Kicking off a Body Language Discussion

I have been planning on putting together a few posts on body language for quite some time now. This topic is exceptionally important in any business / environment. The knowledge and understanding of body language is essential to any kind of communications, and when it comes to negotiations, conflict resolution, dealing with difficult people it is absolutely critical. There are many books and studies written on this topic, there are some simple common sense techniques, there are more advanced and powerful ones. In general reading and using body language is not a trivial task and the complexity of it goes up tenfold when you find yourself working with people from different cultures. But did anyone say that offshore was easy?

Anyway, I am not yet ready to cover this topic – still doing some research and compiling my notes and materials I gathered over years. The reason I decided to mention it today is not to put a stake in the ground, it somewhat a comical one. A few minutes ago I saw a picture of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on yahoo news. The body language in the picture stroke me as a classical stance of well trained used car salesman – “Would I ever lie to you!?” So I could not resist the temptation to put it here and ask you for ideas of a caption for the picture.

APTOPIX Illinois Governor Impeachment

Business Negotiations: Initial Discussions

Placing an outsourcing contract, scoping a fixed bid development project, making a substantial change in the engagement scope, resolving conflict on quality of service or project deliverables… all these activities require negotiations, sometimes rather involved and lengthy. One of the first steps in business negotiations, the one that often sets the tone of the negotiation is initial discussions.

Even small scope negotiations can benefit from initial discussions being a stand-alone step. I view it critically important in many regards, one of the most important being assuring that you “do not react but respond” – deal with the issue in the most constructive manner.

Let’s consider a situation when your offshore partner just announced that a key employee is leaving the team. Instead of hitting the roof and screaming in a phone that this just the final straw and heads will roll you may want to hear what the vendor has in mind in dealing with the situation, chances are they may have a plan.

The main purpose of the initial discussion is just that – hear out your opponent. Specifically that means:

  • Listen attentively and take detailed notes.
  • Separate people from the problems.
  • Focus on interests not positions.

Let’s slightly change the situation – the vendor presented you the problem (say it was a quick call or email) and you had a chance to digest it to some degree. Next discussion is likely to require you to present your side:

  • Position (now you can say that you can’t take it anymore).
  • Expected outcomes.
  • Selected constraints. Your true situation might have more complex structure and constraints from what you are prepared to share with you opponent.
  • Introduce negotiation team. That is typical for more formal / complex business negotiations.
  • Confirm negotiation authority. That is not a bad thing to do even for small negotiations; it is required for comprehensive / formal ones.

While initial discussion is a step forward to the negotiating table in a large degree you are still in continue with information gathering. Initial discussion(s) offer yet another opportunity to learn about the situation and balance of power, in particular you typically get a window into:

  • People involved in the negotiations, their style and skills.
  • Your opponent situation and perceptions.
  • Interests, goals and objectives behind their position.

Additionally, initial discussion will give you a chance to establish rapport with the members of your opponent’s negotiating team. This is critical success factor of any negotiation, as a matter of fact the more complex and more confrontational is the negotiation the import important is to establish rapport. It is in particular important for cross cultural negotiations.

And finally a few simple tips:

  • Listen twice as much as you talk. A lot is written about active listening and it is still one of the most underappreciated skills.
  • Stay with the game plan.
  • Avid confrontation… unless it’s the game plan.
  • Avoid commitments.
  • Don’t spill the beans.

Top Emerging Companies in India IT-BPO

Finding a provider in India could be very challenging process. Sheer number of providers combined with high percentage of body-shops with prevalent mediocre resources, ongoing changes in the industry, recent scandals, cutthroat competition exacerbated by industry decline make up for a daunting process. The process becomes especially complex if you target a small to midsized vendors. Analysts reports are not likely to offer tremendous help here as they often stay with top tier vendors. Naturally you want to seek help from industry organizations, and when it comes to India you can not ignore NASSCOM with its 1200+ members. Recently one of the NASSCOM initiatives yielded a list which you might want to consider: NASSCOM announces the Top 15 – “Exciting Emerging companies to Work for”- 2008. The list offers 15 companies that came from a list of ~400 companies. Rather exclusive group I would say. To my great surprise I actually knew two of the 15 names:

  1. HeroITES
  2. Corbus (India) Pvt. Ltd
  3. AgreeYa Solutions India Pvt. Ltd.
  4. Nagarro Software Pvt. Ltd.
  5. R Systems International Ltd.
  6. Synygy India Pvt. Ltd.
  7. Acclaris Business Solutions Pvt. Ltd.
  8. Infogain India (P) Ltd.
  9. Hytech Professionals India Pvt. Ltd.
  10. Nucleus Software Exports Ltd.
  11. Sopra India Pvt. Ltd.
  12. Cactus Communications Pvt. Ltd.
  13. Interglobe Technologies Pvt. Ltd.
  14. H5 Asia Pacific Pvt. Ltd.
  15. Saba Software India Pvt. Ltd.

While the focus of the survey was to identify the best small and medium sized IT-BPO companies to work for, it serves as a great list of the best small and medium sized IT-BPO companies to deal with as there is typically very strong correlation between those two.

Top 10 Reasons NOT to Outsource

Remi Vespa suggested an interesting topic in his 10 reasons NOT to outsource; while I agree with most of the points he made, my top 10 would be somewhat different:

1. No reasons to outsource. Let me clear a suspected circular reference here: take a look at my earlier posts Top reasons for outsourcing and My reasons to outsource; if your reasons for outsourcing are not listed there and more so after some reading and thinking appear to be superficial, they probably are.

2. Personal. If you do not believe in outsourcing, if it could present a clear and present danger to your career, or outsourcing is likely to affect your life in some tangible negative manner (take a look at Offshore Risks: Team and Personal Impacts for some hints) stay away from offshoring as far as you can.

3. No executive support / sponsorship, no organizational / team support. If you running and uphill battle in your organization – your execs do not believe outsourcing is beneficial for the organization, if getting appropriate funds is questionable, if your team doesn’t support you. Well, maybe you are agent of change, yet still, you need to pick your battles.

4. Low risk tolerance. Your organization / your boss / yourself do not tolerate risk well and have high penalties for mistakes. Trying offshoring in environment like that is a very risky proposition.

5. No appropriate opportunity. There is always a risk in applying such a powerful yet delicate weapon as outsourcing to tasks that are not made for it. And there is not much use of trying to fit square pegs in round holes.

6. No offshore-ready management resources. If you and your management team doesn’t have any experience with outsourcing you might be better off without it unless you are mentally and financially ready to sustain a lot of pain.

7. No processes. If your organization is process free or still straggling to achieve CMM1 inviting outsourcing is likely to cost you an arm and a leg, so stay away from offshore, unless of course you’ve got spares.

8. You need to cut costs, now. Properly handled and with a bit of luck offshoring is likely to show some cost savings, yet as they say it takes money to make money. Your need to invest before you realize the savings. So if your need to immediately make up for the luck of sales or some other reasons behind a deep dive in P&L you might look for some other cost saving techniques.

9. No sufficient runway for taking off. Getting offshore engagement off the ground and getting it to the point it starts delivering value is not a trivial exercise. Do not expect immediate gratifications nor even start on that route if you have not enough runway (funds, time and energy), there is no glory in crash-landing.

