Managing a project from halfway around the world

The CEO tells me he’s thinking of outsourcing (to India) data collection for the website I manage. Let’s face it, that means it’s going to happen whether I think it’s a good idea or not. I’ve asked for a few days to think it over before I respond, so I can figure out what the potential problems are in advance.

The project involves researching what programs are offered at various schools – both trade schools and universities – and at what degree levels, then fitting this info into our content management system. It’s not completely straightforward – you have to figure out where the information is on each website, and then figure out how the material fits into our prewritten list. (Some subject titles are standard – lots aren’t.) They also need to write a school description of a couple of sentences.

All fine … except I’ve been having my temps (who got laid off about three weeks ago, leaving this project completely on hold) checking each others’ work. I can kind of conceptualize people in India doing this work … but I’m having a hard time coming up with a scenario where they’re doing the checking. And not having it checked … that makes me very, very nervous.

Has anyone worked on a project where any kind of more or less similar task was outsourced to India? Any advice for what I need to ask for in advance? I’m wondering if I need to insist on a staff person here – one of my trained former temps, by preference – to be backing up on this and checking. I do not have the time to spend overseeing any of this on any kind of micromanagement basis – this is one element of about four main job functions in my two different job titles.

Anyway, anyone who has any experience or advice or warnings or anything, all comments welcome.

Thanks in advance.

Be prepared for a lot of late night meetings, things to take four times as long as they used to, and eventually your boss saying “this isn’t working out.” But it will take time. Maybe years. For some reason, these are things bosses have to figure out for themselves.

Yeah, I’d want someone - and you could pitch it as “transitional” to check the work and back up (assuming you have rush tasks). If it turns out you don’t need them because the folks in India do a better job than the temps you had and can and will check their work, you can get rid of the transitional person here.

Do put a check into your process - if you write the process for the check, it might get done. There have been occasions where we’ve discovered whatever team gets put in place overseas is heads and shoulders better in terms of quality - its rare, but it happens.

Thanks, Dangerosa, that’s very helpful.

Has anyone else had to deal with this?

I am currently the IT lead for a number of systems at our company. We have a dedicated team in India who works on these systems (as well as a dev team located here). Anyway, my experience with our offshore team is as follows:

  1. Be prepared for things to take 2-4 times longer than you would expect. A lot of this is simply because they do everything slower. I also find that they need to redo tasks fairly often because they weren’t done right the first time. Just consider this a given when working with an offshore team.

  2. You will need somebody to review all of their work (at least until you feel comfortable with them). As mentioned in my previous point, I regularly find defects.

  3. When giving them tasks, you need to be very clear in your directions. I find things either get lost in translation or they simply don’t understand the task. They are sometimes hesitant to question authority figures and this results in them doing what they think is correct even though something completely different is needed.

  4. Depending on the project, you will need to schedule daily or weekly phone conferences with them. Use this to make sure they understand their tasks. With the time difference, this usually can’t be done during normal business hours.

  5. When we first brought on an offshore team, we had one member come to the U.S. for training. This helped tremendously. This person was then able to understand our systems, ask questions, and learn our processes as needed. They can than cross train the other offshore team members.
    Those are just the first few things that came to mind. If you have any specific questions, I’d be glad to share my experiences.

The India outsourcing model is going to be different than he is expecting if he isn’t used to working with them. The posters above are correct. Indian outsourcing is sold to companies as exchanging one set of skilled workers for another except cheaper. That simply isn’t true. Well, the cheap part is true outsourced but Indian workers are not of the same caliber as American ones as a general rule. There are a few that are good but you mainly have to take some of the savings you would get with outsourcing on a one to one switch and make it back up in sheer manpower in outsourcing by get several Indians for less than one onshore worker. The work culture is very different and frequently maddening.

I have worked with outsourced Indian teams for 5 years in two large companies and there is no way I would choose that for my own business if I had a choice. It is hard on customers, employees, and management to hold the quality together when moving to offshored Indian workers. You are going to take a hit. I have never heard of it getting better but you have to minimize the adverse impact and hopefully save enough money to make it worthwhile. Make sure your boss understands everything involved in this decision. I am sure some of his friends could fill him in if they have made the same decision.

One thing I have noticed over time is that offshored Indian workers are often scored on the number of mistakes made which sounds reasonable until you know the outsourcing culture. The ways for them to avoid mistakes is to either not do any real work or to contact you with every tiny decision so that you can tell them EXACTLY what to do. Both of those are bad. Make it clear and in writing what decisions they are allowed to make on their own and what types of mistakes are tolerated so that their contract isn’t violated.

Make sure you understand tasks in terms of time zone delays.

For the past few days we’ve had a process that looks like this

  1. I make a request in U.S. Central Time
  2. The request gets processed in a Far East timezone
  3. My boss approves the request in U.S. Central time.
  4. The approved request gets processed in a Far East timezone

Also, most Far East cultures are MUCH more literal and process driven than we are. Don’t expect independent thought or them to figure out when an exception needs to be made.

I’ve worked with outsourcing to India, the Philippines and Ireland and it has growing pains, but I’ve never found it to be unbearable.

You have to WANT to make it work first of all. Second you have to realize it won’t be the same, but that doesn’t mean it’s not doable. It’s just different.

I found Indian companies don’t always give you the quality of workers you expect. BUT they will replace any workers you’re dissatisfied with in a second.

I found that the only barriers really come with language. A lot of the stateside employees will put up resistance and don’t want to make it work, this is where the problem comes in.

