Offshore, Nearshore, Right Shore, Best Shore… oh My

As we can see generating x-shore names is a popular among all kind of companies even established players such as capgemini and eds jumped on band-naming wagon.

It won’t take long till someone trademarks smartshore or ezshore or put a copyright on the word shore – too bad all nautical charts would have to be reprnted… Other companies find using shore words too mundane and invent their own words and phrases such as Chindus Strategy (China-India-US) or BRIC-sourcing. And Me2 – with my term of Disposable Outsourcing.

Hey, why not? That’s somewhat akin to starting companies in the dot-com era – the more confusing it was the high the chances VCs would be all over it … Well, let me tell you, there is no best shore when it comes to IT, there is no best of all shores, and there is no silver bullet. By all means why would anyone outsource if they could deliver on their obligations without headache of dealing with geographically distributed culturally remote third parties?

During those good old days when a Ph.D. from a 3rd world country was only $8K a year cost advantage was so profound that that it was practically impossible to resist the temptation of outsourcing. Today if Ph.D. is asking for $40K the chances are s/he bought the diploma on some black market. With average saving of mare 20-30% it’s not about cost advantage anymore, we go offshore for variety of reasons, goals and objectives. Defining those should be your first step before you even consider vendor search and daunting task of picking perfect destination. “If a man knows not what harbor he seeks, any wind is the right wind.” [Seneca] It should be set of your own objectives, reasons and goals specific to you organization, not taken verbatim form some book or my blog (even though I think you can find a lot of helpful ideas in Top Reasons for Outsourcing or My Reasons to Outsource).

When the reason are clear in your mind it’s time to start picking the “shore” and like with grocery shopping you may want to start with the nearest supermarket and only if what you need is not there you would consider taking a longer drive. Thinking of that metaphor it could be actually not that far off. I live in one of those cul-de-sac communities, the nearest supermarket to my place is expensive and offers limited selection, I do not often shop there, but it’s great when you just want to hop in a car and bring a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread. My main shopping place is about 15 min further driving, but it still doesn’t cover all what I need, for example Whole Foods is about 30- min drive from my place and I still go there once in a while, and add to it occasional trips to farmers market, wineries of Napa, or my friend’s organic farm…

I can’t tell what shore is going to be the best for you, chances are it is different from what is best for some of the vendors knocking on your door, but one thing I am sure of – chose it wisely. We are free to a point of choice, after that the choice controls the chooser.

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10 Myths of Offshore IT Outsourcing Revised

Google search on 10 myths in offshore outsourcing brings a few good articles written 3 – 7 years ago, some of them are still worth looking at even though some of the top myths lost their mystical nature, some debunked myths turned out to be facts, so it is worth taking a new look at what the myths are and whether they are worth debunking…

Let me start with a few Facts that are often called Myths:

Fact # 1. Offshore outsourcing is costing U.S. jobs. This myth has been debunked so often that by now we should strongly believe in its opposite. Supposedly someone very trustworthy institution calculated that for every dollar spent on a business process that is outsourced to India, the U.S. economy gains at least $1.12. An easy way to fix the economy, isn’t it? Should we pass the idea to the new administration? Well, I am not planning on questioning this global statement. What I can say with certainty is that every outsourced IT job is a local IT opportunity lost.

Fact # 2. The cost benefits of outsourcing are overstated. I touched on this subject in several earlier posts (e.g. Outsourcing Myths: cost advantage). The reason I wrote on the topic is exactly that “the cost benefits of outsourcing are overstated”. I would not call IT outsourcing “the best story ever sold” yet there is a large portion of exaggeration to almost every offshore vendor presentation I’ve ever seen. Fortunately many of buyers came to grips with the fact that on any meaningful scale IT outsourcing can at best save 20-30%, if handled well.

Fact # 3. There are “huge” cultural barriers. For anyone who’s been through any substantial outsourcing initiative there is nothing mythical about cultural barriers. The fact that they are not necessarily huge and sometimes only subtle doesn’t make them easier to deal with. Especially now when “IT outsourcing” doesn’t equal “Outsourcing to India” underestimating complexity and challenges associated with cultural differences can trip over otherwise bulletproof engagements.

Now let me switch to some of the most popular misconceptions that fit the definition of “Myth”:

Myth 1: India is the best destination for IT outsourcing. India is a leader in IT outsourcing no matter what angle you look at – sheer volumes, number of providers, process maturity, breadth and depth of service offering and so on. It doesn’t make India the best destination in every case though. In particular India is farshore destination for European and US-based companies vs. nearshore option provided by Eastern Europe or Latin America correspondingly. There are other Cons to India as the destination (take a look at Pros and Cons of Outsourcing to India). Growing competition from almost every country in the world cuts into India market share and offers multiple alternatives to buyers across the world.

Myth 2: Offshoring is the best strategy for cutting costs. Offshore outsourcing is just one of the strategies that companies can use deploy in tough economic climate. There are many areas that should be considered by the companies looking for bottom line improvements. In many cases the steps should include rationalization of IT portfolio, SDLC and other process improvements, usage of tools, etc. Offshoring is a very powerful weapon and as other ones is a double-edged sward.

