Surviving the tech manager's global squeeze

More and more IT projects involve teams from around the world, and project leaders are asked to work 24/7. It's time to stop the madness.

It's the new reality of IT: working as part of a global team, with coworker and outsourcers all over the world, coordinated by a project manager at headquarters. But that reality can be ugly, as managers are stretched across time zones, with no such thing as being off the clock. Work quality, commitment, and communications vary considerably, putting the burden on the manager caught in the middle to make it all work -- from thousands of miles away.

For many companies, the results are bad: Thousands, sometimes millions of dollars in wasted efforts. Software and other tech projects that don't deliver as promised. Burned-out IT managers who leave if they can, and give up if they can't.

Unfortunately, there's no easy solution. Making global project management work requires compromises all around, compromises to which executive management are often blind and that teams in different countries see only partially, making it hard to come to a common arrangement.

Caught in the middle: Stories from the inside

Consider the case of Jill (not her real name), a project manager in a global consumer products firm. She works in the United States, but the hardware and software development teams are in India, China, and Sweden. The Swedes refuse to work outside local business hours, so she has to have meetings with them between midnight and 7 a.m. in her time zone. The Indians typically give positive status reports but say nothing when they miss delivery schedules -- even when she asks directly -- so Jill can't trust what they say and has no idea what the project status really is. The Chinese often implement code strictly to specification, not raising issues when the intent of the project isn't supported by the specs. Quality suffers. They don't respond to her requests to raise such issues before completing the code.

Jill says her US managers don't care about any of these issues, saying it's her problem to figure out and that all that matters is that something ships on schedule. She's still at the company, but actively looking to leave.

At a major pharmaceutical company, Darren (also not his real name), had a similar Alice in Wonderland experience, dealing with outsourcers in India. Darren knew that something was wrong with the offshoring project on his first day on the job, when he couldn't find the on-site relationship manager. It took a whole week to locate him. The pharmaceutical company never considered the outsourcing staff to be part of the team, Darren says. So -- surprise, surprise -- the offshore team wasn't well integrated with the company's own staff, there were big communication issues, and deadlines and project goals weren't being met.

Darren got on a plane and flew to India, where he got an earful. The Indian developers were unhappy, and turnover was high. "The reason for the turnover was that we were not treating them like team members -- we weren't giving them the good work," says Darren. "We were giving them the crap work." At the same time, the Indian vendor did nothing to help create the missing process controls that were frustrating the project. "To me, the offshoring vendor was taking advantage of the situation," Darren says.

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