Despite the due diligence, problems arose. While the Chinese developers had excellent written English, verbal communication was "a bit more of a challenge," says Lee. Team leads were fluent, but the message could get distorted on its way to the right programmers in what became a tedious game of long-distance telephone, particularly if the process being coded was complex.
The solution was job rotation. "We brought team members from China to work with the team in Miami for two- to three-month stints to understand the business requirements and assist with the technical design. They were then able to take that knowledge back and readily communicate the complexities to the team in China," says Lee. The extended stays also helped to make the offshore development staff feel more part of the Interval team. It worked so well that Lee now brings a new person over every three months to provide on-site support and offshore coordination. Currently, the vendor keeps three employees in Miami at a given time, while a team of 20 Java developers and five quality assurance testers reside in Shenzhen.
Time differences also took a toll. Ultimately, Lee had some of her IT professionals adjust their hours to work directly with the offshore team which was thirteen hours ahead. They also learned to plan around significant Chinese holidays that would impact availability of offshore staff.
The fact that Freeborders is headquartered stateside has real advantages, says Lee. "We can discuss specific needs with our account manager immediately-in our time zone-and make changes quickly," she says. "But we also like the fact that part of the team is based in a different time zone, as we can get work done around the clock."
And while the application development work has been successful, an attempt to outsource application maintenance to China was not. Interval's legacy applications were too complex and had little documentation. "Our internal team found it counterproductive to have to document detailed requirements for the offshore team to use instead of just making the code changes themselves," Lee says. "There is a steep overhead in outsourcing projects of this type and for it to be successful you have to have champions on your team who have the time and motivation to make it work."
Lee calls her outsourcing relationship a work in progress. Looking ahead, Lee would like to establish more detailed metrics to monitor quality and continuous improvement efforts.
In the end, outsourcing IT to China is little different that outsourcing it to Chennai or Chicago, says Lee. "[It] has its pros and cons and it is important to understand what your overall goal and objectives are and how outsourcing fits within those both tactically and strategically."
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