Myth 3: Offshoring drives IT salaries down. Offshore outsourcing is of course a contributor and plays its role in salary dynamics, it is however less important factor than other elements of the economy and geography. The areas that are affected the most are actually wages of “local outsourcers” – freelancers, contractors, etc. Take a look at oConomy you will see some staggering trends catering to the concept of “flat world”. Hit with homesourcing many US freelancers had to drop their rates to what market is ready to pay nowadays. On the other hand some comp. packages increased in size: consider for example rates you need to pay people running distributed engagements.

Myth 4: Offshoring will result in significant unemployment in the technology sector. Similar to salary dynamics offshoring affects employment trends, and so far did not deliver the impact feared. High-end IT professional continue to be one of the scarcest commodities in the world, even low-end IT workforce still remains gainfully employed in a large degree despite huge economy downturn. It remains to be seen how far IT unemployment figures would go and would be the geographical distribution.

Myth 5: Quality of offshore IT operations is lower than in the US. That is almost as bad of a generalization as they get. As a matter of fact having seen IT operations in many companies in this country and some of the best operations offshore I can say that there is much to be learn from IT companies in China, India and other countries. As a matter of fact how many CMMI5 companies are there in US and how many in India? It would be interesting to see average maturity across IT outfits in different countries.

Myth 6: Quality of code produced by offshore organizations is very poor. Quality of code produced by outsourcing companies is another topic being frequently discussed. And again I would not venture to generalize; the code is produced by people, not organizations. Bad programmers write bad code and bad programmers are one of the most numerous creatures in the IT habitat. High wages of IT and huge demand on it attracted large volume of mediocrity into the field across the world and even in exclusive locations such as Silicon Valley you will come across of horrible code on a regular basis. Add to that the possibilities of writing bad code that have been opened by new “forgiving” technologies such as Java or PHP and you get where we are today…

Myth 7: Offshoring is a never ending nightmare. Funny enough I hear this one more and more often nowadays. Yet when you deep dive into the reasons behind nightmare they often point much more towards the organization outsourcing the IT tasks rather than to the vendor. As I said many times it takes knowledge and skill to apply outsourcing tools to the benefit of your organization. You can not get rid of a problem by throwing offshoring at it. Organizational inefficiencies such as broken communications are only amplified by outsourcing and can result in the nightmares.

There are more common misconceptions about outsourcing, it’s not surprising as it is still a somewhat new and rapidly changing phenomenon, but I think I should stop at this point as I met my quota of top 10…

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10 Things you Don’t Want Offshore Vendor to Know

I am an avid proponent of open communications and believe the more partners know about each other the better are the chances for the partnership to be successful. There are still a lot of things that you should keep to yourself for the same general reason – to increase the chances of the partnership being successful.

1. Game plan. Negotiations are an ongoing part of business relationship – not just the talks around the contract. Keep you card close to the chest and never disclose the game plan, even far after the game is over.

2. Decision making process. Whether you signing the initial contract, extending the scope of the engagement or making changes in the way the relationship is run you should not disclose the details of decision making process. In particular if you are the one making the decision you should not proudly announce it. There are many reasons for keeping it low, let me mention just a couple:

  • Disclosing decision making process will limit you ability to use “high authority” negotiation gambit that is a powerful technique for getting more in negotiations.
  • The last thing true decision makers need is all might of vendor sales force targeting them through every sales channel.

3. Budget. I always give my vendors an indication of the budget but never exact figures. One of the main reasons to keep it private is the nature of budgets – they change, funds get reallocated, etc. And of course something to be said about negotiation upper hand with less information at your partner disposal.

4. Roadmap. Product and relationship roadmaps should be shared with your vendor only at a very high level. Details should not be communicated for many reasons – business counterintelligence and agile nature of the roadmaps (similar to budget note above) being the most important.

5. Details of competition. The competition can offer a lot during contract negotiations: from cannon fodder to reasonable alternative. Your offshore partner should know that competition exists (at least that would keep them on their toes) but not the details, even the names of competing entities is not something to disclose. Among many reasons let me point out just a couple:

  • You probably have an NDA in place, that’s already a strong reason to keep your lips sealed.
  • The runner-up competitor today can be a vendor of choice tomorrow.
  • You do not know what kind of back-end links your vendors have in place.

6. IP / Know-how. If you must share anything of that nature make sure that the information distribution is governed / controlled tightly. The vendors with the best intention have little power over disgruntle employees – the prime venue of information leak. Employ distribution of the information on a Need-to-Know basis.

7. Confidential information. Same as above applies to many aspects of your business, internal and external (e.g. customer data). Consider rules associated with on handling ePHI (electronic protected healthcare information) or financial information and penalties associated with its mishandling. This is a very comprehensive topic; I will cover it in a stand-alone post.

8. Dirty Laundry. Sharing it with your vendor can hurt you in many ways; in particular consider the scenario of the relationship gone sour for any reasons; won’t you prefer your ex-partner to know as little about you as possible?

