Tag Archives: Offshore Traps

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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Communication Failures in Outsourcing

It was Malcolm Gladwell who introduced me to Geert Hofstede’s concept of the Power Distance Index (PDI). After I read the chapter seven of Outliers I had to stop to catch the breath, it was just too exciting. Implication of PDI on cross-cultural communications is immense and it has direct relevance to outsourcing, and I’ve observed over the years. It’s something that you most likely dealt with as well. I did a bit of research and realized that I am far not the first to discover PDI’s impact on outsourcing, for example, this post offers great insights on PDI implications in the world of software development.

The idea behind PDI is quite simple, a perceived “distance” between a boss and an employee varies dramatically based on culture, biases, heritage, etc. The “distance” is defined as measure of how a person would generally react / respect / deal with a person of authority. The PDI is a measurement of that “distance”; it ranges from 1 to 120, the bigger the number the bigger the distance separating a boss and an employee. Small distance puts both boss and employee on very much the same floor of a corporate pyramid. As the distance grows the boss moves in a corner office or on the top floor, becomes master and commander, royalty and at some point a divine authority. While in cultures with small PDI an entry level employee can have a chat with CEO in a cafeteria, even just a single step in a corporate ladder can create master / slave relationship in cultures with high PDI.

In cultures with low PDI communications between a boss and an employee are quite different from countries with a high PDI. If you, an employee, are very much at the same level as your boss in terms of cultural hierarchy, you do not perceive any significant distance or differences with your boss and you tend to collaborate. A straight forward question gets a straight forward answer. If your boss is wrong you tend to have no qualms about pointing it out. And your boss expects you to. There are of course variations based on company settings and individual preference, someone might say to the boss “I respectfully disagree” and someone might use much less politically correct language. Moving up in PDI would convert collaboration into discussion akin to a military style of orders. Going higher in PDI changes a conversation into a dialog that for most of people from the Western world would be impossible to decipher as instead of a straight forward answer a response comes in a form of hints surrounded by layers of polite blabber, well, at least that is how people from low PDI cultures see it.

Interestingly enough high PDI doesn’t create too many communication issues between people from the same country. The traditions and unwritten rules of communications are well understood and do not present obstacles. Not always though, see some examples in Outliers, they are stunning and illustrate how high DPI drives catastrophic outcomes. And situation gets substantially worse when it comes to cross cultural communications, that’s where miscommunications and mutual frustration proliferate.

When we consider a typical IT outsourcing initiative in this country we face significant differences between buyer (boss) and supplier (service provider) – USA (40) vs. India (77) or China (80). It is not surprising that communication issues in all forms and shape plague the vast majority of outsourcing engagements. Even though I do not necessary agree with conclusions of The Real Reason Outsourcing Continues To Fail, blaming it all on PDI is an unjustified simplification, I believe PDI-related issues contribute a great deal to many of outsourcing engagements failures.

To minimize the damage that PDI difference can inflict on your engagement you need to deal with it on several levels:

  • Educating your staff, in particular local low-PDI employees.
  • Developing communication vehicles that inhibit PDI-related miscommunications.
  • Adjusting SDLC to minimize potential damage and inserting elements minimizing the impact.

That might be easier said than done, but there is no way around it. Left to themselves things tend to go from bad to worse.

PO Trip Adviser: China

And now a brief list of travel tips for one of my favorite destinations – China, the country that changes with amazing speed right before our eyes.

If there is anything that I regret about traveling to China it is not spending enough time there, not meeting enough people, and not seeing enough places.

I remember sitting on the Great Wall looking at the hills that look exactly like those on ancient paintings and thinking that for many Americans visiting China could be experience equal to visiting a different world, another planet… Well, that’s also changing rapidly.

  • A Visa is easy to get, but it may take a few weeks so allocate sufficient time. Also make sure that you have the travel plan worked out before you apply for Visa as you may need several entry authorizations as cities such as Shenzhen require special handling.
  • The most difficult aspect of traveling to China is language, very few people speak any English and you won’t find too many signs in English either. As a result public transportation even inner country air travel becomes challenging.
  • China is a reasonably safe country, and when it comes to main outsourcing destinations within country is very safe.
  • With petty crime on a raise you should be aware of environment and follow common sense practices such as not carrying large amount of money, protect your passport and valuables, etc.
  • The police in China are generally very friendly, though they speak very little English except in Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzhen, where some police can generally speak simple fluent English. If you are lost then ask for directions as they will usually be happy to help.
  • Stay in 4-5 star hotels remains relatively affordable. That will also ensure English speaking staff, access to tours, restaurants, etc.
  • Driving in China is somewhat strange experience – on one hand I was surprised with how closely some laws are followed, e.g. the speed limit – most of the cars travel ~5 mph below it. On the other hand I saw a lot of erratic moves and turns that were not aggressive just plain dangerous.
  • Sightseeing in China can be easily arranged with the help of the vendor or hotel staff. Keep in mind that most of professional tour guides are in cohorts with retailers specializing with ripping off tourists selling you “traditional” china, tea, souvenirs, etc. at 3-5 times the price you can get them elsewhere.
  • Eat only in good restaurants or at your hotel. Avoid eating buffet meals, even in high-end places. Not only drink bottled water, but also brush your teeth with it. Most of hotels provide bottled water for free. In restaurants I recommend boiled water / hot tea.

