My Perfectly Normal Kid Can Beat Up Your Tiger Mom’s Perfect Little Cub

You would have to be as disconnected from current affairs as an Appalachian mountain man circa 1763, if you hadn’t noticed the heightened media coverage of China’s rise and competition with the West, and the West’s concomitant obsession with Chinese rising competitiveness. In Amy Chua’s recent book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” Chinese tough-love child rearing, which is shown to produce academically excellent and highly competitive children, is pitted against Western-style parenting, which is understood to condemn a child to a life of underachievement. The clash of ideologies – education and hard work versus scholastic slackerdom and daydreaming – is being played out against the backdrop of America’s rightfully lamentable educational system. If truth be told, our country’s current “education crisis” points to systemic failures that would undermine American competitiveness far more than the alleged softness, lenity, and indulgence of us non-Tiger parents.

Whether your kid is barred from having any fun at all, attending play dates (for what, to play?), or going to bed before midnight for fear of missing out on extra credits … or not, won’t change America’s standing as the most industrious and innovative – speak most competitive – nation on earth. Say, how bad can it be, if even our Harvard dropouts (sure, throw some Stanford preemies into the mix too) continue to launch industry-defining, multi-billion-dollar companies that soak up every software engineer in the Western hemisphere who can as much as fog a mirror? The issue, of course, is that there won’t be enough American scientists and engineers to around in order to fuel America’s celebrated and inexorable industrial growth engine.

But China’s talent gap is closing fast, the battle lines are drawn for all the brains we can get in business, and better shape up if your pedagogy entailed plunking the spoilt rugrats down in front of Baby Einstein and entrusting the rest of their rugrat lives to a sub-standard educational system. Behold the Tiger Mom! There is a whole triple concerto-for violin, cello, and piano-playing cadre of scientifically-trained elite engineers lurching for your kids’ lunch box. Here’s what you do: first, you panic. Then, take ‘em out of Kindergarten Mandarin class – for that won’t help either. Finally, go growl like a tiger and join in the battle cry of practice drills, public shaming, and wretched insults in the name of achieving amazing success for your sprout.

On the face of it, Chua’s “battle hymn” mémoire is a charming but insipid ode to the joy of non-permissive parenting (imagine a typical tigerish, middle-class striver, Sino-Anne Hathaway-type, wishing for nothing more than to impart on her daughters a winning start in the lottery of life – while trashing a dollhouse during a piano recital lacking in poise and calling her offspring “garbage” just to reinforce the point). The booklet’s central claim that an Asian child’s stereotypical success is due to superior Asian parenting is substantiated by anecdotal assertions that the relentless pursuit of academic excellence, the original ‘practice makes perfect’ mindset, respect for authority, and intolerance of mediocrity are all Chinese inventions (yes, yes … along with paper, printing, gunpowder, and the bloody compass).

By contrast – as sharp as a tiger’s claw – us pampering, mollycoddling, non-straight-A-grades-tolerating, and video game-allowing (yikes, even Wii-provisioning!) Westerners have long lost the upper hand in raising a formidable youth (harking back to when Mrs. Buffett would grill young Warren mercilessly on the ins and outs of asset allocation, when William Henry Gates III was shuttled back and forth between classes in BASIC programming and predatory business practice, and – here’s a shocker – when Richard Branson, Jr. was purposely left stranded at both street corners and rock concerts to find his way home, palpably by his very own mother in her attempt to teach that little dyslexic devil a lesson or two in self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship …).

To sum up, ever since the fall of Constantinople (in 1453) or Bill Clinton’s more contemporary publication of “My Life,” has Western parenting been on the decline. If you’re in your teens today and you ain’t Tiger Mom’s perfect little cub, or if you haven’t been raised by a pushy Korean um ma or even an old-fashioned nagging Jewish mamah, chances are you’ll have to struggle mightily to make your mark in the world against the onslaught of better educated and more motivated youngsters from afar. And if you’re a parent, in particular one of those ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ organic brassica-eating Montessori-Albert Schweitzer-ites (all non-competitive Barney and Friends-embracers-cum-spawners, as far as the Tiger Mom is concerned), you’re probably just jealous that your lesser fry hasn’t been playing Carnegie Hall at the age of 14, or you’re put out perhaps that this puerile 4-year-old of yours is still waving back at the Teletubbies.

