Forecasts, Women, Fire, and Other Dangerous Things

He just got back from Shenzhen last night (where he claims all the action is these days), and although he’s badly jet-lagged, looking like he’s had a spoonful of Nembutal mixed in with his coffee, he’s all-business, being of course a very busy man, as not least his BlackBerry humming faster than the heartbeat of a hummingbird would indicate. In fact, nailing my thirty-minute “catch-up” meeting with this high-powered head of global supply-chain strategy for one of the largest and most admired IT firms was a lot harder than getting Tosca tickets at La Scala. (Although I always marvel at the inventiveness of that particular scheduling term, as this is but only our second meeting, and I’m hardly catching up with an ol’ college buddy here.)

I enter his office, and I might as well – judging from the computational horsepower on display – be stepping onto the trading floor of the Chicago Merc or into launch command at Cape Canaveral, were it not for the costly collection of Bonsai, carefully manicured and magnificently cared for (its continuous cultivation, he says, reminding him daily that the devil is in the details, that one’s job is never quite done, and that the locus of all the action is these days – where else? – in Asia.) Pleasantries and pastries are quickly consumed, and he gets straight into it by asking me a straight-forward question which I have my reasons to skirt (first mistake), and rather than answering instead I just tell the man not to worry (second mistake). These admittedly hollow words have barely passed my larynx, when he retorts in his trademark 140 Decibels “‘cause-you-evidently-didn’t-hear-me-the-first-time” wail (which happens to be the sound intensity of artillery fire and is clinically classified as “nearly deafening”): “What do you mean ‘don’t worry’? I always worry. Worrying is what I do for a living. If I’d stopped worrying, we’d all be screwed, our business partners included, such as yourselves!” Ouch!

This high-octane executive and Bonsai cultivator (no, timid and taciturn are not the words that leap out at you to describe his professional demeanor) does worry a lot. About where, for instance, a company the size of his – that, in a good year, would have to add the entire revenue line of a smaller Fortune 500 company just to meet its annual growth target – will find the most cost-effective and sustainable supply of both human and material resources to allow for future, profitable growth. By background, our man is 1/3 applied mathematics professor (in a former life, of course), 1/3 proud company-lifer and procurement careerist, and 1/3 street-fighter – a mixture that would normally appeal to me, were it not for the middle part, where I find myself invariably on the receiving end of this consummate procurer’s incessant worrying about how to squeeze ever more costs out of his global supply base (whereof our company is proudly a part). (As far as world-class professional worrywarts go, it must be said that our friend is leagues apart from the phlegmatic fretting of say a Woody Allen; but still, asking him to “lighten up” on his patented procurement anxiety that anything in this world that can be bought, ought to be bought for the cheapest price possible, would be like asking Frodo Baggins to shave his feet, dispense with that peculiar Hobbit habit of having second breakfast, or stop that premonitious whining about gloom and doom by some monoscopic flame-ball in the sky – in other words, unlikely to happen.)

And all I was asked to provide was a detailed forecast of all the hot IT skills in all the different geographic markets so that this one procurement strategist could better gear his formidable world-wide skills acquisition machinery for optimal world-class results. If I knew the full answer to that question I wouldn’t even tell my own mother, for this is real leverage, having a window of time to be able to build up a privileged on-demand skills pool in the hopefully correct anticipation that these skills will soon be hotly in-demand. The “don’t worry” comment was meant to imply that indeed our company Talent Trust (http://www.talenttrust.com/) does very much exactly that: the analytical forecasting and anticipatory sourcing across a very large number of IT skills, functions, and disciplines and across all applicable geographies. Since Talent Trust operates as both a demand- and supply aggregator, we have uniquely powerful insights into what technologies and related skills are on the rise or demise, if a “bleeding edge” programming language is turning “leading edge” overnight, or if a specific legacy skill-set is turning red-hot again for lack of available talent (e.g., try COBOL-with-PowerBuilder). And since we operate a “virtual bench” of trusted partners – all highly specialized, mid-market IT firms in various low-cost countries – we have significant operational advantage when it comes to very rapidly mobilizing these hot skills (e.g., Ruby on Rails, PHP 5, Flex), because we are not constrained by any single organization or geography. In fact, our network (which we call the “Talent Trust Alliance”) has the breadth, depth, and ready availability of IT talent no single supplier, no matter how large, can match. Think of it as a whole forest of Bonsai vs. the single giant oak tree. Yes, our friend does like that analogy, and now he gets my meaning that by virtue of partnering with us, our clients will automatically enjoy the benefits of tapping into our dynamic knowledge of the marketplace for skills, be it onshore, nearshore, or offshore. So don’t you worry, my friend, after all.

Although my foray into micro-journalism has been greeted by my corporate host with admirable support (and I’m no longer called a “mean dodgeball player” who doesn’t answer his client’s questions), I’m reminded that there is a special circle in hell reserved for NDA-violators, and so I shall refer my reader to a recent public-domain but nevertheless very useful ranking of hot IT skills in the market (this one courtesy of IT Business Edge and Dice.com):

  1. Informatica
  2. Virtualization
  3. ETL (Extract, Transform and Load)
  4. Python
  5. Service-Oriented Architecture
  6. Sybase
  7. WebLogic
  8. SOAP
  9. Data Warehouse
  10. SharePoint
  11. MySQL
  12. E-commerce
  13. JavaScript
  14. VMware
  15. CSS (Cascading Style Sheets)
  16. Business Analyst
  17. ITIL
  18. Ajax
  19. Perl
  20. Business Intelligence

(Finally, an editorial note before the Comment section swells up like an English complaint box: the title of this blog is barefacedly lifted from George Lakoff’s 1987 seminal work in cognitive linguistics called “Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things.” Its readers will ask themselves what the terms we use reveal about the way we go about doing the things that involve said terms. This happens to be an important insight for anybody trying to do proper forecasting and trending involving qualitative measures. A good read.)

Recruitment on the Orient Express: A Brief Primer on Doing IT Business in Eastern Europe

There is no pain, no sorrow, and no suffering in Philip Sanner’s world. His world is made of optimism – both manifest and militant – where charisma is a virtue not a curse, and good things happen because they can. And here in Sanner-Land not even little children cry, but only sales managers wince should they fail to make target. For in Philip’s worldview (or rather ‘Weltanschauung’ in his vernacular), there is little tolerance for failure; pity them who produce downward-sloping revenues, disappointing earnings, or bungled forecasts. Sure, they will get another chance to make good before they meet their maker, for a) Philip is a humanist, and b) this is Germany, after all, home to that fabulous invention called “Social Capitalism” (everybody here gets a second chance, and a third, and a fourth …).

Please, meet Philip Sanner, Herr General-Direktor (let me translate for you: director-general) of Elan’s Central- and Eastern European operations. Elan, of course, is the single largest pure-play – as they say – IT staffing firm in Europe, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Manpower, the global leader in the employment services industry. Sanner’s (please call me “Philip”) purview encompasses a business territory that once, over centuries past, was home to such pleasant sports as: the laggards of the Völkerwanderung, the last Roman conquerors-turned-ill-advised-tourists of Germania, the always charming Visigoths, the Carolingians, the on-and-off-again Huns, various Ottoman invaders ca. 1683 and ca. 1960s-1970s, and – needless to say – some of the most undesirable males the 20th century had produced.

Philip is part of the $16 billion business firmament of Elan/Manpower. Philip is a terrific business leader, and his team loves him, for he is firm but always fair, likes to lead strictly by example, and brings out the best in them. He subscribes to some unusual motivational methods though, normally observed at organizations such as the United States Navy SEALs or the British Army Special Air Service; when a mollycoddled German middle-manager publicly labors under the misapprehension that coming in second at a sales contest is the same as being “second winner,” he’s promptly enlightened by his director-general that “there is no such thing as the second winner, only the first loser.” Lovely.

I’ve personally known Philip “number-two-will-never-do” Sanner for over five years, and I’m proud to say we’re solid business partners and also friends now. We’ve launched a joint line of business called “global resourcing” or “remote staff augmentation” that is getting healthy traction across his territories, providing Elan’s clients with highly skilled IT professionals located offshore (for more information about the Elan-Talent Trust partnership see the ‘Harness Global Resourcing’ section at http://www.elansolutions.com/ as well as the dedicated services site http://www.elanglobalresourcing.com). I’m now sitting down in Philip’s palatial regional head-office here in Frankfurt – which, in terms of size and grandeur, makes Pope Julius II’s private study look shoddy by comparison. I’m always looking up to Philip, not only because he is one of the more successful IT staffing leaders in Europe; or because he rules his territories with an iron fist befitting one Götz von Berlichingen, every German’s favorite kick-ass knight; no, I’m craning skywards ‘cause Philip is an implausibly imposing 2.1 meters tall, as such barely meeting Frankfurt’s traffic height limitations for bridges and tunnels, and would have made a most respectable ‘Potsdam Giant’ under Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia.

