Can We Talk?
When people on the East Coast arrive at their offices at 9 a.m., it's already 7:30 p.m. in Bangalore. That might not be a big problem in the old-fashioned world of waterfall software development, but if you're using agile, which requires constant communication among developers, testers and the business users of the software, having team members in different time zones poses a serious challenge. What can you do? Here are some tactics that have proved effective for successful outsourced agile projects:
1. Write detailed requirements. "When we need to exchange information about detailed requirements, the time difference is a challenge," notes Rene Rosendahl, senior manager in the project management office at Kelley Blue Book. "We're mitigating that by providing more detailed written information than would be needed if it weren't offshore. The goal is to minimize the questions that come back to us."
2. Use collaboration technology. Kelley Blue Book uses a tool called VersionOne to manage agile projects and keep the lines of communication open within its agile teams. And that's not all. "We are heavy users of instant messaging and email," Rosendahl says. "So if someone's gone home for the evening and offshore team members need information from that person, they might get it via email or IM."
3. Ask offshore workers to match your time zone. Many developers in other parts of the world approach agile development for U.S. companies by working hours that, to them, are odd. "Most of our team based near New Delhi are operating on Eastern time. That helps a lot," says Shane Aubel, CIO of the outsourcing company Tarika Technologies. The Indian workers are at their jobs from around 11 a.m. their time to 7 or 8 p.m., he adds.
It helps to not keep anyone on the late shift for too long, notes Kevin Quick, North America testing lead for Capgemini. "It's a rotational thing, so our people can manage their lives well," he says. "We learned the hard way that if we leave people on the late shift for too long, we tend to lose them."
4. Keep some team members onshore. "My biggest recommendation is to make sure that the designers, architects and engineers are located onshore," Aubel says. "We do a lot of the architecture, design and requirements, and then the specifications we send to the team are pretty well defined. It's just a matter of coding. The challenge arises when you try to start offshoring design and architecture."
But some industry experts are skeptical about this sort of approach for a truly agile methodology. "If you're doing waterfall development, it's OK to have a Java person who only knows J2EE," says Max Rayner, executive-in-residence at Hudson Crossing. "In agile, you want developers who think like business people. It's not enough that they can program. They have to be engaged and challenge the demands, thinking of the outcome rather than the process. So a lot of the outsourcing companies that are coder mills have a problem because they don't have talent that is able to engage with core business matters, just on how well their code is written."
5. Buy lots of plane tickets. Videoconferencing, instant messaging, document-sharing and remote scrum meetings all help, but in the end, nothing compares to meeting face to face. So IT leaders who've successfully managed offshore agile projects recommend frequent visits -- in both directions. "You may have parts of your onshore team going offshore to meet the offshore scrum team in person and introduce them to your technology," Rosendahl advises. "And you might also plan for offshore resources to come onshore to keep the exchange going and continue building these relationships. It's not cheap, and it takes effort and time, but it's well worth it."
— Minda Zetlin