Roy Tang

roytang.net

Programmer, engineer, scientist, critic, gamer, dreamer, and kid-at-heart.

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Unless you’re working at a small shop that only serves local clients, software development these days is often an international endeavor. That means the aspiring software developer needs to be able to work with and get along with people of different cultures.

In the company I worked with, most projects back in the day we would have a person from the foreign office in charge. Their roles were either as project manager (PM) or system analyst (SA). They were the ones who would be interacting directly with the clients so they get to decide which things need to be done and will often also be setting the schedule. The PM/SA of my first project often communicated directly (via IM) only with his local counterpart, our team leader (TL), so at first our contact with him was minimal. (I found out later that he wasn’t too comfortable speaking to newbies as he’s afraid of being misinterpreted.) But as is wont in software development, often schedules will not be sufficient and deadlines will not be met and so there will be pressure to keep up from the PM/SA. When you’re starting out, there can be a tendency to be off put by these faceless individuals who communicate with us only email, often sending new problems our way.

The PM/SA often had a vastly different culture from us Filipinos who like to joke around and be informal when discussing even work-related matters. And in our case, their first language was Chinese and not English. While they did learn English in school, they use it more formally instead of conversationally. So often their messages or emails will be terse, and when you’re not used to dealing with them you might even view them as bit rude or cold and uninviting.

As I mentioned, the PM of our first project usually often spoke directly only with our TL, but eventually he warmed up to me and one of the newbie testers who was my batchmate. We often had to discuss or clarify program requirements with him so I guess he got used to us after a while. There was another newbie tester on our team however who he never seemed to warm up to. I remember him asking our TL “Who is ?” even though he had previously replied to some emails of the same tester. There was also one time I remember when that tester sent a detailed email to the PM to clarify some items, and the PM replied but addressed his reply to our TL instead! We would often joke around with that tester that the PM probably still had no idea who he was.

Because they often speak in a formal manner, we are often surprised when a glint of humanity shines through. A remember when one other junior developer was talking on the phone with the PM about a particular problem in production and he came back all worried. When we asked him what happened he said “ said some swear words!” Wow, we must have really been in deep trouble for him to lose his cool!

It turns out not all PM/SAs were like that though. Later a couple of younger SAs joined our team and they were much more agreeable to talk to, willing to joke around a bit and talk about their day and stuff. I think it’s because they were fresh from University so maybe they were still used to English. It’s usually the older PMs who are much more stoic.

Later on, I got sent to the foreign office to help with some UAT preparation on-site. The stoic PM met me at the office and took me to dinner and drove me around to some tourist spots on my first night, so we got a bit closer. The next day was a Saturday, and we had to go to the UAT site to check the setup and preparations. I met him at the office before going to the site and I was surprised to find that he was going to go to the UAT site in a T-shirt and shorts. After that, I never took him too seriously!

A significant number of years later, I also got to work with some staff from a European country. It was another culture shift, but this time it was a bit easier. Unlike our Chinese friends, the Europeans were friendlier and more small-talkish. Meetings (even over Skype) would often start off with “Hello, how are you guys doing?” and more pleasant things, in those precious few minutes while waiting for everyone to get set up. It’s not all good though, as I distinctly remember a meeting where one of the callers was coughing and wheezing all the time (learn to use mute!), although that was probably a person-specific thing and not a cultural thing.

Even work-wise, it was a vastly different way of working with the Europeans. With the Chinese people we worked with on our projects before, everything was very formal and well-documented and there would be action items and detailed program specs to follow and any changes had to go through a rigid process and schedules would need to be adjusted and such. With the Europeans, we would often have meetings and many of the items would not be resolved and would be moved to the next meeting. It would not be unusual for discussions to go round and round a few times before finally managing to come to a decision. And we’d never get clear specifications from them, only some general items or ideas of what they wanted, and we really had to iterate and show them how things would look before they would sign off (and even if they did sign off, they’re very likely to change their minds later at a moment’s notice!) If you’ve ever seen the BBC show W1A, it’s a pretty accurate portrayal of how it was!

Working remotely and communication via channels like email, IM or video calls is already a challenge even when working with other locals. The additional dimension of a foreign culture means we have to be much more willing to adjust to other people as needed. This means being more open to how other people work with, giving them the benefit of the doubt, clarifying where things seems unclear or where there may be miscommunication, and so on.

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