Thursday, March 26, 2009

Can it work?

As I desperately typed away at the computer, a deadline hanging over my head, I witnessed a strange conversation.

"Choose five letters," my friend was saying. Repeatedly, in fact, as the other guy tried to make sense of this non-sequitur. Now, I can lay back and watch the world go by most of the time, but when I'm in frantic mode and someone is being, well, slow, I get this urge to either slap them senseless or just doing their job for them.

Fortunately for my friend's interlocutor I was typing, not talking on the phone. Unfortunately, for me, my own answer went unheeded. See, my friend was trying to make a point. When he wants to prove something to someone, he tries to engage them in the proof. I sometimes wonder if he realizes this go over the head of most people, who just nod and make sympathetic noises in the hope he will quickly finish his explanation and give the answer they are waiting for. People don't go to restaurants to receive fishing lessons, if you get my drift.

At any rate, this time my friend really made a point. Not the point he wanted to make, but a point nonetheless. That's because the other guy finally realized that, non-sequitur or not, he wasn't going to get his answer until he complied with the request. Thus, the following dialog ensued:

- Choose five letters.
- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
- Do you work at Brave Programmers(*)?
- Huh? Yes...
- So, now choose five numbers.

It's all the rage, these days, to outsource IT work. Well, it's been all the rage for quite a while, but I digress. On paper, it looks terrific. You get real IT experts to do the IT work, and just concentrate on your business. You set all kinds of benchmarks, contract penalties, service level agreements and such, to ensure you make a good deal.

In real life, though, you get someone who cannot choose five letters. It's not that this guy doesn't know what a letter is, of course. He just didn't care enough to pay attention to what was being discussed.

He didn't want to understand what my friend was explaining -- he isn't paid to understand anything -- he just wanted to do the minimum required to accomplish his job. If that meant wasting a whole week playing chinese whispers instead of solving the problem in one hour, so be it.

While I have seen exceptions to it, most outsourcing companies I have worked with do the minimum required by contract. Or, using an analogy, they deliver Notepad, not Word, and they do it charging as much for it as they possibly can.

So I really wonder if outsourcing can ever work. It does look good on paper.

(*) Not the real name, of course.