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.

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!