Its 1 AM. Do You Know What Your Offshore Team Is Doing?

Author: Samir Shah
CEO, Zephyr
You probably do because you are on the phone with them! For all of you working in some technical management capacity here in Silicon Valley, allow me to describe your day. Wake up and get to the office by 9. Put in a whole day’s worth of work attending meetings, planning, designing and developing cool stuff etc. and head home around 7. Get dinner, play with the kids, put them to bed and settle down comfortably with your laptop and Skype/Go-To Meeting /WebEx/ Live Meeting for the next 4-5 hours. Get to bed after 1. Repeat. Sounds familiar?

Effectively managing globally distributed technology teams is challenging and even though the world might be flat, it still has different time zones and you are expected to be awake in most of them! You didn’t really sign up for this, did you? This whole globally distributed team concept just crept up on you and suddenly, you find yourself in this mode to make concepts like "24x7", "follow-the-sun" and "distributed agile" a reality. Seriously, when was the last time you got to watch Jon Stewart or David Lettermen?

I personally know many such managers who do this on a daily basis, working diligently with their remote teams in India, China, Ukraine, Romania, Philippines etc. When it gets too much, they pack their bags and take a cramped 30-hour journey to be there with them; and they do this multiple times a year!

What is going on?

We at Zephyr decided to analyze this problem by first looking at actual activities that take place between team members that are globally distributed. We monitored meetings, looked at the back-n-forth communication, and analyzed data that was being sent around. We found some very interesting things:

*A majority of the “managing the remote team” happened on conference calls and via emails that were cc:’ed to the entire team

*On daily conference calls, the entire remote team usually attended whether they were active participants or not (usually not, as most were too junior or timid to speak up)

*Almost 15 minutes were lost on every call waiting for participants to show up or dial into the bridge with repeated reminders to mute as background noise was annoying

*While some important activities did get accomplished, daily conference calls largely focused on assigning tasks and getting verbal status (sometimes individually and painfully from every team member)

*Remote team leads spent an hour everyday preparing for this daily call

*Tasks and assignments were usually shared via an Excel spreadsheet and Bugzilla/JIRA/defect reports were painfully walked through

*Next morning, the same call was repeated albeit for a shorter duration and with less attendees with the goal to get a status update on what transpired during the night and to check if anything was done incorrectly or lost in translation

We were amazed at how inefficient this whole process was and how much productivity was being lost on a daily basis. While communication technology has matured remarkably and costs have drastically reduced on that front, very little attention, if any, has been paid to the cost of managing remote teams in this fashion. For the simple day-to-day tasks of assigning work, providing status updates and exchanging data, globally distributed teams haven’t progressed much in the last decade.

How do you fix this?

Fundamentally, globally distributed teams have to get out of the mode of managing their interactions manually. This means automating as many of these tasks as possible and implementing newer technology which enables that. It means storing all project information in a centralized location that allows team members to access the same data irrespective of where they are physically located. It means really leveraging cloud technologies, not just talking about it. It means using push-based updates and notifications in the enterprise software world like they are used to on their personal devices. It means providing real-time status updates that require no human intervention. It involves smarter server and cloud technology, fast and consistent access, real-time integrations and live dashboards.

Here are some key ways that globally distributed teams need to change in order to bring about some sanity in their management process and dramatically increase productivity:

* Invest in newer cloud-based technologies that allow all team members access to well organized information, irrespective of where they access it from or which OS/Browser they are using (needless to say, use web applications for this).

*Make sure the tools you use allow for real-time updating and synchronizing of data. Nothing derails a project more than making decisions based on stale information.

*Standardize on your metrics and reporting and make sure your tools provide that information automatically. Get out of the business of manually creating status updates and reports.

*Focus the daily conference calls on strategizing and planning – leave task assignments and status updating to be handled by automated real-time processes.

*Keep historical information in easy to find places. Reuse it. With current attrition rates, difficulty in finding resources and the amount of time it takes to ramp them up, you'll be glad you have this data to fall back upon.

We borrowed heavily from these findings to build Zephyr – a real-time cloud-based test management platform that lets you manage every aspect of your testing lifecycle while integrating with existing systems and providing live dashboards to upper management and the rest of the project team. Project teams see vastly reduced conference calls as the platforms assigns and updates in real-time and everybody has access to the same data from every location. Full two-way integration with external systems ensures data does not remain in silos. Highly engaging and rich user interfaces allow information to be pushed instantaneously to out-of-the-box metrics and dashboards that are consistent across sprints, iteration and releases, allowing project teams and executive management to confidently make business decisions.

The benefits of all this is almost immeasurable. Besides the obvious quantifiable areas like higher quality and productivity and faster time-to-market, there is a marked increase in meaningful conversations and information exchange, lower attrition and managers are actually taking back their evenings and nights! I'm turning off my laptop, putting up my feet and watching Jon Stewart tonight. Are you?
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Reader's comments(3)
1: very sincere post. though, it woul dbe g8 if more example of real situations/incidants were given. I notice the points mentioned under "whats going on?" and almost agree thats what happning. but need more specific stories under "How to Fix this?" so reder can understand "value of change" what is actually working for them right now can be improved.
Posted by: ANUP SHAH - Monday 19th, November 2012
2: This is what I always wanted my managers to know.(Still I did not become a manager).When I told they did not even think about this. Atleast when some typical indian managers reads this they will understand how painful and waste of time work they are doing. One thing i do not understand with many professionals is why are they living for working we should 'work' for 'living'. If we do productive work for 8 hrs a day it really takes us to greater heights. Any way thanks for the nice analysis presented here :)
Posted by: shyam sundar - Wednesday 14th, September 2011
3:  Thank you sir for writing good article.
Posted by: Santosh Je - Monday 29th, August 2011
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