10. No runway to land. No matter how skillful you are, how well financed is the project, how perfectly it is executed there is still a chance that your offshoring engagement fails. If that failure is likely to cause substantial damage, if there is no way you can safely terminate the engagement think twice before starting it.

Of course many of these reasons and the items listed in Remi’s post can be dealt with, risks mitigated, and challenges addressed. Nevertheless you should not take any of them lightly and do not move forward with your outsourcing initiative till you take the last item off your Top Reasons NOT to Outsource list.

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Offshore Negotiations: a Macro View

Negotiations are an integral part of business life, that’s pretty much a truism. More so negotiations for business are very much like breathing for human beings. Sometimes it seems that you can not make a single step without getting involved in some kind of negotiations – project scope / resources / time / quality; multiple aspects of employment relationships; vendor relationships; customer relationships; and so on. So it’s no surprise that an ability to negotiate is one of those mandatory job requirements that somehow never make it to job description.

While negotiation skills are important for any professional they are particular important and are put to real test when working with third parties and in particular with offshore. That’s why I decided to put a few posts to cover some of the most important elements of the subject.

Offshore negotiations like many other ones often come down to drawing a line in sand demarcating what’s mine and what’s yours – reaching an agreement on resource allocation, responsibilities, financial aspects and so on. Negotiating in its isolated “pure” form is an ongoing and often major portion of communications through the lifecycle of the offshore partnership. It typically comes up first during the initial contract negotiations, possibly as early as signing an NDA and later comes up at every change in direction ort pace.

What institutes a good negotiation? In a classic form a negotiated agreement is considered good if it is fair, wise, was reached efficiently, and is stable. I would a few more bytes to it – A negotiation went well if your interests are addressed, relationships are intact, you did not lose more than you gained in the process, you did not get more than you bargained for, and you feel good about it.

So, how do we get there?

First and the most important – before entering any negotiation you should understand the situation, the subject of negotiations, and what is at stake. It is amazing how often people jump into negotiation when there is nothing to negotiate (both parties are in violent agreement), too early or too late, or when negotiation is not the way to move forward. Identify the situation by ask yourself:

  • What are the problems / issues?
  • What are the affected parties?
  • What are the timeframes?

Just a few days ago one of my providers called me with rather unexpected message “Nick, we need to increase the rate for some of our developers!” My initial reaction could have been “Rodrigo, are you completely out of your mind?” Tell you the truth that it actually was, internally. I did manage not to say it and instead asked the questions similar to those above. A few minutes late I realized that the problem was far less urgent and severe and that I had a plenty of negotiation space with potentially very promising outcomes…

Second step is gathering the information. In some negotiations that could be a rather involved process and it deserves a stand alone post, maybe a few; for now I will just mention the high points:

  • Identify high-level information pertaining to the negotiation for the all parties involved.
  • Identify position of your opponents – their stated goals and objectives in terms of what they “want”.
  • Discover true interests behind the positions of your opponents – their true goals and objectives or what they actually “need”.
  • Identify the situation as it pertains to your negotiation power, timing and skills.
  • Discover the same about the situation of your opponents, pressures they are under.

Third step (time wise it could be preceding second step or done in parallel with it) involves defining your own position, your own “wants” and “needs”. As Seneca put it: “If a man knows not what harbor he seeks, any wind is the right wind.” Interestingly enough negotiating for the sake of negotiating is not such an uncommon event. Maybe an emotional rollercoaster of high pressure negotiations, blood taste in the mouth, or twisted pleasure of seeing your negotiation partner crumble to pieces is enough of a motivation, but what will it do for you in a long term?

Start with setting the desired outcomes – Best and Realistic:

  • What exactly are we trying to achieve by the negotiations?
  • What / Where / When / How do we want it?
  • What / Where / When / How do we NOT want it?
  • What is gained / lost by resolution?
  • What are the achievement criteria?

Next go through some brainstorming and identify your alternatives:

  • What are the alternatives that are available away from the table?
  • What is your Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement (BATNA)?
  • What is gained / lost in case of no resolution?
  • Exactly What / Where / When / How is BATNA manifested?
  • Exit criteria. At what point do you stop negotiating and revert to BATNA?

The fourth step, involves tactical and organizational actions for preparing to the “official negotiations” or the process of reaching the agreement. It involves obtaining negotiating authority, setting up negotiation team and addressing all logistic components. There is much to be said about setting up environment for negotiation, in particular in cross-cultural negotiations.

And finally the last step – reaching the agreement. This step is by far the most complex and comprehensive. It requires plenty of skills, knowledge and patience. This step might vary in its complexity, length and structure depending on the complexity of the topic, positions of the parties involved, negotiation space, techniques, and many other dimensions. It definitely deserves a stand-alone post. For now let me just mention a few elements common for many comprehensive business negotiations:

  • Initial Discussion(s) – at this stage the parties typically outline negotiations landscape and share their “wants”.
  • Regrouping / Final Preparation – at this stage the negotiating teams define / adjust their strategy and tactical approach.
  • Reaching an agreement – the “face to face combat”, the heart of the negotiations.
  • Paperwork – preparing and finalizing documentation pertaining to the subject negations.
  • Closure – signatures, handshakes, and communications.

OK, that’s enough for now; it also looks like I will need at least half a dozen of follow on posts; that will keep me busy. Hopefully there will be seats on BART at least on one leg of my commute, otherwise that might take awhile…

oDesk Freelancer Stats and Mashups

A few posts ago I mentioned a report covering some insights on international freelancing community that was made available by oDesk. Sine then I had a chance to take a deeper look at oConomy and found information there even more interesting and insightful. oDesk did a great job on presenting freelancer statistics in chats and Google mashups.

Of course when it comes to picking an offshoring destination freelancing data needs to be taken with a grain of salt. In particular a freelancer’s rate is a product of many criteria and only portion of those are locale-dependant. Freelancing through aggregators / monster boards like oDesk is still in its early stage, over time the rates and other stats will have a greater degree of correlation to local salaries, availability, etc. However, even today, these figures provide an interesting reference in terms of understanding the local dynamics. Let’s take for example geo distribution for Russia vs. population and rank for top 10 cities on oDesk list:

oDesk Rank City Number of Providers Average Charge Rate Average  User Score Population Rank
1 Moscow 486 $19.39 4.21 10,470,318 1
2 Omsk 444 $16.12 4.28 1,134,016 7
3 Taganrog 207 $15.82 4.28 281,947 66
4 Saint Petersburg 200 $17.76 3.69 4,661,219 2
5 Novosibirsk 121 $16.75 4.34 1,425,508 3
6 Tomsk 98 $15.83 3.99 487,838 34
7 Rostov-on-Don 69 $15.28 4.15 1,068,267 10
8 Nizhniy Novgorod 44 $15.11 3.28 1,311,252 4
9 Smolensk 34 $14.24 3.54 325,137 56
10 Irkutsk 32 $24.13 4.62 593,604 24

As you can see the figures are somewhat counterintuitive. Take for example Taganrog a small city in the same region as Rostov-on-Don which is roughly 3 times bigger and considerably richer as well, yet freelancer community is 6 times the size of Rostov-on-Don’s.  Taganrog is even ahead of Russia’s second largest city Saint Petersburg.  Most likely these figures confirm that freelancing community’s embrace of oDesk services is in its humble beginnings and that more business will flow to companies like oDesk, Guru, eLance and others.

