Saturday, March 19, 2011

An Entrenched Offshore Engagement

I am back consulting for client after a hiatus of three years. The last time around, they had just made a major push to outsource their software development work. The old hands in the company were still around, took pride in the products they had built and were accepting the new order grudgingly at best. The offshore team was expected to deliver high quality and when they failed, they were excoriated to put it mildly. If the B team did not cut the mustard, the vendor made sure they replaced them with A+ players.
Someone like myself was able to work with the customer and help deliver a durable solution that met their business needs. It was a long and frequently aggravating process to reach the finish line but we still made it - the technical lead was typically an employee who functioned as the architect and oversaw the delivery. I remember sitting through some very brutal code review sessions after which forty to sixty hours of work was trashed and redone.That was then and this is now. 
The transformation that has taken place in the last three years is unbelievable. Many of the former tech leads have been let go. The few that remain have assumed more managerial positions. Some of them overseeing upwards of forty development resources. They are stretched too thin to provide any useful technical direction. When they are able they have to deal with resources who simply do not have the technical chops to execute on their direction. Used to be that the offshore resources were held to a high bar - made to redo work until its quality was up to par. Not so anymore. They operate in drone mode with no technical leadership from either the client or their own organization. To cut costs, business analysts have been dispensed with. Developers with two to three years of industry experience work directly with business customers to deliver a patch work of bad solutions that is always ready to fall apart. Defects have become hydra headed monsters. Fixing one, opens up ten others and the cycle never ends. Fire fighting is the new business as usual.
The vendor bills the client for the hours and the hours are astronomical. I recently wrapped up another consulting engagement where the client had their entire development crew in-house. Mostly full time employees and a few local senior consultants with niche skills. The IT shop cost this client ten times more than what it does my current client but when you compute the first time right stats along with earned value metrics with regards to schedule and cost, they come out far ahead even with their high priced resources. The estimated hours for any task were within ten percent of the actual hours. My current client routinely sees overages of two hundred percent. Schedules are mostly ornamental with projects habitually going over schedule by six to eight months.
That is the cost side of the story. The far more tragic one is that of quality of the product delivered and the business customer's willingness to settle for any piece of trash that is delivered to them in the name of a system or an application. User experience is a non-existent concept as are stability and performance. Some of the applications have interfaces that remind me of primitive client server applications from the early 90s yet the tool set being used is absolute state of the art. It never ceases to amaze me that they are able to go that far backward in aesthetics and functionality. Each time there is a crisis (which is several times a week), it is all hands on deck to band aid and stop the bleeding. When enough damage happens they decide to lop off the limb and hope that the rest of body can remain functional. 
I was brought in to shore up a highly dysfunctional team and while the I have had success in covering some of the most gaping holes, dysfunctionality is far from gone. I am beginning to realize the problem is likely not a solvable one. The customer no longer knows that they deserve better, that  the quality of what they being served is third rate (if that) or that analysis must always precede solution development. They have come to accept and indeed support the modus operandi of band aid as long as possible, hack limb and sew in a new one when it becomes available. Repeat cycle ad nauseum. It used to that the customer was discerning enough to know that they were not being served well. They realized there was value in pausing for analysis (even if it took a couple of days) to be completed before a defect was fixed. With all that gone, the vendor has no incentive to change the way they do business. Those of us in the metrics business, are expected to provide analysis on root cause of issues, identify process gaps but any recommendation on remediation is usually met with apathy and inaction. It is  enough to have a system that would identify the guilty party and assign blame.Since it is the offshore vendor's show all the way, no matter how you slice the data, they are always at fault. With that, life goes on after statuses have been reported up, executive summaries presented and the de rigeur hand wringing and finger pointing done. 

It has been quite an eye popping experience for me to see what an entrenched offshore engagement looks like and should serve as a cautionary tale for those who  have recently embarked along this path.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Inspirational Woman

When strong is used in the context of women, often it implies strength at the cost of lost femininity. To be tough and womanly at the same time is a hard balance to strike. So you have the boss who cracks the whip and simply does not tolerate incompetence or insubordination. Her expensive clothes and accessories drip power and control instead of chic. On a "lesser" woman they may have made a fashion statement but not on her. Superficially there is nothing less feminine about the strong woman - she is just as attractive, blessed with just as much fashion sense as anyone else but in her mind she is strength first and woman later. She does not want gender to bias her or those who interact with her.

I met Yvonne for the first time about five years ago. At the time, she was going through crisis in her marriage. Her husband had been cheating on her for a while and growing indiscreet about it. Her friends would find him with the other woman at restaurants and movies. The day she found her husband with his girlfriend in her own living room, she left home carrying with only things she had bought with her own money.

Yvonne had a high school education and a twenty year old son who was struggling to stay employed. Her day job while a steady one did not pay very well. To supplement her income she worked as a store manager at a local grocery store. For the year we worked together, her wardrobe was limited to two pairs of jeans, half a dozen tee shirts and a couple of coats for winter. Everything she earned was going to pay the divorce attorney and rent. Unless you knew her well, you would never know how much she was suffering. Her spirits were always high, she took pleasure in the smallest wins in a time was incredibly difficult for her. If there was anything she could do to help another person, she would even without being asked. Her son floundered from one part time job to the next and had no motivation to go to college. Yvonne, dealt with the conflict every parent endures in that situation - whether to prop him up and enable him or allow him to fail and fall hard no matter how much it hurt. She chose the later option.

I met Yvonne again recently. A lot has changed. Her son died in an a car accident in which she was very seriously injured. Needless to say the car was totaled. The incident happened after a particularly nasty spat with her soon to be ex husband. Reconstructing her face after the accident took over a year. The divorce is finally coming through though the terms are not to her satisfaction. She managed to squeeze in an undergraduate degree in the middle of all this and got two promotions at the job. She makes more money now than she ever has in her life. The events of the past three years have taken their toll on her face but she looks very fit - athletic even. I complimented her on being is such perfect shape at close to fifty. There is bounce in her step and her wardrobe has undergone the most amazing transformation. She has almost reversed her age to where physically she looks a lot younger now than she did a few years ago. "I want to look my best for the court date - you know when I get my divorce decree. Ted has been a helping me a lot".

Ted is Yvonne's boyfriend. They have been going steady for a couple of years now. Her face radiates joy whenever she talks about him. They workout together every day so she can be good and ready for the big event coming up. "When I see him there at the court, I want him to see that he could not take anything away from me. I have made peace with losing Kenny and don't blame him for it anymore" Her ex-husband is a very successful man who had married Yvonne for her youth and good looks. As they started to fade, he moved on to someone else who met his needs. What happened to Yvonne's marriage is commonplace but how she responded to her circumstances is what sets her apart - makes her an absolutely inspirational woman.

There is nothing that can make up for the loss of her son. The fact that she has been able to make peace with that is a testament to her inner strength. She rose like a Phoenix from the ashes in all her splendor. Yvonne is inspiration to any woman who feels like a victim, feels like her life could not grow any more difficult, that the world has wronged her and she deserves better. She took on a combination of adversities very few have the misfortune to face in their lives and transformed it into energy to thrust her ahead. In her heart she is still a woman, capable of falling in love and nurturing a romance. When she walks with her head held high, her body in the best shape its probably ever been, she still turns heads. She is everything a woman can be if she has the courage to take on her lot in life without flinching.