By background Philip is an Entrepreneur with a capital “E” – and as opposed to most of his colleagues who are regular employees who may well be entrepreneurial (small “e”) in their respective jobs, he’s built real businesses from scratch, all in the IT staffing space, the last one of which he’s sold to Elan now eleven years ago. He joined Elan’s management ranks in ever-increasing roles of responsibility, while keeping his Entrepreneurial passion for the business, and he exudes the confidence of someone who’s been in the biz for twenty-odd years and seen it all, or – someone who’s just sold every self-doubt in the world to Mephistopheles himself.

But today Philip is even more buoyant than usual, though his habitual outer calm – which makes any funambulist appear fidgety – scantly betrays his excitement at having just sold a 200-person outsourced Level-1-2-3 support center deal to one of Europe’s largest technology firms. The center will be located in an Eastern European country where the client already has “strategic assets,” which is euphemism for owning a very large building with not nearly enough clever people in it, and a local hiring manager with little hair left to pull out, for the competition for IT talent has become fierce across Eastern Europe. That’s when we sit down to discuss the state of IT recruitment in different countries and to discern different staffing options for the client engagement at hand. And that’s when I decide to turn the discussion into an interview of sorts, where I’m asking the questions, and Philip is providing the answers, and this hopefully for the benefit of our readers. (As an aside, the interview is conducted in English, and although Philip’s English is excellent, to the American ear he sounds exactly like you-know-who from Hogan’s Heroes; an accent – he explains – he’s had since he was twelve and that he’s carefully cultivated ever since – for personal branding purposes, he says – not to be mixed up with your run-of-the-mill Cambridge grads roaming the mean streets of Frankfurt.)

Christophe: Hallo Philip, you’re the archetype of the modern German business man: with more degrees than a thermometer, you speak more languages than the good people of Babel, and you run out of passport pages faster than one can say “Welcome to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Herr Sanner.” Dispensing with all jokes now, how much do you actually travel per year, what countries do you visit, and how do you divide your time?

Philip: Well, although we’ve only recently begun to set up an office infrastructure proper throughout Eastern Europe – at this point we’ve got two main offices in Poland and two offices in the Czech Republic – we’re starting to see promising signs of growth throughout the whole region. Just as a caveat, put in context with the rest of Elan, Eastern Europe is still very small and nascent but clearly a region with lots of growth potential. In addition to Poland and the Czech Republic, Elan is active in Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and Russia. Not to bore you with geography, but this leaves all the following countries untouched: Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia (in what we call “Central Europe”), Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia (in “South-Eastern Europe”), Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (the Baltic states, although we’ve got pretty good representation up there through our parent company Manpower), the “Transcaucasias,” i.e. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, and finally the former Soviet states Belarus and Moldova. I’ve personally been to all but Azerbaijan and Moldova, and unless you’re boarding a good 100+ intra-European flights per year, you’re not going to get a grasp of the business in all these different countries. Lucky me, I guess … Let me just add that you should think of our Poland- and Czech-based offices as regional “hubs of excellence.” Clients with high-volume staffing needs (500+ people) in these and also adjacent countries come to us for strategic advice, established fulfillment capabilities, and a deep understanding of local market dynamics. Although we’re the market leader in both Poland and CZ, a close collaboration with our strategic clients is still required to drive successful outcomes.

Christophe: If you had to make a short-list, which are the top countries in terms of demand for IT skills?

Philip: They are in order of greatest staffing demand: Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and Slovakia. Note that we at Elan would consider Poland and Russia as already mature markets for IT staffing.

Christophe: And what about the top countries now in terms of supply of IT skills?

Philip: Definitely Poland and CZ again as well as the Ukraine. What these three have in common is an educated, flexible, and rapidly-expanding workforce. All three countries posses well-established, efficient, and remarkably practice-oriented educational systems so that they can produce new and especially relevant skills with – please pardon my saying so – “hungry” individuals eager to learn the latest and most in-demand skills at a rapid pace, thereby shifting quickly towards new and emerging technologies.

Christophe: Along similar lines, which countries are on your “favorite list” when it comes to supplying IT workers for “cross-border” deployment (meaning as travelling guest workers in other countries on finite-term assignments) or for near-/offshoring (in other words, the resources remain in country but do the work remotely for a client in a different country altogether)?

Philip: In that regard both Romania and Bulgaria top the list – both are super-hot right now for both Microsoft and SAP skills – closely followed by Poland. We literally have a plethora of IT services and support centers in Kraków. Manpower’s big American clients, for example, are setting up shop in Poland and CZ with just remarkable speed – ramping up to 3,000 employees per center is pretty much the norm within a very short period of time … you ain’t seen nothing yet, as I believe you boys would say over there, until you’ve seen what Elan can do for you here. Obviously both Poland and CZ are not the cheapest places in the region, but American firms in particular are hoping that long-term investments will help offset and indeed reduce upfront operational spend and will yield significant improvements in overall IT efficiencies.

Christophe: Please excuse my saying so, but as far as political and legal systems are concerned, the whole of what we call Eastern Europe is to me just like my mother-in-law’s Hungarian Goulash: it all looks the same, it’s pretty clumpy and sticky, certainly not for the faint-of-heart, and you shouldn’t have too much of it, and you really don’t want to know what it’s made of … Any truth to that? How would you navigate the different sets of country laws?

Philip: Tricky, specially for the uninitiated or, as you say, the faint-of-heart. Don’t do it, if you haven’t done it before. Developing and implementing local trading procedures are just absolutely key. This is never easy under the best of circumstances and particularly challenging as “flexible IT hiring” and related workforce management practices represent a hybrid between HR and the procurement function. If you’re thinking about programmatic training, high-volume hiring, outsourcing, temp-to-perm worker transitions and other types of work transfers, a deep – and I mean “substantially deep” – knowledge of local legislation and labor laws are required.

Christophe: Speaking of the letter of the law, which can be intimidating when that letter is part of a foreign language, what Eastern European countries would you rate as being the most “Western-friendly”?

Philip: Not surprisingly, Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary are the favorites here, as these countries represent parts of many clients’ fully and globally integrated resourcing strategies. Through historical and cultural ties, they are closely aligned to such Western ‘powerhouses’ as Germany and France. Furthermore, these countries have a perhaps surprisingly – at least to some in ‘the so-called West’ – effective approach to human capital management. They just “get it” when it comes to servicing the demands of next-gen hiring managers: here it’s all about the stability, predictability, and rapid mobilization of talent pools.

Christophe: How is this now for a ‘loaded question’ – your advice to anyone looking for a reputable resourcing partner in Eastern Europe?

Philip: My mother used to spank me harder as a child when I would eat all the cookie dough! C’mon, is that all you’ve got? Seriously, you’ve got to do your due diligence. And I mean solid due diligence with multiple reference checks. Be careful to include in that check-list overall and of course specific technological capabilities and not just price as a differentiator. You are in the quality business – picking a quality partner will ‘pay back.’ Sound business processes and underlying systems are important as well. Make sure to pick a partner with a strong management team, matching cultural values – yes “values”! – and someone with the right and relevant business expertise. Someone you can relate to as a business partner, as you would say in the West, except they’re here in the East.

Christophe: I think I like your mother. Second to last question: if you had one country to pick in the region, which one and for what reason?

Philip: I’m hesitating, really I am … OK, it’d be Poland for me. It’s just the location, it’s so easy to get around, and it’s safe. The workforce there is adaptable, and they are able to identify technology trends early on, and they can ramp up new skills and capabilities very quickly. Their language skills are remarkable: English, German, French – all top. And the Poles are the most effective social networkers I know – I mean using Web 2.0 for recruitment purposes. Listen, if you’re not on LinkedIn, you definitely cannot be Polish. And, please, let’s not forget about kuchnia polska: where else would you go for your fill of Bigos and Pierogi?

Christophe: Final question, as promised: your favorite travel destination or story?

Philip: I’ve tried to re-classify France as an emerging market for Elan so that I could spend more time in Paris at Le Marche des Enfants Rouges – that didn’t seem to fly. Just give me the wine, the food, the cheese, and the Bohemian way of life, and I’d be a lucky man!

Christophe: Philip, you already are a lucky man! Congratulations on all your success in Eastern Europe, and I thank you for this interview.

