“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

Search for SEO Experts

Search for SEO under Hire professional in eLance returns about 12,000 results, search under Projects returns about 600. So it’s roughly 20 providers per SEO project. Similar stats are on Guru, oDesk, GAF, etc. One would assume that I should have zero problems finding a professional for my SEO project, especially in this market and being a buyer with good standing… The project started a couple weeks ago and in theory, I should have found the provider by now, in reality I have not. In theory there is no difference between theory and reality, in reality there is… Well, here is a brief of my recent project:

I decided to see what a couple standard SEO operations would to my blog traffic put a project on eLance, Guru, and oDesk. These sites have very different community of suppliers and I expected responses different in multiple aspects. Considering cumulative value of decently designed SEO campaign I was prepared to pick several suppliers. My project was very simple, here is its slightly abbreviated version:

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Microsoft and Plurk outsourcing debacle

If your goals are not achievable you can use them as targets. Sounds like a strange proposition? Well, look at Microsoft – everyone and their brother love to use it as a target of hate, criticism, etc. It’s human nature – to consider success of others as own failure. Fortunately, Microsoft never ceases to offer opportunities for harsh and well deserved criticism.

This time it’s quite amazing: as Plurk, a startup in micro-blogging sense, pointed in their blog “Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but blatant theft of code, design, and UI elements is just not cool, especially when the infringing party is the biggest software company in the world. Yes, we’re talking about Microsoft.”

As it turned our recently launched Microsoft service Juku borrowed much more than inspiration from Plurk, it used very much everything including source code.

Initially Microsoft seemed uncertain about what happened yet shortly after the news hit the blogosphere suspended Juku and issued apologies to Plurk. “Because questions have been raised about the code base comprising the service, MSN China will be suspending access to the Juku beta feature temporarily while we investigate the matter fully.” see more here.

Stuff happens, even with the best of us. No reason to beat the dead horse here. What is interesting and particular important for the topic of my blog is that the code theft appears to be linked to Microsoft outsourcing practices, see Microsoft Statement Regarding MSN China Joint Venture’s Juku Feature “The vendor has now acknowledged that a portion of the code they provided was indeed copied.”

I am sure that we’ll never know exactly what exactly happen. In my opinion the chances are that Microsoft outsourcing partner did something that we call R&D – rob and duplicate, and under pressures of budget / timelines / etc. did not even make efforts to cover its tracks. The theft most likely happen at a very low level of the food chain – maybe just a few developers removed from the MS headquarters by 100s of layers of corporate hierarchy, maybe a product manager making a misleading request “make it like Plurk”, it might have been simple translation error … never the less the giant company is now have to accept responsibility for the mistake that in its relative size to the company decision volume would be equivalent to a drop of water in a sea. I would not even attempt to put a price tag on this debacle… well someone in MS will have to.

Anyway, there is an important lesson here: do you know what your vendor is doing? Do you know whether code came from? Was there any lines borrowed from a competitor, innocent bystander, or open source? That issue is relevant to all your employees (something borrowed from a prior employer?), yet by far is much more serious when it comes to outsourcing.

I came across it on multiple occasions – from code to “research” produced by consultants. In many cases finding plagiarism was not difficult, I am sure that in many cases I missed it as well, especially if the contributor was smart enough to remove comments, or paraphrase.

As you can see from MS example that issue is of very serious of nature and should be of grave concern. Make sure that you educate your team and include plagiarism analysis in your code review process, at least on an occasional audit basis.

Too Much of Good Thing

A few days ago starting from a comment to my post I found a very interesting discussion of metrics on 360° Vendor Management. In his post Tony covered a few golden rules that are important to consider when introducing metrics in vendor management. I agree in general with most of the principles covered in the post and highly recommend looking at it as well as other materials publish in the blog.

While reading the post I came across of one phrase that triggered a serious of thoughts that I want to cover today. (Metrics allow you “Moderate expensive overperformance that the vendor need not do. Remember – you pay for the extra quality, which may not be tangible.” )

There are multiple negative aspects for vendor over-performance that you should consider:

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Invisibility Cloak of MSA

A Master Service Agreement (MSA) is intended to create a contractual framework for relationships between parties involved. Unfortunately way too often MSAs are used to protect intentional incompliance with a spirit of the agreement. When MSA is written and negotiated the parties bring to the table their knowledge of the domain, in this case offshore outsourcing services. The party more experienced in the space can predict certain behaviors and relationship patterns and appropriately protect themselves from liabilities they bring. More so that party can take advantage of less experienced negotiating partner and create an invisible cloak that will be used to hide issues and drive higher profit from the contract.

