“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

PO Trip Adviser: India

Continuing with a line of travel guides I turn to the most common outsourcing destination – India. There are a plenty of outstanding travel guides for India, so if you are planning to combine business and pleasure, and see places such as the Agra, Rajasthan, and Kerala make sure you study them before you depart.  Keep in mind though that most of the most interesting places will take dedicated and possibly considerable time, for example while Taj Mahal is fairly close to Delhi / Noida the trip there is going to take you at least a day.

For those of us who are limited to strictly business, here are a few tips to consider:

  • A Visa is easy to get, but it may take a few weeks so allocate sufficient time.
  • Safety of travel in India is not what it used to be just a few years ago, yet large outsourcing cities remain quite safe for majority of business travelers.
  • Shop around for tickets and ask frequent India travelers for advice. Chances are you can find something 30% less than standard internet rates using Indian travel consolidators.
  • Chances are you will arrive in India around midnight. I typically go straight to a hotel right near the airport and start my business day the next morning.
  • Stay in nice hotels, 4-5 stars. They are relatively affordable and the high quality service will help you to retain the energy you most certainly need.
  • Ask the vendor to arrange all your travel and have a car with a chauffer. Don’t even think about driving in India. The traffic and road system is not for the faint of heart plus they drive on the wrong side of the road!
  • Petty corruption is widespread in India, from expediting you through airport customs to dealing with government agencies and employees can involve bribing or “tipping” as it is often referred to. My advice it to stay away from it.
  • Make sure you have your personal belongings partitioned among suite cases and carry on. Lost luggage is a fairly common event. Use solid suitcases as mishandling is also common at airports.
  • Don’t wander off the beaten track, don’t encourage beggars, don’t visit shady places, don’t leave your valuables unattended, don’t put your wallet in your back pocket, use licensed guides in sightseeing – basically use common sense!
  • Eat only in good restaurants or at your hotel. Avoid eating buffet meals, even in high-end places. Not only drink bottled water, but also brush your teeth with it.

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 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.

Pros and Cons of Outsourcing to India

India offers the most developed, experienced and sophisticated outsourcing community. No surprise – embedded advantage of ESL, huge supply of IT talent, and low standards of living made it a top destination for IT outsourcing long time ago. Y2K and management talent solidified the success creating multi-billion dollar giants and changing ethnic landscape of many cities in the USA. As I mentioned in Offshore Vendor Selection: Choosing the Destination “if your risk tolerance is low and/or your organization is new to outsourcing go to India, you can not get fired for hiring IBM. Go to India if you have to choose on a spot, or have little knowledge of outsourcing, or have to deal with large scope ERP implementation, or … as a matter of fact if you have to ask this question chances are you should consider India as your top destination.” Now let me put a few bullets here supporting my statement:

Infrastructure. Unless your partner is tiny and located in a 3rd tier city you won’t have any problems with infrastructure. Well, you may have to deal with some irregularities in connectivity due to some natural disasters, it gets quite rainy during monsoon season out there, but I tell you that: we use AT&T as our internet provider in our San Francisco office and once in a while they drop connectivity despite blue sky and sun outside. With a huge supply of IT services in India you can find infrastructure that would cater to most ridiculous demands.

Operating Environment. Flying to India is far from fun especially from the west coast, in particular if your company doesn’t cover first class travel. 30 hours in transit plus you arrive there in the middle of the night. Unless you time your trip well the nature would great you with heat and humidity. Flying back could be so much better if you did not need to deal with airport lines and crowds. The good part, that’s pretty much the extent of the adversities. Chances are you will be staying in a good hotel, will have a personal driver, eat in good restaurants, and even corruption is wide spread in India at all levels you most like won’t need to deal with it.

Skills Availability. That’s is one of the strongest Pros of the country. No matter what skill you are looking for there will be at least 10,000 people who have it. Well, more seriously, the supply of IT talent in India is outstanding, some areas more than others of course. Mainstream technologies of today and yesterday – Java, .NET, C/C++, ERP, Cobol, etc. – have substantial oversupply. You also can find a lot of talent even on a cutting edge of the technology. The quality of the talent follows the bell curve and nowadays the median has gone up comparing to late 90th.

