“Outsource it!” is now in beta

A couple days ago my first full size book went into beta and is now available at the publisher website – http://pragprog.com/book/nkout/outsource-it. I feel very happy and relieved that the book is finally out, writing it was far more challenging than I’ve ever anticipated. At the same time I feel happy and proud, proud to be one of the authors of the pragmatic bookshelf, the group of technology writers that earned respect across very broad and demanding technical audience.

It will take a little while before the book hits the shelves of Amazon and other bookstores, but you don’t have to wait and get your e-copy of it today. While the book is in beta your comments and suggestions would be taken quite seriously and could result in changes and additions to the content, hopefully making the book even better. I am not sure how long the beta would take but hopefully much less than it took me to get here –

Roughly two and a half years ago I came up what seemed a great idea at the time – compile my blog material into an easy to read eBook. In a couple months I produced the first volume that was dedicated to making decisions on whether and how to outsource. In a short order I received substantial feedback that made it apparent that just recompiling the blog and doing surface level clean up won’t add too much value, and probably was not worth the effort. Continue reading

ESL Marvels

A friend of mine send me an English-Russian joke that been migrating from email to email. I thought it was quite funny and wanted to share, while it is just a joke it has some sad truth to it. The joke is Russian specific yet its point is still reads loud and clear.

As you know people judge what you said based not on what you said but based on what they heard / understood. When you say something to a developer for whom English is a second language and see a nod you might think that you were understood, well read examples below and think again:

  • Can You hear me?.. – Ты можешь меня здесь?… Can you have me here?
  • Undressed custom model – Голая таможенная модель – Naked model in customs
  • Manicure – Деньги лечат – Money cure
  • I’m just asking – Я всего лишь король жоп – I am just ass king
  • I have been there – У меня там фасоль – I have beans there
  • God only knows – Единственный нос бога – The only nose of God
  • We are the champions – Мы шампиньоны – We are the mushrooms
  • Do you feel alright? – Ты справа всех чувствуешь – Do you feel all those on the right side?
  • Bye bye baby, baby good bye – Купи купи ребенка, ребенок хорошая покупка – Buy a baby, baby is a good buy!
  • To be or not to be – Две пчелы или не две пчелы – two bees or not two bees
  • Just in case – Только в портфеле – Only in suitcase
  • I’m going to make you mine – Я иду копать тебе шахту – I am going to dig a mine for you
  • May God be with you – Майская хорошая пчелка с тобой – My good bee is with you
  • Bad influence – Плохая простуда – A bad case of flu
  • Good products – Бог на стороне уток – God supports ducks
  • Watch out! – Посмотри снаружи! – Take a look outside
  • I know his story well – Я знаю его исторический колодец – I know about his historic well
  • Press space bar to continue – Космический бар прессы продолжает – Press issues from a cosmic bar will continue
  • Let it be! – Давайте есть пчел! – Let’s eat bees

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

Don’t Fall Asleep Behind the Wheel

This post is a rude reminder to all of us involved in outsourcing. Just a few weeks ago I talked about fundamental laws of outsourcing (FLO). And yet I just escaped from being hit hard by one of them, the ominous Second FLO, by the skin of my teeth.  Quick note – the second FLO as the same as the second law of thermodynamic – entropy always increases. In offshore outsourcing the second FLO exhibits itself as consistent degradation of quality of services in absence of non-stop energy applied from the on-shore.

In this particular case it was about sourcing. I have an agreement with my current provider that I can interview any resources prior to them being assigned to the project and I can stop that assignment from happening solely on the results of the interview. I have to say that is a somewhat unusual agreement – most of the vendors would fight tooth and nail against it; that did not stop me on many of my contracts though.

Anyway, my vendor has been good in many respects, with quality of the resources being one of the top. So when I did not see any red flags on the resumes of a couple developers about to be assigned to the project I was ready to give the green light. I am not sure what stopped me and why I decided to interview them. But as soon as I asked for the interview all kinds of red flags stared coming up: scheduling delays, preparation phrases, language and cultural difference discussions… Making the long story short interviews were a complete disaster: the guys were not only exceptionally green, they did not have the foundations I was looking for, no grip on technology, no relevant background… they were good guys ready to learn. Sorry, but I do not pay for on-the job training…

So what happen? Why my trusted partner was about to put these spring chickens on my project? Well, just because. The second fundamental law of outsourcing is as strong as the gravity laws. You know, you can fight the laws of gravity as long as you want and yet you will end up with you face in the dirt… Uninspected deteriorates. [Dwight David Eisenhower]

Here is a metaphor for your consideration. A long time ago I was in the far north of Siberia, in Eskimo country. I saw an amazing event there – sleds led by sixpacks of reindeer were competing in a traditional race. That was indeed a fun race and a very vigorous exercise for the jockeys – they had to use a very long stick to control the deer, and make them run. Interesting thing about those deer – they do not run if you do not hit them, and, unlike horses, they would stop the second you stop hitting them. So the only way for the jockey to win the race is hit them non stop all the way to the finish line. Little did I know that many years later I would have to use the same technique on all my offshore engagements.