Buying Into the iPad – Available this Weekend At a Big-Vision Store Near You

Faint surprise may just surmount the frequent reader of this blog, but I for one (good reason) am tiring of the (mostly bad) jokes, the barbs, and the sundry wisecracks that have preceded this Saturday’s debut of Apple’s iPad. Non-technical reviews, amply volunteered by chief marketing officers in spe and DIY brand management experts, alas all solely from the amateur domain, have ranged from the mildly sophomoric (“I’m going to buy an iPad. Period.”) to the unapologetically puerile (reference the evident geeks-without-girlfriends’ fascination with the feminine hygiene aisle and such Judd Apatow-inspired memos to Cupertino helpfully suggesting that the 64GB version should be labeled the “Heavy Flow” model).

iMoses didn’t descend from Mount Sinai with a “magical and revolutionary” tablet (at a price tag that still beggars belief) in order to change the fate of humanity or His untethered 4G children (in Steve’s appendix to the Decalogue, however, it clearly states that “Thou shalt not be caught reading a Kindle, for thou shall look like a total douch,” like the pale, pasty kid on the beach next to all the bronze, sculpted bodies evoking that stark visual contrast between Amazon’s pastel-colored “Original Wireless Reading Device” and the iPad’s supremely sleek back-in-black design). No, the iPad won’t change your iLife, you must still be kind to your nagging iWife (although there was a good one about the iDesperate iHousewives, its pointe lost completely in the seeming novelty of adding Apple’s trademark “i” to just about everything), and moreover, the Pentagon is not about to license Jobs’s patented “reality distortion field” to squelch the quagmire in Afghanistan, as this week’s rumor mill would have you believe.

Instead, let’s review some “news you can use,” in case “starting at $499” is not enough to get you off the settee:

  • Wall Street predictions for how many iPad tablets Apple will sell in the first year vary widely, with a range from 1M to 10M units;
  • There’s a pre-order limit of two per customer, even for businesses which is surprising (I guess one for the “magic” and the other one for the “revolution”);
  • Be cautious when making an impulse purchase at 9:00 a.m. this Saturday, as only the WiFi model will be available at first, and buyer’s remorse may beset you when tablets fit for 3G cellular service will be shipping at a later date;
  • Try to imagine what you’re going to do with your iPad; a comScore survey found that people would use it equally for web browsing and email, reading digital print media, and watching videos and playing games;
  • Thus far Apple has only allowed few established publishers – including Time Magazine, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, etc. – pre-launch access to its device, and thus there will be only a handful of big-media applications available this weekend;
  • Business models among the print media companies are still all over the place, with some charging the equivalent newsstand price for the same content, others offering premium content taking advantage of the iPad’s seductive multimedia capabilities but also at a cost premium, while again others are billing for monthly subscription;
  • Advertisers are, albeit cautiously experimenting together with the media, with the Wall Street Journal, for example, selling advertisements for about $100,000 per month;
  • A few software development issues persist for third parties, including the automated iPhone-to-iPad-app conversion process that involves “pixel doubling” and has proven a challenge for developers rushing to get their iPhone apps adapted to the iPad’s much larger 9.7-inch screen;
  • There are other technical gripes too, especially around the iPad’s notorious incompatibility with Adobe’s hugely popular Flash technology which Steve Jobs couldn’t help but calling “buggy, littered with security holes, and a CPU hog” (there you have it, Google, why bother integrating it with Chrome then?);
  • And on that point, if you really cannot live without your favorite Flash sites, there’s HP’s upcoming big spoiler with the help of a touchy Microsoft Windows 7 called Slate which “runs the complete Internet” (completely just for emphasis, that is).

One more thing …, as Mr. Jobs would famously say (who, incidentally in the eyes of your blogger, is the best CEO in the world today, running one of the most innovative companies ever): please feel free to contact me (christophe.kolb@talenttrust.com) should you be thinking about building an iPad app for your business – for helping you find just the right people with that leading-edge expertise at competitive offshore rates is our business.

Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina

“Don’t cry for me, Argentina
The truth is I never left you
All through my wild days
My mad existence
I kept my promise, don’t keep your distance”
– Eva Perón in Evita by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice

In everyday life there are many successful husband-and-wife teams; I’ve personally encountered such domestic-cum-corporate duos thriving for example as restaurateurs, travel agents, certified public accountants, florists, vinotecarians, pre-Netflix vidéothèquers, European-car mechanics albeit with limited repair capabilities, temporary employment agencies, bagel store owners, expensive dry cleaners, and my favorite pedicurists whose marriage though, I sense, is a bit on a rough footing. Despite federal and state-issued labor regulations that must be prominently displayed in all work areas, including the bedroom, specifically warning of such workplace hazards as “spousal arousal,” the kinship of business and pleasure has obvious advantage (viz. merit and merriment) as well as disadvantage (for richer or poorer but never for lunch, as my wife, for one, would freely assert). (The analytically-minded will note that there are four possible outcomes when matrimonial and monetary matters conspire or collide, as the case may be: business success or failure paired with marital bliss or whatever the opposite, I dare not ponder – just compare / contrast the pairings of Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius, Annie Oakley and Frank Butler, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and Siegfried and Roy.)

Think about starting a technology firm with your spousal business partner? Doable indeed, as such notable Silicon Valley offspring as Cisco, Super Micro, VMware, Flickr, Bebo, and Six Apart prove. However, think about running a country together? Well, then you will have to keep up with the Kirchners. Meet Cristina and Néstor of Number One Quinta Presidencial de Olivos in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Néstor Kirchner, protean a politician, with his devil-may-care populism of near-Chávezian proportion, his on-again-off-again dislike for markets, and his fondness for decrees (having issued more than the Council of Trent), would have hated vacating the Presidential Villa at the end of his term (as anybody would), and was surely consoled by the seamless, subsequent installment of his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as President of Argentina. Cristina Kirchner, for her part, debacled into office with a creative multi-billion dollar debt retirement scheme that met the stark resistance of that marplot of her Central Bank President who opposed it and who was since decreed-over multiple times, Kirchner-style. With plummeting popularity ratings at home and the national press infuriated (and who cares about  international opinion?), she’s done well to focus on all-out capitalistic reforms (despite nationalizing the country’s private pension funds), taking it perhaps too far with a few dubious development deals of her own that would put even Donald Trump to shame (alongside a fashion decorum to make the Real Housewives of Orange County blush). Luckily for the Kirchners (and the country, of course), a vast amount of oil – estimated at some 60 billion barrels – has been discovered in Argentina’s inshore waters and is certain to now unleash another economic boom. With Argentina’s farm-commodity exports at an all-time high and inflation generally in check, the country under the Kirchners resembles a lush economical oasis in the financial isthmus of Latin America.

Our darling husband-and-wife team, credited with bringing Argentina back into the centerfold of world economic power through political stability, industrial growth, and rising prosperity is following in the footsteps, of course, of another ruling couple, Juan and Isabel Perón, whose style of government in the fifties known as Peronism, that farcical ideological wavering between socialism and capitalism, has for so long managed to hold back a country with just extraordinary potential (given immense natural resources, a highly developed economy and powerful middle class, strong historical ties to European culture, etc.). That Argentina is not yet a G10 or at least an economy the size of Italy’s ($558 billion GDP vs. $1.756 trillion) has famously perplexed V. S. Naipaul who calls it “one of the great mysteries of the twentieth century.” The hangover of Peronism perhaps? Yep, the Argies sure like their colorful husband-and-wife leaders, able as a country, however, to withstand and endure even a bad choice of leadership. Don’t cry for me, Argentina? (Here’s the answer to that one: towards the end of her mad existence, Eva Perón stipulated in her will that Liza Minnelli would be expressly barred from playing Evita, for the good people of Argentina had already suffered too much; she kept her promise; and the children of the Pampas never did shed a tear.)

Argentina is one of my favorite countries in the world. In his day job, your blogger has been working with Argentinean business partners for over ten years. With a demographically young and dynamic population of 40 million, a world-class educational system that’s produced more Nobel Prize winners in the sciences than all other South American countries put together, and a higher adult literacy rate than Greece, Argentina’s workforce can be reckoned with on an international scale. The country’s cultural roots are European and very much like the United States it is a nation formed by settlers and immigrants, affording both Europeans and Americans a great deal of cultural similarity and indeed familiarity. The vast majority of the contemporary workforce employed in science, engineering, and technology speaks English which is taught in school mandatorily as the primary foreign language. The people I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years have not only excelled in their respective fields of specialization but have distinguished themselves as problem solvers, creative thinkers, and innovative contributors; I’ve witnessed entrepreneurship, hard work, and professional pride to degrees desirable for the even the best companies or institutions here in the States.

If you’re thinking about working with a remote IT team, one of Argentina’s most compelling advantages besides boasting a wealth of excellent technical talent at competitive offshore rates is the time zone overlap with both the U.S. and Europe. Just look at your world clock: 8:00 AM in Chicago, is 10:00 AM in Buenos Aires, is 1:00 PM in London, meaning that both Chicago and London will have their respective eight-hour day overlap with Buenos Aires in terms of regular business hours. In other words, Argentina is ideally situated to serve both the U.S. and Europe as “nearshore” destinations for real-time collaboration (think about just being able to Skype your remote colleague in say Buenos Aires in the middle of your day to catch up on a project’s status, as opposed to getting up at the crack of dawn or burning the midnight oil, getting caught up with resources sitting in say Bangalore, India).

