How to Manage an Overseas Development Team
Step One: Stop thinking of them as your overseas development team and start thinking of them as your development team that happens to be overseas.
Since the 1990s, project managers, C-level executives, and product managers throughout the U.S. have viewed development outsourcing as a sort of saving grace for companies bottom lines.
While many enterprises and even small-to-medium businesses experience a favorable ROI from their overseas development teams, countless other business leaders, driven primarily by an appetite for cheap labor, have invested a considerable amount of effort and money into offshoring, only to return with poor results.
We interviewed one of our solution architects, Doug Wilson, on the subject. Doug has about 20 years of experience managing development teams comprised of domestic developers, international developers, and a mix of both. His teams have ranged in size from two people to 50 people and have operated across almost every industry.
Doug recalls a long conversation he had with a CTO from a major telecom company years ago about his company’s poor experience with offshoring. This company thought offshoring would save them tons of money, but they had to send one of their best people overseas to manage their new development team. In the end, it ended up costing much more, despite the drastic difference in billing rates.
The truth is that offshoring is not the golden egg many once thought it was. It is not an across-the-board solution to your financial woes. Investing in an overseas development team can considerably widen your access to qualified talent. If managed well and for the right reasons, an overseas development team can make your business better, and maybe save you some money along the way.
How to find and keep good talent
Location does not determine the quality or potential of your development team, but conducting business across the globe definitely presents unique challenges.
Here are some tips on how to handle those unique challenges gracefully and with the goal of developing quality software, delivered on time and on budget.
1. Filter candidates who are not a good fit and retain the ones who are.
Finding your team
A lot of your problems as a manager, both domestically and internationally, can be avoided by picking the right candidates and avoiding the wrong ones.
As you build your overseas development team, finding the right candidates can be tricky. It’s important to be clear on what you’re looking for and to thoroughly vet candidates based on objective, unambiguous standards.
We use a 5-step approach for hiring candidates, both domestically and internationally. This approach walks us through multiple extensive interviews with the candidate, touching on their personal background, skills, and competencies, such as intellectual, personal, interpersonal, motivational, and management traits.
Not only do we discover their aptitude for various technologies, we also learn about their service attitude, organization and planning, intelligence, adaptability, attention to detail, and ability to work with others. We’ve found that a proven record of learning is more valuable than how much the candidate currently knows about software development.
While work ethic and other business-culture traits are an incredibly important factor to consider when interviewing candidates, technical expertise is also extremely crucial.
For example, Agile development processes, while widely adopted, vary significantly in the U.S. and abroad. The same is true for expertise with standard development tools like Git and JIRA.
Insider Hiring Tip: Define Agile and get proof that they know it.
Have candidates give their own definition of Agile development, and then have them describe what the Agile process looked like on teams they worked within the past. Don’t accept Agile terminology as proof. Be sure that they understand the Agile philosophy and have the maturity required to make it work. You may find that a candidate’s experience with Agile is limited to the point that they would have trouble working with a local team that is comfortable and experienced with Agile development practices.
Keeping your team
Successfully finding the right candidates for your team is half the battle. Now, you have to retain them. Demand for good software developers is always high. If your developers are unhappy on your team, all that interviewing and subsequent onboarding could be wasted if another, shinier opportunity comes their way.
This is where your attitude as a team manager is so important. Unfortunately, it’s common for many companies motivated solely by the desire to save money, to view their offshore talent as cogs in the machine. Leading with this perspective is the quickest and most effective way to lose quality team members and miss out on the potential to become a better business, sharpened by the talent, character, and ideas of its diverse software professionals.
At Praxent, we have cultivated a people-first culture. In the local office, this means we have fun without trying. We know each other well and are motivated by a common vision for our customers and passion for software. It’s the same with our remote teams. In fact, we’re so integrated that it’s almost weird to write about it.
Insider Management Tip: Avoid “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” management. Be intentional about delegating just as much to your overseas teams and including them in all of the same activities and meetings as your local developers.
It can be tempting to work more closely with your local team members than your offshore team members. After all, the developer in your office is just a few desks away. But your offshore team member is just a call away! Get in the habit of using communication technology, especially video, multiple times a day to connect with your offshore team. If impromptu calls are impossible, stick to an intentional schedule of meeting times and phone calls to ensure that locals aren’t getting more face time than overseas developers.
For more effective relationship-building, it’s hard to beat video conferencing and instant messaging. With video you’ll have the benefit of seeing facial expressions and non-verbal communication that would otherwise be lost in the conversation. Finding a reliable tool for these calls is essential. GoToMeeting and Google Hangouts are two of our favorite methods for connecting with the other side of the world, while Slack provides an immediacy that brings us closer.
On video calls, Slack channels, etc, express interest in your remote team members’ lives outside of work. Ask about their significant others, their kids, their cities, their passions and hobbies, just as you would with your local team.
2. Expect diversity to fuel improvement
In the early 2000s, Procter and Gamble famously launched its Connect + Develop program to leverage outsourcing as a method for fueling innovation. It worked tremendously. They were able to develop win-win partnerships with their service providers and acquire innovative breakthroughs that they would otherwise not have encountered.
The same principles hold true with integrating an overseas development team into your business. Expect and encourage cross-pollination of ideas, tools and techniques. Instill confidence and ownership in all of your team members. Aim for an environment in which your domestic developers are challenged by the quality and professionalism of your carefully selected offshore developers just as much as your offshore developers are challenged by your local team.
Insider Training Tip: Encourage cross-pollination by holding frequent group meetings with both teams present. In these meetings, facilitate group dialogue about problem-solving, best practice and big-picture vision. Always maintain a safe environment for feedback and disagreement.
