Being in the driver’s seat of an international development project brings an assortment of challenges, from cultural differences and communication barriers to dealing with a primitive technology infrastructure. So what does it take to lead a large-scale international development effort? Here’s what two veterans suggest.

Four elements must be present
Jonathan Lurie, a 26-year-old technology trainer and software developer for the IT training company QuickStart Intelligence and a contributor, says that the biggest challenge comes when a distributed team falls out of sync. Lurie suggests four key elements for an international development effort to succeed.

  • There must be an effective IT infrastructure to enable collaboration and communication.
  • Each distributed team must have a key contact/project manager. The various teams may not know each other and might have no idea how to identify the right contact.
  • The team should synchronize frequently. Communication is typically less frequent in international projects than in local projects, which means teams are likely to go in different directions.
  • Learn to manage expectations, especially customers’ expectations. Delivering only 50 percent of a project’s goals, for example, may be acceptable if you explain why. No one involved in a project deserves to be surprised.

Lurie has worked as a software developer since before he graduated from Florida State University in Tallahassee with a computer science degree. Two years ago, he was recruited to manage the development of a complaint management system in Singapore for an international software company. “My job was to make sure the software got built,” said Lurie.

Lurie thrived on the constant tension and endless barriers that had to be hurdled. Yet he warns that not everyone is cut out to manage an international project. Here are the traits that Lurie believes are needed to succeed at the job:

  • Flexibility: Conditions can change every day. The greater the number of participants in a project, the greater the likelihood of change.
  • Curiosity about different cultures: In a foreign country, every day presents an opportunity to learn and grow.
  • Enjoy traveling: Depending on the project, it’s possible to spend half your time shuttling around the globe. Quickly adjusting to different time zones goes with the terrain.
  • Ability to adapt to harsh or uncertain environments: International assignments can be uncomfortable and even dangerous. Working in South America or the Middle East, for example, can be tense and scary if you don’t have the temperament to deal with it.
  • Patience: Things don’t happen quickly in some cultures. What could take a day to accomplish in Chicago may take a week in Jamaica.
  • Persistence: Frustration goes with the job. Many projects are completed solely on the sheer persistence of the project manager.

Team members from different time zones and cultures
Lurie says the difficulties of international development projects are compounded when project members are in different countries. “The participants of my project were in different parts of the Pacific Rim and a few cities in the United States,” he said. “In order to iron out issues surrounding software development and testing, budgets, and scheduling, it was necessary for all these players to communicate. That was a daily struggle. Scheduling conference calls at 3 A.M. is not fun.”

Lurie routinely worked 18-hour days. On countless nights, he slept in his office because he was too exhausted to make it to his hotel. It sounds like a grueling experience, but Lurie’s victory was building a perfect product on schedule. The three-monthlong ordeal became a healthy obsession that he chalks up as an incredible learning experience.

Combining time differences with the different cultural backgrounds inevitable in any international project is enough to keep you on your toes. Keeping those cultural differences in the back of your mind when you are speaking with people is crucial, says Lurie.

Expect the unexpected
What was it like working in a remote region on a large development project? What were the daily struggles, and how do they compare to working on similar projects in the continental United States?

Ten times a year, Alex Hills, a telecommunications engineer, travels to Alaska to manage and supervise the building of the telecom infrastructure for 300 remote villages scattered throughout the state. Hills has been working on the mammoth project since the 1970s. Over that 30-years-plus stretch, he has come pretty close to bringing the villages up to speed. This is no small feat considering most of the villages have primitive telecommunications systems that are anywhere from several years to a decade behind the technology used in America’s large urban centers. Hills’ current Alaskan project involves working with local telecommunications companies to bring high-speed Internet access via DSL lines or high-speed modems to the village of Palmer, which, with 5,000 residents, is Alaska’s version of a small city—most Alaskan villages have from 25 to several hundred people. Creating communications links is particularly difficult because villages are typically up to 100 miles apart. During the biting cold Alaskan winters, transportation is often only possible via snowmobile. “Getting things done in the Alaskan bush takes twice as long as it does in the rest of the United States,” said Hills.

International driving

Have you led a project across different time zones and cultures? Tell us about it or post a comment below.