If you belong to a book club that’s boycotting Tiger Mom’s nasty little trade secrets, fret not, mon soeur. Here’s what’s coming at you, without wishing to cause undue worry: there’s a continent’s worth of overachievers – waiting to pounce upon your children’s future jobs (like the hordes of Suleiman the Magnificent laying siege to the gates of Vienna in 1529). You must get up and unplug the Xbox right away and furthermore chasten your child to never Google a school problem’s answer again, but rather derive it from first principles like all applicants to Tsinghua University must be able to do, at the risk of getting beaten with the bamboo stick (how does a cell phone work, what is a microprocessor, how does your body absorb fat from food? … you get the point). That literary invention called globalization has obviously bound together the American and Chinese economies for the foreseeable future; while Amy Chua’s foray into popular literature has helped to politically desensitize the debate as to which culture can and will produce the brainzillas necessary for economic world domination.

It is now neither taboo to identify with extreme parenting nor to be loudly alarmed by the high, and mostly stress-related, suicide rate among China’s young people. When a group of teenagers from Shanghai posted top scores in an international test of practical knowledge in reading, mathematics, and science administered by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), Chinese mothers could feel vindicated, especially with the United States taking only 17th place in reading and coming in even lower in math and science. The question, of course, is not whether Chinese mothers are superior, along with their offspring, or whether Americans somehow wouldn’t wish to give their kids a winning start in life, but rather whether the US educational system is fit to train enough winning young adults in the future.

Some contend that education in this country is as broken as our health care system and would require a similarly complex overhaul, while costing the kind of money to fix that nobody is willing or able to pay. Moreover, with inequality sharply on the rise (the widening chasm between the rich and the poor within the country), what is emerging now and here is an unfortunate tale of two Americas. The inequitable distribution of wealth is closely mirrored by the unequal access to the kind of education befitting a Tiger Mom’s aspirations. Rich people pay for private schools and tutors or move their families into ZIP codes with excellent public schools (which in good/expensive neighborhoods resemble gleaming halls of learning that feed their graduates to the Ivy League; whereas students in bad/poor areas must enter their brain hospice through metal detectors). Two recent books on the subject of inequality, “Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich” by Robert Frank and “Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making” by David Rothkopf, have shone a spotlight on unequal educational opportunity as a worsening social indicator, as the rich are getting (far) richer, while the poor are staying (relatively) poor. (Although it is unclear how exactly it is that inequality causes all sorts of social ills – from failing school grades, more teenage pregnancies, higher crime rates, to greater obesity – it is certain that the rising tide of America’s wealth boom has not lifted all boats.)

America’s ability to produce “Outliers” (as in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: The Story of Success”), individuals who will achieve extraordinary success in life is unparalleled. This will happen with or without Tiger Moms, with or without the “10,000-Hour Rule” (if you ever wondered how Mozart became Mozart, go spend 10,000 hours practicing a specific task and see what will happen). And in your blogger’s humble opinion, right after you’ve aced your reading, math, and science tests, other leading indicators for future employment success are “uncommon intelligence,” a passion for learning something new, and a knack for entrepreneurship. How to drill those into your kid’s head? Don’t ask the Tiger Mom. A new “Battle Hymn of the Republic”? Perhaps, for America must figure out how to transform its educational system to provide democratic / meritocratic access to top-notch learning to the majority of its people, not just a few. Always remember, there are far more Chinese Tiger Moms than there are people in the States, and not even our outliers and cognitive elite will be able to compete against them alone.

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Dragon Claws and Tiger Paws: The Hackers of Globalization

What’s all the fuss about globalization being either good or bad, manageable or inevitable? Globalization is but a fuzzy measure of how globally connected, integrated, and dependent you are on others in terms of economic, technological, political, cultural, social, and not the least ecological interchange. Last time you ever poked fun at that goofy Icelander for believing in his wights, elves, and huldufólk (“hidden people”), for he’ll come right back at ya, by closing his country’s banks – turning a whole bunch of UK depositors into such huldufólk – and shutting down your airspace for weeks on end (and all you can do is sue Thor for spewing volcanic ash and other forms of Icelandic ectoplasm, including Björk, over your Fatherland). (Though on that note, the brave pilots of Deutsche Lufthansa must be congratulated for being the first to face the pulverized magma, proudly living their corporate motto that the “Hansa is flying even when the birds are walking.”)