I hope oDesk keeps oConomy live and updated with the latest info, it would be also great to see their competitors to follow in suite.

Offshore Communication Strategy Basics

Communications is one of the main factors in any sizable IT effort, and for offshore engagements it’s impossible to overstate the value and importance of it. How the communications are planned, maintained and controlled depends on variety of factors: size of the engagement, SDLC and project management methodology, organizational maturity on both sides, time zone differences, complexity of domain or technology just to name a few.

The first step in ensuring solid communications is planning. The communications plan should outline all the most important components of the process, media, participating parties, etc. I prefer to use PMP style communication plans even for small engagements. It doesn’t mean that you should establish PMO structure and write 10 page meeting notes after every phone call, you only need to take some standard template and adjust it for your specific case. Here is an example how a meetings section of a simplified communication plan might look:

Meeting Frequency / Schedule Media Participant Run By Description / agenda Guideline Duration
Daily Status Call Daily, 9:00 AM PDT Skype All team members Team Lead, TBD For each team member

1. Status updates for the previous period (since last meeting)
2. Tasks planned for the next period
3. Any impediments associated with execution of the tasks going forward

< 30 Min
Weekly Status Weekly,
Monday at 11:00 AM PDT
Skype Offshore team SPOC

On-site team SPOC
Others, TBD

Offshore SPOC 1. High-level status review2. For each project / initiative
a. Status updates for the previous period (since last meeting)
b. Tasks planned for the next period
c. Any impediments associated with execution of the tasks going forward
3. Other, as needed
a. Specific Items
b. Risk & Risk Mitigation
< 1 Hr
Monthly Status Last Thursday of the Month, 11:00 AM PDT Skype All team members Offshore SPOC 1. High-level status review2. Other, as needed
a. Specific Items / Announcements
b. High & Lows
3. Q & A
< 1 Hr
Account Review Last Friday of the Quarter, 11:00 AM PDT Face to Face / Skype Account Manager, Others TBD Account Manager 1. High-level status review2. Other, as needed
a. Specific Items / Announcements
b. High & Lows
3. Q & A
< 1 Hr

The next thing is getting the plan to work. That is more difficult than it appears. Communications as any other process have a tendency to deteriorate unless enforced and controlled. Small ad hoc changes, canceling meetings for convenience or scheduling constraints, and focus of executive sponsors drifting away accumulate resulting in communications break down and a domino effect on multiple aspects of the engagement. That is a common problem across the industry and offshore only aggravates it.

There is no panacea or one-fit-all solution for keeping communications intact and maintaining their quality. Below are a few tips to consider:

  • Consider steering committee / PMO structure or some other org structure with the sole / prime objective of governing the engagement.
  • Audit activities, if size of the engagement allows, consider dedicated auditing group. Dedicated auditing is fairly expensive proposition, one of the easiest way of doing it using a third party perform the audits. Engaging outsourcing advisors for these activities could work out quite well.
  • Consider a dedicated offshore manager; a person responsible for all aspects of the offshore activities. The person should have very solid PM/PMO skills, in-depth understanding of the processes such as SDLC, strong knowledge of the domain, and of course understanding of the offshore.

The items above could increase the engagement overhead and consequently the total cost of outsourcing quite substantially and they do not scale down beyond certain point. Whether you consider them or now you should put regular communication tools in place, here are some examples:

  • Project Wiki and/or dashboard. That’s a great helper with relatively low support overhead. Some vendors offer such tools as part of their offering. I consider that big value-add. In case vendor doesn’t offer the out-of-box project dashboard you should build one using some open source wiki, Sharepoint or any tool you are familiar with.
  • Time tracking. While not a communication tool and bane of existence for people on the team Time Tracking is unbeatable control tool that offers insights in the time allocation and forces you to communicate when any odd behavior is detected.
  • IM tools with VoIP features, in particular I recommend Skype. The value of instant access to resources is difficult to overestimate.
  • Open group chats using Skype or other IM technologies. A great way to stay abreast of what’s going on the project, pick up important communication breakdown clues, control information flow.
  • There are plenty of great team collaboration tools starting with fairly simple ones like google docs or basecamp and all the way to high end enterprise style applications.

The tools will not prevent communication breakdowns, they will help you control the flow and make them much less frequent and hopefully less damaging.

Delivering Bad News

If you are running an offshore IT engagement you have faced bad news a few times by now. Not? Chances are you will soon. I am not being all gloom and doom; it’s just the nature of the beast. As a matter of fact working in IT guarantees that you will be facing bad news, offshore just expedites the matters. This post is not as much about offshore as about bad news in general –how to deliver them and how to receive.

The first thing to keep in mind whether you have to deliver bad news or are receiving them is that a bad news is like a turn in a road: it’s not the end of the road, unless you failed to make the turn.

Let’s start with delivery. Chances are that applies more to offshore providers. Internally offshore vendors face many challenges – delivery against insane deadlines, working with mediocre workforce, turn over, and so on. These issues are not much different from those most technology organizations face independently from their location. I do not often hear about over-budgeted and overstaffed projects or unusually loose timeframes. The challenges create issues, some of the issues are mishandled, and sooner or later mishandled issues materialize into a problem that becomes a bad news to be delivered to the customer.

The time of beheading bad news bears has passed yet I guess it’s deeply imbedded in our psyche. Not many of us enjoy delivering bad news, especially when it’s personal. BTW, that is an additional complication for many of the offshore providers as the ties between personal and business relationships in many of the offshore countries has been exceptionally strong for centuries and switching to “it’s just business” attitude is not an easy transformation.

To deal with a challenging transformation you need a methodology. I suggest the one I heard from my sailing buddy. He told me that every task on a boat includes three stages – Prepare, Execute, and Cleanup.

That is exactly what you should do to deliver a bad news:

Prepare. That is the most involved and the most important part of the process. The better it is executed the easier it is to deliver the news.

  • Get all the facts, supporting materials, and paper trail together. Organize your materials in a manner you can quickly access what you need.
  • List all questions you can anticipate and make sure you have answers and supporting materials for each.
  • Pick the best individual(s) to deliver the news. Your choice should be based on many aspects of the business relationship and in particular personnel aspects such as roles, hierarchy, and personality.
  • Identify potential outcomes and develop action plans for handling each one of them. You should have a proposed solution or several of them rated by your preference prior to arriving in front of your client. Few things would go worse in such situation than a “we got a problem” followed by a blank stare.
  • Decide on the approach / delivery techniques. This step should be based in a large degree on the items above and the gravity of the issue.

Execute. Aim for making this step as brief and concise as it could possibly be; there more you dwell on the problem the deeper it gets.

  • Deliver the news in a manner dictated by your selected technique / approach (see more notes below).
  • Provide your partner with information they may need. Suggest possible solution / proposed plan.
  • Define action plans and the next steps.

Cleanup. …unless you failed to make the turn… Your actions in the clean up stage are those final movements you need to exit a sharp turn gracefully.

  • Send follow up note / meeting notes / action plans / next steps / etc. to the client.
  • Follow through on each item of the action plan.
  • Follow up with the client to keep them abreast with the recovery progress.

There are many techniques you can deploy in the execution phase. Most famous are known as Punch in a Face, Love Sandwich, and Spinning (it also has a similar, more popular yet less appealing name).