I am afraid that sounds very theoretical, vogue and convoluted… Let me suggest a couple of examples:

  • As a service provider I know that customer is likely to be late on their deliverables and my team would be spinning wheels waiting on those deliverables. To protect myself from that potentially serious issue I will put a clause in MSA that would state that if I am waiting on the customer I am still getting paid. That’s just fair, isn’t it? Now, consider what I can do during negotiations – I can downplay the probability of customer delays (most likely using customer’s ego) and shape that clause in a manner that gives me a lot of flexibility. Then, when the opportunity presents itself I can induce waiting period and rip the benefits that already embedded in the MSA.
  • Another, probably most common area, is related to provider dealing with the resources on their side. There are many areas where supplier can negotiate “reasonable” terms that have nothing to do with reality of the situation. For example, if a software developer quits another developer would be put in his/her place and ramp up period should be the industry’s standard 2 weeks. Industry standard? When I bring onboard a new developer it takes 2-3 month for him / her to become fully productive how come it takes four times less with an offshore guy? That’s not the point though, no matter how many weeks of shadowing you might negotiate the realities of delivery against the item in MSA remain practically unknown, and thus could be manipulated to fit provider’s objectives.
  • Even a very straightforward items like “body count” becomes pretty vogue and unenforceable. Imagine that you are trying to count people in organization and people always move from one office to another. Getting the numbers right would be quite challenging. Just a few weeks ago i spend almost a week trying to figure out how many QA engineers I have on staff with my Indian offshore operations. The numbers varied greatly depending on who I’d ask. Most precise figures came from the vendor, in that light resorting to MSA as a lifesaver is only natural. Yet, if you think that if my development manager thinks that there are 2 QA engineers on his project while my provider tells me that there are 5, something is seriously wrong here. I bet it means that I get the work of 2 while paying for 5…

In general what makes an MSA an invisibility cloak is not bad intentions of the vendor, but buyer’s inability or lack of desire to enforce it by staying on the top of engagement. If you do not control the deliverables each step along the way, if you do not verify timesheets and assignments, if you hope that the MSA will prevent me from issues and problems of malicious or delinquent nature you will most likely fail. In that case the MSA will become opaque and impenetrable defense mechanism for the vendor. I guess Invisibility is in the eye of the beholder.

Steps to making an MSA transparent are obvious – focus on execution, control of deliverables, etc. Considering an example of team turnover. A realistic ramp up for a developer in terms of productivity would be 25% first month, 50% second, 75% third and 100% from that point on. In that case over 12 months developer produce 1050% of the monthly allocation. Suppose a developer quits after 6 months and spends one month training a shadow resource (it’s reasonable to assume that that between two of them productivity for that month is 100%). In that case total productivity over the year will be 975% or ~7% less. If we have two replacements over the year the figures would be 900% or ~14% loss of productivity.

That could be easily translated to the rate impact – if your rate for the developer was negotiated at $25 per hour in the second case you paid roughly $27 and $29 in the third. Of course not controlling these figures makes the difference invisible… The magic spell to make the cloak transparent would include linking turnover baseline to rate and more important watching it over the case of the engagement.

Force Majeure

Force Majeure (French for “superior force”), is a common clause in contracts which essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties, such as a war, strike, riot, crime, or an event described by the legal term “act of God” (e.g., flooding, earthquake, volcano), prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract.

While working with offshore teams, in particular in countries that are subject to severer environmental conditions such as Bangladesh or Philippines you should never forget about how real Force Majeure is. For my pet project wwhow.com I use support of freelancers from Philippines in SEO and data entry tasks via oDesk service. Here is an email I just received from one of my providers –

Dear Nick,

We had experienced a typhoon Ketsana that hits our area tremendously last Saturday morning since then our power was cut due to heavy rains and floods. Floods were everywhere including in our home. Power was restored last night. In this regard, the two accounts were not able to finish the working hours load for the week.