It’s Not Over, Till It’s Over

I was fairly certain that an offshore development company with majority of their staff in St. Petersburg, Russia was the best choice for a large scale initiative for my company. The decision came after complex vendor selection process which included on-site visits, marathon interviews, long and pricy MSA negotiations, etc.

I hang up the phone after final discussion with the CEO and smiled. I liked the team in Russia, some of the guys I met there were at par with my best developers in-house, I was happy with the location as it was offering a cure for my nostalgia, and I was proud to be able to deal with the biggest obstacle I faced on the day one of the negotiations – substantially higher rates of developers in Russia comparing to those in India.

“Why work with India if you can find more expensive developers somewhere else?” is not exactly the question you want to be discussing with BoD or your executives. My convoluted negotiation scheme has paid off. I was quite happy with what I was able to squeeze out of the vendor. There were only a few formalities to take care off and I would move forward with the project.

I have t ell you – having had set my eyes on the Russian vendor I had to stick my neck out a great deal. There were plenty of concerns with outsourcing in my organization to begin with, moving it to Russia was a challenge of a much high caliber. “If the creator had a purpose in equipping us with a neck, he surely meant us to stick it out.” [Arthur Koestler] Those are the words to live by. I was selling idea of using the Russian team as there was no tomorrow. My efforts were paying off on that side as well – I had full support of my executive team and was ready to move forward with the contract and a very hefty budget.

Next day I was on my way to LA, long weekend offered a perfect break from the grueling selection process and contract negotiations. I was in a wonderful mood and almost all the way through the 10 hour trip when I got a call from my vendor’s CEO. For some reason he decided to speak in English: “Nick, my board of directors has reviewed all the details of the contract and after much discussions had made the decision to withdraw our proposal and exit the negotiations.” I said something borderline polite, hang up the phone, and issued a very loud, long and very politically incorrect tirade…

Funny enough things worked out to the best, the vendor that was awarded the contract instead of the Russian team in many respects offered a better match, stronger skills and less time difference… Plus, I added a few more notes to my bag of tricks, tips and traps:

  • Never come to the finish line of selection process with a single vendor in mind. Make sure that your short list has at least two, better three capable companies.
  • Do not rely on your intuition (bias, preferences, etc.) when selecting the vendor; let the facts, spreadsheets and team consensus drive the decision.
  • Do not oversell your team, company, and execs on the benefits of outsourcing and especially on any specific vendor. Remember no matter how low you set the expectations your offshore vendor will easily fail them.
  • Do not get lost in complex gambits and convoluted negotiation schemas.
  • And the most important, do not try to pay the vendor less than they can generally get in the open market.

The last bullet deserves special attention as a fair rate is a moving target and depends on many aspects and circumstances. I guess that will be my next post.

Can’t teach an old dog new tricks

“Yes to death” is a well known phenomena. In many places people are conditioned never to say “No” and that’s particular true for India and even more so for Indian outsourcing companies. Saying No as well as other forms of delivering “bad news” or “negative message” are considered rude and offensive. The fact that it causes enormous issues on business delivery side is dwarfed by the cultural conditioning. Not long ago I was on an interviewing marathon in Noida, India. Just before the start I spent some time talking with a VP of services for the company. I asked him what his company did to deal with cultural differences. He went on explaining how they invested in cross cultural training and that all employees were specifically trained on “cut to the chase” American culture, and so on. My first interviewee was a project manager with about 10 years of experience. I asked him “Rajiv, imagine the situation that when your team is falling behind because of some serious screw up on my part. What would you tell me to deal with the situation?”. The next five minutes went into back and force of defining the fine details of the situation and I started running out of patience, so I asked again “Will you tell me that you are falling behind and that is my fault?” Rajiv went silent for a few seconds, looked at VP and than said – “Of course I would never tell you that!”

