Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Tales from the Other Side: Confessions of an Offshore Resource

After the acquisition of a company with offices in New York, I pestered my company outrageously until they got fed up and finally relented – they agreed to send me to the US.

To ease the transition, I chose to move onto a project which would allow me to start working in London and continue on the same team after I had moved to New York.

In the extreme over-excitement that followed my relocation, it took me a little while to realise that effectively I was an offshore resource, no different really from any of our Indian test team, and the team needed to manage this appropriately.

I learnt a number of lessons whilst playing this game. Some of these points are also valid for teams with remote resources (e.g. people working from home).

The Time Zone Difference is the First Problem to Overcome
Yes, the geographical separation and remote access is important to consider, but it's the time difference which is the killer. When your working day only (officially) overlaps for 4 hours, you have to make the most of that overlap time. Some of the steps we took to overcome this were:
  1. Moved the daily team meeting from 9.15am GMT to 4pm GMT/11am EST. Therefore I got to participate in the meeting rather than just having my instructions passed on to me. This greatly improved communication of issues between all team members, and, more importantly to me, helped me to feel like I was still a part of a team instead of just a resource.
  2. Updated the team plan so that instead of simply representing AM/PM activities for all team members, my time was staggered to better represent my working hours. E.g. Originally the plan looked like:

    But the daily meetings would invariably go something like this:
    Team Lead: Ms US Minion, it's Monday 4pm, you must be nearly finished with task 9, right?
    Ms US Minion (Me): Dude, it's Monday morning, I've barely finished checking my e-mail yet, I've just about glanced at the spec let alone started on the code.
    TL: Oh yeah, I forgot. Well, it'll be done by the end of today, right?
    USM: Sure, no problem.
    TL: Right, so Bob can kick off the build before he goes home and it'll be sweet by tomorrow morning
    USM: Oh wait, you mean the end of YOUR day? Erm, no, that's not going to happen...

    After a number of these types of conversations we got bored of forgetting this key point and changed the plan:

    Subtle change really, but it was astonishingly useful at helping us to get our heads around when things would be delivered. If something HAD to be finished before close of business GMT, then it would be clear from the plan if that was achievable.
  3. Plan to use the overlap time to best advantage. Otherwise something that would have had you waiting for help for an hour or two has you waiting for a day. I never really got good at this, mostly because I'm used to using my mornings for catching up on mail (which was particularly cumbersome when you have nearly a whole day's-worth of UK-based mail to get through), checking out industry news, meetings, phone-calls to the UK etc. I don't usually get into the coding zone until after lunch. Unfortunately, by 1pm EST, most of the team is wandering off home and I've forgotten to ask Bob for some pointers on task 10 which I know he's looked at before. Which means now I have to wait until tomorrow for that.

    Some of the ways I tried to overcome this problem:
    • Save non-critical or US-based e-mail replies until the afternoon. Only deal with the time-critical ones in that early-morning e-mail frenzy.
    • In your daily TODO list, clearly mark the items which require help from the team and do those in the morning, EVEN IF they're not as "important" as the other items.
    • For items scheduled for the afternoon, take a look at them in advance, even if it's just the morning of the same day, ensuring there aren't dependencies on people in the UK. This is particularly vital for time-critical tasks like releases that need to go out that afternoon.

    What not to do
    Stop taking lunch. I fell into this trap to try to increase the overlap time between me and the UK. At the start of my time here I would not take lunch until the UK had gone home - it felt like using that hour, which falls at the end of the UK day, for “recreation” was a waste, it meant I only had 3 hours overlap with the team (if they all went home on time, and luckily for me they frequently did not). But, this is a dumb idea. For a start, the rest of the team frequently did not go home on time, leaving me pining round the office starving to death. I'm one of those people who a) likes to take lunch early and b) gets moody and irritable when hungry. So, for everyone's sanity, it's best if I take lunch. The second reason this was a poor tactical move is because I was providing second-line support for the application. So, it was all very well making myself available for the development team in the UK, but if I was away from my desk when they had all gone home, that meant the support guys who needed the development team as second-line support had no-one to turn to if I disappeared. So, all in all, not a wise course of action.

    Do Not Underestimate How Important Face to Face Contact Is
    It really is. Well, maybe it’s just me, I’m only writing about my own personal experiences here, and on top of that I am A Girl so maybe we are a different species after all. But do not neglect this facet.

    I had daily conferences with the team, I was including in all mails, we had a team chat channel and I regularly spoke, in one form or another, to the client and to the support guys. But all of that cannot replace the inadvertent wince from someone when you talk about some aspect of the system, the tension you can read in someone’s shoulders when you’re talking to them, the cheeky grin or pleading look when someone asks you to do something they know isn’t in your remit but could really use from you.