English Skills. Well, that’s a hidden gem isn’t it? Of course with English being widely popular in India the main issue you would need to deal with would be an accent. Maybe some idiomatic expressions, some speech forms, etc. but generally it is not an ever a showstopper and forms a huge Pro of the country.

Cultural Compatibility. While there are a plenty of cultural differences between India and USA I would put the Cultural Compatibility in a category of Pros, here are a few reasons:

  • The cultural differences on business side were not so dramatic to begin with considering history of British influence on legal and business system of India.
  • Resources from India have been in this country in large numbers and for a long time. People in the USA learned the differences, behavioral patterns, and idiosyncrasies to a pretty good degree.
  • Many Indian vendors invest a great deal into cross-cultural training as well as in accent training. As a result the gap between cultures is narrowing considerably.

There are of course cultural differences that are deeply embedded in people’s psyche, here are a few most notable:

  • “Never say No” or “Yes to Death” – while working with Indian resources you always need to keep in mind that they might have a very difficult time say “No” in any shape or form. “Can you do that? – Yes, we will do Nick.”, “Do you have access? – Yes we do Nick”. That doesn’t mean that they can cater to any need or demand, they just can’t say NO.
  • No bad news is a no-news. While the times of chopping off bad news barer heads are over, the habit is still there. So if you do not hear about bad news, it doesn’t at all mean that everything is going well, it just simply means that you do not hear / do not know what is going on.
  • Motivational hierarchy. Of course Maslow’s Pyramid rules. But there is a plenty of subtle differences in how its upper levels translate for a specific culture. Not bad / not good – just different. For example, personal success in India outsourcing is often measure in number of people the person supervises. “I have 100 people under me…” That pushes good developers away from the technical track towards managerial with inevitable profound negative impact on technical abilities of the organization.

Rates. India rates fall neither into Pro nor into Con category. They are benchmark against which other rates are compared. And I guess that makes for a nice segue into Cons discussion:

Resource Turnover. Turnover is very high, it is high to a degree that it almost outweighs all pros of the region. See my earlier post Myth for more thoughts on the subject.

Resource Quality / Technical Capability. IT Outsourcing proved to be a rather lucrative business for many social groups in India – entrepreneurs, engineers, education providers, etc. Millions of people moved into the field in the Golden Rush of the century. As a result average quality of resources started going down to a degree that even time-proven trademarks of quality do not work anymore. Not long time ago I was stunned when I had to fire a consultant for incompetence; the stunning part came from the fact that he had a master degree from IIT.

One more Con related to the Golden Rush is worth mentioning: huge number of companies with a large number of low quality fly-by-night vendors makes it extremely difficult to find a right provider. It’s very much like looking for gold – you have to go through the tons of dirt to find the right substance. However, you are looking for gold, and one thing I am certain of is that you can find that gold in India.

S/W Development Outsourcing: China vs. India

A few months ago I went through a vendor selection process for a technology company in SF Bay Area. The goal was to find a vendor that would become a long-term partner / a part of a local development team. My clients were set on considering only two countries – India and China.

The size of a potential outsourcing deal was fairly small: ~15 people. That would roughly correspond to $1M on annual basis. The size of engagement was still big enough to give us a chance to pick a company from a large pull of vendors who seemed to be interested. Here are some observations based on our analysis:

Rates

In both countries we saw a plenty of companies prepared to compete on price and go very low just to get the deal. Larger / more mature companies had notably higher rates, many of them with very similar message “We are by far not the cheapest but we are the best”. Considering companies we liked the rates for India depending on position and company were roughly between $20 and $35 an hour with blended rate for our team ~$30; the rates for China were roughly between $15 and $30 an hour with blended rate for our team ~$20;

Access to Resources

Access to resources in high-tech centers of India is getting increasingly complex, finding It talent ion cities such as Bangalore is almost as complex as in San Francisco. Outsourcing companies also have to compete with subsidiaries and offshore divisions of multinational corporations such as IBM, Microsoft, Accenture, etc.

We still were surprised with how difficult and slow the sourcing process was. It seemed that finding even mainstream roles such as .NET developers or Winrunner QA guys was practically impossible.

We found that access to resources in China was not as complex. It appeared that companies in China were able to staff up for a project 3-5 times faster than India companies. In example confirmed by the references it took 2 months to build a 30 FTE team versus 9 months for the same by Indian Tier 1 InfoSys.