It must also be said that you won’t like Argentina if: you are a member of the bovine family (yes, you will get eaten, as this is by a wide but gastroenterologically not-so-healthy margin the world’s biggest beef-eating nation); you are a Malbec grape (you’ll get squashed with Argentina now ranking as the fifth-leading producer of wine in the world); or you get dizzy dancing (Argentina, you’ve got the best dancers in the world – just bite me, Brazil!). Load up your iPod with Astor Piazzolla tangos to relive the magic of the Pampas or the romance of a sultry Buenos Aires evening from afar, and let me summarize why Argentina is possibly your best bet for a remote IT destination:

  • A politically stable nation with a fast-growing diversified economy, vast natural resources, strong at exporting and at the cusp of an energy-sector boom;
  • A large population, with a young demographic and a prevalent middle class;
  • A superb educational system that, with the government’s support, is fostering education and job training in science, engineering, and technology (where the U.S. educational system, in contrast, is desperately lacking);
  • Technical universities across the country produce a wealth of highly-skilled IT professionals;
  • A high penetration of advanced English as a foreign language, both spoken and written, especially among IT professionals;
  • An established and fast-growing IT services industry based on entrepreneurial spirit and technical excellence;
  • IT services exports are strongly encouraged by the government with various incentive programs to further propagate the benefits of a ‘knowledge economy’ (investing in people, non-polluting revenues, currency influx);
  • Cultural similarity with both Europe and North America greatly eases cross-cultural work collaboration;
  • High work ethic, pride in ownership, and innovative ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking are common characteristics;
  • Almost full-working-day time zone overlap with both the U.S. and Europe means you can work with people in Argentina in ‘real time’;
  • And perhaps, most significantly of all if you’re looking for “value for money”: given all the above benefits, Argentina outsourcing is still very much price-competitive compared to most other offshore locations, with savings that can range from 30-50% compared to the cost of domestic staff.

Final Destination: Localizing Games

I close my eyes, and I’m in Sicily again, oh childhood memories. The air is stifling on that summer day, filled with the sweetly-pungent smell of pine, wild rosemary, and plum tomatoes soaking in the rays of a cruel Sicilian sun; in the distance, in defiance of the arid soil, the ancient olive grove; crickets chirping stridently in concert, and the sad sound of a mandolin barely audible from afar. A rare afternoon of playtime with my father, a Cosa Nostra pioneer and leading light in the nascent field of organized crime, who’s sounding strangely muffled though as if he’s got cotton balls stuffed inside his cheeks; he’s not croaking down the clothes line, is he? My father, if there ever was a wise guy, taught me (among many other things): keep your friends close but your enemies closer. But, I say, who needs enemies with friends like the ones I have on Facebook? Listen paisano, don’t you mess with the Kolbone family!

I open my eyes, and I’m back to playing Mafia Wars, the Webby Awards-winning multiplayer browser game from Zynga, the most fun, addictive, and outright wicked game I’ve played online (bringing back fond memories of the fishing trip I took to Lake Tahoe with my older, slightly useless brother). As far as the game’s character ‘builds’ go, I’ve stared down the face of fear (Fearless), thrown fits of maniacal rage (Maniac), and experienced the joys of moguldom (Mogul). Ever since Tony Soprano, Sr. went off the air, there’s been little public excitement around criminal empire building and thanks to the good folks at Zynga, I – the aspiring delinquent and social gaming novice – am now headquartered in Little Italy (trust me, a lot more scenic and authentic than New Jersey, and you spare yourself the Turnpike hassle).

On my pleasantly rapid ascent to criminal mastermind, Mafia Wars had me passing through such helpfully formative stages as: Street Thug, Associate, Soldier, Enforcer, Hitman, Capo, Consigliere, Underboss, and Boss – yes, capo di tutti capi to all my fellow social-networking-site mafiosos – having attained my rightful standing by virtue of various acts of racketeering, grand larceny (stealing other player’s virtual currency), “robbing,” “icing” as well as further assorted felonies (although I understand that spading, polonium poisoning, and all manners of eye-gouging are frowned upon unless, of course, you’ve managed to move onto Moscow station to join the Russkaya Mafiya or Bratva, as these hoodlums are known). There’s a strong educational element that reinforces basic household economics, such as saving money or collecting your “take” and always paying the piper (i.e., making lots and lots of micropayments to “the Godfather,” that is Zynga’s exchequer).

If you haven’t tried out Mafia Wars, do yourself a favor and play it today (http://www.zynga.com/games/index.php?game=mafiawars) – and as far as this blogger’s opinion is concerned, and in keeping with popular phraseology, “Zynga rules”!

Homo Ludens (the Playing Man) is a remarkable account of the societal and global pervasiveness of gaming by noted medievalists and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga, written back in 1938, asserting that things like Mafia Wars are necessary (though not sufficient) conditions to our cultural evolution. Chess is neither an Indian nor a Persian game but rather a global one. Similarly, Zynga has vaulted onto the world stage with a portfolio of social games which the company “localizes” for universal adoption. And since Facebook, everyone’s main artery of social media reach, is now available in: Afrikaans, Albanian, Arabic, Azeri, Basque, Bengali, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Esperanto, Estonian, Faroese, Filipino, Finnish, French, Galician, Georgian, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Latvian Lithuanian, Macedonian, Malay, Malayalam, Maltese, Nepali, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Persian, Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, and Welsh, Zynga and other gaming companies have their hands full with localization work.

Localization is about a lot more than translating the language-of-origin (mostly English) to the language-of-destination. It requires an understanding of (and really a passion for) the game to be localized, a sound familiarity with the destination culture, and above all some storytelling ability (yes, as in “once upon a time,” “boy meets girl at a dance,” character, dialogue, plot, and story arc). What’s compelling about games like Mafia Wars is that you enter an online fantasy world together with your friends as willing participants in the suspension of disbelief, and even the slightest disruption at the game level such as a botched translation will ruin the effect of the immersion. I’m not sure Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero would be buying his knuckle rings at “A store for murder tools of all kinds” but rather at “A store selling weapons of all kinds.” Or, in another example of localization gone awry (though mind you, not at Zynga which does an excellent job localizing their games!), players would surely raise a brow at the “Prick of death,” thinking that they just acquired in that charming aforementioned store an instrument called the “Spike of death.”

The subtlety with which a narrative must be translated to reach the player on an emotional basis far exceeds the minimum level of linguistic competency. To achieve success in game localization I recommend splitting the process into translation, adding contextual meaning, quality assurance of language and meaning, as well as having regular and collaborative “check-ins” with the game publisher. Since speed-to-market and cost control are close second and third considerations right after player delight, game creators should look at a distributed team configuration with broad access to diverse talent in all their target destination countries in addition to tight workflow control to optimize turnaround. In fact, multi-country localization at breakneck-speed is a perfect application for remote staff augmentation. With access to multiple offshore talent pools and a tight communication link between onshore and offshore teams, social gaming firms can be on their way to pan-planetary domination with remote staffing as a high-quality, low-cost, and variable-expense solution.

Leverage or Perish!

The scenario is an all-too familiar one: meet the Head of Application Development for a multi-billion-dollar revenue firm with global operations. For this account, we shall call him “Mr. Stockbridge” for his territoire includes all software old and new, building, maintaining, upgrading, and further integrating the application portfolio – sometimes referred to as “the app zoo” – as well as R&D, and which is delineated in jovial collegial “Upstairs, Downstairs” manner, literally by a flight of stairs and if by Higher mandate from the realm of his peer, the CTO and “the guys down below” who worry about such seemingly trivial ‘plumbing matters’ as infrastructure, hosting, datacenters, data privacy, overall systems performance and security, etc.

Mr. Stockbridge – a lot less standoffish and snobbish a man than his celluloid namesake, the Marquis acted out to perfection, of course, by the loveable Anthony Andrews opposite the venerable Gordon Jackson – has a problem, a big one, and a hard one as such, but he’s not alone with it (oh, what I meant: unfortunately, he is all alone with his own problem, but other Heads of Application Development at other firms have it, too).

