What Unisys Learned From Its Global Engineering Team

When a technology firm shifts engineering jobs offshore, the primary driver is often reduced wages. However, according to veteran IT service provider Unisys, it can also reinvigorate innovation and lead to a fresh strategic direction for the company. From flexible timezone management to cultural and language differences, here are some of the lessons its engineering arm learned on the road to global unity.

For much of its existence, Unisys was content to keep its core team of engineers ensconced in sleepy Minnesota where innovative practices had a tendency to get snowed under — literally. According to the company’s Forward and Clearpath program manager for Asia-Pacific Vic Herring, the insular, localised nature of its workforce was often counterproductive to technological progress.

“There was a period where things were pretty dour — it was basically grey,” Herring said during a recent media briefing for the company’s new suite of enterprise security products. “These were very smart people, but they were living in a bubble. The innovation just wan’t there.”

In more recent years, the company has introduced full “round the globe” engineering with senior decision makers in China, India, Europe, Britain and Australia. According to Unisys, this has improved more than the company’s bottom line, particularly in the areas of product innovation.

We followed up this line of thought with Bob Supnik, Unisys’ vice president and CTO of technology, consulting, and integration solutions (TCIS). We asked Bob how a global engineering team had affected Unisys’ day-to-day business operations, the chief improvements it generated and any hurdles that had to be crossed during the transition.

“Global Engineering has given Unisys access to new sets of talent and skills,” Supnik said. “It has balanced the experience of the US based teams with fresh technology understanding and the latest programming techniques.

“The resulting cross-fertilisation between the teams has sparked innovation not just in terms of new products and capabilities but also in terms of modernising and re-inventing our mainframe-centric products.”

For any IT company looking to expand internationally, there are various unique challenges that need to be considered if you want to harvest the choicest fruits. Here are some of the things that Unisys learned along the way.

Tailored initiatives = quicker productivity

“Formal knowledge management programs codify both formal documents and informal institutional wisdom, so that teams everywhere can benefit from accumulated and new experiences. Social networking tools are used extensively to bridge time and space gaps. Physical visits are done as needed, with an emphasis not just on reviews but also on mentoring and learning.

“The global approach has allowed Unisys to ramp up important new development areas quickly, based on concentration of local skills. Asia-Pacific Engineering does all of the User Interface (UI) work. It handles much of the application development tools and environments work. It is our center of expertise in modern systems management.”

The 9-to-5 working day is kaput

“One obvious change is the need for flexibility about time zones. The US East Coast is 8-10 hours off from Australia (depending on Daylight Savings time in the two countries), 11-12 hours off from China, and 9.5-10.5 hours off from India. The West Coast is better positioned to talk to China, more poorly positioned for India. Thus, scheduling meetings and calls requires flexibility on both ends – willingness to get up early, or stay up late. Indeed, one of the great advantages of having engineering in Australia is that the team there can talk to everyone during the normal workday.”

Keep language formal

“Another change is the need for clarity in communications. This is less about language – everyone speaks English, if as a second language – than about cultural assumptions. What does “I hear you” (a favorite US idiom) mean to someone in India or China? Does it mean “I hear you and agree” or “I hear you but I don’t agree”? Global engineering requires clear, culture-neutral speech, understanding of local nuances, and written summaries or follow-up, to ensure that what was said is what was heard.”

More regions = no skills shortage

“Cost is always a factor in a competitive environment, but the driving force in global engineering is not cost but skills availability. There is a shortage of new computer-science graduates in the US, and as the IT usage grows, the situation is getting worse, not better. This problem is driven by demographics. In the US, half of the so-called “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, and math) workforce is expected to retire in the next ten years. US universities are not graduating STEM workers fast enough to fill this gap.

“Thus, Unisys – like its competitors – must seek out engineering skills wherever they exist. Different countries have different emphases in their IT education processes. India focuses on the “higher” parts of the software stack and on applications development. China has a dual track system – applications or systems programmer – but most graduates still opt for applications. Australia and the US have more emphasis on the “lower” parts of the stack (systems programming), but their graduates in this area are sought by all the major IT companies, and there aren’t enough of them. Unisys seeks to recruit the best engineers – in India, China, Australia, and the US – because the problems we want to address (mission-critical computing, security, cloud) require the best and the brightest, no matter where they reside.”

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