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.

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

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.