I’ve been managing offshore teams since 2002, that’s when I founded Optics for Hire in the US and partnered with a team of optical engineers in Lviv, Ukraine.
Our Team in 2003.
The work we do involves helping companies design and manufacture lenses and optical systems. We’ve worked with some great engineers at leading companies like Amazon, GE, Mattel, Netgear, and many others.
Having engineers in Ukraine and customers in the United States leads to a number of potential failure points for project management. Issues we have to manage include time zone differences, language differences, different cultural expectations, jargon differences and more. Managing these risks has been critical to our success.
As our business grew and platforms like Elance launched, we expanded our use of remote teams, including hiring from India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Belarus for marketing, web development and many other skill sets.
In the years since 2002, thanks to new communication tools and software platforms, it has become easier to succeed in managing offshore teams.
When we started we used only email (this was pre-Skype, and phoning was expensive). This made talking about complicated technical subjects difficult.
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Here are five key lessons learned in the last 18 years:
1. Use Pictures, Screen Shares, and Voice Talk as Much as Possible
Don’t expect to be successful with email alone.
Chat is better than emails, voice is better than chat, voice with a screen share plus video is best of all. It can be too easy to send a quick email to communicate, but if you haven’t been clear your partner could waste a full workday halfway across the world working on the wrong thing.
Don’t let that happen.
2. Always Explain Your Assumptions
A word like ‘expensive’ can mean different things in different cultures and in different contexts. Maybe when making a prototype expensive doesn’t matter to you but in production, it matters a great deal. Maybe expensive to us means more than $1,000 and to your partner, it means more than $100.
One way to make sure you understand everyone’s assumptions is to use ‘open-ended’ questions like “what do you mean by that?”
3. Make Sure You Communicate Not Just What You ‘Want’ But Also What You Really Need
Clearly explain your end goal and be open to listening to feedback to see if your partner has a different approach. The reason you hire someone is usually that they have a skill set you don’t. Make sure you respect that skill.
It can be easy to pressure an offshore employee into doing a job a certain way, but they probably know a lot better than you do about how to do their job. Listen and learn from them and you will get better results.
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4. Use Software Tools and Keep Trying New Ones
We use Basecamp, Appointlet, Uberconference, Skype, nimbus screenshot and Tickspot on a daily basis. Developers are always launching new tools that make our jobs easier.
In fact, as we’ve grown we’ve even started building our own tools, including a tool to search machine vision and CCTV lenses, as well as this free automatic graph digitizer Using these tools saves us engineering time and benefits our community.
Don’t get stagnate. If you aren’t trying new and better ways to communicate and manage projects you and your customers will be worse off.
5. Understand Vacations and Holiday Schedules
It’s no fun to find out just before a deadline that your team isn’t going to be working because of a three day Holiday you never heard of. So ask ( often ) about time-lines, working days and make sure you each understand when you and they will and will not be available
Working with offshore teams has been fun and profitable for our organization and our customers, we’ve made our share of missteps but I’ve never regretted the path we took. I wish you luck on your engineering projects and please connect with me if I can be of help you can find me here.