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Re: Silicon Valley is looking to do business in Latin America

This post is in response to a blog comment I received.

Henry Johns in his comment to Silicon Valley is looking to do business in Latin America:
The challenge of getting South and Central America competitive in offshore outsourcing is two fold. Available talent pool, and available talent pool with English language proficiency. It is easy to staff a project team of 50 developers in India. Try doing that in Panama or even Brazil without leveraging English speaking project managers or team leaders with Portuguese speaking developers. Sounds like a plan except many of the developers will not be able to read the project support documents.

The language barrier certainly exists in all places and India has been lucky to have adopted English as an intermediary language even amongst their own citizens. Being fluent in English is definetely their primary competetive advantage. Still I believe it all depends on the type of work to be done and who the clients are.

If the goal is to extend a company's workforce, then the offshore workers need to speak the same language as their onshore colleagues. English helps Indians with the American market. But their advantage diminishes in Europe, as not all and every European speaks English well enough or feels comfortable working in English for that to work out.

I cannot speak for businesses like call centers, help desks, systems support, etc. My topic is software development. Based on experiences with my clients my opinion is teams that were assembled ad-doc by recruiters or other staffing organizations usually don't work well. As in sports a good team needs some time to train together and learn how everybody ticks. Nobody in their right mind would hire a group of guys who have never played together and expect them to win the World Cup. It doesn't matter whether all players are superstars within their respective home teams. Still in software development exactly that is done and then people wonder why it doesn't work and projects fail.

Not everybody on a development team needs to be able to discuss details directly with the customer. But everybody should be listening to what the customer has to say. Not necessarily has this to happen in a classic meeting or conference call in real-time. In my opinion customer feedback is best processed after it has been written down and be read several times regardless whether it's been written in one's mother tongue or a foreign language. And not only is it easier for humans to truly understand the meaning of written text, it can also be machine translated. It's amazing how good Google's English/Spanish machine translation is. I expect it to work even better with more formal content than newspaper articles or blog posts. What is usually missing is a tool that helps the English speaking stakeholders and the Spanish speaking developers to communicate effectively.

My company is working on an agile project management tool called Savila. We are currently investigating how to integrate machine translation for user stories.

Henry Johns adds in his blog comment:

Many countries in Latin America could do the same thing as Microsoft is doing in Canada. Bring in foreign high tech workers to jump start small offshore outsourcing businesses. I get resumes from professionals in India often who want me to sponsor them with an H1b work visa in the U.S. Why not bring them to some place like Panama?

This refers to Microsoft's move to open a development center in the greater Vancouver, Canada, area - just on the other side of the US/Canadian border across from Seattle where Microsoft's headquarters are.

That's certainly an interesting idea. But the language barrier still exists and it is probably even higher. Actually there is a group of Indians teaching computer topics here in Panama. They are employees of the Indian outsourcing and consulting company Tata and their presence is kind of a gift from the Indian government to the government of Panama. All classes are given in English and I have some doubts whether that's entirely useful. For someone without years of speaking a foreign language it's certainly easier to receive the initial training in the language they've grown up with. It's hard to learn two things at the same time and even harder, if thing A is the condition for mastering thing B.

What indeed might make sense is to offer the English speaking Indians a place where it's easier to immigrate to than the US and still be closer to the US than India. Certainly a better idea than to anchor a ship off the coast of California.

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