Punch in a Face, delivering bad news without any sugarcoating, despite of its “straight shooter” appeal is a very delicate technique. It should not be used with people who take things personally or emotionally. More so even cold-blooded IT executives that never take anything personal may still prefer some cushion when it comes to very hard news. If you elect this approach make sure to deliver the news in the most concise manner and quickly move on to resolution plans, action items and next steps.

Love Sandwich works well with majority of situations and audiences. The idea behind it is quite simple: in order create a Love Sandwich place the bad news between two layers of “love”. The “love” could be an indication of commitment, general positive reinforcement, good news, etc. This technique is particular successful if information in love portions of the sandwich is relevant to the bad news. It is also important to make sure that love portions outweigh the negative filling.

Spinning is a very complex technique that requires mastery of word, sharp whit, above average diplomatic skills and has dubious results. Presenting a bad news as a good news is likely to be interpreted by an intelligent person as desperate attempt to avoid responsibility. If you measure spin in degrees (180 would be an ultimate spin presenting “bad” as “good”) I would strongly recommend never going being 45 degrees – presenting some “bad” news as “not too bad” one.

One item worth in-depth discussion is “anti-techniques”, the approaches one can use to exacerbate the problem instead of softening the blow. It’s amazing how often I have seen those while working with my offshore providers. My dear distinguished bad news bears, please never do the following:

  • Rush. Never hurry through the process. Rushing through the preparation will leave you vulnerable at the delivery point. Dashing through the execution stage is likely to leave client with impression that you are trying to dodge the subject. Speeding through the cleanup stage will put you back on the same track with a new bad news.
  • Procrastinate. The problem will not go away and with time the bad news is likely only get worse.
  • Overwhelm with excuses. As Brian Tracy put it “A disease of excusitis, inflammation of excuse making gland, is fatal for success.”
  • Announce your technique. Funny enough I heard it quite a few times – “Nick, I gotta tell you: we are in deep troubles, but let me put a spin on it…” What a silly thing to say, do you expect me enjoy watching your exercise in spinning techniques? And how does it alleviate the problem I have to deal with?
  • Use preemptive announcements. “Hey Nick, I have a good news and a bad news. Which one would you like to hear first?” I do not want to hear bad news to begin with. I do not want any bad news.
  • Use “preparers”. A technique commonly used by snake oil sales people: “Nick, I got a very bad news… our coffeemaker’s broken.” most of the time that means that the next thing will be a “not such a bad news” like “the car you came here to buy is $5K more expensive than our ad in a paper stated”. This technique is well known and chances are it will only irritate you partner.
  • Give the bad news first. If you do have a bad and a good news never, never, never give the bad news first. It will upset your partner or put him / her / them in some other irrational state. Your good news will not get enough attention. Starting on a bad note is a sure recipe for failure.
  • Change your techniques in the process. Just think about how you feel or what you think about a driver that indicates that you can pass and then cuts you off, puts a right blinker on and then turns left… Besides irritating the client, changing techniques greatly convolutes the message leaving your partner with feeling that the only thing you brought to the table was a bunch of excuses.
  • Lie. You can spin, omit some gory details, sugarcoat the message but deliver the facts. Unless you have absolutely no choice avoid lying to your clients. The value delivered by lies is typically transient the liability is huge and ripple effect could be devastating.

Let us switch to a short discussion of receiving a bad news. Unfortunately, that is something all of us have to deal with independently on what side of the table we are. Let’s use the same sailing technique – Prepare, Execute, and Cleanup.

Prepare. In this case “Prepare” has a very special meaning. Consider sailing a boat in strong winds; suddenly in a middle of a turn one of the shrouds (shrouds are steel cables that hold the mast up from side to side) snaps. That is a very bad news, which could mean broken mast and many other bad events to follow. The first step you need to take (and in this example immediately) is to get the control of the situation and prepare for your next steps. Get in control of the boat.

When you hear a bad news the worst thing you can do is to get emotional. Do not react – respond. You may elect to show your frustration to the partner and even appear emotional. As a matter of fact there is something to be said about doing it on purpose (consider it an exercise in Golden Rule of Haggling #6). It is through extremely important to keep your head cool. Just consider what Chesley Sullenberger had to do to ditch his plane in the Hudson River saving all 155 people on-board. Get control of the plane preparing to use remaining resources to execute a maneuver that you have never tried live. Fortunately in IT Outsourcing world our challenges typically do not put us under as much pressure and give us enough time to prepare.

Execute. Execution stage is very straightforward and may involve digesting the bad news, options, outcomes, etc. You may elect to brainstorm with your partner, or take their input and do brainstorming internally. One thing is important to consider. You do not have to make any decisions, agree on action plans, etc. right one the spot. More so it is better to do it after you had a chance to digest the news, go through what-if analysis, decide on your preferred actions and when you are not emotionally affected by the news or the presence of the partner.

Cleanup. This stage depends in a large degree on what you decided to do. It may vary from just simple follow up to termination of the engagement.

Wow, that ended-up to be a very long post and I have not even covered the most important aspect – how to minimize the probability that you have to deal with a bad news delivery. I guess I will put it in another post some time soon.

ESL Tips & Traps

In the stream of holiday mail an email from an old friend of mine stood out with its unusual greeting: “Hell Nick!” The missing “o” reminded me of many written and oral blunders I generated over the years and probably continue to without even knowing.

I arrived in the states in ‘91 with practically no knowledge of English. By the mid 90s my English skills progressed a bit; I also moved up from a back office developer to more managerial / client facing roles, so the demand on the skills quadrupled. Thanks to language tapes and a lot of time behind a steering wheel I eventually made it into the “fluent” zone. At least that’s what I thought. One day I was in a discussion with a client in a face-to-face meeting. At some point my good friend and colleague Lindsay Soergel called a quick break, she took me aside and said: “Listen Nick – it’s not “Grand Poopoo” but “Grand Poobah”. What you just did is that you called the CEO of the company Big S@#%”. Later that day over a few drinks we came up with a term “nixymoron” as a combination of “Nick” and “oxymoron”.

From that point on my team took twisted pleasure in collecting and reminding me about my idiomatic expression skills, the list of nixymorons was growing and included marvels such as:

That doesn’t fit, like square pigs in round holes!
You are such a Mister Smart Panties!
I am stuck now between the rock and a hard on!
I have been fool-time employed for over a year now.
I can’t stand him having those pissy fits.
Linda, I think this is really up your valley.
We need to rump up this customer fast!

