so easy to resolve dilemma – where and how to find a decent virtual assistant (VA). In some cases we can engage resources from oDesk or elance, in some cases we need to find an established VA company. And like with most of vendor selection challenges choosing VA vendor is a task not for the faint of heart. Sheer number of resources that fall into VA category makes proper selection a seemingly daunting task. For example, a search for “virtual assistant” brings 29K entries on oDesk and 19K on eLance.

Interestingly enough an approach here could be using another layer of outsourcing – getting an assistant who can find an assistant… And as luck may have it a few days ago I run into someone who offers exactly that kind of services – Nick Loper, the founder of Virtual Assistant Assistant, the leading directory and customer review database on personal and small business outsourcing companies. Nick also wrote a book “Virtual Assistant Assistant: The Ultimate Guide to Finding, Hiring, and Working with Virtual Assistants” that is now available on Amazon and published a white paper that discusses the current state of the personal outsourcing landscape. Here is a summary in his own words:

It looks at some of the macro trends impacting the industry, including large scale geographic shifts in supply, and the growing confusion over what exactly is a “virtual assistant.”

The study also addresses the demand side of the equation with an analysis of proprietary never-before-released survey data from prospective outsourcing clients. This includes information on desired work functions, anticipated workloads, preferred working relationships, and more.

As demand for outsourcing services has increased, so has interest from venture capitalists. A number of high profile companies and startups have raised funds to grow their business.

Finally, the paper looks at some of the demographic data on website visitors seeking out information on virtual assistants.

Outsourcing service providers may be able to use this data to better cater their offerings to meet the demands of the market.

VA market is going to grow considerably and selecting companies that can match your specific needs would become increasingly different. In that light services like VAA could be extremely helpful. I hope Nick continues growing his business…

Finding a great outsourcing coordinator

About six months ago one of my old friends, VP of Engineering for an East Coast based company, asked me to help him to find a good offshore manager / outsourcing coordinator. That by no means was an easy task and in this case, a not-so-rich relatively small company, it was even more challenging. It took us about two months and few dozens of candidates to find someone who we perceived as a great match. A few weeks later our pick hit the ground running and now, three months after starting the work, he is continuing to exceed our expectations and has proved to be a rock star of an offshore manager. I guess that’s at this point we can give ourselves a pad on a back a look back and see what we did:

First, the task & landscape: the task was to find someone who would manage/coordinates offshore activities for a small product development company. The company’s product, written primarily in Microsoft technologies, has been around for ~15 years and inevitably grew in complexity, size and not so much in quality of code within. Some of the new product development and the lion’s share of maintenance has been outsourced for almost as long as the product development itself. SDLC is a modified waterfall with some elements of agile. The outsourcing team size has fluctuating around average of twenty.
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