Nexus 2015: Communication and Cultural Understanding Key to Software Development Innovation

Getting software development right in an outsourced environment can be tricky, but in the nearshore context time zone and cultural affinity combined with the ability to create blended …

Getting software development right in an outsourced environment can be tricky, but in the nearshore context time zone and cultural affinity combined with the ability to create blended teams minimizes some of those challenges. Panellists comprising users and those on the supply side in the Engineers’ Ensemble session at Nexus 2015 agreed that collaboration and communication are key to making such development work.

“The availability for collaboration in the nearshore is so much easier than the offshore. Nearshore gives us the availability of test leads to be responsive. I have loads of project work that requires someone to be there usually during the East coast hours, and I don’t get that availability obviously from off-shore,” said Iris Trout, Vice President and Global Senior Testing Director at TD Bank.

Convenience is not the only driver for nearshore options, however. John DeMassi, Director of Special Projects at Liberty Mutual, stressed the importance of the social conscience element. “The challenges of going to India and China always deal with time zone, but a lot of Indian companies will accommodate you and they will come in late and stay late. When you build a relationship with them, you realize that you are impacting their lives, not just on the days you are socializing with them, but every day. They are not seeing their kids because they are coming in at 10:30am and leaving at 20:30.”

He added: “I look at that challenge as a time zone issue, but it is also a social issue. When you are working with the nearshore, you know that you don’t have that.”

The Right Blend

Ed Schwarz, Co-Founder and Vice President of Engineering at Gorilla Logic, agreed that the social aspect in blended teams is crucial. “We do most of our delivery in blended teams. In making software for a lot of user interaction and for a lot of web and mobile applications that we are doing, time frames for development are very short, and developing those projects with an agile methodology isn’t only an engineering challenge, in fact it is increasingly a collaborative social project.”

He added that it requires not only the basics of communication and being in the same time zone, but “fundamentally being on the same page socially is actually a pretty important piece of the puzzle. The time zone does make a big difference. If one side, one team, is eating all of the late nights and early mornings and the other isn’t, it creates a certain dynamic in the team that is very hard to overcome. So we don’t think we have on-shore and offshore teams; we have one team and if we feel like there is a distinction being made we swarm all over that.”

Despite time zone and cultural affinity, software development in the nearshore is not without challenges. Patrick Millar, Co-Founder and CMO of Formatic.Ly, has succeeded in bringing complex software development projects to Latin America.

He said: “The real key to success was keeping an open mind in terms of the feedback from partners; we have our ideas but we also needed to listen to them. We tackle this in a number of ways; one very basic one is to have blended teams. We used agile methodologies. We had the joint meetings not just in the execution of the sprint but during planning and in the retrospective – and it made us better.”

Alex Robbio, Co-Founder and President of Belatrix Software, said: “This is an exciting time for nearshore. The next frontier in nearshore is to go beyond time zone and culture – that’s a given; we need to look at providing additional value, innovation, creativity, and fast time to market.”

For Robbio it is not about competing with India. He said: “We want to be a great complement to India. We see that our larger clients they are keeping India, but while still engaging with us. We are doing work on the user experience side, creating engaging experiences, mobile applications, and applying agile testing. There’s a lot going on.”

The Need to Innovate

Inspiring innovation is vital in such a context. “Everyone can talk about innovation but how do you prove and how do you make it a process that. We have addressed this by training our people in design thinking. It’s a great way to create new features, new processes. It’s a process developed by Ideo in Silicon Valley and it works really well in agile software development,” Robbio said. Ideo’s concept is a human-centered approach to innovation.

Schwarz also emphasized the need to develop innovation within teams. “We are really looking for the best skill match regardless of the location. We look for innovation anywhere in the team. It’s finding a place where everyone can contribute and starting to treat everyone with the same kind of respect,” he said.

He went on to add: “We have seen that be tremendously powerful. We have seen tremendous delivery with small focused teams just like you expect or are supposed to get with agile and we have managed to deliver successful projects in nice short time frames in 10 weeks, eight weeks, three weeks, maybe, with the blended team. It is a great way to work and nearshore makes it possible.”

Millar shared one technique that he had used to encourage innovation. They ran a quarterly hack week where people would submit ideas, pitch for it, and people would vote on the ideas, for any technology that was complementary to what was being worked on in the company.

“We used to do this before we were working with nearshore and once we started to work with nearshore we asked the question: ‘does somebody not get to do it because someone has to watch those projects?’ We made the decision to include nearshore. For the eagle-eyed accountants for an eight percent direct cost, we found that over 90% of those projects were going into our mainstream code base, so you could pretty much eliminate that cost,” Millar said.

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He added that the positive impact on communication, understanding and collaboration was fantastic. “Innovation is very sensitive to relationship, it is very sensitive to trust. [This project meant] hearing ideas come from different areas, from different geographies, and saying ‘I hadn’t even thought about it that way’, and that’s when it highlights culturally how people think differently about things,” he said.

Cultural Complexity

Although many places in Latin America have a greater cultural affinity with the U.S than offshore locations, cultural differences can complicate matters. “Nearshore, onshore and offshore are all challenges. It’s really about culture and understanding the differences but also embracing the differences,” Trout told moderator William Martorelli, Principal Analyst of Sourcing and Vendor Management at Forrester Research. “I have spent a lot of years trying to force someone from India to be American or to get someone from Mexican to understand something when they really don’t understand it.”

Trout explained that she had jotted down a few differences that she had noticed. “In Latin America, Americans are viewed as curt, and very individualistic. We are seen as not caring about our families; we are giving this perception. On the other hand, Americans view Latin Americans to be really into their fashion, to be slow on the upstart, to not have as firm a handshake as we would like. One I embraced the fact that people are different, the work became so much easier to do. The key is: Don’t try to make everyone try to fit the same mold.”

From the vendor side, the need to sensitize employees to cultural differences is equally important. Robbio noted that his company invests 120 hours per year in corporate training and most of that is in English and communication training. “It’s a customized program that includes a lot of detail on how do Americans prefer to say things, don’t take it personal, they get straight to the point. When we have that awareness on both sides, then it works very well.”

Trout added that in Latin America it is all about facial expressions and body gestures and when you email people cannot get the gist of it. “They want to see you face-to-face. So a lot of telecommunications is used because they want to see us,” she said.

Millar said: “Latin America itself is so diverse. Business culture is different in different countries. Each country makes its own jokes about the others. You talk about being abrupt; people might say that’s Argentina. But then Lima, Peru is a much more formal business environment. That can also influence at a very micro level what kinds of work you might source in the different countries. Some are more culturally aligned with USA, and for some projects that matters and others it doesn’t matter as much, but it is interesting learning that micro structure of the culture.”

Schwarz stressed that “communication goes both ways. You got to what you got do to make customer happy. But you also got to keep your ears open and get the conversation going both ways. It is really a bit of an eye-opener to look at the short cuts and assumptions that are leaving things for other people to do. In a mixed team environment, it is critical to listen to communication going both ways. There is tremendous amount to learn on both sides.”

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