Monday, July 13, 2009

Working with Offshore

The increased efficiency of the online communications tools, offshore software development has become more prominent in the IT industry. Currently I am working with a bright off-shore development team located eight time zones away. There are some challenges, but overall things are moving well. In this blog, I would like to share my experiences and give a few tips, if I may.

Obviously not everyone speaks, writes and reads English as their first language. English is also my second language, but living in the States for over fifteen years, I seem to do well and even blog about it. Specifically with software development, getting one's point across is very essential when the team is not co-located. We use a few online, instant messaging and audio/video programs. Earlier we tried ooVoo, however the off-shore team found that it was CPU intensive (with all the ads and everything on the side which I am not too surprised), and they suggested we use Skype. So we switched. It works pretty well and adds to our daily email exchanges. Definitely pick an instant online communication tool which all the team uses

Within the team, our direct point of contact speaks the best English as expected, yet others are good in writing. There was one time that I called one of the developers and could not understand what he was saying, and he probably did not understand what I was saying either because he requested that I speak slowly. And yes, I could speak quite fast at times. Then I quickly switched to instant messaging. This allowed my offshore developer to think more over the text he reads, then respond. I don't plan on calling him directly anymore. Although a conversation is good thing, but it feels odd when the other party is not sure what is being said. Video definitely helps with sending the gestures and such. But in general it is good to keep things in writing.

Get to know your team
Haven't got the chance to meet the team in person, but initially I mentioned that I was going to visit their country and asked and requested for certain information. They were quite excited and eager to share the info and their culture. I inquired from one of the developers about his beer tastes and whether he drank it or not. Again myself being from overseas, which is not too far off from this location, exchanged a few other stories and got a little more personal. I think this really helps in creating a more friendly and understanding atmosphere.

Don't be a dictator
One of the lessons, no matter how smart you are (or think you are), hopefully learned is to cultivate a shared development environment. Recently the off-shore team went ahead without checking with us and completed major refactoring. That caught me off-guard, but there is a lesson in that. First, the project needed refactoring and I was reluctant to do that right away due to another pending major integration (back-end) process. But that was all right. We regrouped and just this morning we had a teleconference call and discussed our refactoring process where I think everyone got on the same page. I did answer a few follow-up clarification questions but everyone is on the same page.

Let them have time to ramp up and study
In this project we are using ASP.NET MVC framework. Early in the project, one of the developers decided to take the M (Model) from MVC of the web project into an outside class library project. After checking and figuring out the reasoning, we found out that it was not such a good idea since ASP.NET MVC dictates convention over configuration. Yet the idea is to let the team find out and try to improve the code through refactoring and remodeling. My advice to team was, okay, there is another way of doing, but prove that why that way is better and if it makes the most sense.

Respect gets respect
This goes without saying, but it is better to state it anyway. Just because you are supervising, there is no point in being arrogant or bullish when discussing issues with the team. Everyone has opinion and when time comes, it is best to discuss. Try to understand where the team is coming from and give them respect for their idea and creativity. There is always more than one of peeling the cat ;-)

Try to stay ahead of them
Okay, this is my current challenge right now. We added two additional developers and it is getting harder for me to stay ahead, but I will keep reviewing the code base and provide feedback as it fits. I also have the other integration project which is ramping up as well. Anyway that is what I got to do. But the point is, it is important to stay ahead of them and give them direction and try to anticipate the changes in business and requirements. The one thing that is certain is things are going to change. Be responsive and reactive to changes, hopefully proactive more.

There will be many more tasks for us to do in this project. We have an agressive timeline, but using agile methodologies, specifically Scrum really fitst the model. We modified the process a little to meet our needs but it is going through. Our business analysts are creating documentation everyday which the development team is consuming. The TDD approach is really getting up there. Just today we got notification that our initial code coverage setups and implementation are taking place. These are great signs of progress and will hopefully allow us to deliver this product on time and within budget. I am stoked to work with these bright guys and I am glad to mentor and learn from them as project moves forward. But understanding each others' culture, either onshore or offshore and working on the communication skills are essential to what we do which is creating functioning software applications for healthcare business.