The misadventures of offshoring

By Natalie Apostolou

Offshoring can be an uneasy cultural fit to manage in any organisation, but in an Agile environment it can test the strength of any team or methodology. Two Agile trailblazers from eBay.com’s London office, technical product manager Megan Folsom, and product manager Robin Zaragoza set upon a year-long journey and defied all company conventions to ensure that Agile made an impact across teams, cultures and borders. This is how they did it:

Megan: What we did with our outsourced teams was a bit experimental and we were not sure that we would succeed. We tried to create a culture that we wanted to work in. We wanted to build an environment that we liked, but it was in a setting where we did not have much control over the team’s motivational incentives.

Robin: During this year long journey, we started in one place and definitely ended up at another. eBay has developers in San Jose and offices around the world. For shorter term projects it is easier to get outsourced teams on board and resource up or down accordingly. We used a team in India, which we shall call Acme Inc.

Megan: When joining eBay, I was very excited as I love the site, I use it all the time and it’s a great brand name. I had also reached a point in my career where I would not work in an organisation unless it was Agile or actively pursuing agility.

Robin: What did you expect to find?

Megan: Developers that work in collaboration, who delivered frequently, responded to change, motivated teams; a lot of passion, innovation, things that I had experienced in the past on Agile teams.

Robin: And were we Agile?

Megan: Not at all. I knew that we worked with outsourced teams, but I didn’t know that we were 100% outsourced. That wasn’t a deal breaker; I had worked with outsourced teams before. But it didn’t feel right. We were using all the right tools but “nobody was home.”

Robin: Why didn’t it feel right?

Megan: The collaboration between the team and the business was not there. It was very siloed. The team was doing demos like clockwork every two weeks but the business was not turning up to them, they were just demo-ing to each other. It was a very command and control environment.

Robin: What was the effect of that environment?

Megan: There was enormous pressure put on developers to meet deadlines. An offshore vendor told me eBay had burnt through an entire [development] team. They all quit after the project.

Robin: As a product manager, I was feeling the same thing. We knew this could not continue. If it was a painful experience for me then it must be painful for our developers. I asked Megan what we could do about the situation.

Megan: We settled that we needed to go back to basics with our teams, and with Agile culture and values. Our goal was to build trust and collaboration.

We needed to go back to basics.
Our goal was to build trust and collaboration.

Robin: We flew out to Chennai met with our teams for a full week of workshops, taking them outside their comfort zones through a series of exercises that we hoped would drive home the concepts of Agile in a comfortable and trusting environment.

After the exercises the level of engagement changed. Prior to these workshops my calls to developers were really painful. There was not a lot of collaboration and discussion. After this workshop the level of engagement went from zero to 100%.

Megan: Do you think culture impacts an organisations ability to be Agile?

Robin: Definitely. Particularly when it is an Indian culture which is quite a hierarchical society and very class based. In an organisation where there are layers of management, senior management is almost like another class. When you have a class above you, there is a sense of deference.

The way Acme Inc incentivise developers is also not conducive to an Agile environment. We look at delivering product as something everyone is involved in, whereas Acme Inc basically measured it in the number of hours.

Megan: What advice would you give other companies on engaging their outsourced teams?

Robin: Don’t underestimate face to face contact. The creativity of the exercises helped, but talking about what we do outside of office hours really helped the developers to connect with us and us with them.

Megan: We walked into a climate of fear and mistrust and we built bridges in choppy waters. But for us, this was not a training exercise but a relationship building exercise. We hope that the relationships we forged made a difference.

This post by  was originally published in AgileTODAY, a free publication featuring real Australian case-studies of Agile in the enterprise, and the latest hot topics in the Agile community. Find out more.

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