You see, his boss, the company CFO nonetheless (incidentally, in many a corporate hierarchy nowadays a most logical configuration, for whose avuncular fingers are better equipped to clip the wings of Icarus, to curb IT’s flight too close to the sun of techiedom, and to keep in check that otherwise rampant overreaching, overspending, and overpromising that’s supposedly just what ‘we IT guys’ do), has returned from his prolonged budget meeting on Mount Olympus to make the following pronouncement which surprises no one but likewise scares everyone: the current headcount will stay flat until year-end, though an imperceptibly small budget increase for new “specialty” hires has been approved for those projects dear to the CFO’s heart. IT is expected to not only maintain but to increase productivity and project output by an estimated 30% (take that to your next Committee hearing on the “jobless recovery,” Mr. Bernanke). To make matters worse, the technology mix has shifted considerably over the last 12 months thus challenging the ‘skills readiness’ of a good portion of the staff to be able to outperform (if even just to perform) in their present jobs. Plus there are some further hard architectural choices to make (for that global webification push!) that demand more than just the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears – they require the brains of people not distracted by playing perpetual catch-up with that ever-growing backlog of ‘IT business requirements’ dispatched, unfortunately, by those who pay the bills, the business owners. And lest I forget, Mr. Stockbridge, the charismatic new head of Sales & Marketing with that operatic temper (charming only to the colleagues in Italy and Spain) is loudly asking about the new CRM rollout that was promised this quarter (there we go again). The United States Marine Corps has a saying to sum up such rank sentiment: “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”

In fact, I’ve just returned from a visit to Stockbridge’s office-cum-requisite-war-room, a cerebral but no less acute situation desk to make General Petraeus proud – with, surprisingly, no blood on the floor but rather a set of well-thought-out, high-level objectives on the white board:

  • Make do with what we have;
  • Make small changes (that’s all we can afford) that make a big difference;
  • Leverage the existing team (never forget: team motivation is key!);
  • Create an elastic and offshore-leveraged workforce (review local consultant spend vs. a “global flexforce”?);
  • Assess offshore readiness (who on the team can manage in a distributed project environment?);
  • Assess skills gaps in the organization (and how do we bridge them?);
  • Up-skilling / right-sizing / bringing in external help (caution: difficult conversations ahead!);
  • Shorten the path-to-beneficial-use for upgrading internal or importing external “new” skills (if third-parties, whom to trust?; and sorry, no, we cannot afford IBM or Accenture);
  • Centralize solutions portfolio / central hosting / local configuration / create global best practices for deployment (divide and conquer: local vs. global teams);
  • A focused, effective, and realistic approach to upgrading our project management skills to improve outcomes (but please no Greek letters!);
  • Go make it happen!

It won’t come as a mortal shock to my regular readers that the aforementioned white board scenario represents a near-perfect use case for why IT leaders should consider remote staff augmentation. Together with the right remote staffing partner, you will selectively and quickly deploy IT professionals located offshore and manage them as a virtual extension, so to speak, to your own team. Your staff will not panic or lose morale, as you’re not really offshoring entire projects or outsourcing entire functions (and remember the old adage that you should never outsource your problems). These remote IT professionals can either be tasked to maintain legacy code, while your local team can be charged to tackle the new and technically more cutting-edge projects, or vice versa (if perhaps you’re lacking those ‘hot skills,’ such as Ruby on Rails, internally). Furthermore, by having your line managers manage these resources as part of a distributed work team, you will quickly realize improvements – by “gentle necessity,” that is – in project management skills and outcomes, as your people will bring just a little more forethought, discipline, and governance to bear on these distributed projects. No McKinsey, no Six Simga needed.

Good luck, Mr. Stockbridge, who incidentally just called back after somebody had ‘misplaced’ a flipchart of additional “what remote staff augmentation can do for you” notes in his office:

  • Typical savings range from 30-50% compared to the cost of local consultants;
  • Stretch the budget to really do more with less (e.g., eliminate project backlog, improve IT’s responsiveness to business requests);
  • Acquire IT skills that don’t exist in-house or are scarce in the local market;
  • Rapidly deploy IT professionals (individuals or teams) as contractors without additional staff overhead;
  • Handle fluctuations in project demand through “talent on tap” (smoothing out the troughs and valleys in workload while maintaining fixed staff level);
  • Enjoy the direct benefits of going offshore without the hidden costs / risks (no set-up cost, no minimum project size); and
  • It’s a solution that works for companies of all sizes and is viable at any project scale.

The World Is Not Flat, And Good Help Is Still Hard To Find (Apologies, Tom Friedman)

There is many a pearl of wisdom to be found in Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s celebrated Shareholder Letter, where in its most recent installment, Warren E. Buffett, the great value investor, Sage of Omaha, and all-around good (and very rich) guy issues the following warning: “Don’t ask the barber if you need a haircut.” Something about wandering into Lloyd Blankfein’s office and wondering if you should be doing more M&A deals. Tougher Wall Street regulations? For the birds! Having Goldman Sachs traders worry about global risk management – like having Saddam Hussein watch over your nuclear weapons stockpile or the brothers at Delta Tau Chi curate your wine cellar. The point: don’t ask me whether you need a remote IT workforce …

Instead, ask any economist what would happen if a given commodity – such as oil or lithium, hey you, I’m-sitting-on-a-thousand-laptop-batteries Tesla-driver – became scarce, and you might just receive a textbook, two-part answer: firstly, make more efficient use of what you have (indeed the hybrid car comes to mind); and secondly, explore alternate sources towards the same end (think windmills and solar panels). And if consumption cannot be limited regardless, the price of that commodity will, of course, continue to rise.

Whether you’re filling up at the gas station, amping your Prius, or filling positions for IT professionals as your company’s hiring manager, you’ll encounter much of the same problem: IT talent – as a local market commodity – has become preciously scarce and hence expensive and difficult to procure. And just like discussions around our Nation’s dependency on (mostly foreign) oil and other precious goods, it is impossible today not to consider the local-global context behind the demand for and supply of IT talent. Given the post-recession blues that surround us, it may come as a counter-intuitive shocker that government estimates put the shortfall in talent still this year at 10 million individuals – which it measures as the number of domestic workers required in order to just keep up with the nation’s productivity levels. (On that very point, however, on how we did manage through a jobless recovery, increasing productivity with fewer workers, I’ve just witnessed a most Dilbert-esque exchange in our Silicon Valley office, with folks now associating being no longer stuck in traffic for hours on their morning commute along the nightmarish Highway 101 as “great for me but unhealthy for the economy.”)

Driven by such irreversible demographic macro-trends as declining birth rates and the coming vacuum left by the soon-to-retire Baby Boomer generation paired with steadily dropping enrollment rates for science graduates, the impending “Talent Shortage” will become one of our great economic challenges for decades to come (making assorted trading-floor shenanigans of recent memory look paltry). Already – and especially in the field of IT – it is taking hiring managers longer to find fewer qualified candidates at higher salary levels (even in a job market where anybody fit to as much as just fog a mirror is applying for Java developer roles). (And it is perhaps a troubling matter of fact that the U.S. produces more board-certified sports therapists than computer scientists; and in Germany, another fast-aging country, there are now more landscape architects than electrical engineers.)

The Talent Shortage – I predict – will bring out the textbook economist in all the rest of us: either we make our existing people more efficient, and/or we find alternate (non-domestic, speak global) sources of talent. (The former, an exercise in what is known as “talent management,” is about creating just the right match between work and worker as well as striking an optimal balance between full- / part-time workers and internal / external positions.) The latter, often referred to as “remote staff augmentation,” works on the principle that there is an asymmetric distribution between work and workers in high- and low-cost countries, respectively (for example: the U.S. or Germany vs. Brazil, Bulgaria, or India); and that it is more practical (in most cases and for all parties concerned) to move the work, and not the worker (see my previous blog).

There are some fundamental changes in the world of work that are re-shaping the nature of both the workplace and the workforce; changes brought about by technology and globalization that are calling into question the traditional proximity between the work and the worker. Most IT professionals today have experience with distributed development teams – either as part of a geographically dispersed organization across multiple office locations or during the course of working with an offshore services provider. The notion that IT (and other forms of knowledge-) work can be done remotely, in a virtual fashion, now seems hardly revolutionary.

Just a quick statistical account of ‘Remote Working / Teleworking’ here in the States and in Europe will help make the point:

  • “It is estimated that 100 million U.S. workers will telecommute by 2010.” (Kiplinger)
  • “In a survey of 178 U.S. businesses with between 20 and 99 employees, the Yankee Group found that 79% had mobile workers, with an average of 11 mobile workers per company and 54% had telecommuters, with an average of eight telecommuters per company.” (Yankee Group)
  • “15% of the EU workforce can be described as ‘mobile workers’ (spending more than 10 working hours per week away from home and their main place of work) and 4% as mobile teleworkers.” (Statistical Indicators Benchmarking the Information Society)

Through remote staff augmentation, employers can remotely deploy individuals (and teams of individuals) across geographic distances and time zones, managing them and collaborating with them (almost) just as effectively as if they were all in one physical location. This is typically accomplished through enabling processes and technologies – giving rise to something akin to a “Virtual Workplace,” a collaborative and often web-based environment for performing distributed work. By electronically moving the work, rather than physically placing the worker, employers can effectively augment their local staff with global talent that is situated off-site for tasks that can be performed remotely. And given the sheer population size and ample talent pools in many low-cost countries (my current “there-is-IT-services-export-beyond-India” favorites include: Philippines, Argentina, Ukraine, Egypt, Vietnam – but let us revisit again China next year), seemingly poised to do just the opposite from our high-cost countries in terms of high fertility rates and the wholesale graduation of IT workers, the long-term fundamentals behind global talent sourcing appear to be solid.

