Viewpoint -- A Savvy On-Shore QB: Key to Successful Offshore Product Development

In seeking a leader look for creativity and resourcefulness, and new ways of thinking that match the new rules for working.

One of the fastest and most cost-effective paths to consumer product development is to use offshore resources. While that model has been around for decades, the current level of talent within Asian companies is significantly higher than it has ever been. Once known for reverse engineering and copying products or "borrowing" someone else's code, Asian companies are improving their ability to innovate, employing advanced technologies and methodologies that add value and result in higher profit margins.

However, as tempting as it is, taking a complete turnkey approach to product development in Asia is not the best approach. It's completely unrealistic to think you can provide an offshore developer with product specifications and expect to get back a finished product (certainly not the product you expected.) While often skilled in the hardware development, such companies often fail badly when it comes to user interface design and other software elements.

Just as offshore capabilities moved from basic contract manufacturing to manufacturing and hardware design, increasingly it will move to designing and developing complete systems. But products with this level of complexity still need to be managed by a leader who is both knowledgeable and experienced in a broad range of these technologies. An effective program leader is one who can oversee and manage activities around the world and understands who is responsible for what, and the resources required for each phase of development. This person needs to have strong business sense, managerial and communication skills.

This person must act as the 'conductor' -- possessed with keen marketing insights coupled with the technical acumen to be 'the voice' of the consumer. In these times when rapid time-to-market is paramount for consumer products, there's rarely enough time to study and learn a market in great depth. The same principle applies to offshore development. Companies need to appoint a leader who knows the industry, has a good understanding of all the elements that need to come together, and can manage a team of diverse skill sets scattered around the world.

To do the job, the leader must understand the culture and know where the risks lie. He or she needs skills in working with offshore development organizations that cannot be taught, but instead must be learned through doing it many times over. Experience matters when it comes to leading an offshore development team.

Since its inception, Apple has long set the bar for innovative design standards. And, as the company's products gained increasing market share over the years, there has been enormous pressure on consumer electronics companies to match Apple's level of design.

You don't necessarily need to hire a team of user interface designers -- plenty of outstanding design firms exist -- but this is one area that you will likely want to keep on-shore. User interface is a highly cultural element and, unlike lines of code, is not easily transferable.

Additionally, tight control over all aspects of quality from hardware to software and beyond is required to meet the U.S. consumer standards. To ensure these standards are consistently and reliably met, final product quality and performance signoff responsibility should be assigned to the onshore project leader.

Finally, a leader who has the ability to take a systems view is key. Today, great products are highly integrated with software and hardware closely intermingled. Selecting a person who has knowledge of hardware design in addition to software skills will be key to managing the tradeoffs inherent in a short development cycle.

When you are considering candidates for this role, ask them about their horror stories -- all the good talent will have some to share; in fact, making mistakes is how they gained their skills. And then ask how they solved their problems. Look for creativity and resourcefulness, and new ways of thinking that match the new rules for working.

Ask candidates about what they think makes an elegant, strong product. If the individual doesn't project a passion for how great products are developed and an understanding of how that process works, he or she may not be a good fit.

Finally, in evaluating candidates, be sure you also focus on their management style. The ability to adopt several styles and apply what's needed at the right time is key to working with different cultures. A team builder capable of bringing everyone together on the same page, coupled with the ability to be assertive and even aggressive when the situation calls for it, is what you are looking for. Think of this person as the president of this product company, who has to manage and motivate the team members, each with varying skills.

Finding the right set of skills for a product development leader, combined with the necessary experience, is not easy. But these individuals do exist; companies are developing products offshore each and every day. The key is to find someone who is at the right point in their own career development program to join and help you develop a compelling and memorable product and bring it to market.

Phil Baker is a product development consultant, author of From Concept to Consumer and columnist. Vikki Pachera is a partner with The Pachera Group, an executive search firm focusing on technology and media clients. http://www.thepacheragroup.com/

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