Establishing Offshore Teams

Janna Patee, Sybase, Inc.
Suparna Jacob, Sybase, Inc.

We describe here Sybase’s experience in establishing an offshore technical publications organization in Singapore.

Sybase, Inc. is a leader in developing and expanding innovative database technology for emerging markets. Today, Sybase is the largest, global-enterprise software company focused exclusively on managing and mobilizing information from the data center to the point of action.

Expanding the Technical Publications organization offshore extended a model already established by Sybase’s Engineering and Quality Assurance organizations. Sybase’s first effort to establish an offshore Technical Publications organization began in March 2004 in Pune, India; the most recent effort has been in Singapore.

The Business Case

The business case is typical—salaries are lower in India or Singapore than salaries in the United States. The following table lists the cost, in US dollars, that Sybase uses for a full-time, fully costed employee:

Country Annual Cost
USA
$ 170,000
Canada
110,000
India
70,000
Singapore
45,000

In Singapore, Sybase planned to hire nine or ten people, and it made sense to spend less on salaries, as long as the people hired were top quality. It was immediately apparent that achieving this result also required managing management’s expectations.

Managing Management Expectations

Management had many questions when I presented my plan for hiring and establishing the new publications team in Singapore. The first question was “Why do you have a plan for this? You’re getting more writers; what else do you want?” My answer, in short, was that I wanted to do a good job and establish a successful team.

My plan described a time line and specified that all applicants must complete a writing test. “Why must you test? Engineering doesn’t test!” That led to a carefully worded explanation about Java being Java and C++ being C++. That is to say, engineers can code in any language, without regard to the language they speak. For a writer who is required to write in English, testing is essential.

The plan further stated that face-to-face, on-site hiring was a requirement, which prompted, “We don’t interview on site for other positions. Why do you have to?” While it’s not absolutely necessary to interview a writer on site, it is essential to interview a potential manager in person. The manager of a new publications group is the foundation of the team.

This answer led to the final series of questions: “Why do you have to hire a manager? Why can’t you hire another writer instead? Can’t the writers report to an engineering manager?”

Because Sybase had recently centralized its domestic Technical Publications organization, these questions weren’t as difficult. The model existed already; writers report to a Technical Publications Manager and Technical Publications Managers report to the Director of Publications.

Managing management expectations is important and expected. What I didn’t expect was the need to manage writer expectations.

Domestic Worries (Paranoia Strikes!)

For at least two years, US writers had said, with varying levels of impatience, “We’ve GOT to hire more people!” The prospect of hiring an entire team of new writers should have delighted them, right? Wrong. Instead, I encountered writer paranoia.

“Is it true that Sybase is outsourcing all of Pubs?”

“Now that we’re hiring people in Singapore, will I lose my job?”

Oops. Be prepared to offer honest reassurance to your publications teams. Be ready to explain that hiring offshore isn’t the same as outsourcing, or at least it’s not always the same. Explain that nobody’s going to get fired or laid off. What helped most with the existing Sybase team was to ask them if they would have the same concerns if the new team was based in Utah or Georgia (two states with no Sybase Technical Publications presence).

What Sybase Knew Going In

Sybase knew two things going in to the Singapore hiring experience—what we had done wrong in Pune and best practices for establishing and managing remote teams.

The hiring effort for a publications team in Pune was poorly planned. Recruitment for the positions was insignificant, and the recruitment that did occur was targeted incorrectly. Advertisements for “Information Developers” brought in candidates looking for engineering jobs—all they saw was “Developer.” Because Sybase was still planning the Pune development center, there were no defined projects for new publications staff and there was no established infrastructure. We couldn’t even tell prospective employees where the new development center would be located!

In Singapore, by contrast, we put best practices to immediate, practical use:

  • A well-established development center existed, with a solid infrastructure.
  • Management agreed to three specific initial project assignments for the new team.
  • The Technical Publications organization had well-documented, repeatable processes in place.
  • We put a plan in place for structured, frequent communication.
  • Writers would be, as much as possible, co-located with the engineers with whom they’d be working.

Hiring and Interviewing

The Singapore publications team hiring effort was a carefully thought-out plan with management buy-in. Job descriptions were written meticulously, and we had a carefully crafted advertisement. That first ad reminded us of the lesson we should have learned in Pune—if the position title is “Information Developer,” developers respond. So a week later, we posted a revised ad, looking for a “Technical Writer.” A Sybase recruiter collected resumes and sent them to the US as batched e-mail messages.

We screened hundreds of resumes and sent our standard writing test to 50 potential candidates. Then, based on test results and resumes, we scheduled interviews. I interviewed 26 people in 4 days, which was insane. I don’t recommend it. The interviewing marathon identified five writers and a manager. The new team met for the first time at the end of the interview cycle.

Where We Are Now

Tools and process training is done. Five additional writers have been interviewed and hired, and Singapore is now at full strength. The team has built their web site. Transition plans have been written, approved, and implemented. Four wholly-owned documentation sets have been transitioned to Singapore, as have standalone documentation pieces of several other products.

What We Learned

We learned five important lessons:

1. Monitor the workload. Assign lots of work early on. Adjust schedules and assignments to avoid idle writers. A new publications team without enough work quickly becomes concerned about job security. A new team functions better with too much work, rather than too little.

2. Create immediate ownership. Even the newest publications group should own a project, right from the start. Project ownership creates a sense of value quicker than anything else you do as a manager.

3. It’s about communication. Don’t over-communicate; don’t under-communicate. Guard against “out-of-sight, out-of-mind”; learn the art of writing helpful, effective e-mail messages, and pick up the phone!

4. Flexibility counts. Be flexible about learning and time. You must learn to manage time zone differences.

5. Face-to-face time matters. Go there. Go every quarter for at least two weeks for the first year.

But wait. There’s one more lesson. Stand up to unreasonable requests. My favorite story is about a California program manager and her project to which the Singapore publications team was assigned. The manager called me and asked that I appoint a California publications person to attend her local project meetings so that the local person could tell the Singapore Technical Publications Manager what was going on. I told the manager to change the meeting time instead.

In Summary

Over-plan establishing new offshore teams. Over-work them a little, especially in the first year. Budget and plan for plenty of face-to-face time. Practice communication skills as a habit. Be flexible, but don’t be a doormat.

This article represents the personal opinions of the author and is not in any way endorsed by Sybase, Inc.

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