Global toolbox

Shape the process for managing an offshore IT operation into a pyramid, and at the top are personal visits. Directly below that are videoconferences, followed by telephone calls, e-mail, instant messaging and distributed software development tools. At the bottom are daily, weekly and monthly reports.

One person who has used many of those pyramid levels is Rao Vellanki, operations manager at Best Buy. Vellanki moved from India to the U.S. in 1977 at the age of 24 and lives in the Minneapolis area. But last year, he returned to India for a two-year assignment to manage Best Buy's offshore development in Chennai.

The electronics retailer has several hundred developers in India, many with outsourcer Wipro, to handle the management and development of more than 500 applications.

Vellanki relies on a variety of methods to communicate with the home office, but one important tool is videoconferencing. "There is no question, in my view, that seeing the faces adds to the effectiveness of communications," he says. Vellanki adds that videoconferencing technology needs to improve, but it does the job. "The personal touch is there, the integrity is there -- even though it's only an intangible, we find it unavoidable," he says.

Manage Your Contractors

There are tools and techniques for managing every aspect of offshore work. For instance, Fieldglass in Chicago has software for procuring and managing contract IT labor. And Elance has software for procuring services and managing the contractual relationship. Elance's software automates the tasks of contract compliance and payment schedules: If the contractor hits the milestones, it gets paid; if it doesn't, there are financial penalties.

On the more nitty-gritty level of software development, there are collaborative software development tools. Users say these tools are good for quickly assembling relevant data while ensuring that everyone involved has a shared view of the information. This often means keeping e-mails addressing particular issues in a central location and making sure they are cross-referenced.

Best Buy relies on Wipro's project management tools, such as Cocoon, which tracks projects and their progress and provides for a discussion forum, among other features. Outsourcing vendor Cognizant Technology Solutions in Teaneck, N.J., also makes its own collaboration environment, called eCockPit. In addition, there are third-party tools for distributed software development.

Phillip Lindsay, chief architect at Data Trace Information Services in Anaheim, Calif., says he'd prefer to bring all software developers into the same room to review projects. But with about half of his 18-member development team in India, that's not an option.

"It's currently difficult to do software development in one location, and it's even harder to do it in two locations in two time zones," he says. "Add in a radically different time zone, culture, country, connectivity -- just phone calls sometimes are laborious."

Lindsay uses a distributed software development tool called SourceCast from CollabNet. SourceCast is designed to work in a WAN and manages development work in a source-code repository. If a file changes overnight, those changes are seen immediately. "Conflicts are found in real time, and that reduces the cost," he says.

Software tools can help, but managing offshore contractors often requires a personal touch. For example, Wipro has workers at Best Buy's U.S. headquarters. And Lindsay says Data Trace has an employee from India who is helping his team with cultural and language issues.

The same tools and techniques that work for managing offshore software developers can also work for offshore manufacturing, says Mark Goldberg, a vice president at Koret of California, a clothing manufacturer.

Koret does all its manufacturing offshore and doesn't want to maintain inventory. Goldberg uses Internet-based software developed by New Generation Computing to keep track of the manufacturing operations. Everyone involved in the manufacturing process enters data into the system, so "there is no question about who owns that piece of information, who is responsible," he says.

Alan Brooks, who founded New Generation in 1982, says a big part of managing diverse work sites is understanding the thousands of details involved. Brooks has developed tools he uses to manage software development applying the same methods he uses to manage offshore manufacturing. His advice to IT managers developing software overseas: Approach it like manufacturing a physical product -- consider every aspect of the life cycle.

"I think making software is manufacturing," he says.

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