Yes, there are problems a LOT of them but if you have a coordinator who goes in with the notion it can work you will work out the problems.

I can tell you tons of issues I had when I’ve transitioned teams and most of the unsolvable problems came from the stateside staff. I can vividly recall a few times when I got stuck in the middle of managers refusing to properly implement the new way of doing things

The outsourcing couldn’t change, the upper management wouldn’t fire the people who were causing the problems and it was a mess.

In today’s economy you can hire quality workers on the cheap so there’s no need to expect failure, IF you have people willing to make it work and TRY.

My suggestion to the OP is go in with an open mind, not that it will work. Work WITH your Indian team. Make sure they know you won’t accept anything less than perfect from them. Make sure you document the Indian workers and make it known you want unacceptable staff replaced IMMEDIATELY.

This will go a long way to helping you transition the team.

Are the people there working for your company or are they contract from another company?
Unless the task is very easy, you are either going to have to go there or someone from there will have to visit you. It sounds like doing your project right requires at least some skills beyond just programming, so you are going to have to guide at least one peron pretty well until he or she gets it.

Our India people are employees, and one engineer from here has just moved back there, so we are likely to be in good shape. I’m very glad I’m not managing it.

BTW, I trust you plan to use a lot of Webex and Skype to increase your bandwidth. I was in a meeting last week with people from Taiwan, and we could have cut an hour out if we were in the same room with a whiteboard.

Thanks, guys, this is extremely helpful. I need to write up a response before the end of the week, and this is all useful information.

The task isn’t programming – it’s not technically complicated – it’s data collection, so there are a fair number of judgment calls. I’ll have to think through how to avoid problems there, but it sounds like having a dedicated employee on this end will be necessary. I don’t have time for it, I just don’t. Luckily, a main collaborator of mine at work is also getting a bunch of shit loaded onto him from this same guy (the CEO, did I say that?) – I’ll talk to him tomorrow about a joint proposal from the two of us about needing a FT person in there to help with this project.

Thank god Q2 is about to start, eh?

My boss is typically located in New England, I live in Old Ireland. It has worked fine thus far.

I worked with a team in India too. I don’t know if it’s management or that the economy there is better, but with my coworkers there is no “corporate memory”. There are new workers/contractors every month, and you have to explain things over and over again.
And there’s no guarantee your workers will have any skills at all, just like hiring a temp here in the states.

Luck of the Irish I suppose. I don’t mean to be too hard on individual Indians because God Bless Them if they can sell the services they do to pull themselves up but damn if they aren’t hard to get anything done with. I won’t bore you with the stories because we all have plenty you aren’t talking about 1st world people communicating mainly by phone or the internet with the boss. We are talking about people that live in a fundamentally different world than we do. Many of the really talented Indians get sent to the U.S. to work onshore so what you have left back there is a mixed bag with huge churn.

My sister worked in India before and would probably agree with much of what you say. She found the work culture there hard to negotiate. Although perhaps with more time she would have found it normal etc.

This paragraph sums up the two worst problems I had when working with people in India. First, some delays are inevitable simply due to time zones: eventually, these get worked into the process. But also, if you’re used to people being proactive about asking for clarification, you (or hopefully the person you mention hiring to do the actual management) will have to learn to be alert for deadlines, and to have much-smaller steps than you’re used to.

Several times we didn’t get something at the expected date, asked about it… and the next day we got an email saying “I shall investigate”… and the day after, a statement that “there is some things the programmer does not understand”. We would have to ask for clarification of what exactly did the programmer need clarification on, which might be something as tiny as “does the heading in the second page which says ‘same as first page’ have to be the same as in the first page?” - and this would actually be a good one, as others would have a second-page heading which read

same as first page

Once we go used to the level of sitting-on-their-shoulders which was required and learned how to phrase things appropriately, things got done, but it certainly required a change in mindset on our part.

If there is someone you really, really, really like, make it absolutely clear that you want that one assigned to you. Our Indian team had people both in our location and in India, one of the guys who was on location when I arrived got sent to other customers periodically because of their company’s policy of rotating personnel every three months. The third time it happened, my coworkers were joking that we’d soon have a Procedure On How To Get The Good Programmer Back (Again).

If you will be responsible for this, be prepared to physically go over their at least every couple of months, if not more frequent, for the first couple of years. Do not underestimate, the cultural differences, not just regional, but corporate cultural differences as well. You will need to be on the ground there to inject your corporate culture into those overseas operations. Also, if problems come up, you will need to get on the next plane to be there the next day.

If your company and you are not prepared to make those kinds of committments, I highly doubt your outsourcing will be successful.

I validated data entry (insurance claim faxes) when my company outsourced to India (EXL is the company name) a couple years back. Now they’re totally on their own and they do “good enough” work. We actually had several people in the company working on the project, my team leader was the one who got sent to India (for training, she trained their trainers who train their employees) and her duties had to be covered by the other team leaders left behind for the 6 weeks she was there. I would say that adding one full time employee isn’t a bad idea, but in reality the work created by outsourcing normally takes several people to accomplish unless your company is TINY.

This is the main problem we’ve had with folks from India as well. And the guy we hired lived in America, I believe. It’s just how he was trained.

This is the slippery slope that has always been a problem with me on our outsourced development work. The level of detail needed in the specifications combined with the sitting-on-their-shoulders aspect in monitoring the work, and the laggy turnaround time, IMHO, left me feeling it would be cheaper and quicker to just do it myself. In my experience, I’m left with the conclusion that the outsourcing was not of value.