Of Frogs and Wrestlers

So you found a new vendor, negotiated a perfect deal and established relationships with key players. The team starts its work and shortly you can realize the savings you’ve been looking for. A year passes faster than you could ever imagine. Reports coming from the vendor showing good compliance with the benchmarks you established. You about to give yourself a pat on the back for being such an incredible offshore manager. And just to be a good sport you take a few business users for a dinner to share with them the wonderful achievements of incredible you.

Unfortunately even before you are done with the first round of drinks the conversation takes a rather unpleasant turn. No, they are not happy with both the quality of work your offshore team has been providing and their productivity. They are afraid of changes to be done to the systems your offshore team supports, they do not submit bugs because they are afraid that fixing one new bug would re-open a dozen of old ones; they do not enter RFEs because they do not believe they would ever be delivered, and so on.

What just has happened? All that rain on your parade is coming from a completely left field. Continue reading

Offshore QA and a Sly Fox

A fairly common model for working with an offshore vendor for SaaS companies is based on black box model – the requirements collected locally go to offshore team and code ready for production comes back, sometimes in a form of binaries. There are variations to that model with the same common thread – the full responsibility for development of the application and its quality assurance belongs to with the vendor.sly_fox

Can this approach work with an arbitrary software development shop? Absolutely! As a matter of that is the model used by all ISVs that do not employ offshore, so model works for sure. The question is whether offshore components in that model make the difference worth discussing, and unfortunately they do. The fundamental laws of outsourcing (FLO) affect efficiency and reliability of the model to a great extend, often making the model completely unreliable.

There are so many things that can go wrong inside of the proverbial black box turning it more into a Pandora’s Box:

  • Communications issues and information loss at every handover
  • Ever deteriorating quality of the resources
  • Inevitable deterioration of the quality of code
  • Growing blind spots in test coverage
  • And so on – you can continue this list ad nauseum

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Offshore BC & DR

Thinking about Nostradamus predictions for 2012 and all cataclysms that will strike that year? Afraid and developing your bullet proof Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery (BC&DR) plans? Well, if meteors, super-volcanoes, and melting ice caps flatten, burn, and flood most of humanity those BC&DR plans won’t matter much. However, increasingly more powerful floods, hurricanes and earthquakes with enormous toll remind us about vulnerability of even rich nations such as the USA, Canada, or China…

As I pointed out in Force Majeure working with offshore organizations increases risk of substantial losses bring up the importance of having solid BC&DR plans. Of course if you are working with a mature offshore partner they would have their own BC&DR plans. That’s great with one important caveat – will these BC & DR plans work when needed?

It was not long ago when supposedly invincible 365 Main Data Center in SF went lights out for a considerable period of time after a scheduled (!) black out. So there are a number of questions you need to answer:

  • Does you offshore vendor has solid BC&DR plans?
  • How often are theytested?
  • What are the KPIs / metrics associated with these plans?
  • Are those metrics sufficient for your business?
  • Who audits these plans and activities? (You won’t take the vendor word on it, would you?)

Well probably the first set of questions you should address to yourself or your IT team responsible for BC & DR. Interestingly enough for many, especially small companies the answers from internal team are likely to be much weaker than those from offshore. And as a matter of fact for some offshore is the BC & DR plan.

After you covered two main points you need to check the route between them. There are many aspects to connectivity between offshore and onshore. Things can get lost on the way, connectivity may drop (if major cables are damaged for quite some time as it happen with India couple years ago). But even more important is to make sure that was sent to you is indeed what you expected and that it is what you received. Wrong code pushed to production (happens even to Google) is sometime more serious disaster than interruption in service. That gets into an area that deserves a lot of discussions by itself – QA and in particular acceptance testing. I will cover it in a couple of posts in the future.

One more major aspect to consider – what if the relationship between you and the vendor go sour? In one or another way – you did something wrong, vendor decided to rob you of your IP, etc. There are plenty of sad examples. That kind of disaster is most difficult to deal with. And with them being as unpredictable as the Acts of God you should have solid BC & DR plan for that as well. Starting with solid contractual framework, appropriate and frequent archiving, and so on. Yet you can’t be ready for everything – losing key resources, knowledge transfer cost, etc. Not easy to deal with, sometimes practically impossible. However there is a good news, when it comes to these kind of diseases I know very reliable medicine – Disposable Outsourcing.

Environmental Fears

As I mentioned in At Doorsteps of a New Engagement I have a new vendor to deal with. It is a company that has been working with my team for over two years and thus it’s only new for me. It took about a few days for me to encounter the first set of issues. And that set came from the area so common that it’s worth a post by itself – software environments. Below is an email which I was cc’ed on –

Subject: RE: WCM Publish failed

Ravi,
Please explain to me how the production environment does not match what is in UAT. This is unacceptable and must stop. This is not the first time a production turnover did not match UAT.
We need to review our build, turnover, and documentation procedures. This pattern cannot continue.

Looks familiar? I am sure it is…

If you are in business of delivering software as a service or similar to it the chances you will have the following environments: development, QA, staging, production, disaster recovery. You may also have dedicated environments including Build, UAT, Sand Box(es), Performance Lab, etc. If you work with offshore team the chances are some of those environments are duplicated in the offshore offices.

A number of issues arise as environments proliferate:

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