By investing in your offshore developers and encouraging cross-pollination, you can encourage confidence and ownership that helps them bring their full potential to the table. New York Times bestselling author and applied neuroscience expert, Christine Comaford, emphatically holds that teams will not give their best as long as they are operating out of fear and limitation. It’s your job as a manager to create an environment where people aren’t motivated by survival and don’t feel the need to hold back.
3. Some cultures discourage outspoken disagreement: encourage problem-solving with sensitivity.
In the U.S., we have a culture of personal empowerment. By comparison, individuals from certain cultures in other parts of the world are less likely to push back on requirements or ideas. While it’s easy to get American or western developers to speak up about their opinions when asked, or even provide unsolicited feedback, that is simply not an acceptable business practice in other parts of the world.
If you wish to cultivate a team that values a diversity of viewpoints (and we recommend you do, as this is one of the greatest benefits of working with international developers), you may have to be highly intentional about communicating this to your offshore developers.
Insider Management Tip: Take advantage of group settings to demonstrate problem-solving. Let your international developers see your positive reaction to local developers who offer opposing viewpoints, and encourage them to do the same.
Creating cross-cultural understanding is another reason why integrating your overseas team into all of your meetings and activities is crucial to a healthy business. You’ll find that, as internationals and locals come together in these intentional ways, they will begin to grow comfortable working together and relying on each other.
When your international developers are the ones setting a new standard for achievement or service on your team, and your local developers are motivated to reach that new bar, you’ll know that you have achieved management success.
4. Overcome language barriers by being prepared to re-explain and over-explain.
It’s easy to take for granted the cultural and contextual cues that are present when communicating in the office or face-to-face with a customer. We absorb those cues naturally, like breathing. We’re usually not even aware that we’ve encountered a contextual cue. And yet managers often expect an overseas developer to be aware of those dynamics and act on them in the same ways we do. Remote employees simply don’t have the same amount of context available to them.
And when you add language barriers to the mix, communication grows even more complicated. At Praxent, we’ve experienced difficulty on daily stand-ups and phone calls with developers who struggle to understand and be understood.
Be aware that individuals on your offshore development team may be at different language levels. Some will be more comfortable with written communication, whereas others will be more comfortable with verbal communication. Get to know your developers and be prepared to meet them where they are.
Insider Management Tip: The importance of catching mistakes before they happen is one more reason it’s essential to make sure your employees feel comfortable asking for clarification.
Be prepared to slow down in order to go faster. Take the time to invest in over-communicating, whether that’s an extra 30 minutes on a video call or frequently checking team members for comprehension. Over time, your investment will pay off. You’ll experience less friction, fewer mistakes, and greater confidence in your team.
5. Exercise fair and superlative time management.
Remember that the global schedule can be used to your advantage. While your local team is fast asleep, overseas developers are working hard, and vice versa. Pulling this off without any middle-of-the-night disasters, however, requires discipline and preparation.
You’ll want to make sure that both teams have a system in place for queueing up work before they leave at the end of the day, so that the other team can start right in when they get to work in the morning. You’ll have to anticipate questions that your overseas team will have, and get them the answers before you leave the office. Provide as much context as possible on all tasks and projects so that they can problem-solve when they reach potential obstacles.
Finally, be willing to start meetings early or late — don’t let your offshore developers be the only one to suffer from the time difference.
6. Business values that are not prioritized in other cultures can be acquired with the right training. Are you prepared to make that investment?
A common misconception about software is that it is a black and white product–done is done and easily agreed upon. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Software development is an incredibly creative task. There is infinite room for stakeholders, managers and developers to have different expectations about where the project is going.
Cultivating a team of developers who learn to take full ownership of a project, beyond their own individual contribution, is essential to achieving high ROI with your talent. Ownership means that your developers understand the bigger purpose of the software they are creating. They know what the client wants, and they know how their piece of code fits into the puzzle. They develop with that in mind, self-motivated to problem-solve and improve the product as they go.
While some business cultures prioritize loyalty and respect for leadership, for example, the passion for embracing big-picture vision and full ownership of a project is not a universal value among all business cultures.
If big-picture vision and taking ownership are priorities in your company, then be aware of cultural differences as you manage your overseas development team. For example, it’s common for a developer to meet the explicit standard of the feature they are working on and then assume it’s done. You may need to train them to start thinking about the end-user more, the customer paying for the product and other aspects of delivering, testing and demonstrating features.
Insider Training Tip: Use code reviews as a teaching tool for your developers. Domestic and overseas teams will learn from each other, and you’ll cultivate an environment where constructive critique is expected and welcomed.
Team-wide code reviews allow developers to walk through each line of source code they wrote for a particular feature. Their work is then opened up to the team to ask questions and provide critique. Never exclude your offshore developers from participating in these highly formative meetings. They present the perfect opportunity to shape team culture, build relationships, address miscommunication and get everyone on the same page.
Why does offshoring development sometimes fail?
We believe it all comes down to expectations. Is your company going into this looking for a cheaper cog for their machine? If cheap is what you’re looking for, then prepare yourself for cheap, because you’ll probably get it.
While offshoring can be a great way to save money, that should not be the only driver. Those companies who are purely driven by the bottom line tend to experience more problems than solutions when working cross-culturally with an overseas development team.
The truth is, there is really no difference between a good or bad experience with an overseas team and a good or bad experience with a domestic team. The number one differentiator is your expectations.
With the right attitude and these seven management tips, you can reap the benefits of productivity, innovation and an ultimately higher ROI from your overseas development team.