To be an effective strategy to address the Talent Shortage remote staff augmentation must be implemented (and its effectiveness continuously measured) along the following three success factors:

  • Access – give yourself the flexibility you need to meet all your skills requirements, as the likelihood of finding just one offshore partner that has the breadth, depth, and ready availability of all skills required is low (consider multi-vendor arrangements for reasons of both readiness and redundancy);
  • Quality – remember the adage “quality is not a function of size;” find suitably sized offshore partners that will commit quality resources, regardless of business volume (there are thousands of high-quality firms in India alone that may be successfully engaged on smaller or mid-sized projects – i.e., for business volumes generally too low for the top-tier Indian vendors);
  • Cost – follow a diversified country approach and be careful not to over-invest in one particular offshore location which may overheat due to popularity.

If indeed the world is flat (as it has been famously and convincingly argued), or at least, if the world is becoming bigger and smaller at the same time, the dual realities of a global workforce and a virtual workplace are forcing us to simply think differently about workers and their work. Remote staff augmentation is a key part of that new thinking, as the Talent Shortage combined with rising cost pressures and the fact that many of today’s IT jobs can be performed remotely, call for a more global and virtual view of talent acquisition and delivery.

Remote Control

James (“Bozzy”) Boswell, the constant diarist and fierce legal mind, known to his Scottish contemporaries as the 9th Laird of Auchinleck, the grand tourist of 18th century Europe, who’d finally toured his own highlands with that other great living constancy in essayism and lexicography, Dr. (Samuel) Johnson, used to say: “I am, I flatter myself, completely a citizen of the world. In my travels through Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Corsica, France, I never felt myself from home.” Bozzy’s feeling of peaceful innateness and Club Med content across Western and Central Europe had less to do with an earlier “The World Is Flat” syndrome of geopolitan enthusiasm but was likely linked to the traveler’s companionship of some vivacious young Dutchwomen of “unorthodox opinions,” a here-and-there Bawdy-house attendant, a handful of English cousins and Corsican widows, an actress named Louisa, as well as – yes, his own pièce de résistance – Rousseau’s very mistress. So much for the extent of globetrotting and the rigor of relations in those days (of course, Boswell and Johnson did not enjoy a frictionless first encounter either: “Mr. Johnson, I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.” – “That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.”)

Think of Boswell as a 270-year-old Thomas Friedman who was perhaps the first chronicler and critic of what we today call globalization. A popular account of the forces at work that collectively give rise to ‘that thing’ treading between starvation and salvation referred to as globalization can be found in Friedman’s rather readable 1999 book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, whereas for a more serious treatment of the subject consult the 2002 book Globalization and Its Discontents by 2001 Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz. And just as in Boswell’s days, we cannot help but notice that the world has become a bigger and smaller place, both at once. And I’m not just talking about the joys of cheap easyJet tickets or essentially free international Skype calls to shorten the distance between our favorite English cousins and Corsican widows. For the scope of this blog I constantly marvel (how Boswellian) at three trends:

  • The increasingly global nature of business;
  • The rapid changes brought about by always-evolving technology; and
  • The reshaping of the world’s labor markets as a consequence of the above two.

Put another way, today’s workforce is global, their workplace is virtual, everything is enabled by technology (and if you don’t keep up, yes you’ll be ‘disabled,’ in a sense), and we’ll all be astounded by the rising complexity of that corporate growth engine known as “knowledge work.” One of the central insights from the ‘tectonically shifting’ labor markets is indeed: that work is something we do, not (just) a place we go to. The economic corollary being (and where Stiglitz gets his hiccups) that with globalization in full fore, it is simply easier (and cheaper) to move the work, than it is to move the worker. And this is typically the point when the Davos crowd departs to leave IT Management in charge of “practical next steps.”

Remote staff augmentation can be an attractive and viable alternative to either hiring local consultants or offshoring entire projects. Successful practitioners can enjoy the offshore savings (30-50% compared to the cost of an onsite contractor) without the loss of control often associated with outsourcing. Imagine managing your remote IT professionals as if they were your own, geographically dispersed employees. The combination of offshore benefits together with the flexibility and control of staff augmentation is what makes this a compelling engagement model. However, working with remote third-party resources requires, first and foremost, trust. Building that trust – a sense of reliability and confidence in predictable performance – takes time; there are no shortcuts and no substitute for “trial and error.” Help, where’s the Remote Control!

Here’s the list of “buttons” on that control panel for a successful remote staff engagement:

  • Job requisition / requirements elicitation;
  • Candidate sourcing;
  • Candidate screening (technical, psychological, language / communication, cultural / organizational);
  • Background check and other information verification;
  • Candidate matching (resume presentation);
  • Phone interview / VoIP video conferencing;
  • Online IT skills testing (administer assessment and screening solutions);
  • Candidate system setup / on-boarding / kickoff meeting;
  • Resolving any counterparty / HR problems;
  • Weekly web-based timekeeping and consolidated monthly billing;
  • Ongoing engagement management (monitoring candidate productivity / reporting any HR issues / facilitating communication).

As Boswell would have said: “I have found you an argument; I am not obliged to find you an understanding.”

The Death of Distance – The Sequel

Call me a techie, something of a science-minded Skeptic who looks upon the ever-growing shelf of self-help titles for the executive set (and aspiring cadre) with a mixture of some bewilderment, little amusement-cum-disdain, and lots of professional jealousy. How come “they” have it and “we in IT” don’t? Meaning the inspired and adapted learnings of history’s greats to better one’s management skills. Just imagine our very own reading list: “Metternich on Winning Over Business Owners,” “George Smith Patton III, the Gatling Gun, and the Importance of IT,” or “À la Bonaparte – Supreme Power to the Little Guy” …

Nothing, however, beats management by Sun Tzu, his 6th century BC The Art of War a timeless classic on military strategy and thought. This enduring treatise which is, of course, shockingly contemporary in parts, stresses the importance of deception, cunning, and spying on others; not doing what you say you’re going to do emerges as the leitmotif, while it offers helpful advice on how to turn spies, punish turncoats, poison wells, and generally deal away with modern-day peasants in feudal lands, speak voiceless underlings. Self-proclaimed Machiavellian corporate strivers and intriguers may be strangely drawn to Il Principe, short enough of a posthumous Renaissance political essay to be digested between cafeteria lunches, where readers will be instructed in the method of acquiring necessary ends by any means, even if they are cruel. Supply chain management (SCM) types will find well-founded solace in being the rightful heirs to no other than Gaius Julius Caesar, partly-Consul and mostly-Dictator of the Roman Republic, his only regret when crossing the Rubicon not having had the SAP BI Platform to help track the dwindling corn supplies which would cripple his Gallic campaign. And finally, if you’ve been too successful a manager, beaten the competition to a pulp, and even your grinning shareholders are worried about your Emotional Intelligence (EI) score, there’s always Hildegard of Bingen to help you get back in touch with your inner Medieval Benedictine abbess, herbalist, poet, and channeller (the lesson there: don’t be afraid of your own success!).

But no, we (in IT) shall have none of that! We prefer such solemn encouragement as “attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference” from noted statesman, gifted orator, and arguably one of the greatest 20th century task masters in a distributed environment, The Right Honourable Sir Winston Churchill. Churchill managed one of the largest physically distributed field operations of his days by a set of rules that are prescriptive for any remote IT engagement:

  • Plan (vigorously);
  • Communicate (constantly);
  • Collaborate (and get the best out of others);
  • Be proactive (and always visible);
  • Govern (keep and refine metrics of success);
  • And, of course, persist (never, never, never give up – remember this is the man who said: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”).