No, globalization would be a simple and straightforward matter if we just called it global trade (and indeed, if it was just that: worldwide import/export), and if it wasn’t for such complicating factors as the vast inequalities accentuated but perhaps not caused by putting us all on an economic Mercator projection, an equal free-trade footing. In the good old days, it used to be fair and equitable: you’d send a nutter like Marco Polo off on his Silk Road to scam the Kublai Khan with some cheap Venetian costume jewelry, and the fool would come home with spaghetti – home being Italy, mind you! Let’s call this one “Bucket A”: arguments for or against the notion that the world’s haves and have-nots will benefit very differently from the effects of globalization. If the upper left-hand corner of your paycheck says “The World Bank Group,” you’ll likely be a naysayer, arguing that global inequality has risen as a function of increased globalization for a number of factual reasons that are measured in something called the “Gini coefficient,” and the explication thereof would stretch the scope of this blog as much an A-Rod-professed monogamy. Know that your blogger – like most civilized people – categorically condemns the exploitation of impoverished workers and joins with militant fervor in the persecution of all exploiters of child labor (if you can, check out our friend David Arkless’s and his company Manpower’s support of http://www.notforsalecampaign.org/ – a rather worthwhile cause!).

Some of the other, softer, and more academic arguments brought forth by the anti-Davos crowd (rash boarders, by and large, who eschew après-ski and raclette with Angelina Jolie) have to do mainly with agriculture subsidies in rich countries (thereby lowering the market price for poor farmers’ crops), the non-existence or at best weakened state of labor unions in destitute regions, and – oh behold, the Bugaboo! – the rapid growth of offshore outsourcing. In “Bucket B” we shall lump all arguments either in favor of or opposed to the notion that globalization will revert all “things” back to their normal mean. And all these things are purportedly economic, technological, political, cultural, social, and perhaps even ecological in nature (you can appreciate how complicated a well-rounded treatment of globalization can get – and most of them alas are as cohesive as Destiny’s Child). Think of it as the global equilibrium point, where say a big media company in the States is outsourcing all of its IT development to India, where the Indian IT developers – because of these two interlocking economic trends called global wage arbitrage and purchase price parity – are making a respectable middle-class living, allowing them in turn to tune into, as it so happens, their client’s satellite TV channel to watch the admittedly timeless episodes of Rachel and Friends, thus sending about $1.50 in revenues back to Burbank, California for each $1.00 spent on outsourcing. The labor savings and the incremental foreign revenues are strengthening the firm in the U.S. such that it can afford to hire more domestic workers. A spiraling win-win scenario, or so it would appear, were it not for the pesky competition all now filing into Bangalore, tilting the local supply-and-demand ratio towards ever inflating wages. Over time, as you would expect, the Bengaḷūrus will be able to command the same level of pay as the good folks back home in Burbank. That’s what “mean reversion” means in this case: everyone’s making the same rupees and watching the same TV shows (where the largest common denominator will, thank heavens, also be the lowest one – watch out Slumdog, here come Jessica Simpson’s hair extensions).

Aforementioned Buckets A and B deal with resource re-distribution and societal re-shaping, respectively. It is perhaps intuitive that according to the KOF (ETH Zürich) Index of Globalization, Belgium, Austria, and Sweden rank first among the world’s most globalized nations (and that despite ABBA!), while Iran, Burundi, and North Korea are plotting away in impressive isolation. Cynics will contend that although the driving forces behind globalization are well understood, corporations (mostly again in rich countries) are in the driver’s seat, and thus it is hardly surprising that globalization will follow a corporate, and almost by definition, opaque agenda. Others point to the “avengers” of globalization, those that are part of a nation’s diaspora, the reverse exodus of Western-trained workers back to their country of origin (such as the legions of highly educated and very successful Indians in Silicon Valley, for example, returning home to start new businesses in India). And of course, there are those who watch Roy Rogers movies on TCM and eat lots of apple pie and claim that the United States will never fall behind, because we – and nobody else! – have the monopoly on innovation. (I’ve got something innovative for you, and it’s not the Xbox 360: here in the States we’ve got more massage therapists entering the workforce every year than computer scientists; and we’re now graduating more social workers from our colleges than engineers – of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with massage therapy or social work, quite the contrary, but you shouldn’t then wonder why someone moved your cheese all the way from Chennai, or why there are as many Indians on the list of the top-ten richest people in the world as there are Americans.)

