Offshore productivity: developers

Why is offshore developer’s productivity so much lower than one from your local employees? You would expect that for positions that require high communication overhead or for those tightly linked to difficult to acquire domain expertise, but why developer? Java, C#, C/C++ know no borders and far more international than Esperanto ever aspired to be. So why do we habitually see offshore developers offering productivity at fraction of what we expect in-house. I think there are many reasons for that, some transient some foundational. Here are just some of them, specifically applicable to India outsourcing:

  • Bangalore is a beautiful vibrant city; in some strange way it reminds me of San Francisco. No wonder it has become the heart and a synonym for IT outsourcing, one would be hard pressed to find a better place for India’s Silicon Valley. One of the parallels between Bangalore and SF Bay Area is abundance of technical jobs. Everyone and their brother are there from giants like Microsoft, IBM, and Siemens to small progressive engineering companies. Just look at a very small subset at So if you are a decent developer your job choices are practically unlimited. And let me ask you that – if due to your exceptional talents you had a choice of working for any software company in the world would you pick someone like Google or Infosys Technologies? It’s tough to get into someone’s mind yet I am sure that a choice between Google and Quadwave Consulting Pvt. Ltd. is statistically obvious. The corollary here is obvious as well: when it comes to pick of the litter even very successful outsourcers are in a long line behind a very large group of “the best companies to work for”.
  • One of the interesting phenomena is how cultural environment affects building the skills. What I have observed in several geo areas is that the culture is “against” the learning progress; that is especially true for consulting companies. For example, many consulting companies have a business development track vs. expert track, the first one being compensated substantially better. In that case a bright person is pushed either to take a biz dev track or bail out of the company when his / her earnings come hits the ceiling. Broader cultural issues have even more profound effect, for example I noticed that in India one’s personal success is measured in number of people working “under you”, most of the time that means that one’s skills would be used mostly on management tasks and not tuned to acquiring new skills / knowledge / etc. Very much a cliché – promoting a good engineer to a manger means losing a good engineer and gaining a bad manager. The impact of that trend is quite devastating for buyer especially with smaller sized teams – how can you get a solid tech lead for your team if it is only 3-4 people while someone with 5 years experience could be managing a team of 30? That trend is exacerbated by scarcity of high-level resources every consulting company faces: if a practice gets their hands on great resource, he or she must be leveraged across large group of mediocre resources.
  • I realized another angle to the topic when building my own consulting / outsourcing teams. Managing engineers is not an easy task, managing bright engineers is extremely complex. So if your main goal is generating a revenue stream (a.k.a. “putting buns in seats”) you may take an “expert” route and deal with celebrity personalities and never-ending need for motivation or build your team with “a middle of the road” resource in mind and live happily ever after. The later seems like a much easier route and that’s why many offshore resource augmentation companies are in the business of “selling mediocrity in bulk”. What is the difference in productivity between star and mediocre software developer? Some say that it’s order of several magnitudes, and I can attest to it.

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