SOLVING OFFSHORE COMMUNICATION PROBLEMS

by Benjamin Venegas

When I first joined Bixly, we were still a small start-up with just under a handful of active developers. Over the years, our team has expanded into what is now an international group many times larger and growing.
When discussing offshore team-members with our American clients, however, I have found myself addressing many of the same hesitations and fears: language-barriers, time-zone differences, commitment vs. distance, etc.
One such issue that is not perhaps given enough consideration, or rather, is often lumped under the umbrella of ‘Cultural Differences’, is the communication and “authority gap” with foreign devs.
At Bixly, we’ve seen how it can dramatically raise the success of development.
The Power Distance Index
In exploring this critical communication element, let me first reference a study conducted by a cultural psychologist named Geert Hofsteded, where he tracked attitudes towards superiors among selected world countries. Hofsteded developed a numeric value, called the Power Distance Index, which defines how a person would generally react to an authoritarian figure.
In countries with high PDI (in no way related to it’s acronym-cousin PDA) it is expected that subordinates maintain a respectful, or reverent, distance from their superiors.
Conversely, cultures with low power distance see those in power as more approachable and their decisions more negotiable. In other words, the higher PDI, the less likely subordinates were to question authority.
Looking at outsourcing mishaps through this lens, it’s easier to see how many client-developer partnerships are primed for failure when you consider PDI scores that are dramatically misaligned.
A Common PDI Example
Take, as a fictitious example, an American company hiring a freelance programmer from Russia for a weeklong project. If the Power Distance Index is to be taken into account, you should note that the United States scores in the forties and Russia in the nineties.

In our example, the details of the project were outlined in a document that was drafted by the American Project Manager (let’s call him Sam) and a meeting was scheduled on Day One with the Russian developer (let’s call him Ivan). After Ivan asked a few questions regarding the project, Sam closed the meeting pleased, assured of Ivan’s understanding of the project, and a deadline for completion was set.
Consequences of the PDI Gap
In alignment with a high cultural PDI score, Ivan strongly believes that disagreement is a sign of disrespect. In this manager-subordinate relationship, he was hesitant to contradict Sam on a few key decisions during their first meeting, even though Ivan’s suggestions were definitely worth adopting. Ivan found Sam’s deadline to be unrealistic but did not want to usurp his authority by saying so.
Lastly, Ivan wished that this crucial, initial hand-off meeting had lasted longer as there were several more questions that he wanted to ask to ensure that he fully understood the project. He ended the meeting when Sam wished to because he was sensitive to the fact that Sam is in charge and calls the shots.
Now, it’s easy to predict how this project will fare, isn’t it? While there are many additional factors involved, and the PDI is a generalization, I’m inclined to believe that the Sam/Ivan scenario is one to which many of you can relate.
What about Bixly?
Bixly has been fortunate to employ an expanding team of developers based in the Philippines. According to Geert Hofsteded’s PDI, the Philippines ranks ninety-four. As I began to research more this notion of a power index, it seemed to cohere perfectly with Bixly’s experiences hiring internationally; it was common for us to encounter pronounced hesitation, at times, to voice concerns, contradict, or be proactive without specific instruction.
Such candidates, despite their skill, were not brought onto the Bixly Team.
Acknowledging the way that each of our team-members interacts with authority is important to Bixly. I’m proud to be a part of a company that seeks to understand these differences and create a system where communication is cornerstone. Here is how we do it.
Bixly’s Solution
Countries like the Philippines score nearly double that of the US with regard to PDI. I will be transparent when I say that Bixly has recognized – and our Philippines-based developers would admit it – a unique, respectful tendency among our international programmers. While we want our developers to be respectful of our client’s choices and to follow their specific instructions, we also expect them to voice their suggestions or concerns when necessary and to move independently when given that freedom.
This is a part of Bixly’s evaluation when we test and monitor a potential hire – their willingness to communicate (or lack thereof) is as crucial to us as is their code-quality and speed.
Secondly, Bixly’s management team is based in California. Even though there’s no assurance that an American can oversee a project better than anyone else (certainly not!), the choice is deliberate for two reasons.
First, a majority of our clients are located in the U.S. and having our PM’s relate to our clients’ needs and work within U.S. time zones is beneficial to communication.
More importantly, simply by having a project manager (of any nationality), there is a natural liaison made between client and developer. From a developer’s perspective, the project manager is approachable and familiar in a way that our clients (particularly new ones) may not be. That already established, trusted relationship encourages feedback and positive criticisms as well.
As an Account Executive at Bixly, it’s my job to ensure that any issues, like a cultural miss-match, are remedied. Understanding and bridging the differences in PDI between our developers, project managers, and clients is one of the major ways we are continually improving the way that we do business.
Feedback & Questions
As a Bixly client, I would love to gather your feedback on this topic in particular. For those of you that have worked before with a Bixly developer based outside of the United States: Have you experienced a certain hesitance or shyness to speak out? Is this a problem worthy of more effort on our part?
For those of you that are considering booking one of our international programmers, I hope that this article serves as an assurance that these subjects are on our mind. I’d be happy to discuss how our development team is a superb option in remote development.
Send me your thoughts: ben@bixly.com
-Benjamin Venegas
Account Executive, Bixly.com