Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.