To optimize outcomes, Churchill was fond of running alternative scenarios, a quick A vs. B “hypothesis testing” for every decision he made. I’ve applied the same method, including some probing questions, for helping us determine an optimal approach for setting up a remote resourcing environment:

  • Captive vs. Non-Captive:
    The benefits of a captive offshore operation are obvious (dedicated resources, significant cost savings after start-up costs are recouped / no middleman, full control / security, quality imprint, in-house culture / communication, in-market sales presence, etc.); but some of the drawbacks may be less obvious (static resourcing / difficulties with right-skilling and load-balancing, dependence on single geography / economy / labor market can mean wage inflation / talent shortage / staff attrition, bench- and lead-time challenges responding to user demand, etc.). What criteria would you use to weigh the benefits/drawbacks of a captive vs. a non-captive offshore operation?
  • “DIY” vs. Managing Vendor:
    Faced with the task of setting up and managing a portfolio of multiple, sequential vendor relations, what ‘value equation’ would persuade you to outsource vs. in-house the management of that portfolio? (E.g., managing-vendor expertise, economies of scale associated with managing the costs of (sequential) vendor discovery, setup, transition, and ongoing coordination, etc.)?
  • Single Partner- vs. Multi-Vendor:
    When considering a non-captive offshore operation, what decision criteria would you use to establish a partner-based vs. a vendor-based approach? (E.g., cost- / risk-sharing, price breaks based on volume, other commitments from a single partner vs. “best-of-breed” every time / breadth and depth, flexibility / no single point of dependence when sourcing from multiple vendors, etc.)
  • Tier-1 vs. Tier-2:
    What is your experience working with tier-1 vs. tier-2 vendors? (E.g., professionalism, process maturity / CMM:5 vs. entrepreneurship, “working with heroes,” etc.). Can you relate to the statement “quality is not a function of size”?
  • Offshore Success – Inhibitors vs. Enablers:
    In your experience, what are some of the key inhibitors (e.g., potential lack of capital, scale, reach, process maturity, ‘hidden costs of offshoring,’ etc.) and enablers (e.g., people, process, technology) to offshoring success? Do effective Service Level Agreements (SLAs) increase the chances of success?
  • India vs. ‘The Rest of the World’:
    Have you had experience resourcing from some of the “other” offshore regions: South America (e.g., Argentina, Brazil), Eastern Europe (e.g., Romania, Ukraine), North Africa/Egypt, Southeast Asia (e.g., Vietnam), China? How would you relate this to your ‘India experience,’ if any, in terms of critical success factors (e.g., quality, flexibility, cost – i.e., is India – with its ~30% staff turnover and ~20% wage inflation – trending after Ireland which priced itself out of the call-center business in the 90s?)?
  • Synchronous vs. Asynchronous:
    What are the key drivers for you to insist on time zone overlap to enable synchronous (e.g., U.S. / South America) vs. asynchronous collaboration (e.g., U.S. / India)? What experience have you had, if any, with more advanced “follow-the-sun” and multiple-shift 24×7 development / support models?
  • Standalone vs. Distributed:
    Have you noticed an increase in complexity managing remote resources as part of a distributed (onsite-offsite) team vs. managing them on a standalone basis?
  • The “Impossible Triangle” of Quality, Flexibility (Availability), and Cost – Tradeoff vs. Optimal:
    Trying to optimize all three dimensions (quality/flexibility/cost – or for project-based work: scope/schedule/cost), how would you prioritize them in order to further drive profitable growth? Furthermore, how important is the “4th” dimension (control)? Does the (relative) importance of control (project management / outcomes ownership) influence your structuring of offshoring engagements: staff augmentation vs. project outsourcing, Time & Materials (T&M) vs. Fixed-Price Contracts?
  • Today vs. Tomorrow:
    Is the impending shortfall in workers and skills (“Talent Shortage/War For Talent”) due to demographics / macroeconomics already impacting your firm? Or, impacting your future resource planning? And, given how technology and globalization are re-shaping both the workplace and the workforce, are you looking at alternate strategies for sourcing and deploying talent (globally, virtually)?

The Death of Distance

His capacity for industrial-strength enlightenment and satirical polemicism (against both church dogma and state institutions) never in doubt, Voltaire nonetheless could be a bit of wuss: “It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.” Now, who would say such a thing in IT? Of course, if you were a prolific pamphletist and public intellectual in mid-18th century France, and an outspoken supporter of social reform and free trade and other revolutionary vices, you’d be hedging your prose and poetry, too, sufficient to make the chief-topiarian of Versailles blush. Think of some of the more benignly erroneous misproclamations by established authorities in the field of technology:

  • “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” – Western Union internal memo, 1876
  • “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” – David Sarnoff’s associates (obviously prior to pioneering American commercial radio) in the 1920s
  • “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” – Thomas Watson of IBM, 1943
  • “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” – Popular Mechanics on the relentless march of computer science, 1949
  • “I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.” – Prentice Hall editor-in-chief, 1957
  • “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” – Bill Gates, 1981

We get the point. Though I feel compelled for the purpose of this blog to add one more mispronouncement, this one from John Doe, Chief Information Officer at DJI, Inc. in the mid-1990s: “Getting IT done means everybody must sit in the same office.” And, truth be told, this one is perhaps the hardest myth to debunk, even with the relative passage of time that saw “India Inc.” vaulting onto the world stage a decade ago as the remote fix-it destination for all-things-Y2K (and without whose legions of highly skilled coders and bug-fixers, even mighty Microsoft’s Windows 2000 may have only shipped in the second quarter of 1901).

Let us first settle on some familiar terminology. The notion that you, as an IT manager sitting in an office in say Bloomington, Indiana could be working with a programmer sitting in an office in say Bangalore, India, I call (for the sake of simplicity) “remote staff augmentation.” This programmer could be working for your firm’s Indian subsidiary or for an Indian software house, or he or she could be a freelancer – what matters is that you will be managing and collaborating with that particular resource as if he or she was sitting in the cubicle down the hall with you in Bloomington. The only difference between another local, Bloomington-based colleague (the employment mode set aside) is, and as the blog title would imply, “distance.”

There’s an immediate, important distinction between this form of remote staff augmentation and (to use the catch-all phrase) ‘outsourcing.’ When you outsource an IT project (and to simplify greatly), you write up requirements for what needs to be done, and you give these requirements to somebody else, typically a professional IT Services firm, and then this firm “goes off and does it” and only comes back to you when the job is done to deliver the finished project. Where these outsourcers go to do the work is really up to them, but they could be staying on your premises, they could be driving back to their head office in Indianapolis, or – like most do – they could be “shipping” the work to their own colleagues in India. Again, what matters is not where the work is executed, but that you, the client, has asked a services provider to do it for you. Now ironically, although outsourcing is in everyday parlance and popular opinion inextricably linked with the concept of ‘offshoring’ (thank you, Lou Dobbs!), outsourcing a project, even if the project is executed for the most part offshore, has little to do with “working remotely.” If you wish to successfully outsource a project, you must understand vendor management; if you wish to successfully engage remote staff, you must be able to work with another human being who is in a different physical location than you.

Managing across distances – including geographic, time-zone, and cultural ones – can at first be thorny and outright costly for the uninitiated. The catchy phrase “Death of Distance” used to express the industry’s conviction that ever-falling telecom prices and the whole-sale commoditization of the communications sector would level the playing field for the global world of work. If the cost of pipes (or rather fiber optic cable) was cheap and the price of piping bits from place A to place B nominal, then surely, and voilà, moving work to people, as opposed to moving people to work, was feasible now that distance had succumbed to high-speed fiber.

However, even though communication infrastructure is essentially no longer an explicit cost item in the “remote working” equation, other key factors constitute ‘implicit’ cost items (also sometimes referred to as the “hidden costs of offshoring”). These steps in the engagement process or links in the sourcing chain are: counter-party discovery (individual / facility), HR and system setup, knowledge and work transition, as well as resource and project coordination. Since these are components that take up – at a minimum, that is to say if nothing goes wrong – time and know-how (in other words: money), we can now fathom a ‘true cost’ equation for what it costs an IT manager at place A (e.g., Bloomington, Indiana) to engage a programmer at place B (e.g., Bangalore, India), namely:

  • Programmer’s wage at place B + discovery cost + setup cost + transition cost + coordination cost.

As a commonsensical look at the above ‘cost stack’ would reveal, these implicit costs – in the absence of significant process capabilities and/or efficiencies of scale – might render an otherwise inexpensive (say offshore) resource as, if not more expensive than say an onshore IT worker. Common sense (and believe me, ten years of experience) would also suggest that you might want to seek a process expert or a volume aggregator to help ‘squash down’ each of the cost stack items  so as to optimize the value of remote (and often onshore-offshore) staff augmentation. Ah, but then common sense, as Voltaire used to observe, may just not be so common.

In my next blog I shall introduce two additional variables that will impact the overall cost of engaging a remote staff: first, whether the collaboration is synchronous vs. asynchronous (i.e., whether there is meaningful time-zone overlap or not), and second, whether the remote resources are being managed ‘stand-alone’ vs. as part of an onsite-offsite distributed team.

Afraid of The Invisible Man (or the Remote IT Worker), Part II?