Trading Places

Once in a while it’s fun to put on shoes of a vendor and see the selection process from the other side of the table. A few days ago I was asked by my long time vendor to help them on a sales call. I have to mention that one of the reasons I like working with these guys is they made themselves a true part of my team, so I felt obligated to help them out as I would do to someone from my own company. Nothing to make a sales call fun like last minute changes. This time it was pretty dramatic – the sales person could not make it. So I found myself along with another guy in a similar situation in front of a CTO of successful startup in the city. Ted, the CTO, did not seem to enjoy the situation. He turned to the “hiring manager” and asked him: “Vladimir, are you saying to me that the company which we are considering is not even here!?” I felt bad for the guy and decided to say few good words about my vendor, reasons I hired and kept them for quite some time now. Ted did not find my attempts to any degree entertaining “Why are you talking!? It should be the sales rep who answers my questions! I have real questions – what is your turn over ratio? I need to know exact percentage!” In the next few minutes the situation progressed from goofy to outright embarrassing. Fortunately it did not last long and in 15 minutes we were escorted out of the building. Oh boy, am I glad that my paycheck doesn’t depend on outcomes of such meetings. BTW, to the best of my knowledge we paved the trail for an Indian company that made a presentation right after us, they had a solid slide deck, all ratios ready and I am sure were not wearing jeans and pullovers. What is still bewildering to me is why someone would prefer a ppp to a genuine customer reference. But as they say “different strokes for different folks”

Food for thought

No matter how well traveled you are be beware of dining experiences. The dangers come in all shapes and forms, literally. Many of my friends were knocked down by local foods while vendor shopping especially in China or India. My friend Boris, VPE of a successful Silicon Valley startup, was out for two days after savoring jellyfish dinner in China, another friend was hard down for almost a week after lunch at McDonald’s in Moscow. I heard that asking for simple local food (something they know how to cook) works well. I also heard that asking for “food that an American can eat without getting sick” gets the message across. I tried those as well as many others and can assure you that none are fail-proof. My latest memory is a low key dinner in Bangalore, where my hosts were quite accustomed to guests from the states. Everything was beautifully served and spiced to a perfect degree; no surprises and no concerns. After the dinner the waiter brought a plate with leaves wrapped into small pouches. My hosts all gabbed one of those and suggested that I do the same – “it’s like a mint candy”. I guess “like” was the key word there, a second later I learned that biting the green pouch feels like drinking Listerine out of fire hose. Luckily I knew the way to restrooms which I covered in just a few jumps.

It’s good to be king

Shopping for an offshore vendor is unforgettable experience even if you are looking for relatively small contract. Where else an IT manager would be a subject to such royal treatment? Every time when I face a dubious pleasure of vendor shopping I keep reminding myself that it is probably one of the best parts of outsourcing. And there is always something fun to remember about those trips. Not long ago I was in Pune, India meetings with Satyam – one of the top tier outsourcing firms. The lobby of Stayam’s office was decorated with welcome slogans, flowers and colored sand “paintings” on the floor. There were four of five executives greeting me, all holding high positions in the company. They shook my hand with impressive enthusiasm. A few women dressed in saris welcomed me with large bouquets of roses. While a photographer jumped around taking pictures of this one-of-a-kind event one of the execs whispered in my ear that this was unusually flamboyant greeting that they only offered to utmost important guests. After a few more awkward moments we moved to the conference room with maybe 20 execs and managers. The power point parade began after 30 minute round of “quick” introductions. 15 min into presentation I noticed that older execs started to fall asleep, most with their eyes opened; the skill I always wanted to master. A couple hours later I was exposed to more glorious aspects of the company history and abilities than one can possibly tolerate. By that time I knew for sure that no company in the world comes close to Satyam in terms of quality of the resources, ingenuity of leadership and reliability of its management. Speaker after speaker we were moving down the agenda of what was called out as a brief discussion of the company’s capabilities. Lunch, a buffet of monumental proportions, was a welcome break then an hour later and a few pounds heavier I was back to the power point water-boarding. But I was adapting, it seemed that finally I was getting the grip on the art of sleeping while actively participating. Unfortunately the photographer woke me up. He brought me a CD with my pictures. I put it in my laptop to bring back fading memories of the morning. Here they were: the lobby, execs, saris, roses… Alas, the victims of the greeting ceremony were two strange guys wearing suites and all American smiles. For some reason I did not feel that special anymore. Yet so happy as that little excitement saved me from immanent death by power point.