While this is still far from saying at an exclusive black tie party “Up your bottoms!” instead of “Bottoms up!” (attributed to Mr. Michael Gorbachev) I think I could still put myself in one league with Ms. Malaprop…

Anyway, the reason for this post was to suggest a few tips on communication for those of us for whom English is a second language and still WIP. Just a few high points:

  • Turn your spell checker permanently on, use grammar checker as well. That will help you to eliminate some of the most embarrassing communication blunders. I recommend using MS Word as your email editor in Outlook, enabling spellcheckers on your browsers, using similar tools on mobile devices. It won’t help you with word confusion and you might occasionally call Brian “Brain” though.
  • Stay away from idiomatic expressions unless you’ve seen them in a written form and clearly understood what they mean and the connotation they deliver.  Take for example one of my gaffes – calling an exclusive fund raising party a “hash-hash affair”.  Or here is a classic example you might want to consider: there is a somewhat rare expression “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” that praises motherhood as the preeminent force for change in the world. It was coined by William Ross Wallace, an American 19th century poet. This expression was used as a title of a movie and a few songs. With a certain stretch this expression could be used in a reference to a mother. There is also a story of a Japanese American businessman who was apparently in love with using idiomatic expressions and titled an obituary for his mother in a major newspaper “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle Kicked The Bucket”.
  • Don’t try to translate your native language expressions into English. For some reason that’s very popular among those with mastery in their mother tongue. Believe me that “to kill two rabbits with one shot” is not at all better than “to kill two birds with one stone”. More so, phrases like “Did you just fall off the Moon?”, “Stop hanging noodles on my ears!”, “You have no face!” (these are literal translations of common Russian idioms) are not likely to reach your audience.
  • Stay away from lingo, teen talk, etc. “Dude, Dis doc is totally da bomb! It’s so fresh my mamma could hang wid it…” is not the way to say “Nick, This is a very well written document. Everything is crystal clear and easy to understand.” even if you are native speaker. Coming from an offshore PM that looks completely ridiculous and instead of breaking the ice (what might could have been an intention) it may break your relationships.
  • Be extremely careful with the humor. Humor is one of the most powerful elements of communications and in good hands can achieve a lot. However that is a tricky weapon which is likely to backfire if mishandled. Shooting oneself in a foot while operating that weapon in cross-cultural environment is quite likely. Same as idiomatic expressions jokes, pans, and anecdotes do not translate well. I am not saying that you should stay away from humor, just saying, be very careful unless you enjoy listening to crickets chirping.

While many of us from ESL community greatly expand the boundaries of what could be done with appropriate misuse of English the problem applies even to native speakers. That’s why you might want to look at Commonly Misused Words and Phrases or more comprehensive List of commonly misused words from Wikipedia.

And let me finish the post with a (de) motivational quote Even if you do learn to speak correct English, whom are you going to speak it to? – Clarence Darrow

Offshore Negotiations Basics: Rules of Haggling

hugglingFirst, let me repeat something I wrote in an earlier post: negotiation is a complex skill if not art. If negotiations are not particular your cup of tea you may consider involving professionals, in particular those who have experience negotiating offshore contracts. At least you owe it to yourself to go through some serious reading on the topic prior to diving into the deal making. Let me recommend a few classic books on the subject: Secrets of Power Negotiatingby Roger Dawson, You Can Negotiate Anything by Herb Cohen, and Getting Past No: Negotiating with Difficult People by William Ury.

Through the years in IT leadership position I negotiated many contracts with service providers, various vendors, consultants, employees and offshore companies. That doesn’t make me professional, so do take my advice with a grain of salt. More so, every negotiation is different in so many aspects that what worked in one could absolutely fail you in another.

Anyway, as introduction to offshore contract negotiations I am going to cover ten golden rules of haggling. You might ask: what does it have to do with professional contract negotiations? Well, barraging is the mother of all negotiations and more so there is a high chance that you will be negotiating with a vendor who’s coming from a culture with deep roots in a market style haggling.

Here they are the Ten Golden Rules:

  1. You must be ready to walk away. If you are attached to the goals of negotiation, if you can not walk away, you ability to get what you want is significantly impaired. Using Herb Cohen’s advice from You Can Negotiate Anything – you should care, but not that much. I strongly recommend reading Herb’s book or even better get it in audio version – he’s a great story teller and covers many of these rules at great depth.
  2. Look / act interested but never desperate. As a matter of fact if you feel / are desperate you should get someone else to negotiate for you. Acting is an extension of the rule number one. Basically you need to show that “you care, but not that much” and are ready to walk away.
  3. Keep your eyes on the ball. Negotiation is emotional process and in order to be successful you should never forget what the process is all about, what the goals and the rules are.
  4. Don’t try impress on the other side. That’s to some degree an extension of the rule 3. Your image is not the subject of the negotiations so just keep your eyes on the ball.
  5. Always ask for more than you expect. First, you might just get it. Even more important is that higher demands create negotiation space for both partners, and allow your opponent to save face even if they make bigger concessions.
  6. Gasp and act shocked (flinch) at the other side first proposal. This simple technique does a few things: it sets the pace of negotiation, puts you in the right set of mind, and helps to push your opponent to make the first concession.
  7. Never say yes to the first offer. By saying yes to the first offer you are not only setting yourself up for missing on a possibly huge opportunity, you are leaving your opponent with buyer / seller remorse.
  8. Never go down on price or make a concession first. Get the other side to step forward. Like many of the golden rules that one is easier said that done so if you are stuck just remember the rule one and make it clear that you are ready to walk away.
  9. Never make a concession without asking for something in return. Breaking this rule will put you up on a slippery slope of chain concessions.
  10. Always congratulate the other side. That is more than just being polite, it leaves the best path for the future negotiations.

Now let me give you the unofficial 11th rule: Sometimes the rules meant to be broken or Know where to stop. In many situations following golden rules might be detrimental to building a win-win relationship. For example if the other party is inexperienced in negotiations or in providing the services as the result your opponent gives up to much ground, paints itself in the corner, or brings negotiation to an impasse.

Your negotiating opponent is meant to be you partner and probably for a long time. So consider a metaphor of sparing with your friend in a kick-boxing gym: while you do want to win you do not want to inflict lasting injuries; now add to it little twist – what if you are far superior to your friend in the skill and power.

A few months ago acting as an intermediary between a US-based customer and a small, bright and very ambitious outsourcing company I was helping to negotiate a fixed bid engagement for developing a windows app. The initial bid came with the “asking” price of ~$100K. At that point I could have pulled out my 10 golden rules check list, I could have flinched, whined, screamed, pushed and threatened to walk away… and would’ve probably gotten the contract down to $70K or $80K. Instead I got on a phone with the vendor, than with the customer, than with vendor’s technical team, back with the client, etc. I finally got them to agree on $350K after two weeks of strenuous back and force. Yes, not a typo, 3.5 times the original bid. And that number I am certain would still keep the vendor on their toes and gives the client superb deal for the product.

You could easily reverse engineer the situation – the client being not very clear with the requirements vs. provider with typical overly aggressive “developer” mind set. All too common I am afraid. I love those small, bright and ambitious companies; unfortunately after being beaten into pulp by “professional” negotiators on the client side they either never deliver or end up one-hit wonders.

Researching Offshore Rates

Questions about offshore rates in different geographies, for different positions and roles come all too often. I covered a few aspects of this subject in my earlier posts, for example Offshore Developer Rates and Negotiating a Fair Rate. One of the points made in these posts was that the rate is just a contributing factor to the bottom line – the Total Cost of Outsourcing. Nevertheless, the rate is important and getting information about what’s fair for a specific position, geography, region, etc. could be extremely valuable, especially during the initial stage of the vendor selection.

Getting ballpark figures for the rates is very simple; all you need to do is just ask. The trick is to understand trends and the negotiation space. For example when a few weeks ago a mid-sized nearshore provider suggested that their standard billing rate is 35-40 USD for QA engineer and 40-50 USD for Java Developer I knew that I am talking with someone with a lots of guts or sense of humor.

In a large degree rates are marked up wages. The mark up includes many elements such as employee benefits, operations overhead, sales and marketing overhead, G&A, and so on plus expected margin. When dealing with large providers (public companies) many essential facts and ratios could be found in financial docs that are open to general public. Small vendors can be better at some cost cutting techniques but they loose on the “economy of scale” so the chances are the key ratios would be similar. In that light the question of fair rates comes down to salaries and expected margins.

