Sunday, July 18, 2010

Musings on free agents

Anyone who happens to be a sports critique –and most Americans claim to be one – wouldn’t have missed the recent drama over the free agent, LeBron James signing up with Miami heats after being courted by several NBA franchises in a high profile televised drama. Though I wouldn't claim to be an armchair sports enthusiast, even I couldn’t stay away from the news that was in the headline for almost a week.

This idea of a free-agent being courted for his rock-star abilities brought back thoughts of earlier research on the topic when I first read Daniel Pink’s book Free Agent Nation. This was over six years ago and I also wrote a couple of articles on the topic then (links below). A lot has happened, even in the world of technology management that is redefining the role of free-agents.
  • Continuing economic downturn. Major economies around the globe are still struggling to get over the slump. Unemployment continues to be high in many western economies, and anti-globalization sentiment continues be fueled by the media. In some economies, protectionism also means tightening of immigration controls and restrictions on free movement of goods and services across national boundaries. If there is a silver, lining it is in the tech sector. Tech companies are looking beyond the slump and are beginning to invest for the future. Even other non-tech companies are beginning to increase their tech spending, albeit selectively, in preparing for the economic recovery. Sourcing and offshoring continues to grow, reflecting in steady growth and earnings being posted by tech services companies. (WSJ: Strong 1Q Earnings Hopes Buoy IT Stocks).
  • Globalization and maturing of offshoring: Maturing of offshoring IT services has meant that organizations are no longer trudging through unchartered waters when it comes to defining processes to manage globally distributed teams, and managing projects across time zones and cultures. Sure, operational challenges remain, but the best practices are also maturing. What this means is that there is lesser need for "strategic thinkers" to define newer business processes but a greater need for managers who can orchestrate and execute to the speck.

The trends are leading many to think that the role of free agent is not ‘truly free’ to market. A knowledge of organizational dynamics, constraints and culture is as important as the managerial ability one brings to the table. Offshoring vendors are looking to groom managers who understand their internal processes and culture, while poaching specialist ‘talent’ that can execute, leading to a high turnover among service companies, especially in mature offshoring markets like India.

Given the two trends – continuing economic downturn and maturing offshoring IT services – I have been reflecting on the role of free agents in this sector. Personally, I continue to enjoy my role as an Enterprise Architecture Consultant, enjoying the variety of moving from gig-to-gig, advising clients on complex problems and helping them see ‘outside the box.’ In a sense, Ienjoy being a free-agent while continuing to draw a paycheck from my employer. A hybrid free-agent if you will.

Reflecting on LeBron James’ drama, one wonders if we are likely to see true-free agents in the tech sector anytime soon?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Career mistake: Is anti-sourcing viewpoint a Career-limiting-move for a seasoned technology professional?

Basab, a former Infosys executive recently posted a query on his blog: Why is Local Hiring in Offshore Services so Sparse? The post also generated several comments, most from those in the sourcing industry, who sounded like hiring managers who had failed in their attempts at scaling up hiring of locals in the west.

I would extend Basab's query to ask if anti-sourcing viewpoint a Career-limiting-move for a seasoned technology professional in the west?

A while ago, I posted my two cents on the topic online, based on my observations from inside the industry and also inputs I gave to my former colleagues and acquaintances about internal dynamics at Indian software service firms, their recruitment strategies.

At a more rudimentary level, lack of local hiring may also have something to do with the hunger of 'Kids' in India and China, eager to explore global opportunities

During a seminar on globalization that I attended nearly a decade ago, the late Prof. C.K Prahalad gave a keynote address where he talked about some of the key drivers. An example he quoted stood out. While explaining the tenacity of Indian professionals, he alluded to the fact that the real edge of people from India and other developing economies moving to the west to participate in global projects was their cultural adaptability forced by the economic disparity between their home countries and the client countries. Prof. Prahalad gave an example of "a kid fresh from engineering college in a small town, say Tumkur, in South India" more than willing to relocate to any corner of the globe with minimal lead time. The ‘kid,’ said Prahalad, needed little cultural re-orientation or insights, and was motivated enough to travel with just his passport stamped with a visa, a few technical manuals, the address of the motel and client and some traveler’s checks.

Nearly a decade after I heard Prof Prahalad's talk, the Indian services industry has grown exponentially, employing over two million in India, many of them “kids” a few years out of college; the example he quoted still holds true. The fact is that offshoring has become a widely accepted business practice. So much so that one doesn’t even need a book (including my ) to guide one through the nuances.

While this has happened, some technologists and professionals in the west still cling on to the notion that offshoring is a passing fad, which is also probably a reason why Local Hiring in Offshore Services sparse. Let us take the example of James McGovern. I have been following his blog on technology and Enterprise Architecture for a while. He is certainly opinionated – as any good blogger should be – and has shared his views on a wide ranging topics. However, when it comes to sourcing, especially offshoring, his views have been bordering on protectionism and nationalism. Sometimes ignoring the general business practice. The past few of James’ blog posts have been on his career mistakes. One reason James does not address in his list: are professionals like him ignoring opportunities in sourcing managing because of their personal views on protectionism and globalization?

- Mohan


Monday, July 5, 2010

The business of spying and Business Intelligence

Last week the American news was all abuzz with the arrest of a ring of Russian Suspects' leading "Unremarkable Lives" among Americans in the suburbia. NYT article describes the arrest thus
"On June 27, 2010, 10 people in Yonkers, Boston and northern Virginia were arrested and accused of being part of a Russian espionage ring, living under false names and deep cover in a patient scheme to penetrate what one coded message called American "policy making circles." The next day, an 11th accused member of the ring was arrested at an airport in Cyprus while trying to leave for Budapest. . . The arrests were the result of an F.B.I. investigation that began at least seven years ago."

The media a field day, all the more since the story had all ingredients of a racy spy novel “A ring of 10 Russian moles right out of a Cold War spy novel was smashed yesterday - and among those busted was a flame-haired, 007- worthy beauty who flitted from high-profile parties to top-secret meetings around Manhattan.” Including an international ring to it (Russin spies using a British Passport in America!)

In an ironic twist, the American Central Intelligence Agency was celebrating 4th of July with a remembrance of Agency U-2 Pilots: Hervey Stockman “On July 4, 1956, Hervey Stockman piloted a U-2 through the skies over the Soviet Union (re: Front page of CIA website). I was intrigued by the existence of Foreign Agents Registration Act, "The Foreign Agents Registration Act is a United States law passed in 1938 requiring that agents representing the interests of foreign powers be properly identified to the American public." I wonder if Mr. Stockman, while spying over Russia had to register with the Russian government as a "Foreign Agent"

Growing up in India, I recall the Indian media having a field day over stories of Pakistani spy rings busted every so often. A saga that continues to this day: A few months ago, media was buzzing with sordid details of the arrest of an Indian diplomat, Madhuri Gupta, accused of spying for Pakistan while stationed in Pakistan. A real cloak-and-dagger if you will.

Switching gears, espionage is very much present in the business world, aided by sophisticated Information Technology and techniques, also called “Business Intelligence.” I remember being fascinated by the story of corporate espionage chronicled in novel The Informant that I read a few years ago. And then, there is the not-so-glamorous Intelligence gathering that we come across in the corporate world. Just a few examples in the software services sector that we regularly encounter:

· Who got the highest share of the bonus this quarter?
· Gathering information on a colleague who might be looking out for a new job . . . and passing on that ‘Intelligence” to your boss
· Getting access to the recommendations of the “Strategy Planning” exercise done by your competitor for the Director/VP that your firm works closely with
· Finding details – financials - of a proposal being submitted by a competing vendor
· The list could go on . . .