#65 Managing Projects Half a World Away

by Steven Cerri on July 14, 2008

Can I make a contractor part of my team?

Hello everyone!

I have a coaching client who has a big challenge. He is attempting the development of a website by hiring contract website development from overseas independent contractors and companies. He is finding programmers who are technically competent. In some cases very technically competent.

He uses instant messaging (IM) and emails and in some cases phone calls to communicate with his contractors. In most cases these are one-person shops. In one case it’s a small contracting company that has perhaps 100 independent contractors available to it.

However, he is having a difficult time “managing” them. They don’t return his emails in a timely fashion. Sometimes they’ll disappear for a week without a trace. When they finally show up again on the email radar screen they’ve finished their task and it’s well done, but my client is frazzled because he was out of contact for a week and didn’t know if the project was being worked on, or if the contractor was dead, or drunk, or on vacation, or…..

So my client contacted me and said, “What do I do?” “How do I manage these people?” “They’re driving me nuts.”

I asked my client what he wanted… and it boiled down to the following items:

1. He wanted the contractors to return his phone calls, IMs, and emails in a timely fashion.

2. He wanted the contractors to behave as if they were part of his team. He wanted them to be invested int he success of the project not just behave as “hired guns”.

3. He wanted to feel comfortable by having the contractors keep him informed as to what was going on regarding their part of the project.

My gut response to these requests is the same as Matchbox 20’s Rob Thomas sings in Santana’s song, Smooth; “Forget about it.”

Well, not quite. There is a solution.

Let me pose the question succinctly: “What is the best way to manage contractors who are located overseas and are doing programming work for you or your company?”

There are several steps that must be taken simultaneously, as follows:

Expectations: Lets get really clear about expectations. My colleague wants his overseas contractors to be part of his American team. In 90% of the cases that isn’t going to happen. Separated by thousands of miles, oceans, continents, languages, cultures, values, and beliefs, the expectation that your contractor will be committed to your project as much as you are or as much as your American employees are just isn’t going to happen. So don’t expect it. Expect that it’s going to be a job for your contractors and nothing more and prepare accordingly.

Genius or Hard Worker: Here is the big one: Would you rather have a brilliant genius working for you overseas who you can’t control, does really brilliant work but causes you grief because you can’t track him or her down… or would you rather have someone who does work a little slower, is not quite so brilliant but gets the job done and is willing to keep you in the loop?

My coaching client has, up until now, opted for the genius who can get things done quickly but can’t be found to hand it over until my client has pulled out his hair. Unless I absolutely have to have the genius, I’ll always opt for the less brilliant but more cooperative team player. Remember, we hire people for their expertise and fire them for lack of fit.

Project Management: Next, make sure that your projects are very well “contained”. By that I mean don’t make the projects too big. Make them small enough that you can control the design and functionality.

Who Does What? Next, you, the hiring entity, must decide on the functional requirements of the software. You must decide on what you want. The contractor/programmer decides on the implementation but you decide on the requirements.

My client has been giving himself a huge amount of grief because he has not been defining the functional requirements of the software well enough before giving the project to his contractors. He has been leaving it up to the contract programmer to decide not only the implementation but also some of the requirements and the design. This has left my client out in the cold. The best approach is to clearly, with structure, forms, documents, and change processes, lay out the requirements of the software. One can even go so far as to develop dummy screen shots of how the website is supposed to look. Where are the buttons to be placed? What text should be included and where do you want it placed? How are the users to move around the pages? How are the pages to “respond” to the user’s requests.

It’s the job of the hiring firm to design to a very specific level of detail what the website is to look like and what it is to do. For sure there can be adjustments as the design gets implemented, but the hand-off from the hiring firm to the programmer should be very detailed, very clear, and very structured. The only thing the programmer should do is make the requirements “happen”. My client should design and decide, and the programmer should implement and provide feedback. Obviously there can be some “give and take” here but not nearly as much as if the programmer is located down the hall from the manager.

My client has been managing his overseas contractors too loosely. He has been managing them as if they are part of his team. They are not. They don’t want to be and he should not expect them to be.

That means that he must go through the following steps:

1. Establish a clear visual representation of what the web page(s) and system are to look like.

2. Establish a written document that explains how the various functions and operations in the web page(s) are to perform their functions.

3. Provide clear milestones with timetables, and feedback events (i.e., meetings, documents, emails, phone calls, etc.) Work this out in conjunction the the contractor BEFORE work begins.

4. Establish incentive payments along the way so that when deliverables AND communications take place as planned, payment is made; otherwise there is some appropriate penalty. Don’t make the penalty punitive of you may not get anything back.

5. Select programmers and contractors who will work with you the way you want. Find those who can do the work you want done and do it the way you want it done. Don’t sacrifice the process by assuming that it will all “come out in the wash”.

6. Finally, when you find contractors who you work well with, ask them if they know of other contractors who they would recommend. Remember the old adage, “Birds of a feather flock together.”

When people are separated by thousands of miles, different languages, different cultures, significantly different values and beliefs, it is imperative not to make assumptions that they will work the way you work. It’s challenging enough to find that in your own company office building, why would you expect it with someone halfway around the world from a completely different country.

Remember: “Keep your local direct reports close. Keep your overseas contractors even closer.”

Be well,

Steven Cerri

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