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

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.