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Vol.1: Problems with Offshoring to Indonesia (or Outsourcing to Indonesia)

Keith Tan
August 19, 2017

Even as Indonesia is fast becoming a red-hot offshoring or outsourcing destination for software development, there are some challenges that foreign companies (particularly Western companies) face when offshoring or outsourcing to Indonesia.
The management team at Wonderlabs has been doing software development in Indonesia (Jakarta initially, and now in Jogjakarta (of Yogyakarta) for over 8 years now. Here is one problem we faced

Problem #1: Saving Face
To put it in the Western frame of mind, Indonesians are thinned skinned. They are mostly unfamiliar and extremely uncomfortable with the directness/bluntness and "in-your-face" nature of Western culture (especially the culture of big American cities - think New York). Wonderlabs is Singapore-Headquarted company, and our management team is mostly Asian. But having been educated for years in a Western and global mindset, we definitely had a bumpy landing when we started out. Over time, we've definitely learnt the Indonesian way of communicating (i.e. diplomatic).

This stems from the need to maintain group harmony. In Indonesia, this could be seen as avoiding the cause of shame ("malu") to others. Indonesians are a very harmonious and considerate people. As such, people are very careful how they interact and speak. If you are interacting with your offshore employees, or offshore team, then you would need to be careful with how your interact and speak. While it is mostly expected that foreigners cannot be expected to understand the nuances of the concept, self control is extremely important. For example, one should never ridicule, shout at or offend anyone, especially in public. Dissatisfaction with work output should always be hidden and addressed privately, in a one-to-one setting. This applies to using Group Chats, or Group Slack Channels. In the same thread, blame should never be aimed at any individual/group publicly. Case in point, aiming it at a particular person not only offends that particular person, but all of the onlookers who may have witnessed it. It's a lose-lose situation.

Problem #1.1: Indirect Communication
One manifestation of the aforementioned problem of saving face is that Indonesians communicate quite indirectly. This is very CRUCIAL if you are thinking of offshoring or outsourcing your software development to Indonesia. The best way to put this is that Indonesians never wish to cause you to be upset (or ashamed) by giving them a negative answer. It is basically difficult for them to say "No". And you might be thinking - well, no one likes to say "No". And while that is true, it is difficult to understate the level of internal conflict that the average Indonesian feels when he or she has to say "No" to you. This is crucial to to building an offshore team of software developers in Indonesia because - as we know, timelines and timeliness of delivery are very important aspects of managing software development.

One way to overcome this is to rephrase your question:

For instance, instead of asking "Can this be done in three weeks?" You might ask... "How long do you think it will take?", "Realistically?" When the answer comes as "three weeks", you might then counter and say, "Are you sure you don't need more time? It is OK if you need more time". This back and forth eases them into giving you their true estimation. In fact, there are actually 12 ways of saying "No" in Bahasa Indonesia!

[Note: All of this is a caricature of an extremely diverse culture - Indonesia is home to 17,500 islands (6,000 of which are inhabited) which are home to over 300 ethnic groups]
 

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PS: This is an opinion piece by Keith Tan, Group CEO of Wonderlabs. Wonderlabs is the leading service provider helping companies build and manage software development teams in Indonesia and Vietnam. Across our various shared and dedicated centers, we have over 350+ active software developers. Since our founding in 2015, we have grown rapidly through innovation and our relentless mission focus - Connecting you to success and productivity. Alumni of Wonderlabs have gone on to work at some of the biggest companies in Southeast Asia.
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"I started Wonderlabs because I experienced the problems of building and managing a distributed software development team in Indonesia from 2011 to 2015. I wanted to make it seamless and frictionless for companies to build and manage teams. On the other hand, I found that there are so many amazing software engineers in Indonesia and Vietnam and wanted to connect them to employers in Singapore, Hong Kong and Jakarta" - Ivan Chang, Executive Chairman, Wonderlabs Group


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Vol. 2: Problems with Offshoring to Indonesia (or Outsourcing to Indonesia)

Even as Indonesia is fast becoming a red-hot offshoring or outsourcing destination for software development, there are some challenges that foreign companies (particularly Western companies) face when offshoring or outsourcing to Indonesia.

Read more