If anybody needs convincing that viable communication is about mostly standards of expression, lots of common sense, and just a little of that black magic known as linguistic sensibility, there is, at least this week, a sign for all visitors of the 10th floor of the steel-and-glass-enshrined headquarters of a Western European banking power to read: “WC out of order – use floor below.” That much, of course, for linguistic sensibility. Who needs a sense of subtlety when communicating about IT topics, you might ask, where – heaven be thanked – there are standards that most IT professionals recognize? But, as my mentor in all things ITIL used to note, the good thing about IT standards is that there are so many to choose from.

Since I mentioned the “Parity Principle” in my last blog just a few days ago, I’ve received a handful of responses from IT managers who’ve been kind enough to supply empirical data points to support said assertion: namely (and as a reminder) that the additional managerial overhead required to supervise a team of remotely located (as opposed to locally stationed) IT workers is, very, very roughly put, 120% of the comparable supervisory effort involved in working with regular, local folks. For an IT organization that has, for that very purpose of managing in a distributed work environment, implemented a set of best practices around standardization, formalization, and overall project management discipline, the resultant increase in productivity has been judged to be at an equal 120% of work output levels prior to “having to become a little more formal and disciplined” (similarly, these are rough, rough estimates – as we shall get more scientific later on). Voilà: if you spend a little more time managing remotely you gain the same back in terms of improved efficiencies. (The additional benefits of working with a remote person, such as cost savings through lower, offshore wages or access to specialized and perhaps locally unavailable talent have, of course, not been factored into the equation yet!)

As we wait for Google Wave with bated breath to give us the project war room to end all IT wars and war rooms, here are a number of communication tools that clients have found indispensable when managing remote IT workers:

Collaborative sites:

  • Google Sites;
  • SharePoint;
  • Wikis (see wikipatterns.com for adoption).

Messaging tools:

  • Campfire;
  • Digsby.

VoIP:

  • Google chat;
  • Skype with business control panel.

Issue tracking systems:

  • Google Sites;
  • Jira.

Project management tools:

  • Agile Buddy;
  • Google Sites;
  • Pivotal Tracker;
  • Xplanner.

Afraid of The Invisible Man (or the Remote IT Worker)?

Whenever I travel extensively and am naturally engaged in a remote working relationship with my colleagues from head office, I experience first-hand the chief tenet of our firm’s value proposition to clients: that with a little know-how just about anybody can tap into and benefit from a remote workforce. Whether you’re already part of a distributed IT organization with geographically dispersed teams, or you wish to engage remote workers in order to source or supplement skills that are locally scarce or unavailable, or whether you’re in the market to save money with offshoring, a number of key Do’s and Don’ts apply.

Although there are different engagement models when it comes to working remotely (e.g., managing a remote individual or stand-alone team vs. managing that individual or team as part of a larger and by definition even more distributed team), and hence different best-practice prescriptions exist for how to maximize the chances of a successful engagement, I will share a list of common success factors that make up what I call the “Parity Principle.”

For the sake of argument, our Parity Principle says that in order to make working with a remote person (located say in Buenos Aires, Argentina) as effective as working with someone in the proverbial cubicle next door, there is additional requisite behavioral activity that, when conducted properly, creates efficiency that, over time, offsets the “cost” of the behavioral change required in the first place. While there is in fact a scientific basis for measuring changes in management behavior and concomitant productivity levels, I will give you a commonsensical intuition for what this principle is all about.

Imagine you’re an IT manager and you’ve just called up your local recruiter to help fill an open, say highly specialized and three-month position with a local consultant. The contractor now reports for duty on Monday morning, and is presumably given a desk to work and shown a tour of the facilities, while you collect your thoughts on how best to familiarize, indoctrinate, and instruct your newest team member in order to make him or her as productive as possible on the task at hand. Communication with the consultant on the first day, for the first week, or for that matter for the entire three-month duration, can be spontaneous, on an as-needed basis in order to answer any questions or resolve any issues. And then there is always the iconic water cooler around which co-workers congregate for informal team discussions, and where even a slight gesture or expression of frustration can be more meaningful than a red-flagged item on the project’s Gantt chart. And lastly, you keep regular taps on your consultant using the most effectual management technique known since Peter Ferdinand Drucker left his native Vienna: managing by walking around (in other words, a quick stroll to the cubicle, a quick status check, a look at the screen, and you’re in the know again).

Now compare and contrast the situation with a remote IT worker. All the management activities are the same, but in general everything takes a little more preparation, a little more formality (watch out water cooler, here comes the water wiki!), and a little more follow-up. The Parity Principle now asserts that all that “little more” that is required to manage in a distributed work environment will accrue to the overall benefit of the project and the team (tangible results through a slight perhaps but measurable increase in standardization, formalization, and day-to-day discipline). A short-list of the most common success factors then looks like the following:

  • Planning (on behalf of the local manager);
  • Communication;
  • Collaboration tools;
  • Proactivity (on behalf of the remote IT worker);
  • Governance processes for a distributed IT environment.

In my next blog I will discuss these key factors in detail and within the offshore context. Of course, the world of work is rife with anecdotes of how, for example, communication with the “invisible worker” can be especially challenging when not only bridging geographic but in addition cultural distances. (An old favorite comes to mind that chronicles the travails of a German radio operator at high seas fielding the desperate plea for help of a sinking American vessel; listening in anguish to the repeated “Help, we are sinking” calls, he finally musters the courage to respond in English: “Yes, I hear you, but what are you sinking about?”)

Agile for the Enterprise, Part II, or the Good, the Bad, the Dead Pig and the Living Chicken

The difference between a post-mortem and a project retrospective? The obvious answer: nobody has died in the retrospective, and since Agile software development encourages making (small) mistakes (in order to learn from them), the hope is to find the project manager at the finale sitting straight up, still breathing defiantly on the coroner’s table. Which, as far as software-related humor goes, is rather friendly and humanistic compared to Agile’s retelling of the old Sunday-brunch-after-church parable that teaches children the difference between an offering and a sacrifice, the lesson of which has become a tenet of the Agile “movement.”

And here it goes: A pig and a chicken are walking down a road. The chicken looks at the pig and says, “Hey, why don’t we open a restaurant?” The pig looks back at the chicken and says, “Good idea, what do you want to call it?” The chicken thinks about it and says, “Why don’t we call it ‘Ham and Eggs’?” “I don’t think so,” says the pig, “I’d be committed, but you’d only be involved.” We can all guess who is the chicken (not a kind calling in Anglo-American culture), namely the PM making an offering to the gods of Gantt charts, whereas the developer-cum-pig (and as a male techie I just don’t get it!) is putting more than just the proverbial skin in the game.

Such icebreakers set aside, there is in fact a substantial body of evidence that suggests that a number of Agile-flavored methodologies have yielded significant improvements in software development. The results are defined, measurable, and repeatable and typically involve faster turn-around, fewer defects, and less rework. The benefits are increased business value, better visibility, less risk, and improved team morale / productivity. Another key ancillary benefit, inherent in all Agile methodologies, is the ability to cope with changing requirements throughout the development cycle.

Companies that have adopted Agile and are reporting beneficial results are growing in number both nationally and internationally, are varied in size and industry, and range in diversity from John Deere to Google.

Some healthy skepticism within the CIO community has centered around the notion of exactly what problem domain is most suitable for Agile as a solution framework. For instance, it’s not all that surprising that a “heavyweight” methodology might not be the best fit for a relatively small and fast-paced web development project whose requirements, by the very nature of the project, are in flux and subject to user-driven refinement until completion.

Other critical voices have questioned Agile’s place in the enterprise-level IT organization, where a number of factors (mostly as functions of company scale) can conceivably impede its successful adoption. This is where the values which Agile espouses are prima facie at odds with enterprise realities:

  • Open-ended iterations against frequently changing requirements (versus the need for upfront budgeting and ongoing governance, tracking actual against projected hours and against allocated budgets);
  • Intense collaboration amongst co-located team members (versus the geographically / globally distributed nature of most multinationals’ staff);
  • Self-organizing teams that assign tasks bottom-up (versus the prevalence of command-and-control management structures).

Additional concerns are raised when Agile must co-exist with other, typically stage-gate project management models, as the Agile-developed software is often embedded in a larger development context: whether process integration is possible at all, whether the potential benefits are offset by the duplication in training effort, and/or whether the training of only select staff will lead to a cultural divide between Agile and “non-Agile” team members.

I will not attempt here to prescribe a certain, single methodology but rather suggest a framework of proven practices that has also been shown to adapt to some key enterprise requirements. In what is to follow, I will demonstrate how Scrum will:

  • Fit into the stage-gate project management approach;
  • Support a traditional budgeting process;
  • Sustain common IT governance principles;
  • Work for geographically distributed and blended (onshore / offshore) teams;
  • Integrate and beneficially co-exist with other software development methodologies (e.g., Waterfall Model).

Stay tuned.