By Dennis Barker
In the big international competition with India and other low-cost outsourcing destinations, some Nearshore IT providers have been taking their game to the next level (apologies for the sports cliche) by adopting agile software-development methods. And one of the keys to helping teams become skilled agile players is to hire or train good coaches – leaders who are certified scrum masters.
(Scrum is defined by the Scrum Alliance as “an agile framework for completing complex projects.” The term was adapted from rugby – hence the sports cliche – in a 1986 study by Takeuchi and Nonaka that alluded to a team trying to “go the distance as a unit, passing the ball back and forth.”)
If Nearshore outsourcers are to keep up with the growing demand for agile development, they will have to turn out more genuine scrum experts.
Agile development in Latin America “is becoming more popular, more companies are seriously embracing it,” says Hubert Smits, a certified scrum master as well as a certified scrum trainer – one of about 150 on the planet. “Agile in general is growing really fast worldwide,” he says. “I recently did some classes at GE, where thousands of people have been trained, and the situation is the same at Cisco and some other companies focused on advancing their technology.”
But among the IT outsourcing nations, Latin America has advantages that give it an edge in terms of agile development. Not to belabor the Nearshore region’s geographic and time-zone proximity – but those are even bigger advantages when using agile techniques, which rely on spontaneous collaboration and quick communication. When one team is sprinting, as agile practitioners might say, and the other is sleeping, that tends to put a crimp in progress.
What’s more significant is a human, or cultural, trait. “I just came back from three weeks of training in India,” says Smits, who has taught agile methods in many places around the world. “One thing about scrum and agile is that teams are self-organizing. But in India, it’s all about being organized by bosses: ‘What do I do next?’ What I see in South America, though, is a culture that is closer to American or Western thinking, so when you ask a team to self-organize, they don’t say ‘What do you mean?’”
“Letting teams self-organize turns out to be more efficient,” Smits says, “because smart people organize really well. Teams that are self-organized deliver faster. That’s one advantage over micromanaged, plan-driven teams.”
The Agile Nations
Smits, who currently runs an independent management consultancy, has been involved in outsourcing for about 15 years. After working with providers in India, he became attracted to Latin America “for timing reasons.”
“When I did my initial selection of software outsourcers in Latin America, looking specifically for agile teams and not generic software companies,” Smits says, “a few countries popped up consistently: Costa Rica, Brazil, Argentina, Chile… Brazil has larger numbers of agile developers due to its sheer size, closely followed by Argentina. Chile is a whole lot smaller, but their focus is on knowledge and dedication, so they caught my interest.”
Costa Rica fell off the final list because “the economics worked against it…. I love the country, but if all things are equal in terms of knowledge and skills, it comes down to the cost. We still outsource for cost-effectiveness.”
In Brazil he found mostly large outsourcing companies with agile teams but they “lacked broad implementation,” plus the economics. Also, he says, “Spanish is easier than Portuguese.”
Chile “was too much of an unknown for me, and I couldn’t find references.”
Smits says he ended up choosing Argentina because of the economics and the language skills, but mainly because he found a company, Belatrix Software Factory, “where everyone knows agile, including the sales people. Working with a company where everyone has several years of agile experience under their belt was a key driver.” Plus, Argentina labor rates are only “slightly higher” than India rates, he says.
Belatrix is certainly not the only company in Argentina with agile developers and enthusiasm for that approach. At Common Sense, for example, “our employees are very excited about using agile methods, and the benefits” that result, says Sergio Marchetti, Chief Technology Officer. “We saw quickly how project management became more efficient.” Marchetti says that CS recommends agile methods to any clients that do not have their own preferred methodology.”
And Ci&T, although founded in Brazil, supports US clients from its development center in Argentina, and is definitely one of the region’s biggest proponents of agile development. Ci&T Vice President Leonardo Mattiazzi has written about the benefits of agile methods and lean principles in the context of the Nearshore here , here and here.
But Belatrix appears to be eager to become one of the country’s masters of scrum mastery. The company has enlisted Smits to conduct scrum training this week at its offices in Mendoza. Although the number of trainers is growing in Brazil, this type of course typically takes place in the US, which is part of the reason the ratio of scrum experts in the region is low. Marchetti took his in San Antonio, Texas.
Smits describes the two-day Certified Scrum Master Training class as “a mix of theory and implementation, stories, what goes right, what goes wrong, and exercises… actually doing it. You can read books about swimming, but you have to get into the pool to learn to swim.”
The goal is to certify “every single project leader at Belatrix as a Scrum Master,” says Alex Robbio, vice president of business development. The company is also sponsoring two days of training that’s open to people outside of Belatrix “to promote the growth of agile development in the region,” he says. “After December, from 40 to 50 people will join the ranks of Certified Scrum Masters.”
Advice for Agile Seekers
“If you look at the big picture, agile development is still a minority,” Smits says. “But more and more companies are outsourcing agile work. It’s maybe only 10% or 20% right now, but definitely growing. I recently did some training at GE’s healthcare division, and about 50% of their projects are now agile. Cisco is close to 50% too. Both are migrating software development away from the waterfall method.”
But, Smits points out, agile is “not a silver bullet.”
“Some managers read that agile is cheaper-better-faster, but that’s not true. If you hire people who are not versed in software development, it won’t work out,” he says. “You have to have good teams, people not only well-versed in software but also inclined to not require being micromanaged.”
“There are so many companies jumping on the agile bandwagon that it almost gets creepy,” Smits says. As a result, clients have to dig deeper than marketing tags.
Hubert Smits is running Scrum classes in Mendoza, Argentina, courtesy of Belatrix
“One company I talked to had a good sales pitch on why they were agile, but they had imported nearly three dozen Indian programmers with agile experience. They took 30 people out of their culture but claimed they are agile and Nearshore. That I distrust. You’re importing people who might not even like the South American culture. Another company claimed to be agile but only the sales guy knew a lot about it. Sometimes you might talk to a project lead who has just read a few articles. Fortunately it doesn’t take long to figure that out,” Smits says. “It has gotten to the point you have to be careful it’s not a facade.”
As is the case with buying anything, you have to know what you’re buying, and you have to know what you really need. “You have to separate going agile from finding a Nearshore partner that can serve your requirements. That’s the important part. If you don’t know what agile means, what it entails, learn that first. If you just need outsourcing, separate that out. Going agile is a big step for a lot of companies. It’s a cultural change.”
Meanwhile, if the demand for agile development continues to grow, which seems likely considering the direction GE and other big corporations are taking, Nearshore software teams – if they can produce enough talented players and invest in the right training – have a big opportunity to shoot and score.
This article was originally published on Nearshore Americas