Resource Quality

The companies with $5M-$20M revenue range (our target based on scope of outsourcing) fall in a group of 3rd to 5th tier companies with inevitable impact on their access to resources which is exacerbated by general scarcity of IT talent. So it was not a surprise for us to see very poor quality of resources. Our average “hit rate” (number of people we would consider for “hire” vs. people presented to us by the vendors) was 1 out of 4.

Companies with the same $5M-$20M revenue range are the first/second tier companies in China with top pick in off campus hiring as well as other methods of employee sourcing. We saw that as a solid, and possibly the most important, advantage for Chinese firms. However our hit ratio was even lower than in India – 1 out of 5.5 due to serious communication / language handicap.

Concentrating only on those resources who we considered potential “hires” we saw a decent blend of theoretical and practical knowledge with some diversity in skills / background / experience in India. Our potential “hires” in China showed rather weak theoretical knowledge across the board. Their practical skills were solid yet extremely narrow; most of the “good” people we talked with were “pigeonholed”, and did not seem to mind.

Employee Turnover

Getting honest information about turnover, retention and attrition seemed practically impossible so we got the numbers from unsolicited references rather than from the vendors.

Most of the large s/w outsourcing companies in India have turnover rates exceeding 30%. Attrition is particular high in large centers such as Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai, New Delhi. For small companies it is not unusual to see offshore staff turnover rates exceeding 50%.

Turnover rates in China outsourcing industry are under 25%. The companies that were selected claimed to have attrition rate about 15%. We saw low attrition rates as probably one of the greatest advantages of China over India.

Communications

There is no comparison in communication skills of consulting work force in India and China. Command of English language for majority of people we interviewed in India was far stronger than mine. In China the situation was opposite, more so the more skilled and senior the resource the lower his/her language skills.

Language in just one of many dimensions of communication. There are many skills important for bridging cultural differences and communication gaps. When it comes to dealing with USA companies Indian consultants have a huge lead on Chinese in many aspects, just to name a few:

  • Body language / facial expressions – much easier to understand and follow
  • Overall presentation skills
  • Understanding of professional lingo
  • Grasp on general rules of professional communications and office etiquette

With communications being one of the most important aspects of majority outsourcing initiatives India have a huge lead on China.

Mindset & Work Ethics

Talking with a large group of reference accounts (including unsolicited) gave us an interesting insight into mindset and work ethics of development teams in India and China. Here are a couple things that people had general agreement upon when it comes to resources from Indian vendors:

  • A mindset of typical outsourcing company is oriented towards revenue / profit and is focusing employees towards “billing hours” rather than customer satisfaction or success of the project.
  • High turnover rates and general acceptance of job hopping have devastating impact on resource’s attitude and work ethics.
  • Majority of consultants have over-inflated expectations in terms of their seniority, type of work they should be doing, and a speed of promotion.

We heard much more favorable assessment of mind set and work ethics for Chinese workforce:

  • With aggressive market share oriented drive of China s/w outsourcers employees of these companies are focused on high productivity and customer satisfaction.
  • Workdays of 10-12 hours are not at all unusual (note that billing is typically negotiated on monthly basis with 8 hour workdays).
  • There is a strong prevalence of team values over individual.

The workforce work ethics present one of great advantages of the outsourcing companies in China. Combined with lower levels of flexibility in job market (partially due to the country’s political and economical structure) the work ethic to some degree offsets luck of knowledge and experience.

Total Cost of Outsourcing

And finally – Total Cost of Outsourcing (TCO). TCO is the cost that accommodates for the communication overhead, lower productivity, and all other costs that are not reflected in the rate. In a large degree assessing the TCO requires substantial experimental data with a specific vendor. Based on a survey of the references during this engagement, my own experience and experience of similar companies in terms of the structure and the scope of outsourcing we came up with interesting numbers presented below. The numbers are presented as a percentage of savings / losses over typical full time employee rates:

Project Type India China
Small R&D projects Loss 25 – 45% Loss 30 – 70%
Large R&D projects Loss 10 – 15% Loss 10 – 15%
Small mainstream projects Loss 10% – Saving 10% Loss 15% – Saving 15%
Large mainstream projects Savings 10 – 30% Savings 15 – 45%
Large QA (black box) projects Savings 15 – 30% Savings 25 – 50%