The Basics of Communicating with Your India Team

Two years ago, when healthcare technology company St. Croix Systems set up a subsidiary in India, one of the hardest tasks facing the project manager was one he had never anticipated: His overseas team members were too polite.

Jeff Stenger said he has no trouble getting his 15 team members in Hyderabad, India to show up for work on time. He said they do just about anything he requests and they do it well. Some have canceled vacations, worked all weekend and done whatever it takes to get the job done.

When Mr. Stenger, who helped lead the company's venture in India, thanks his Indian workers for working hard or doing a particularly good job, he said they often respond with a simple phrase, "It's my duty."

He said he sometimes feels uncomfortable about how hard his Indian team members work and strives to work as hard as they do.

Mr. Stenger said the working relationship with his offshore colleagues is so strong that his only big obstacle is convincing the Indian workers that they should criticize projects or ideas that they believe to lack merit.

Mr. Stenger said St. Croix, based in Watertown, MA, depends on a free and open exchange of ideas and opinions and he said he wants all team members to view projects critically and point out shortcomings.

"The teams in India are so eager to please and afraid to criticize," Mr. Stenger said.

With assistance from i-Vantage, a service provider that handles training and human resources issues for St. Croix in India, Mr. Stenger said he believes his team members are learning to become more assertive.

"We are trying to help them understand that we value and appreciate their input," Mr. Stenger said. "It is much better than it used to be."

–> TIP #1. For better or worse, Indian techies are becoming more westernized — in some ways — every year.

For a few years, Mr. Stenger said any new people who were hired to work with St. Croix in India were given a form of assertiveness training. "In India, there is a strong culture of being eager to please and a strong work ethic," he said.

St. Croix has stopped using the assertiveness training because Mr. Stenger said young Indians have been immersed in American culture through movies and television and are starting to become more assertive. "And they are becoming more and more westernized every year," he said. "Working with people from the U.S. and Europe has become commonplace, so most people are familiar with the process or work with others that are familiar with it."

I-Vantage does help its Indian staff with accent training. "All of our developers have been through accent training to help them verbally communicate with their colleagues in the US," Mr. Stenger said.

In addition to handling the accent training, Mr. Stenger said i-Vantage also manages St. Croix's facilities, hires workers, conducts performance evaluations and handles payroll. The US liaison operation of i-Vantage has also shared office space with St. Croix.

Founded in 1993, St. Croix develops clinical engineering and maintenance management software and launched its software development center in India in 2002 as a cost-savings measure.

Mr. Stenger joined St. Croix just before the Indian facility opened. Before joining St. Croix, Mr. Stenger had been the president of a Chicago-based company he founded that developed custom software.

He had managed several projects involving offshore programming teams. His prior experience involved using foreign workers for programming only. He argues that it is critical for software design — what he calls the most important part of any project — to be handled by US-based designers who work closely with clients.

"The communication, cultural and distance challenges would make it very difficult for an offshore team from India or Eastern Europe to design a software application for a US client," he said.

In some ways, however, Mr. Stenger said having offshore programmers is really no different than having them "across the hall."

–> TIP #2. Plan to spend a greater amount of time in the design phase of your project when using offshore programmers.

"In both situations, it pays to have a thorough design with meticulous attention to detail. Well written, comprehensive documentation, a technical architecture developed by an experienced engineers and client-reviewed mock-ups lead to efficient software development," he said.

With offshore programmers, Mr. Stenger said, it is even more important to ensure that the design phase of a project receives strong attention. "Short-changing the design phase is likely to have a larger negative impact on offshore development projects than on projects where the entire team is in one location," he said.

He offered an example: "If I'm managing a software project with an on-site programming team and I neglect to document the functionality of a button, the programmer can [walk over and] say, ÔHey, Jeff, how is this button supposed to work?'"

With programmers around the world, the oversight will surely cause a more lengthy delay in development.

St. Croix, he said, entered its Indian partnership with its technical issues well developed and strongly documented.

He said the entire St. Croix experience in India has been incredibly positive from both a financial as well as a human relations perspective.

He said he considers all 15 team members in India to be his friends. "I have definitely gotten to know all of them. Our team has become a small family," he said.

Mr. Stenger has traveled to India to work with his team members, but most of their communication has been over the Internet.

–> TIP #3. Don't rely on the phone.

Mr. Stenger and his Indian co-workers occasionally talk by phone. But the connections are often bad and, at times, he said it is sometimes difficult to understand his team members because of their accents.

Instead of relying on the often-frustrating phone calls as their primary method of communication, Mr. Stenger said he and his team members now use Yahoo Messenger. "This really helps cutting through the accents," Mr. Stenger said.

Because he is what he called a "night person," Mr. Stenger said he is able to chat with his programmers when they arrive in the morning. During daylight savings time, when it is 9:30 a.m. in India, it is 10 p.m. for Mr. Stenger at his home office in Chicago. He said he is sometimes able to chat with his team members in the morning when those workers are at the end of their days.

–> TIP #4. Lay out specific protocols for written communications.

He said all of his team members speak English, but from time to time, he said he has noticed that they don't all write it with great proficiency.

Laughing, he recalled an error message written by one of his Indian programmers: "You MUST enter string for search."

After this, he said he learned that it's not a good idea for the Indian programmers to write error messages. Instead, he said, St. Croix has developed strict protocol for error messages and closely oversees any writing that programmers do.

St. Croix has "interface standards" for each programming language that is used. These standards are spelled out in a document that covers such issues as error messages, screen layouts and button sizes.

For Clarion, one of the programming languages St. Croix uses, an eight-page document offers precise directions. For instance, the protocols for a list box say: "When a list box is used, there should be vertical lines between the columns." A screen image is printed next to the directions.

Instructions for error messages are equally precise. "In our standard security message, the title bar should always show, ÔSecurity Rights Error.' Unlike the window above, the message should end with a period. The keyboard shortcut for Alt-O should always be active."

The standards document continues: "When an informational message is displayed informing the user that a function is not available, the title bar should read ÔFunction Unavailable.' For example, if the [Rental History] toolbar button is clicked when a non-rental device is selected, the information message should be titled ÔFunction Unavailable and the message should read, ÔPlease select a rental device.'"

He said this kind of a document is a good idea for any software development team, but especially valuable in foreign countries where there are varying degrees of comfort with the English language.

Mr. Stenger said he believes that writing English properly is a widespread problem throughout India. "When we have been hiring and looking at resumes, we have noticed a lot of typos on resumes — they call them CVs. It mystifies me. I just don't get it. They will be filled with grammar errors."

Mr. Stenger said the errors on resumes definitely give him pause when making hiring decisions. "What you do is look for those that are better than the others. But there are errors on almost every single resume," he said.

–> TIP #5. Expect to add some new expressions to your American vernacular.

Mr. Stenger said he has adopted some Indian phrases himself:

  • "Yeah or "yep" for "Yes."
  • "Out of station" for "out of town."
  • "I will do the needful" for "I will take care of it."
  • "On leave" for "on vacation."
  • "Native place" for "home town."

Mr. Stenger said in the seven years that he has been working with offshore teams, he has come to appreciate the value that can come from the partnerships — personal bonds, financial gains and technological excellence.

But he cautioned, "There are a lot of failed offshore development projects. One source of failed projects is a lack of clarity up-front."

Useful Links:

St. Croix Systems
http://www.stcroixsystems.com/

i-Vantage
http://www.i-vantage.com/

Working with India: What To Know before You Go (18 Practical Tips To Prepare You)
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Webcast: Working with India: What To Know before You Go
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