A little known history of IT offshoring – Part 3

Part III – The Solution

By Chuck Ritley & Ken Ritley


KEN:  So how did your Indian distributors  get into the picture?  Did you take the initiative?

I wish I was smart enough to take credit.  Coincidentally, one of the Indian principals had some business in the US with another supplier, stopped by for a get-acquainted meeting, and I had a couple of days to fine-tune some technical issues.  The topic of contract work came up.  “Would we be interested in contracting out program development work?”  Their technical staff were well educated, I had seen some of their product, and they could offer hourly rates far lower than the US.  We didn’t conclude anything then, but it gave me some ideas for the future.  These folks were a known quantity, and sold tons of our equipment in India with no complaints.  Clearly they knew what they were doing.

Let’s examine our coding deadline.   We had 8 programmers, and needed 16.  And IBM wasn’t slowing down.  We talked with the CEO about it.  We had other English-speaking assets, but India was the only one with enough excess manpower that was able to sell services.  So it was time to talk with them.  I had hoped for a trip to India, but we settled for the phone.

When we explained the scope of the project, the Managing Director in India showed an excellent grasp of the concept.  And offered us something we had not encountered:  a turnkey coding solution.  In the past, we paid contract programmers on an hourly basis, and had to constantly ride them to keep up production.  The Indians offered a hands-off deal to us:  they would provide up to 12 programmers, bring them to us, pay for their meals and lodging,  they would work under our supervision, and all for a package price.  If production goals slipped, they would bring in more help at no extra charge.

KEN:  Sounds like a good deal.  Almost too good, wouldn’t you say?

I was familiar with the “mythical man month”, and knew there was a limit to the number of people we could coordinate.  But the fact that they would take the risk was impressive.  And the total cost of the package was far less than I would have paid local programmers – if I could have acquired them quickly, which was no option in Silicon Valley at that time. Our CEO went off with his finance people and VP’s, and said “let’s do it”.  The bottom line was:  if we couldn’t get this done on time, we’d lose the game anyway.

KEN:  Today, of course, we bundle up projects and send them off.  How did you start an on-site deal like this?

Over the next two weeks, I renovated an old classroom with work tables, cabling, and 12 new terminals tied into a dedicated mini-computer.  I rented two small one-bedroom apartments close to the office, choosing “someplace that doesn’t have all that zoning stuff.”  The local government had some occupancy rules and I was cheating a bit.

The first to arrive was a guy who would be my main contact – let’s call him Krishna.  Well dressed, with excellent university English, Krishna explained that he would be in charge.  He rattled off some impressive IT credentials, and said that if I explained what I needed, then he’d interpret, delegate, and see it got done.  All I had to do was keep testing the coded output.  He checked out my workspace and said it was fine, and we went over to look at the 2 apartments.  I thought they were small for 12 guys but he said they’d be fine and I gave him the keys.

The following Monday, they all arrived — 12 programmers as specified.  I don’t recall their names as it’s been too many years.  I recall Kumar and Rakesh, but that’s all.  In my defense, the reason is simple:  only half of them were fluent in English.

KEN:  Now you have your team in place.  How did you get off ground zero?

I had a panic attack at this point, since our proprietary operating system and programming language were like the old Pick language – English-based.  Krishna calmed me down and explained that all of these guys – even those with no English – had been writing programs for their dealership for years and were proficient.  He said that the 6 who spoke no English were from Bangladesh, but that the Indians were all bi-lingual.   And they needed separation from the Bangladesh guys, hence the two apartments.

KEN:  Now you have your team in place.  How did you get the project started?

I got everyone into the classroom, where I had diagrams on the board and a projector with graphics.  (This pre-dated PowerPoint.)   I walked them through the logic of the system, slowly to let Krishna fill in those with no English.  Our own 8 guys, with their own modules to work on, sat in.  But at this juncture, all I could see was disaster.  Remember, this my first experience with an off-shore team.

We had a company van, and the 12 were hauled over to the apartments to get settled in while Krishna and I began working out a revised production plan. (I already had one, but it was geared up to the 8 in-house programmers.)  When I asked him about food, meals, and other necessities, he assured me that he would take care of all that.   My job was to assign tasks and test the output, Krishna would handle the work.   Bear in mind that I had been coding, and supervising coders, for years, but this was a new ball game.

KEN:  So give us a play-by-play of this new “ball game”.

So it began.  The next day they started coding.  Krishna must have re-briefed them that evening, and everyone seemed to know what to do.  They worked hard, with a work ethic I hadn’t seen before. No one broke for coffee, no one chatted with his neighbors, and no one wasted time.  There were problems, of course.  I made them print hard copies of everything so I could inspect all code, since no code works the first time.  And trying to keep up with 20 programmers was a strain on me, since all of the pieces had to fit together.

KEN:  So – so far so good?

All was not well at first.

Even with 12 extra programmers, we were falling behind our CEO’s release schedule.  Krishna was a task-master, drove the guys harshly, and they put in 12 hour days.  They kept to themselves, focused on work, and didn’t socialize with my guys.

A few weeks into the project, he asked if we had spare terminals.  We pulled 6 terminals and modems from inventory, took them to the apartments, and got them hooked into our development network.  Krishna planned to have them put in extra time in the late evenings on-line.

KEN: It sounds, at least, like the work was back on your schedule.

It was. But, at this point, it occurred to me – with much dismay — that I could somehow be stuck in the middle of a slave labor operation.

We were paying a flat fee for 12 people, jammed into two tiny one-bedroom apartments. (I was never allowed inside.) They fed themselves, so presumably they shopped and cooked.  Spare time was spent in extra work on-line. Saturdays and Sundays were just 2 more 12-hour work days.  I had my own terminal at home and I could see new code appearing on week-ends.

So my conscience prickled me – but not enough so that I was willing to tell the CEO that we couldn’t get it done.  Personal and business survival has a moral price sometimes.

KEN: So setting aside your Silicon Valley attitudes, how was it progressing?

 Now, honestly, the work wasn’t the highest quality.  The 12 turned out what 8 of my own programmers would have done.  I spent many hours going over code, editing subroutines, instructing Krishna on what was wrong and how to fix it.  After time, I had some rapport with the 6 English-speakers and instructed them directly.  Or I would have Kumar or Rakesh talk to the Bangladesh guys. That annoyed Krishna, but at this point I had a schedule to meet, and cultural customs be damned.  This, of course, caused some tension.  But, again, this was our first venture into new territory.

Weeks went by, but we made progress.

KEN: Progress in that you were keeping to your schedule.  But, how about the end result?

That was the over-riding potential hazard:  I knew from experience that when we went live, some code wouldn’t work. Does it ever? Programmers know what I mean.  So when the 12 went home, what we had was what we had.  And leave they did, with no fanfare, no long good-byes. I just handed Krishna a check.

As with any new system, there were bugs to be worked out over time.  But the code was plain, and well documented, so out own guys could handle that. And we got through the those bugs, and actually met the CEO’s deadline with a working system

KEN:  So in the end, everyone was happy about it.  I mean – happy with the results.

Yes, but it was a life lesson for me.  I was used to hard work and long hours.  Anyone who programs is.  But we never worked as hard as that Indian crew.   When I reflect back on it, I suppose it was a preview of things to come as more and more companies tried it.

From everything I could see, this was a win/win situation, or the guys wouldn’t have come and worked so hard.  But it’s hard to forget the 12 guys jammed into 2 rooms, working nearly 24/7.