Working with Indians

Indian dress

Working with people from other cultures is always a challenge. The best approach is to always assume people are great unless proven otherwise. To build bridges, be open and seek to understand before casting judgment.

Prelude

Once upon a time, I had a project that was in dire need of more developers. Our company has a new strategy for cases like this, my boss told me. We have a new office in India, and they provide projects with people. This conversation happened in the evening. 

Next day on my way to work, I got a call from a strange number. 

“Hi there, I’m the Country Head for India, I heard you need people for the project,” the voice said. 

“Wow, they are fast,” I thought.

Scary stories

I’ve heard many stories about poor cooperation between Indian and European teams. When I inquired for details, a pattern emerged. Work packages were prepared and shipped to India, then there was silence, but when it was time to integrate the results with the rest of the system, all hell broke loose. Rework, bugs, budget overflow, you name it. History is always written by the winners, from their honest and impartial perspective. I think the title was along the lines of “we’re not racist, but those Indians…” 

I had similar experience from the other side of the equation. I once had a development team in Poland and a client in Germany. The client had dumped a lot of poorly written requirements on us, called it a “scope,” and refused to cooperate. I had to determine the delivery date, though. I gave a provisional date with a long list of premises. Many of them pointed out the need for fixing “the scope.” The date was considered an unconditional sacred vow. I remained cut off from the client, despite multiple attempts. Then, naturally, all hell broke loose. Rework, bugs, budget overflow, you name it. The budget holders found the guilty one. Of course, it was me. I’m quite sure the tagline of the first escalation call was “we’re not racist, but those Poles…” 

Basic work organization

Okay, so clearly a Chinese wall between teams and late integration of software doesn’t seem to work well. Therefore, I organized this not as outsourcing, but rather as team extension. In short: 

  1. I requested a strong local team leader to take care of the day-to-day. 
  2. I assigned the Indian team a Scrum Master from Poland. So every single day the team had a standup on webex. An architect from Poland was also there, and he stayed afterward to help if someone was blocked. 
  3. All teams were integrating their work to the single repository continuously. 
  4. All teams had the same cadence, same “definition of done,” common Product Backlog and Sprint Review. 

So instead of a Chinese wall, we’ve had daily interactions, instead of hot potato we’ve had a common backlog and fair work distribution, and so on. Nothing spectacular, you may say, but still, this is not the norm in the industry. Hot potato outsourcing is alive and well. So is scapegoating. 

The culture element

Asian cultures are more hierarchical than European ones. One important consequence is that if you give people a task beyond their capacity, they will not push back. They’ll try their best to deliver, even when it’s futile, and they’d have to work overtime. It’s considered impolite to say “no” even to a peer, let alone the higher-up. 

Indians have a high-context communication culture. It means that in order to fully understand, you need to be able to read the context, not just what was said explicitly. The direct message is tactful, allowing everyone to save face. So going back to our telling “no” example, Indians are saying “no” in their own way, indirectly. What you’d actually hear would be something along the lines of “we’ll try.” 

This is obviously mistaken for a “yes,” and this entire Chinese whispers situation starts. The rest is silence. Until it isn’t. 

Epilogue

The project was suffering from many illnesses, but certainly not from the cooperation with Indians. This worked out very well, although it took us all some time to adjust. 

To illustrate the chemistry we were able to build, I’ll share a little story. Once I was telling my daughter that I’m working with Indians now. I explained to her a bit about India. She wanted to play, so I made her a bindi and dressed her accordingly. I took a photo and posted it on Facebook. A couple of weeks later we have a meeting, and guess what? I get a present for my daughter. 

So we sent a thank you letter. Sealed with a kiss.

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