I’ll close with a contention that may well be controversial: our conception of globalization is about as relevant today as Paul Bremer’s last lecture in the Sunni auditorium at Baghdad University on why “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” Globalization has been a decidedly Western concept ever since the Greco-Roman world established trade links with the Parthians and the Han. It’s pretty evident that the Chinese and the Indians – the only two countries with more than a billion people each which together make up nearly 40% of the world’s population – find our notions of global connectivity, integration, and interdependence about as quaint as a Quaker’s chuckle. Bucket A, Bucket B, pro or con, it really doesn’t matter. You might as well try to explain to an Indian “classical” musician the difference between Mozart and Miles Davis or insist to a Chinese that opera is all about stout white men crooning Verdi. Give it another 30 years, and China will produce 40% of the world GDP, with the U.S. (15%) and the EU (5%) lagging emphatically behind. With Chinese economic hegemony and supremacy in hardware, and India’s leadership in software and an unrelenting focus on scientific and technical education, and a potential coming together of two powerful allies at the purposeful exclusion of the United States, the economic, political, and social constructs of the West have lost their relevance as far as the Dragon and the Tiger are concerned (notwithstanding the tragic reality that both countries will still have to lift hundreds of millions out of abject poverty.)

Please feel free to contact me (christophe.kolb@talenttrust.com) should you or your company be thinking about establishing an offshore presence in either India or China. Our company Talent Trust (http://www.talenttrust.com/) has a ten-year history and successful track record of doing business in both countries and helping our clients successfully navigate some of the challenges of globalization.

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.

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.

Predictions for the Future World of Work

Today, I bid you a “guten Tag” as your far-flung correspondent is leaving what a former profligate United States Secretary of Defense used to call the “Old Europe,” where I’ve been attending a gathering of ‘human capital’ management consultants. Listening to the consulting speak of such human capitalists for an evening on an Alpine lake, I felt reminded indeed of Rumsfeld’s more contemporary “re”-definition of NATO, offered up in one of his perpetual digs against the sclerotic and old-fashioned ‘new’ Ancien Régime as “No Action Talk Only.” Though lacking the requisite (and priceless) consulting vernacular (able however to explain why Germans don’t drink water, for in wine there’s wisdom, in beer there’s strength, whereas in water there’s bacteria), I was asked to prognosticate on some key trends impacting the labor markets.

Here is the formula I used to foretell what I believe will happen in the world of work:

  • “Trends / disruptive forces in the labor markets …” -> “… are forcing tectonic shifts from the old labor model …” -> “… to a new labor model …” -> “… and with new paradigms to explore / opportunities to exploit:”
  • Demographic (talent shortage) -> Employer-centric / traditional / social contract -> Employee-centric / non-traditional / social life -> Self-employment of “premium” talent / self-reliant career management;
  • Macro-economic (globalization / off-shoring) -> Work-worker proximity / “work is a place you go to” -> Labor mobility / job portability / “work is a thing you do” -> Movement of workers and / or jobs (“tech-nomadic”);
  • Micro-economic (variable cost structure / virtual supply chain) -> Captive employee bench / fixed cost / demanding of HR -> Virtual employee bench / variable cost / on-demand talent -> Syndication of employee bench risk / HR expertise to third party;
  • Environmental (metropolitan congestion) -> Commute from suburbs to mega-city centre for work / high carbon footprint -> Telework (work from home) / low carbon footprint -> Consideration of employee location (“home-shoring” / tier 2 cities);
  • Social (social networks / affinity groups) -> Closed networks / respect for high-minded -> Open networks / affinity with like-minded -> Formation of ad-hoc and persistent project teams (“adhocracy” / “tech tribes”);
  • Intellectual (collaborative innovation) -> Proprietary / coveted IP / internal collaboration / e.g., Procter & Gamble R & D (Research and Development) -> Open source / shared IP / external collaboration / e.g., Procter & Gamble C & D (Connect and Develop) -> IP creation occurs through non-traditional means (“unbounded” collaboration / “innovation commons”);
  • Technological (connectivity, services virtualization) -> Workplace / physical -> Workforce / virtual -> Segmentation / geographic distribution of work (asynchronous collaboration);

Auf Wiedersehen for now and until next week!

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.