Surviving the tech manager's global squeeze

More and more IT projects involve teams from around the world, and project leaders are asked to work 24/7. It's time to stop the madness.

It's the new reality of IT: working as part of a global team, with coworker and outsourcers all over the world, coordinated by a project manager at headquarters. But that reality can be ugly, as managers are stretched across time zones, with no such thing as being off the clock. Work quality, commitment, and communications vary considerably, putting the burden on the manager caught in the middle to make it all work -- from thousands of miles away.

For many companies, the results are bad: Thousands, sometimes millions of dollars in wasted efforts. Software and other tech projects that don't deliver as promised. Burned-out IT managers who leave if they can, and give up if they can't.

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Unfortunately, there's no easy solution. Making global project management work requires compromises all around, compromises to which executive management are often blind and that teams in different countries see only partially, making it hard to come to a common arrangement.

Caught in the middle: Stories from the inside
Consider the case of Jill (not her real name), a project manager in a global consumer products firm. She works in the United States, but the hardware and software development teams are in India, China, and Sweden. The Swedes refuse to work outside local business hours, so she has to have meetings with them between midnight and 7 a.m. in her time zone. The Indians typically give positive status reports but say nothing when they miss delivery schedules -- even when she asks directly -- so Jill can't trust what they say and has no idea what the project status really is. The Chinese often implement code strictly to specification, not raising issues when the intent of the project isn't supported by the specs. Quality suffers. They don't respond to her requests to raise such issues before completing the code.

Jill says her U.S. managers don't care about any of these issues, saying it's her problem to figure out and that all that matters is that something ships on schedule. She's still at the company, but actively looking to leave.

At a major pharmaceutical company, Darren (also not his real name), had a similar Alice in Wonderland experience, dealing with outsourcers in India. Darren knew that something was wrong with the offshoring project on his first day on the job, when he couldn't find the on-site relationship manager. It took a whole week to locate him. The pharmaceutical company never considered the outsourcing staff to be part of the team, Darren says. So -- surprise, surprise -- the offshore team wasn't well integrated with the company's own staff, there were big communication issues, and deadlines and project goals weren't being met.

Darren got on a plane and flew to India, where he got an earful. The Indian developers were unhappy, and turnover was high. "The reason for the turnover was that we were not treating them like team members -- we weren't giving them the good work," says Darren. "We were giving them the crap work." At the same time, the Indian vendor did nothing to help create the missing process controls that were frustrating the project. "To me, the offshoring vendor was taking advantage of the situation," Darren says.

Darren asked for -- and got -- a new on-site manager and a new offshore development team manager. But that didn't solve the problems on the U.S. side, and Darren was trapped by U.S. management looking to him to fix the problem but not providing the resources he needed to do it. "Nobody wanted to hear the bad news," he says. "Nobody wanted to talk about it."

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Darren recommended scrapping the whole deal and picking a new outsourcing vendor, one that would be a better cultural fit for the pharmaceutical company. That didn't fly. He suggested shutting down the project altogether. He recommended a cultural training day, to help the U.S. staff learn how to relate to the Indian developers and help integrate the two teams. "And I got in trouble," he says. "Nobody wanted to take ownership of the issue. Nobody gave a crap about it."

Darren -- who had about a decade's worth of experience managing outsourced teams -- quit after 10 months on the job. The pharmaceutical lost $400,000 in wasted work as a result of its problems managing the outsourcing deal.

How to deal with cultural gaps
There's really nothing to be done but leave when company management turns a blind eye to or actively resists solutions to the problems in managing tech projects globally, as Jill's and Darren's experiences attest. But in companies that want global teams to succeed, there are some things that business and IT staff can do to help.

Americans are more apt to question each other and raise objections than many Asians are. That cultural difference easily leads to misunderstandings and failures in the delivered work -- at the core, Americans assume no news is good news and any problems would be identified as they occur; Asians consider raising objections to be disrespectful.

Paul Schmidt, managing director for global service delivery at outsourcing consultant TPI, recalls a client that wasted hundreds of millions of dollars because of such a misunderstanding. "When we did the root cause analysis, it revolved around the issue of communication. The client was unable to communicate their requirements to the vendor, and the vendor, who happened to be Indian, [was from a] culture not to raise questions and problems, but to bury them."

The U.S. client didn't understand Indian culture enough to probe more deeply. "'Yes' really means that I heard you, not that I agree with you or that I understand," Schmidt says. The Indian provider also didn't adjust to the American culture it was serving, letting that disconnect remain and, thus, allowing the project to fail.

One way to deal with cultural differences is to set up a system of checks and controls from the very start, Darren recommends. This may appear to be bureaucracy to Americans, but it gives Asians and others taught not to criticize others publicly the environment they need to raise issues.