Rest assured this week, we will continue to post quality deals and able to finish work load. I apologize for this unavoidable circumstances.


Kind regards,

Jennifer

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Basics of Non-verbal Communications

I started talking about body language and non-verbal communications (commonly referred as NVL) a while ago kicking off the discussion with a picture of consummate liar. NVL is a general topic that applies across industries and domains, the reason I bring it up here is that NVL is exceptionally important during face to face interactions with your partners. The cross cultural aspect of offshore relationships introduces whole another layer of complexity to NVL, often complicating already perplexing aspects of communications. To understand it you need to have a solid grasp on basics of NVL. Crawl before you run so to say. Of course understanding basics of NVL will help you in many other aspects of communications both professional and personal.

Of course this post is only a few brash strokes on a canvas – if you find NVL topic of interest you may want to look into a few books which I found helpful. Anyway…

Body language or non-verbal language refers to conveying messages without words. We are accustomed to use common gestures which are the “words” of NVL for example nodding your head in agreement or shaking it in disagreement, facial expressions – smile, frown, disgust, etc. Many or NVL “words” are much more subtle though. They do communicate message to outside world sometimes much louder than plain words would.

In a personal spoken message according to Albert Mehrabian (Psychology Today, 1968) the total message is communicated via:

  • 7% is conveyed by the words
  • 38% by the vocal tones, and
  • 55% by facial and body expression

How about that? More than half of the message comes across via body language! Talk about the Cons of outsourcing! When you work with someone and do not see him or her the chances are you will miss half of what they are saying or it will take twice as long.

More so the body language is less controlled by our conscious mind and often radiates the true message. Just look around and you will see plenty examples of it. I started writing this post while on my way to the office in BART, as on purpose to help me with an example a couple walked in the car and sit across. The couple was having one of those discussions: her eyes were red and full of tears; they sit on the bench at least a foot apart, her fist were clinched and body pasture uptight / uneasy. He was much more relaxed and appeared in control, he was the one doing all the talking in very persuasive somewhat mechanical manner, the topic was apparently very emotional and she was hanging on his every word, looking deep into his eyes. I could not hear a word yet it was somewhat clear that he did something that had hurt her and now was explaining / asking for forgiveness. By the Fruitvale station there was no more distance between them, his arm was on her shoulders, at the West Oakland they kissed lightly, by the Embarcadero station the kiss was real, the fight was over, and the guy was forgiven. She relaxed as if the seat suddenly became 100 times cozier and looked so much happier, so did he… What she did not see during the conversation, as she was maintaining that rare unbreakable eye contact, was his body language and all classical signs of deception. For me as a side observer sings were obvious as if I was watching an NVL training tape – here is the hand to mouth move, now he’s rubbing his neck, and here goes that proverbial blinking… As I was walking out of the car I saw her happy smile. Isn’t love grant?

There are a few very important elements to reading NVL:

  • North American gestures do not necessarily represent gestures correctly in other ethnic cultures. As a matter of fact you need to make sure to read up on foreign NVL before getting involved in face to face communication with your offshore partners, innocent or positive gestures could be offensive in other cultures, e.g. infamous American feet on the table the gesture that is extremely impolite in many cultures and exceptionally offensive in the Middle East.
  • Many people can easily control what their NVL broadcasts to the outside world in an initial stage of conversation or its “static” stages. For example anyone can start a conversation with a smile, specific body position, etc. As the conversation moves along and becomes more engaging / more emotional the mind loses its control over NVL. If you are trying to read NVL pay specific attention to changes in NVL. Changes in NVL are significantly more important than “stance” or specific elements of NVL displayed for a period of time.
  • You are probably not the only one who is NVL aware. More so some people put substantial effort in mastering in NVL outbound communications and use it as powerful deception or influence techniques. For example a powerful technique taught in many sales classes is mirroring – mimicking conversation partner’s body language. Mirroring is known to increase chances of positive outcome of the conversation – closing the deal; it comes from one of core principals of influence theory; that’s a whole another topic for discussion.

Well, that probably covers the main elements of the foundation.

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