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Global Reach

Some software vendors see opportunity in providing development tools for globally dispersed teams.
That means companies with international teams sometimes need some do-it-yourself technology to bridge the gaps. Joshi says his development teams try to adopt the project-management software used by the customer or at least build an interface between two systems. Managing the risk of offshore outsourcing "means frequent communication," says Ben Gaucherin, chief technology officer at Sapient Corp., a contract application development firm. One of his favorite tools is an "electronic whiteboard" Sapient built itself. The easel can capture a manager's diagram or handwritten notes and display them in Microsoft's NetMeeting software. That lets developers report to a team on problems that have been solved or are still outstanding by using check lists or charts. Daily use of the whiteboard has "forced us to keep information fresh," Gaucherin says.

Outsourcers are using other new approaches to let overseas customers track their software-development projects. Birlasoft, which operates development centers in India and Australia, is using tools from Mercury Interactive Corp. to create "digital dashboards" that give customers such as General Electric Co. real-time access to project metrics at any point in the software-development life cycle. "When you're offshore and 10,000 miles away, customers want visibility," says Kamal Mansharamani, chief operating officer with Birlasoft, a division of GP-CK Birla Group. "Our customers were telling us, 'We can't touch and feel your processes. We don't know what you're doing.'"

Birlasoft had the IT infrastructure and processes in place to deliver that kind of information to customers because it had taken on a companywide quality-assurance initiative based on Six Sigma methodologies that led to the company's receiving Carnegie Mellon University's Capability Maturity Model Integration, Level 5, certification in April. As a part of that effort, Birlasoft converted manual quality-control processes into what Mansharamani describes as "digital workflows" that are much more efficient.

Now customers can view those internal workflows themselves. Mansharamani says he believes the dashboards eventually will be used to monitor not just software projects but business-process outsourcing.

Anticipating more customers like Birlasoft, Mercury recently opened an office in Bangalore, India. "The outsourcers are using our application-management [software] to measure their performance against service-level agreements," chief marketing officer Christopher Lochhead says. In fact, customers are pushing outsourcers to do it. Without such measures, Lochhead adds, "If you outsource a problem to Bangalore, you've got a problem in Bangalore."

Companies also can increase their visibility into offshore operations by using online code-management systems such as VA Software Corp.'s SourceForge or software from from CollabNet Inc. These products work with project-management software to create repositories of related E-mails about a job and can impose either required daily reporting or allow more informal, ad hoc reporting by team members. Through regular reporting mechanisms, team members are more likely to share information with one another and keep project managers up to date on setbacks or other events, CollabNet VP Bernie Mills says.

Joe Ayers, director of development services for SimSci-Esscor, a unit of Invensys plc that makes software for petrochemical plants, says companies need a constant dialogue with their overseas contractors to keep projects on track. Even then, cultural differences may prevail over all the technology in place to supposedly avoid misunderstanding. "You may think you hear someone say, 'Yes, we're working on it,' but no one is," he says. In some cases, he says, Indian workers don't answer questions as directly as Americans, out of a sense of courtesy. With half his development staff in the United Kingdom and the other half scattered across Hyderabad, Chennai, and Mumbai, India, team-based tools are part of the way he has to do business.

Using advanced tools is no longer optional, he says: "Basically, it boils down to competitive advantage."

-- With John Foley and Rick Whiting

Illustration by David Plunkert

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