When you negotiating with an offshore vendor the margins are the negotiation space; they can not typically fall below minimally expected and of course never cut into salary. That’s unless the vendor operates under famous model “we lose money on every deal but we make up in volume”.

Consider an example: you pick a couple vendors that appear to be fairly similar in most aspects; one of them has ODC based in Shanghai and anther in Shenzhen. Both vendors offer you the same rates.  Which of them is more likely to offer steeper discounts? As you can imagine knowing that salary a developer can expect in Shanghai is ~15% higher than in Shenzhen would be helpful.

To determine the salary that an average vendor needs to pay to its employees you would need to go through some research. The figures change constantly, substantially and depend on many parameters – local economic situation, dollar exchange rate and specific location being the most important.

The best thing is if you can get your hands on a credible research, those could be rather expensive though. If that is price prohibitive you should talk with your omnipotent friend Google. It is amazing how much info you can find. For example just look at this jewel – Salary Trends in China Present New Business Opportunities. Barak Paztal, the author of the post used one of the best ways of discovering current salary and salary trends – he went through backdoor of popular job board to present data which is priceless for those planning to outsource or build their own shops in China. For example did you know that “General trends show that over the last 12 months salaries have been decreasing in China. The average decline from an annual salary of $5,344 hovers at 11%, or $4,977.” BTW, that’s about 7 times lower than in the USA. Or look at that:

“Software engineers in China regularly earn 44% more than the average. They will earn an annual salary of $7,200, while in Beijing they can expect to earn an additional 30% or $9,360. Companies seeking to hire software engineers can save up to 40% of salary costs by hiring in cities like Dalian, the software outsourcing center of China where the average salary is $7,056 or Jinan, with 5M people and few hours by train from Beijing with an average salary of $5,760. Office space in these areas can also help to dramatically reduce costs, in particular now that they have reached peak levels, as demonstrated in Beijing following the Olympics.”

When looking for just ballpark assessment you can do away without the access to backdoor of the job boards. Just browsing through sufficient number of job ads will give you a great preview. Another simple way to get high level salary info is through rates available on freelancer sites such as elance.com, odesk.com or guru.com.

Once again since the goal here is not competitive intelligence but trends analysis the ballpark estimates would do just fine.

Top India Cities for IT Outsourcing

I just stumbled upon an interesting post – The Top Ten Cities for Outsourcing in India. Bala, a Software Programmer working in Chennai, India refers to several major studies by big name industry analysts that produced the top 10 list. India has 35 major cities, not all of them are good offshore outsourcing hubs, for example India’s financial capital Mumbai is not one of those.

The list includes top 10 outsourcing destination in the following order: Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, National Capital Region (NCR) includes Delhi and its surrounding suburbs, Pune, twin cities Chandigarh and Mohali, Kolkata, Mysore, Thiruvananthapuram and Coimbatore.

Satyam Chairman Admits Huge Fraud

Satyam Chief Admits Huge Fraud … wow, you do not see those thing so often, and you wish you never did. I guess that puts Satyam’s chairman, Ramalinga Raju in the big league side by side with Madoff. I have done a lot of business with Satyam and am quite saddened by the news. Actually, Satyam has been under close scrutiny for quite some time now, especially after reports that the company had been banned from World Bank contracts for installing spy software on some World Bank computers. Satyam denied the accusation but in December, the World Bank confirmed without elaboration on the cause that Satyam had been banned. Also in December, Satyam’s investors revolted after the company proposed buying two firms with ties to Mr. Raju’s sons… Those deals were in fact a last-gasp attempt to fill a hole in its finances, falsely inflated for years by its founder and chairman. Inevitably stocks plunged closing at 39.95 or 78% down reminding everyone about Enron.

I still have a few friends working in the company and hope that these events do not affect them too harshly. The IT job market is far from perfect and who knows what is going to happen with gazillions of contracts Satyam had in the USA. Cisco already announced that “The recent unfortunate developments unfolding at Satyam are not expected to have any material impact for Cisco. At this point, we would not like to comment further and have full confidence in the government and regulatory authorities to address this matter as appropriate.” But what does it really mean in terms of the work which has been outsourced to Satyam; will all the contractors stay? Will they move on in a manner Arthur Andersen auditors ended up in KPMG? Or outsourcing altogether takes a huge hit?

It’s difficult to make any predictions now. I am afraid that this event will have profound and lasting negative impact on outsourcing in general as well as the entire Indian economy.

Is there any silver lining? Well, I am sure that there will be a lot of new business flowing to other top tire vendors across the world. Some smaller providers might get a chance to gain new business and get their hands on good employees in the feeding frenzy that’s likely to follow. And many companies on the buyer side will rethink their outsourcing policies and probably use this opportunity to renegotiate the contracts.

Pros and Cons of Outsourcing to Brazil

A couple months ago I was talking with Alexandre, a project / account manager from a mid-sized service provider based out of Campinas, an industrial city North of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Alexandre’s team did a great job on one of my past projects and we continue to stay in touch after the engagement ended. The question of Pros and Cons of Brazil outsourcing inevitably came up and I committed to writing this post after some follow with my network and learning a bit more about the destination.

Brazil, the first country in the famous BRIC acronym is not one of the first names that come to mind when you consider IT offshoring destinations. I am sure that overtime that will change and Brazil will gain a permanent spot on the list of top players in technology outsourcing. You would probably agree with me if you look just at the list of Pros of that destination; the Cons may affect your opinion but won’t dramatically change it.

Let’s start with Gartner rating for Brazil which I agree to some degree:

offshore1

English Skills. English is a very popular skill and not hard to find with technical professionals in Brazil. However, it’s no match to what you find in India. As a matter of fact when you focus on technical skills sooner or later you will find yourself compromising on English fluency.

Government Support. Very interesting topic. According to my connections in Brazil government is unusually supportive in developing IT outsourcing however results of it remain to be seen.

Infrastructure. Unless you partner with a very small provider located in a remote province city you will find infrastructure that meets reasonable expectations. In my / my network experience telecom and other aspects of the infrastructure are excellent.

Labor Pool / Access to Resources. Brazil employs one of the largest IT communities in the world. The IT work force is large and experienced. This is also a highly educated professional work force as Brazilian universities are fairly competitive to get into and rather inexpensive to stay in. Of course in sheer numbers Brazil falls far behind India and China. Finding top-notch technical resources in Brazil is not easy like everywhere else in the world, yet is possible, even when it comes to cutting edge technologies and methodologies.

Educational System. I can not completely agree with Gartner here, while education system in Brazil is not as stellar as in Argentina or Canada when considered from IT stand point it’s at least at par with Chile and Mexico. In my experience the quality of recent grads with CS degrees is very good and that’s rates high on my book.

Cost. Pure comparison of the rates with India or China puts Brazil in serious disadvantage. Based on a limited sampling of rates I had access to it is 30-80% higher than rates for comparable resources in India. The difference could be even higher if you try to take into consideration the tier of the city and vendor. On the other hand, as I mentioned numerous times, rate is only a guideline to cost, the total cost of outsourcing has a considerably lower difference.

