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.)

The New Buzz: Is Google Buying California?

Avid readers of that highbrow literary genre called cyberpunk will barely raise their brow at this dystopian scenario: the once-great State of California is on its financial deathbed. An angry mob with ruined dreams, shattered keyboards, and broken Chardonnay bottles is storming the Governor’s Smoking Tent. After midnight, following an all-stock tax-free acquisition including the assumption of the state’s crushing debt, California is declared a corporate principality, now run by a trillion-dollar market-cap mega-corporation that trades in nothing but information. (At the buyer’s insistence though, a last-minute carve-out is made for Southern California, its perennial water shortage and endless, nagging drain on the well-irrigated North cited as deal-killers; and besides, who’d want all these meddling creative types from Hollywood and those stubbornly Republican Naval retirees living in La Jolla?) Hasta la vista, Golden State!

At first it feels a bit weird, but the corporate citizens of California, Inc. quickly adjust to the perk-pampered life under the new regime. What’s not to like about free Sushi luncheons, mandatory reflexology massages at the workplace, and heavily subsidized 24×7 dry-cleaning? Foosball and frisbee are the official pastimes, red and green are added to the state colors, blue and yellow, and the K-9 police kennel of Alsatians and Dobermans is gracefully retired and replaced with loveable Golden Retrievers. But for the takes there are some gives too. Citizens are required to register with the corporation’s ubiquitous search-cum-information organization-cum-communication-cum-collaboration-cum-social-networking “matrix” (otherwise no comping your Hamachi, hombre). I’m not talking about your vanilla “opt in” EULA; non-compliers are rounded up by Blade Runners and summarily reinstated into the matrix via the corporation’s equally ubiquitous email system. Resistance is futile. Beguiling the populus with brazenly colored and annoyingly ever-present “We’re Not Evil” neon signs, this corporegent – whose business ferocity and trans-commercial ambition has not been matched since the East India Company set sail or before Microsoft lost its mojo – has fooled just about everyone except for these equally annoying and specially crafty Chinese (and look what they’re doing now, tempering with our matrix!).

The We’re-Not-Evil-Doers are just fabulous at day-to-day execution, and promptly they prove that this deal has been, in the words of their banking buddies who helped put it together, “exceptionally accretive.” Here are just a few highlights from the prospectus:

  • By virtue of having their lives digitized and uploaded onto the matrix via continual live feeds, every citizen becomes a “data node” on the company’s data-mining grid. Statistical analysis and pattern recognition across data-sets such a medical records create revolutionary advances in predictive medicine and preventive measures: “Results 1 – 10 of about 1,790,000 for people with identical symptoms, similar backgrounds, and typical outcomes. (0.19 seconds).” Healthcare savings in the billions.
  • Everybody has a smartphone that’s powered by the matrix-gone-mobile, which means every citizen, continuously geo-located (via the phone’s GPS chip), is an extra set of eyes (the phone’s camera) connected to the company’s brain. Location-tagging is a popular sport and hyperlinking reality with useful, personalized information (the “IndiWiki”) creates an augmented reality of astonishing depth and utility, rendering any Luddite “blind” to the “real” world. Advertising revenues in the billions (move over, mayors of foursquare, you’re in our augmented reality now!).
  • It is a citizen’s sworn duty to uninstall all local instances of productivity software (and those who fail their hardware inspection get a nasty house-call from Mr. Deckard). If it has words, columns and rows, or slides, it’ll move straight into the company’s Cloud – no discussion. Naturally, this one is about pocketing rightful revenues from Microsoft, but additional billions are minted when the company’s analytical clout is unleashed on the thousands of documents, spreadsheets, and slideshows that are uploaded every second; in a strictly anonymized fashion, mind you, trends, patterns, and common if not best practices are spotted (“meta-content”), and work product is now put up for search and sale, provided the owner agrees, making this the Lego store for intellectual property on the web.

(Note, if you will: the dystopia of governments ceding power to private organizations and entrepreneurs in a “distributed republic” was, of course, first portrayed in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 book Snow Crash, an immensely enjoyable read, which popularized terms and concepts such as “avatar,” “metaverse” viz. Second Life, and “Earth Software” viz. Google Earth. Also, the numbers are not far off. PetroChina became briefly the first trillion-dollar company by market capitalization, following its debut on the Shanghai index, but having since “settled down” at today’s value of about $200B, while Google is currently trading at $178.92B, to be precise. California’s deficit will grow to $28B through June 2010 with a Moody’s rating only three inches above non-investment grade, which is slightly worse than Kazakhstan’s. And factoring in its long-term bond debt, California is in the same obligation order of magnitude as Europe’s favorite spendthrift, Greece. Google, by comparison, has a surplus of over $24B in cash sitting on its balance sheet.)

The above – however far-fetched! – was, as you would expect, inspired by some of the recent “problematic” PR (to be polite about it) that greeted Google’s launch of Buzz, its integrated social networking platform. If you didn’t buy the part about Google buying California, try to fathom, however, the influence that a truly integrated Google-powered communications-productivity-social-media-platform might wield over people’s everyday lives. Buzz is only scratching the proverbial surface of what’s possible for Google. You can check it out at: http://www.google.com/buzz and for a useful overview watch their introductory video at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yi50KlsCBio

Some critical voices questioned “how far” Google would go to catch up with the undisputed social networking leader Facebook. While other, more technical reviews centered around security and privacy concerns and quite serious vulnerabilities (such as betraying a user’s geographical location via the company’s integrated Location Services). In general, the reception has been mostly mixed, which – quite frankly – surprised me. Your blogger believes that Google is the technology company of our time for a simple reason that transcends all their technical brilliance and business savvy: Google can be trusted. The element of trust is so central to our business that it’s part of our corporate identity (for more on Talent Trust see http://www.talenttrust.com/). In turn, as an organization we trust Google to help us all become more informed, connected, and productive, while safeguarding the user (his security, privacy, and data assets). In fact, we recommend that our clients use Google Sites (http://www.google.com/sites/help/intl/en/overview.html) for most aspects of virtual collaboration – nothing could be easier to set up, more intuitive to use, and safer in terms of reliability and backup. Google Sites is literally everything-you’d-ever-need-out-of-the-box in order to set up a web presence, an intranet, or a web-based collaborative work environment for distributed teams. Although you won’t have the full-blown functionality or, let’s be honest, the refinement and elegance of a mature Microsoft application, you should keep Google Sites and now Buzz in your technology repertoire or even just your ‘starter kit’ to enable remote work. We’ve been using Google Sites extensively – so please contact me if you have any questions or need any professional assistance (christophe.kolb@talenttrust.com).

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)?

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!