Throughout my career I have been a part of different IT offshore businesses at different levels and I have found the field to be very challenging. Challenging because of the immaturity of the IT field, geographical separation and cultural differences rather than the novelty of the model itself.
The annals are filled with accounts of outsourcing but never at the present scale, speed and distances. When you are working across cultures and timezones the way things can be managed changes substantially. In fact, it is so different from traditional management that companies with several decades of management experience regularly fail to even get off the ground. Deerwalk specializes in providing different software development related services to companies in the USA, and working here I have learned that there can be different approaches to IT outsourcing. The extended team model that Carenet, one of our clients, uses is my favorite.
Carenet is a healthcare service provider based in San Antonio, Texas. They provide call center facilities to other healthcare related organizations including insurance companies, HMOs and pharmacies. To support their operation they are required to maintain their own telephony system which works in conjunction with other subsystems like reporting, ETL of member data, report generation, business intelligence and a separate information management system for internal use, to name a few. For the development and maintenance of their system they require a team of IT professionals including experienced developers. They are one of the fastest growing companies, and expanding the IT team to meet the expanding volume of work is a challenge they are facing. Furthermore, San Antonio not being a top destination for programmers in the country, they have faced difficulties finding good resources when required. Having an offshore team which can grow and shrink relatively easily makes the situation more manageable by allowing buffer time to hire resources at their end. This is where Deerwalk comes in.
In contrast to other popular outsourcing models where projects are outsourced, this is more of a resource outsourcing. The offshore team is essentially considered an extension of the onshore team and thus work delegation is also done accordingly. Each day there are two handoffs, once in the morning and once in the evening. During handoff the teams exchange information on what has been done and what is left, so that the other team can pick up from where things have been left off. Considering a near 12 hour difference this works great because we can maintain a 24 hour operation for Carenet. Also, the extended team goes through the same selection process and training as the regular team to maintain quality. Both teams also benefit from the cross cultural exposure and it helps build leadership and communication skills in the team as a bonus. For the offshore company too this is a great model because the focus now has shifted from other aspects of project management to just resource management. This is a win-win for all.
However, as with the case of the proverbial “free lunch” the model comes with its own set of management quirks. The first and the most important one being how to effectively transfer the business and technical knowledge. For effective collaboration all parts of the organization from requirement providers to requirement gatherers and implementers (programmers) have to be in constant communication. It can be rather difficult to do so with two short meetings in a day. With language barriers and cultural differences between the teams the two teams can quickly become out of sync rendering the whole operation infeasible. To keep it tractable it is necessary to have frequent training sessions. Besides that it is also important have a knowledgeable person at the offshore team’s disposal during their operating hours to clarify confusions and provide guidance. To provide more overlap team members have to be prepared to work at odd hours. The onshore side would also benefit greatly by having a liaison who understands both the cultures and to allow efficient transfer of knowledge is adept at both the languages.
We are managing some of these challenges by providing on-site training for selected team members. I have been fortunate to have gotten opportunities to travel to the US to have a better handle on their expectations, learn their SDLC processes and build better relationship with the team. Based on agile philosophies and always looking to implement the avant-garde, Carenet has helped me learn a lot. It was amazing to find out how “git” can be used so effectively for source control of .NET projects and why TDD is so effective in maintaining the quality of the software products. Contrary to my experience of inverse relationship between the size of the company and value on personal relationships within the team, I was very delighted to find people at Carenet so welcoming and helpful. All my trips to Carenet have been memorable because of the friends I have there and being on-site I have been able to bring back valuable knowledge to the offshore team here at Deerwalk.
It is true that both teams have to continue to work hard in order to work more effectively on a daily basis but having a more integrated team also means that we can be more agile. There are still several other challenges like finding a way to have more overlap between the teams without burning them out on graveyard shifts and streamlining other regular project management and human resource management processes. Currently we are in the process of experimenting with options and we do not yet have a definite answer to all the challenges. However, I see a great future for the extended Carenet team as it matures. I strongly believe that this model will in time become a fine example of how offshore operations should be managed. It has been a great experience for me so far being a part of the Carenet extended team at Deerwalk.
Milan Lamichhane with the Carenet Team at the Carenet Office, San Antonio
Sushanta Pokharel with the Carenet Team at The Fiesta, San Antonio