Operating Environment. Air travel to Brazil is convenient and affordable. Sao Paulo is a 10 hour direct flight from Atlanta, GA. Small time difference and thus no jetlag make a huge difference in overall comfort of travel. Finding excellent and fairly affordable hotels, restaurants and other creature comforts is easy. With a little support from your vendor chances are you will stay in safe areas and won’t need to deal with crime which is unfortunately a serious issue in the country. Getting things done requires understanding of the system and is manageable. One of the big Pros of the country that came up many times in my discussions was absence of natural disasters

Nearshore advantage. When it come to US based customers Brazil offers nearshore model which is an advantage of high caliber especially for agile projects. Time difference, travel ease, low cultural barriers, etc. institute a huge Pro for Brazil which offsets its high rates to a large degree.

Cultural Compatibility. In my experience as well as according to everyone I checked with cultural differences are very easy to deal with. As a matter of fact when I asked around within my network I heard more about cultural similarities rather than differences. Of course the differences are there and they can not be ignored, here are just a few to consider:

  • First and foremost language issues makes a huge imprint on communications, watch out for idiomatic expressions and professional lingo.
  • Work / life balance. While many of guys in my Brazilian teams worked crazy hours the attitude towards work / career / life balance was quite different, and that is particular notable if there is a beach nearby.
  • In my experience working with Brazilian teams as I noticed that it developers very long time before they could to offer their opinion or disagree with USA team members. That was quite different from Indian “never say no”, it appeared more like fascination with US tech workforce and overly humble judgment of own abilities. Very similar sentiment came from my network as well.
  • Facts and technical quality of the solutions carried less weight with Brazilian team than perceived “authority” of individual. There was also much higher level of sensitivity towards “people feelings” than the one you would typically observe in the states; sometimes to determent of the project.
  • And, in my opinion, common for the entire region tendency to put very high emphasis on theory and academic values versus pragmatic business decisions.

Resource Quality / Technical Capability. IT outsourcing in Brazil doesn’t seem to be in the same cut-throat competition with other IT employers as in India. It seems that Brazil is still in a stage when working for outsourcing company considered prestigious and highly desired job. In that light getting your hands on top notch resources is still possible.

Turnover Ratio. Turnover ratio claimed by the vendors is low and that has been my experience as well. My limited scope survey gave very positive results with average about 13%. The attrition was also of general nature mainly family issues or education. Not too much of job hopping or inter-company transfers.

There is one more issue worth mentioning – finding vendors in Brazil is not as easy as it should be. Hopefully the latest efforts of several outsourcing vendors combined with the government support give us a solid provider directory which will help us in finding those perfect matches made in IT heaven. But for now consider these links as the humble beginnings – www.softex.br, www.brazil-it.com, www.actminds.com, and www.brasscom.org.br.

Outsourcing and Email Etiquette

Nothing made a more profound impact on business communications than email, and nothing probably ever will; well, unless telepathy is adopted by the corporate world, and that is probably not going to happen during my time. So it’s not surprise that there are 100s of books and web sources covering email etiquette, rules, techniques, tips, tricks and traps. Yet, I see again and again the lack of attention to email rules and etiquette ruins business relationships, creates communication problems, and dramatically affects project communications.

Email rules and etiquette is a general issue. I see it as a local challenge and go through communication training with my in-house teams (even though it seems kind of weird coming from someone for whom English is a second language and still work in progress). The importance of email is 10 times higher when it comes to outsourcing. It is impossible to overstate its significance, especially for vendors / providers. Given that a good portion of my audience is outsourcing providers this topic is worth investing into.

Let’s start with classic DOs of professional email, or The Keepers:

  • Keep it Short. I suggest keeping in mind a 10 seconds principal – write your email with expectation that the reader should spend not more than 10 seconds to read it. If you need to communicate considerable volume of information email might not be the vehicle to use. If that’s your target audience preference or some other reasons make it so put a 10 second summary upfront.
  • Keep it Simple. Write to express not to impress. That is particular important when it comes to outsourcing, you Harvard vocabulary won’t help much to ESL members on the thread. Here is one of my favorite examples which takes a few seconds to comprehend even if English is the only language you speak – “Unremitting fealty to his métier sans interludes of hedonistic deflection renders Jack a hebetudinous hobbledehoy.” Just in case see “translation” in the bottom of the post.
  • Keep it Personal. You should always mention recipient by name, use proper salutation and be polite.
  • Keep it Formal. No matter how close you are with the recipient if you are writing a professional email you are engaged in conversation between two professionals. See a few tips on professional email etiquette below.
  • Keep it Legal. Always be aware that you are talking on company behalf. In particular remember that there no such thing as email Security or Privacy. Business email sent to/from a company server belongs to the company and might be read by someone other than your intended recipient So, never put anything in email that you will not say in public

The next rule is the Brevity Principle, or the simple basic, and yet most frequently broken rule: Business email should be limited to a single topic. Sending email covering a variety of topics almost guarantees that some of those would be missed, lost or misinterpreted.

Very important rule is to stay away from clichés and limit your use of idiomatic expressions. Once in awhile you come across people who are just can not say things in a plain manner and the content of the message gets lost in a stream of expressions. “Let’s run it up the flag pole to see if it passes the acid test, or we’ll be back to square one. That ought to give us a ballpark figure beyond a shadow of a doubt what our bottom line will be. If we can’t hit the nail on the head we might have to bury the hatchet and get back to our original bread-and-butter issues.” I am still trying to figure out what this one meant.

There is more to it. Idiomatic expressions are dangerous traps in cross cultural conversations. Just a few weeks ago I was talking with a brilliant techlead of my team in Latin America. When closing the discussion I asked – “Javier, do you think we are on the same page now?”. “I am not sure Nick” – he replied – “what is the number of the page you are on?”

And now a few email etiquette rules / tips on keeping email professional:

  • Reply in timely manner. I recommend using 24 (business) hour turnaround time. In case you need more time to address the issue / etc. send a brief status email.
  • Answer all questions, and pre-empt further questions.
  • Use the fields correctly
    • From (make sure that your email client is setup properly)
    • Subject (40 char summary of the email body)
    • TO (intended receipt of the email)
    • CC (keep the number very small – do not spam people just for FYI reason)
    • BCC (avoid using it altogether)
  • Do not shout, in particular:
    • Do not USE ALL CAPS
    • Do not use excessive punctuation – Why???????
    • Do not use “teen talk”, IM lingo and other casual language – WTF!?
  • Do not get “personal”, especially “in public”, never:
    • Reprimand someone in email
    • Make someone look stupid
    • Question one’s credibility
  • Watch your attachments
    • Do not forget them (you may want to consider Outlook plug-in that does the attachment check)
    • Do not send files that are large (over 1 MB) or likely to conflict with email rules (e.g. *.exe files)
    • Do not use vCards and certification pics (they make every email appear to have an attachment)
  • Be extremely careful with
    • Humor (potentially huge communication trap in cross-cultural setting)
    • Reply All
    • Adding recipients to email thread
    • Message threads
    • Forwarding

I guess that covers high points. To see more on the topic just google “email etiquette”.

“Unremitting fealty to his métier sans interludes of hedonistic deflection renders Jack a hebetudinous hobbledehoy.” is just a fancy way of saying “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”

Outsourcing Piecemeal – Out-tasking

In BPO world Out-tasking has been known for quite some time. See for example
CompuPacific outsourcing whitepaper – “Outsourcing vs. Out-Tasking: Practical Advice” or an oldie but goodie – a white paper on out-tasking from CISCO.  The basic idea is simple – out-tasking is typically described as farming out business processes or IT functions piecemeal rather than all at once. Examples of tasks that may be farmed out are data entry, document-based processing, such as claim handling, graphic arts development, and or document translation / localization.

