The Challenges of Managing Offshore Software Teams

Establishing and managing a business that utilizes an offshore team as part of its operation is a complex challenge. Cultural difference, time difference, and a lack of face-to-face time, all contribute to the intricate nature of the onshore/offshore model. But with the right approach, this model can yield extraordinary benefits for a business. In our nearly fifteen years of offshoring, we’ve learned many important lessons. I’d like to share with you a few general tips that I hope will help you navigate your offshore venture.

Take the Time to Learn the Business Culture

This is absolutely essential. Effective collaboration with an offshore office has to be built on a foundation of mutual understanding. One of the challenges we faced in Jordan was changing how the employees interacted with management. In Jordan it’s not common for employees to have a voice in the company. Management usually does not solicit feedback or encourage employees to give their opinion. But we find value in collaborating with our employees. We want them to speak up and participate. 

This is especially important when building software. If you give someone instructions to build something a specific way, but they find a problem with what you’ve asked for, or if they find a better solution, you’ll want them to bring it to your attention. Otherwise, if people simply do what you tell them, you end up with a much lower quality result.

Utilize Resources who have Experience in Both Countries

One of the first things we did when we opened our office in Jordan was hire someone local who had been educated in the U.S. Having this background of experience, he understood both cultures and was familiar with the regular business practices in both countries. He understood how to work with the local employees as well as our needs and expectations in the states. Having someone who can bridge the cultural differences in business practices, legal procedures, management, and so on, is significant– especially when you’re starting out.

Establish Your Time Zone Overlap

Maximizing time zone overlap is a high priority for us. We know the importance of teams communicating and being able to screen share real-time. Our interview process includes identifying candidates who have experience and understand the need to work with colleagues in different time zones and are open to flexible and sustainable hours that will benefit the unique needs of each project. 

That being said, our teams are here for you when you need them to be, no matter what time zone you are in. With our software teams, here is our typical availability that changes from client to client: 

  • Teams are available Sunday-Thursday from 3 am to 12 pm PST
  • Technical Project Leads (TPLs) are additionally available Fridays as needed.  
  • The TPL and teams continue development and Agile practices and ceremonies on Sundays. 

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Establish Trust Within your Team

When you’re building an offshore team, it’s necessary to establish trust not only within the team, but also between the team and management. This will take time and consistency. The management must remain constant with their requirements and their methods of operation so that the employees know what to expect.

Likewise, it’s important to keep the same team members in place. When you replace someone, the aspect of trust has to be re-built with the new team member. For any given project, there will be a tremendous amount of interaction that occurs between the onshore and offshore teams, so having a solid sense of trust is invaluable.

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Be Strategic with your Forms of Communication

Depending on where you setup your offshore office, there’s a good chance that you will be dealing with some degree of a language barrier. In light of this, it’s important to choose your methods of communication intuitively. For example, we use Skype a lot because it allows you to use a combination of both spoken and written communication. If something is confusing for someone who speaks English as a second language, it’s often helpful to type out what you’re saying. Similarly, if something is difficult for them to express/pronounce they can type it to you.

Using a webcam is also helpful. You may find that when you say things in an email or other written form it comes across much harsher than it would in person. Things can get misinterpreted this way. So using video chat can help eliminate misunderstandings.

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Be Sure that your Onsite and Offsite Leads Spend Time in Both Countries

Naturally, an onsite lead has to be directly involved in the solution design process. They have to learn the client’s business well in order to establish the system requirements. Then, they must be able to accurately communicate these requirements to the offshore team. So, it’s essential that your onsite lead spends time getting to know the offshore team and their business culture. This will help ensure effective and accurate knowledge transfer. 

Conversely, the offsite lead should spend time at the client site during the initial analysis phase. This way they can get to know the client and understand their business. Then when they return to manage the offshore team, they can answer questions with a complete understanding of how the solution they’re building fits into the business. This first-hand knowledge is extremely valuable. And, unfortunately, these types of things can’t be adequately communicated by email or phone calls. You have to be there in person.

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