Moving to India. Step 2: Cultural differences in Openness

Maarten Winkels

Working abroad has been a wish of mine for some time now. Xebia offers me the opportunity to live and work in India. Through this blog series I will keep you informed of the progress and challenges of this project.

As part of our decision making to take the leap and work and live in India for a longer period, we’ve decided to go to India together for a short period and experience the culture and the situation. At the moment my partner, who could only free two weeks for this short vacation, has not yet arrived and I’m eagerly looking forward to her arrival.

Renewing my acquaintance with India has been a heartwarming experience. All things have improved, since my visit last year, from the state of the new metro-line that is being build, to the traffic jams that seem to be less and the new office is excellent. I still have to be careful with this deliciously dangerous Indian cuisine or I won’t fit my pants in no time. It could be that she’s read my previous post, but these days around lunch time, our friendly Indian secretary helps me pick another copious meal from the for me otherwise completely gibberish menus. The only thing that could be improved is the weather. I left The Netherlands in a dull and gray winter of around 10 C, which is way too high for this time of year, to come to a dull and gray Indian winter of around 11 C, which is way too low for this time of year.

All my colleagues are very much involved with my little project and I’ve got tons of good advice to go on. I haven’t had much time to work on the goals we’ve set for this visit, but I’ve visited a few sites around Gurgaon to get a picture of what life would be like here. It feels a bit strange to be here before my partner arrives, since you could say that the reason of this whole trip is to convince her that making this move is a good idea. While sitting in the cab on the way to the office, I sometimes stare out the window and wonder whether some of the sights that I see might repel her too much to take this leap. Or that they might inspire her, like me, to take the chance and try to get to know this new and different society. Knowing her a little, as I do, I expect her desire to take the chance to be only greater than mine.

Being here also chances the perspective on my work and the project that I’m working on a lot. Basically, the work is the same, but the context and pace are completely different. The most immanent difference is the time lag. When people in The Netherlands have just had their second cup of coffee and are ready to really get down to it for the day, people here are slowly getting into a lower gear and are trying to wrap up things. This doesn’t really help communication, if a freshly inspired Dutch employee tries to explain am already tired Indian colleague the nuances of some changes in a User Story. I think it will take a lot of effort and patience on both sides to ensure that these differences will not hamper the healthy velocity of our team.

A colleague made another interesting observation about the cultural differences. First he related to me an experience with an Indian colleague in which he had been in his opinion not been “open” – direct and clear – enough. He experiences Xebia to have a very open culture, due to its Dutch roots. He explained that within Xebia, as a Dutch rooted company, it is perfectly normal to be very direct to colleagues and even to superiors. In the story he related, he had given way to his native culture, to be less direct and more sensitive to the feelings of the other person, over his professional culture to be direct. To his regret this – in many senses perfectly normal behavior – had led to communication problems and in the end not only to professional, but also to personal problems.

Later in the conversation, we discussed the problems with communication when working in a distributed Agile team. We came to the conclusion that since you have the context difference, the language difference and the time difference, you’ll never be able to communicate all subtleties about the project, requirements and user stories. Since the Dutch team is working onsite with the customer, they’ll have much more insight into what is required. Most importantly, to them it is much more clear why some things are necessary, since the clients context and their direct explanations will give them a view on the problems that the client is facing that is often very hard to convey. To the Dutch team, some of those reasons might be so logical and imminent, either because they are rooted in Dutch culture or of the client context that is far more clear to them, that they won’t ever think about telling the Indian team. To the Indian team this is very frustrating, because they lose track of the reasons behind the work they are doing, especially when the requirements and User Stories tend to change under their hands.

I tried to explain to him that due to this totally understandable and probably unavoidable lack of understanding on the part of the Indian team, sometimes the Dutch team members, looking at the code produced by their Indian colleagues, are disappointed with the quality of the code. I personally think that what they are seeing is not actually a lack of quality in the code, but a lack of clear explanation on their own part. This is quite hard to understand and accept for the Dutch team, since they are putting a lot of effort and good intent in communicating all that is necessary to the Indian team. My colleague now got a bit frustrated, since he’d hardly ever heard any complaints of Dutch colleagues about the quality of the code. Apparently the cultural openness of the Dutch developers does not always extend to their opinion about the work of their Indian colleagues.

I think to be a really successful distributed agile team, we will have to work out these problems and be very open about how we feel about them. I hope to be able to approve on this while working here.

Next step will be to visit some of the places where we might be planning to live and see how we like that. We’ll probably have more time to do this together next week, since I’m planning a short vacation.

Comments (3)

  1. Erik Pragt - Reply

    February 8, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    Hey Maarten, it's nice to read how you are doing, but usually a picture says more than a thousand words, or, in your case 1127 words. So: where are the pictures of pittoresque Gurgeaon?

  2. Narinder Kumar - Reply

    February 11, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    Hi Maarten,

    Very well written article.

    I agree with most of the points you have mentioned about problems faced in Distributed Agile Development. Few comments :

    About time-lag, I feel the difference of 3.5 or 4.5 hours is really not that big. We still have an overlap of at-least 4 hours between two teams. This time should be enough to have design discussions, clarifying doubts and give/take feedback from each other.

    Secondly in communication related problems, I agree with most of your points apart from culture to be one of the reasons. I feel that culture can not be the cause here as the broad problem context is quite clear for both sides.

    I fully agree with your last statement that it requires more commitment and further open communication from both sides about what are their expectations from each other. This in my opinion would be the first step to iron out these problems of a Distributed Agile development.

    Looking forward for next in this series and hope to see you in India for longer duration.

  3. Maarten Winkels - Reply

    February 12, 2008 at 6:51 am

    Hi Narinder,

    Thanks for your comments!

    I agree with you that the time-lag leaves enough overlap to do a good distributed process. But when I was on the Dutch side, I never fully grasped the importance of the shift in the daily rhythm. I found this very obvious in the meetings we do around lunchtime in the Netherlands, when the Indian team sometimes seems a bit sleepy over Skype. Being here makes me understand that this is because of the time-lag and the daily rhythm and therefore I think it is important.

    With respect to culture playing a role in communication problems, I think that culture determines a lot of the things that people take for granted. In this way I think that cultural context dictates what parts of a certain line of thought are left out when we try to explain it to each other. This might mean that what is completely logical from one cultural perspective might be completely illogical from another. This can lead to huge misunderstandings that might hamper any project.

    Thanks again for your uplifting remarks! It is good to know that people are following the series.

    Regards.

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