Five Insider Tips for Managing Offshore Operations in India

Editor's note: You've read all the usual advice about managing offshore IT operations. So we turned to Josh Swihart, who has been supervising offshore programming activity in Pune, India, since January, for some insider tips you won't see anywhere else.

1. Taste the spicy pickle. Take the time to peek into the culture of India with its nationalism, competitive spirit, history, music and food. Although India is an onion with far too many layers to completely peel, taking the time to understand a little of the Indian world view can go a long way to deepening your understanding and building rapport with the offshore team.

Take the family out for a little paneer and buttered nan and rent a subtitled Hindi movie like Lagaan. Get to know the team members by asking a lot questions about their poojas (Hindu ceremonies), local cultures (there are vast regional differences in clothing, food, traditions and beliefs) and families.

An Indian middle-class wife may not ever come out and tell you that she's up at five in the morning and awake until midnight, seven days a week, to cook and do household chores for her husband, children and in-laws -- in addition to the 50 hours a week she's putting in on your project.

A deeper understanding is not only enriching, but can help you do a far better job of effectively managing your offshore work.

2. Pick up the phone. There are plenty of obvious options for intra- and interteam communication, including e-mail, phone, chat, videoconferencing and collaborative portals. However, there's no silver bullet, and communication should take different forms based upon project complexity, schedule, organization and distribution of the team.

Although English is spoken by many in India, accents can be difficult for both sides, and written communication often suffers from poor grammar and an absence of tone. In spite of the difficulties, communication is the lifeblood of an offshore program. Don't neglect to invest in what's needed -- and be consistent and diligent in its use.

3. See the world. Invest in travel. Initiate an expatriate program, send your team members on short assignments and schedule regular "vision" trips for your executives. Nothing can replace human-to-human interaction or the benefits of experiencing context. It's important that your team be exposed to the offshore operations firsthand in order to build consensus and better understand the offshore environment.

Plus, executive visits can be vital for those investing for the long term. These trips will help deepen organizational ownership and commitment as the operation becomes more than a line in a ledger or a weekly status report. They'll also give your executives a firsthand view of the benefits and limitations of the investment while equipping them to provide better strategic direction.

4. Do the math. Today's offshore model is all about better, faster and cheaper. However, it's not quite as easy as pocketing the difference in billing rates or salaries. Hidden costs include additional administrative expenses like redundant infrastructure, travel and the costs of improving processes, communications and documentation. Also, an offshore program may require your U.S. team to have overlapping schedules and after-hours availability. Don't shortchange the program; make sure that you budget enough to account for the extras.

5. Use your X-ray vision. India boasts the greatest number of Capability Maturity Model (CMM) Level 5 companies in the world. The label is a big deal to many, but few customers take the time to look closely. Often offshore companies will mix and match methodologies, tools and processes. One program might strictly adhere to automated tools, change control and configuration management. Another program in that same organization might use a spreadsheet on some tester's workstation for managing all business requirements and traceability. Such dualities do exist within the world of CMM-rated companies. Do your due diligence by taking the time to carefully understand or define the methodology, tools and processes necessary to ensure that your project gets done on time and within budget.

Josh Swihart is the India delivery director at Interlink Group LLC, an IT services company based in Englewood, Colo. He'll return in October from India, where he oversees offshore software development.

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