Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore...

The first time I traveled in Asia, I was working for a large networking company. I went to their sales conference in Thailand, to present on the nuances of device provisioning to several hundred customers from Asia and the Pacific rim. I did my talk, and that evening got hooked up with a bunch of sales guys and customers for a night of hardcore drinking in Phukett. It's not the point of my story, but as an aside, never ever try to drink with sales guys. That's what they do for a living. They will buy you drink after drink, smiling the whole time, and they will bury you.

I got buried that night. My last conscious memory was closing the only Irish bar in Phukett, getting poured into the back of a tuk-tuk, and riding half way back across the island singing Thunder Road at the top of my lungs.

Morning came early.

I put on my game face, and relying mostly on black coffee and my relative youth, I went to the "vendor fair". I had a booth all to myself, where I presented, once again, on the relative merits of various approaches to device provisioning. I was speaking to a group of engineers from a cable TV company in India. They wanted to know how to provision multiple layers of IP service using DOCSIS cable modems. I drew a bunch of stuff on the white board in the booth and said a bunch of smart stuff, while the room spun around me. I turned back to the 4 engineers and asked if they had understood what I had said. They all shook their heads. Okay, we'll try again. I braced myself, held back a wave of nausea, erased the white board, and started over. When I was done again, I asked them if they understood now. They all shook their heads. Sigh. I tried again. I knew I was a little off, but this was ridiculous. Using the most basic principles and small words I could muster, I re-explained. Again, all 4 engineers shook their head. But this time, one of them said "Yes Mister Hickman. We understand perfectly. Thank you very much." And they walked away, no doubt thinking I was a little odd, and possibly mentally, ahem, challenged.

Moral of the story - engineers from India shake their head back and forth when they mean yes.

Actually, they wobble their head a little bit.

It looks a lot like what engineers from the States do when we mean to say no.

I really wish someone had told me that before my trip.


The bet...

My first trip to India, to visit my then fledgling software quality assurance team, was a life changing experience. I did not find enlightenment, but I learned, without a doubt, several important lessons:

1) There is nothing jingoistic about C++ or Java. Smart, enterprising young engineers can buy the entire O'Reilly catalog online, and get it shipped to them anywhere on the planet, in a matter of days.

2) There are a lot of smart, enterprising young engineers in India. And I imagined at the time, in lots of other places all over the planet.

3) They all seem to have ordered the entire O'Reilly catalog on line, gotten it shipped to them, and they've made some serious progress working through it.

So I decided this outsourcing thing was:

a) here to stay.

b) something I needed to get on top of if I wanted to be here to stay.

So I got on top of it.

When I came home to the States, I got a lot of comments about how I'd gone over to the dark side. As an aside, I do acknowledge that I have gone through a certain evolution in my professional career.

  • When I was a young man, idealistic to the extreme, I sought with every shred of my being to Stick it to The Man.
  • When I was a young research assistant, designing campus wide information systems in the dark days before HTML 1.0, I was, much to my chagrin, a Tool of The Man.
  • After moving into the private sector, as I had my soul sucked out and served back to me in a gilded parfait dish, I became, yeah verily, a Spanner Wrench in the Pocket of The Man.
  • And at a certain point, I think it was the first time I uttered the phrase "I need you to work through the weekend...", I became The Man.
So, I have a rich inner context for any comments about how I've gone over to the dark side.

But this time, it wasn't true. So I argued with my friends and cow-orkers. And the argument went like this:

They: You are outsourcing American jobs. You are evil.

Me: The disparity in cost of intellectual capital between the US market and certain other emerging markets is a competitive advantage that US corporations can not afford to ignore. A well reasoned global staffing strategy will actually be additive to the American work force, keeping high-value jobs here, and retaining our dominance over the global economy.

Me: (thinks to myself, hey, wait a second -- when did I become a Republican?)

They: You are outsourcing American jobs. You are evil. And hey, wait a second -- when did you become a Republican?

Me: This is not a question of good and evil. This is all a byproduct of an amoral free-market system. Intellectual capital is freeflowing. There is nothing nationalistic or jingoistic about C++. Anyone with a big logical co-processor can learn to write code, and can do it reasonably well.

They: You are outsourcing American jobs. You are an evil Republican outsourcer, eroding the very fabric of the American flag.

Me: Okay. Let's look at this clinically. The computer software industry is just one in a long line of innovations over the last hundred years, most of which have been driven by the US Economy. Do you concur?

They: Yes Socrates. It is incontrovertible that, like the Cotton Gin, standardized components, and the assembly line itself, software is just the latest innovation driving growth into the global economy.

Me: Okay. So as with textiles, heavy manufacturing, light manufacturing, and electronic component assembly, once the innovation occurs, the magic is easily comported to areas with cheap resources, natural or human.

They: Yeah, verily Socrates, we have enjoyed the fruits of this economic vector, and we do certainly love our reliable Honda automobiles.

Me: You're stealing my thunder, but thank you. Now, if you accept that the natural course of action in a global economy is to innovate, level, and then move the repetitive parts of the industry to markets favorable for production, you will have a hard time justifying that software jobs must, for some moral imperative, stay in-country. And, if you accept that global sourcing is okay, nay, even inevitable for manufacturing, you're on shaky ground trying to tell me that I'm evil for sending some testing and feature development to India.

They: But, never the less, you are outsourcing American jobs, and you are evil.

Me: Very well. To end this dialog, I will make you a bet. If I lose, I am evil, and I will buy you a beer. If I win, you are involving yourself in a logical inconsistency, you must shut up, buy me a beer, and read The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman.

They: Surely, we will take this bet, for we perceive that you are outsourcing American jobs, and that you are evil.

Me: You are already involved, as a direct beneficiary, in global sourcing. And all your buying decisions, whether you know it or not, support global sourcing. Given this, it is untenable to protect a single industry, or to advocate an asymmetric flow of knowledge and capital. Here is the bet: I bet you that you are not wearing one single article of clothing that was made in the United States of America.

They: I will take this bet. (they then wiggle, pull tags from their collars, excuse themselves to the privacy of the nearest restroom...)

I don't know that I've changed anyone's mind with this argument, but I do know that I have not lost this bet.

Hello world.

I manage a software QA organization. A few years ago, I was faced with a distressing but common problem – I had more work to do than I had staff, time or budget to do it.

So I outsourced the work.

I contracted with a company in India for staff augmentation, and I built a virtual team. I’ve witnessed great success and equally great failure. And I’ve talked to a lot of people about my experiences, and theirs. And I’ve become a student of the game.

When I first started this endeavor I was perpetually frustrated by the lack of reliable information or thoughtful commentary about global sourcing. The experts I found were self-serving, and the literature on the subject was either alarmist or polemic. I had to learn a lot quickly. And I ultimately learned that my instincts were good, better in fact than the advice and counsel of many alleged experts. Inside Outsource is intended to be the blog, and eventually the book I wanted to read before I started managing virtual teams.

It’s also intended to be a furtherance in my own experiential education in working with remote minds – I intend to outsource much of the research and copy editing for this book to some smart people who live very far away from New Hampshire. We'll see how far I get with that.