    I was fortunate, because I already personally knew all the people I had to interact with through having been on this project in the UK - it makes it a little easier to judge who they are and how they react to things. Even so, I found that getting communications without seeing the person put a strain on relationships – it’s so much harder to read a person’s intentions when you can’t see them: to excuse them for being offhand because they seem stressed; to phrase things carefully so as not to upset someone because it looks like it might be a sensitive subject. That sort of thing.

    I also found conferencing into the team meetings a little harder than being there - it's more difficult to gauge when to add your piece to a discussion, since you can't see people's faces to see if they're going to say something. You can't catch someone's eye to see how they feel about something. You can end up in one of two opposite situations: a) you don't say much, because you don't know when it's appropriate to say something, and/or people forget to include you when you're not there, and/or the volume is up too low on the other end for it to be obvious when you want to speak or b) you talk too much – you can't see when people want to interrupt you or add something and/or you can just keep talking loudly and everyone else in the room has to stop and listen to you (unless they hang up on you!).

    Lack of face-to-face contact with the client pretty much ruled out doing any work that required feedback from them. This will depend upon your client, of course. In the case of this client, they were very good at responding to well-planned e-mails which asked them to choose a solution from one or more options (provided the implications were well-described). However getting to the point where you have enough information to come up with these options and their implications was almost impossible if you didn't sit down in the same room as them and talk things through. Theoretically this could have been done over the phone, but it almost always needs diagrams and visuals, scribbling on paper and whiteboards etc., making the phone an inappropriate medium. As a consequence, as soon as I moved offshore, I was no longer involved in any but the most basic requirements gathering.

    Well, there aren’t any really. You’re not there, you can’t see people. You can, however, be aware of this situation and work around it. For example:
    1. Don’t expect an offshore resource to be able to gather complex requirements from a client.
    2. Don’t expect an offshore resource to be able to explain complex issues / potential solutions to a client. The client can ignore e-mails they don’t understand and trying to explain over the phone is difficult, and also requires finding a window that fits both schedules and both time zones.
    3. Team members in all locations need to cut each-other a little slack – try to be precise in communications so that people can’t get hold of the wrong end of the stick, and in return try not to see the worst in someone’s hastily composed e-mail / train-of-consciousness chat.
    4. Ensure a regular meeting with a more human element, e.g. conferencing into team meetings. Interacting in a group like that even if you can’t see people a) helps improve the sense of team and b) provides a bit more context and feedback than simple e-mails or chat. If you can get a video conference, even if rarely, that will help. I can have very visual thought-processes, and something I did to help the team to think of me as a person and not just a voice or a spam-bot is to take photos of me in my working environment, and to take the team on a web-cam tour of the US office. In return, they shared photos of the new office they had moved to since my relocation to the US. It was fun, and helped us to connect on a more human level.

    Communication is, unsurprisingly, the key to productive working when the team is geographically split. The processes we put into place to help enable this were:
    1. Daily team meeting for the development team, at a time when all members can participate and providing facilities for all members to participate, remotely or locally (e.g. conference call). This is not just to enable communication amongst the team, but also to help offsite resources to feel a part of the team – a little “chat time” in this meeting, rather than being all work, is fundamental for remembering we’re all human, blowing off a little steam, and generally bonding.
    2. Weekly team meeting for development team plus client plus support team, again providing a way for everyone to participate. This allows us all to swap ideas and issues regardless of where we are.
    3. Work needs to be allocated at least 24 hours in advance. This works both ways - it cannot be expected that if I’m asked to do something as the UK team goes home, they expect it complete (or even started!) by the time they get in the next day – I might need support from the team, or from other people in that time zone. Similarly, I can't fling stuff back to the UK at the end of my working day and expect it to be worked on by the time I get in the next day, as they might have questions for me. And I personally get grumpy when woken up at 4am by a phone call.
    4. A project plan needs to be kept up-to-date and visible to all team members. This plan is better if it clearly represents the time zone differences between team members.
    5. Although ideally all team members should be treated equally, limitations of remote-working need to be considered when allocating work – any task which requires extensive support from the rest of the team or close relations with the client is probably not appropriate for someone who doesn’t work in the same location or the same hours as the team and client.

    I was lucky:
    • I had a team I knew and a client I knew on a product I was familiar with (although I had to learn a LOT more in order to support it independently during the afternoons).
    • The UK team were workaholics and generally provided more of an overlap with my working day than I think is healthy for a bunch of 20-something males.
    • The UK Team Lead went above and beyond, being accessible by phone until about midnight GMT (7pm EST). I tried not to abuse this but it definitely helped resolve pressing issues instead of having to wait another day. In return, where possible I would check my mail and chat, however briefly, when I got up so I had a quick heads-up of the state of play at mid-morning GMT, well before I got into work.

    In addition, I was a senior developer who had also had experience leading the UK team and gathering client requirements so I had a good view of the bigger picture of the project. So sometimes this meant I would irritatingly question every piece of work I was allocated and be nosy about the motivations behind something, but it also meant that I had the knowledge and ability to work pretty independently from the rest of the team. This may not apply to all offshore / remote resources.

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