Most typical definition goes as “Instead of divesting their back-office functions as a whole, companies contract out in an incremental and manageable way”. The top line benefit of out-tasking is typically stated as “out-tasking helps cut cost quickly without loss of control or high set-up costs.” The geography for out-tasking is similar to regular outsourcing with India and Philippines being far ahead of the pack.

Out-tasking could be indeed an efficient and effective way of supporting a technology organization, that if you can find a good partner, and that could be a little tricky. The issue is in volume of tasks that fall into the sweet spot of out-tasking. There are many ways of dealing with it, but first, what are good tasks to consider for out-tasking. Here are just a few to consider:

  • All kind of graphical arts – need a power point presentation for a board meeting? face lift for a corp. website? helping your clients with corporate identity? Often these tasks do not justify in-house graphical arts staff.
  • Creative and technical writing – press releases, web content, articles, newsletters, white papers, copywriting, editing, etc.
  • Email and ad campaigns, in particular if they need to be run on ad hoc basis and do not require a lot of back and force with marketing.
  • Occasional or even ongoing Search Engine Optimization activities (SEO); large spectrum of tasks here from SE submission to link building, etc.
  • Usability testing. Rather controversial item, many usability exports tell you that outsourcing usability testing is doomed to fail. I do not belong to that camp though.
  • Marketing materials from creative writing to brochures and campaign designs, sales and sales support materials. Outsourcing of these tasks is especially meaningful for small companies.
  • Translation, internationalization, localization, etc. especially if these are once off or occasional tasks rather than ongoing activities
  • Data entry of all kinds, for example transferring paper-based documents into electronic formats. BTW, these activities almost always benefit from outsourcing.
  • Many types of legal tasks and services, for example developing agreements such as MSA, software licenses, terms of services, privacy policies, NDA, etc.

As you can see from the list above almost any company has a good deal of tasks that could be out-tasked. The next step is finding a vendor, or more likely vendors that can provide the services on out-tasking basis.

Finding an out-tasking partner require a different mind-set / different approach from those used when selecting an outsourcing vendor. The first rule and the main difference are to measure invest of the efforts in the search process versus the scope of task. Chances are you do not need to invest much and in case you made a mistake in selecting a partner it’s usually fairly easy to fix and find another partner.

Not that long ago we needed to build basic corporate identity for our new venture. The requirements for logo and look & feel of the site were rather ambiguous. Instead of going through the process of refining requirements we used what we had, got multiple graphical artist to bid on the project, picked half a dozen that replied first. In just a few days we had just under a hundred of logo prototypes. After a few internal meetings we picked the winner who completed the entire corp. identity package in a couple weeks. Yes, we paid a bit more that we could have but time savings alone justified it.

Similar approach could be used for many out-tasking activities. Finding providers that are eager to bid for your business is also fairly easy task, especially for things like creative writing, graphical arts, and most of the items in the list above. For example you are looking for Search Engine Optimization services. You may just google SEO services and logically those who understand anything in SEO would appear on the top of the list. Another approach could be as easy as posting a few sentences about your project under computer gigs on http://www.craigslist.org; make sure to stay anonymous otherwise vendor spam will be chasing you for months. Another, very efficient way is to use freelancing sites. There are a few dozens of them with very large community of individual freelancers and small to midsized companies offering the services. Most popular sites are www.odesk.com, www.elance.com, and www.guru.com. In addition to offering access to thousands of providers these site offer some value add by helping in managing vendor-provider relationship, for example offering escrow services.

Dealing with individuals and very small vendors has its pitfalls though. The rating systems provided by freelancing services are far from perfect. Continuity of services, quality of deliverables, and turn around time could be far below your expectations. I will cover some tips on dealing with it in a separate post.

If dealing with freelancers is not your cup of tee you may consider larger vendors who would be prepared to establish out-tasking relationship. There are many of those, in particular in India and Philippines. You may want to team up with a few of those on one side and with a couple of companies (buyers like yourself) on the other to provide sufficient volume of revenue stream to the vendors and meaningful pricing for yourselves.

Path toward Disposable Outsourcing: QA

Is there a better way to start a new year than writing a blog post? Of course there are plenty, but it just happens that I have one ready just in nick of time. So happy New Year, may it bring you success, prosperity, health, and happy outsourcing…

There is probably no easier way to introduce outsourcing in a software development organization than QA augmentation. Simplicity of it is actually deceiving and many companies pay high price for it. Check out my earlier post Pros and Cons of Outsourcing QA for more thoughts and tips. Despite its cons outsourcing QA remains extremely popular and thus should be considered for operation under DOM. Also in my view DOM is relatively easy to implement in QA Outsourcing engagements and thus might be considered as the best first step of embracing the DOM.

Path towards DOM in QA has many steps similar to those covered in Path toward Disposable Outsourcing: S/W Development. There are of course some subtle differences and specific steps important for Quality Assurance. Here are a few most important items:

  • Strict rules on bug submission / documenting. Some of the rules are enforced by bug tracking software. Depending on the sophistication of the tool you use you may find a substantial room for creativity – which is often not a good thing. I recommend using well defined rules and templates that spell out all components of the bug report. For example the bug title has to clearly identify the issue.

How many times do we have to say that, and yet, “Problem when loading the app” keep showing up… The standards need to be spelled out, delivered to the team and rigorously enforced. One approach of dealing with problems is to a put a bug in “Feedback” or similar status and require submitter to deliver appropriate content before the bug is put in the rest of the workflow.

Considering the abundance of QA workforce being brutal could be the way to go. “First time it’s your fault, second time it’s mine, and third… well, there is no third time”. Control can be applied to every bug or less reliably on spot check basis.

  • Regression and other functional test case suites should be developed at just the right level of details. Executing testing should engage testers’ brain not just fingers. That ensures quick learning of the application while maintaining knowledge. Producing large volume of testing documentation is not necessarily going to speed up transition, as a matter of fact it often rendered useless and abandoned by the new team. A simple rule of thumb is QA engineer should be able to execute existing test cases in two – three days and should be fully productive in not more than two weeks.

One of techniques that worked well in my experience is producing test cases at two levels. The first is high level that is typically linked to a single use case, the second level spells out details in a traditional test case format. This approach allows more experienced QA engineers use high level test cases and keeps them engaged, while detailed test cases provide step-by-step instruction of new team members.

  • Test data must be stored in a source control system. If produced in some automatic way only the data generation scripts should reside in the source control. This is critically important. You should be able to generate entire suite of test data out of the source control system for a specific version of the application, just treat test data as part of the source code. I have to note here that this task might require some of the top developers on the team as it requires in-depth understanding of schema / object model as well as solid coding techniques.

Getting test data to that level late in the project cycle appears as a daunting task. It is however important and should be done even if it impacts schedule. Savings down the line will more than pay for immediate loses, even if you never need to execute on DOM.

Test automation combines all software development and testing techniques. Developing test harnesses, frameworks and test cases is one of the most challenging tasks in application development. Unfortunately, labeled with “QA” it rarely gets the attention it deserves.