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Another option is to do business with more compatible cultures. Albert Lee, executive director of IT at New York Media, the publisher of New York magazine, had a similar disconnect with Indian developers in the past. "If it's not in the spec, it's not going to be built, and they're not going to question why it's not going to be built," he says. So Lee now hires developers in Russia and Eastern Europe, where the culture, especially the ability to get "push back" from developers, was closer to what he was used to in the United States.

"They want to be a lot more engaged than the past experiences I've had with other outsourcing firms, and they're not afraid to say no if they see something they disagree with," he says. "They can say, 'You can do something more efficiently. Have you considered this model?' It makes them fit in more as a member of our company," Lee says.

Of course, the intensity of such feedback by some Russians can be a little shocking to Americans not expecting it, says Alexander Nepomnyatshi, an engagement manager for outsourcing firm Luxoft. "For example, they might be offering help -- by criticizing your decision," he says. "They're using to solving problems, and sometimes they go looking for problems." Russians can also be a little terser than their American colleagues, he says, assuming that their audience fully understands the background and the details of the issue.

How to bridge the long-distance gaps
Even when cultures are more compatible, differences can affect work quality -- even if only because the people can't casually interact and establish a shared vision. That means project members need to spend time together live in person.

"When you have face-to-face meetings, you have body language, you can ask again if you don't hear clearly," says Luxoft's Nepomnyatshi. "With e-mail, you can't transfer emotions, and a lot can be lost. E-mail is the worst-case scenario. Telephone is better, but still not as efficient as face-to-face. Videoconferencing -- we have all that. It really helps to eliminate some of these issues, but not completely. People need to see each other to develop trust, to work as a team."

Thus, travel is critical, says Jeff Burk, CTO of document scanning software company Neat. He travels periodically to visit his prime outsourcing vendor, Symphony Service, in India and China. Burk also plans to bring programmers from Beijing to Neat's headquarters in Philadelphia "to give them a chance to participate in what we do here."

It's important to give the Beijing team a sense of belonging to the company, he says. "Especially when you start off the effort, it's critically important to have some meals together, get to know each other -- it builds some affinity for the company and sets the relationship on the right course," Burk says.

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Golden Living, a health care company in Arkansas, brought Indian developers to its headquarters for three-month stints to work with in-house staff. "I wanted them to have the opportunity to come and work with us on site, and it gave them the firsthand ability to see what we're doing here, then turn around and go home to India and share that with the team," says Randy Cates, the company's vice president of IT.

At Schneider Electric, offshore developers come for a six-month stay to the company's North Carolina headquarters. "They absorb not just the job, but the cultural aspects," says IT director Wendy Douglas. But the acculturation happens both ways: The U.S. team members also go to India for three-month stays to work with the team there.

The culture shock was usually bigger for the Americans, Douglas says. "The folks from offshore who came onshore seemed to have been prepared for what to expect in the U.S.," she says. "But as far as the onshore folks going offshore, we were much less prepared for what we would see."

Schneider was also not as prepared to help its Indian visitors, Douglas recalls. The Indian hosts would take much more care with their American guests, meeting them at the airport and scheduling activities for their entire stay. By contrast, the American side let their visitors fend mostly for themselves. "We felt like such clods," she says. "We never even thought that somebody would need help getting from the airport. So we've tried to do a better job."

How not to work 24 hours a day to keep up with time zones
Of course, you can travel only so much, so the bulk of team interactions will happen via the phone, e-mail, instant messaging, and videoconferences. For those live communications -- phone, instant messaging, and videoconferencing -- the issue of time zones has to be considered, unless you're happy working 24 hours a day.

Where possible, everyone needs to adjust their work schedules to accommodate time zone differences. The trick is to shift people's hours, not just extend them.

For example, it's not uncommon for U.S. managers to go online in the evenings to check e-mail. But "if you're working with a team that's 10 or 11 hours ahead of you, for them it will be the early hours of the morning, so it might be easier to start earlier the next morning instead," advises Robert Ingram, human resources director for the consultancy Capgemini.

Neat's Burk said that his team handles the issue of working nontraditional hours by alternating when the U.S. team works late and when the China team works early. "We try to flip the hours around a little bit, so only once or twice a week you're having to do something with the schedule [of your team]," he says.

But things can get sticky when people can't adjust their schedules. For example, in many countries, staffers rely on public transport or company-provided buses and taxis to get home. The issue is particularly acute in developing countries, where transit options are fewer: If schedules change at the last minute, managers in India or China might have to scramble to find new transportation, notes Ingram. "We might have to make special arrangements -- a second set of buses or a set of taxis -- to take people home."

For cultures that prize a separation for work and home life -- such as in many European countries -- the scheduling issue can't be handled through alternative commute options. If employees in those countries are unwilling to join teleconferences or check e-mail from home before or after work hours to accommodate coworkers in North America or Asia, perhaps they shouldn't be part of global teams.

Lemuel V. Cacho contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.