9. Personal details. Do not get close and personal with the vendor / vendor employees. There are many ways it can end up costing you more than you bargained for. There is no harm in sharing you “public” personal details (married, three kids lived in Bay Area all your life, etc.) but sharing little known data may put you in a difficult situation.

10. Ulterior motives. Ulterior means hidden – so keep it that way, if you pick your vendor based on something rather than items stated in your RFP, keep it to yourself. It’s amazing what kind of confessions I heard in that department (e.g. “I picked the company in China because my wife is Chinese and it makes it easier for us to stay in touch with her family”). This won’t help you professional image / reputation and can actually hurt your career…

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Top 10 Reasons NOT to Outsource

Remi Vespa suggested an interesting topic in his 10 reasons NOT to outsource; while I agree with most of the points he made, my top 10 would be somewhat different:

1. No reasons to outsource. Let me clear a suspected circular reference here: take a look at my earlier posts Top reasons for outsourcing and My reasons to outsource; if your reasons for outsourcing are not listed there and more so after some reading and thinking appear to be superficial, they probably are.

2. Personal. If you do not believe in outsourcing, if it could present a clear and present danger to your career, or outsourcing is likely to affect your life in some tangible negative manner (take a look at Offshore Risks: Team and Personal Impacts for some hints) stay away from offshoring as far as you can.

3. No executive support / sponsorship, no organizational / team support. If you running and uphill battle in your organization – your execs do not believe outsourcing is beneficial for the organization, if getting appropriate funds is questionable, if your team doesn’t support you. Well, maybe you are agent of change, yet still, you need to pick your battles.

4. Low risk tolerance. Your organization / your boss / yourself do not tolerate risk well and have high penalties for mistakes. Trying offshoring in environment like that is a very risky proposition.

5. No appropriate opportunity. There is always a risk in applying such a powerful yet delicate weapon as outsourcing to tasks that are not made for it. And there is not much use of trying to fit square pegs in round holes.

6. No offshore-ready management resources. If you and your management team doesn’t have any experience with outsourcing you might be better off without it unless you are mentally and financially ready to sustain a lot of pain.

7. No processes. If your organization is process free or still straggling to achieve CMM1 inviting outsourcing is likely to cost you an arm and a leg, so stay away from offshore, unless of course you’ve got spares.

8. You need to cut costs, now. Properly handled and with a bit of luck offshoring is likely to show some cost savings, yet as they say it takes money to make money. Your need to invest before you realize the savings. So if your need to immediately make up for the luck of sales or some other reasons behind a deep dive in P&L you might look for some other cost saving techniques.

9. No sufficient runway for taking off. Getting offshore engagement off the ground and getting it to the point it starts delivering value is not a trivial exercise. Do not expect immediate gratifications nor even start on that route if you have not enough runway (funds, time and energy), there is no glory in crash-landing.

10. No runway to land. No matter how skillful you are, how well financed is the project, how perfectly it is executed there is still a chance that your offshoring engagement fails. If that failure is likely to cause substantial damage, if there is no way you can safely terminate the engagement think twice before starting it.

Of course many of these reasons and the items listed in Remi’s post can be dealt with, risks mitigated, and challenges addressed. Nevertheless you should not take any of them lightly and do not move forward with your outsourcing initiative till you take the last item off your Top Reasons NOT to Outsource list.

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Outsourcing Impact on Technology Choice

I find LinkedIn to be a good idea generator for blog topics, for example a question from Vinay Joshi “.Net OR Java what technology projects you outsource — Does technology matter for making decision to whether outsource or not? …” deserves substantial discussion, beyond my brief answer on the site; especially considering that the rest of answers are more about religious war of .Net vs. Java rather than about the question itself.

Of course the answer depends on the context, if you are a technology company that already has the technology selected or a vendor that has a large team with specific expertise in place the discussion has little relevance. For those about to outsource it could be quite important decision though.

If you are planning on outsourcing but have not selected the technology yet, here are a few tips to consider:

  • Flexibility offered by technology is not your friend. The more discipline the technology offers / requires the easier it is to control it, the less are the chances on-shore and off-shore teams drift apart. In particular using Java vs. .NET discussion – Java offers great flexibility and far less commonalities in solving even basic development task. There is always 10,000 ways to achieve the same objectives. It offers multiple schools of thought and competing technologies. .NET offers more disciplined approach, while it offers some flexibility it’s far less the focus or the modus operandi, typically in .NET there is “the right” way of dealing with majority of tasks.
  • Emerging technologies are not made for outsourcing. That seems like a no-brainer, yet I’ve seen many companies moving projects using cutting edge technologies offshore, typically with painful consequences. So just in case, there are many reasons not to do so: lack of experienced resources, blind spots in understanding the technology on the both sides of the ocean, insufficient supporting community and documentation, undeveloped best practices, etc. Each of these issues by itself can destroy the engagement, when the issues combined the failure is guaranteed. Both Java and .NET by themselves are established technologies, however there is always something new being pitched by the respective camp.
  • Close doors to Open Source. Well, that might be too strong of a statement. As a matter of fact I did quite well outsourcing development using Open Source technologies and products and so many people I know. Caveat emptor! If you go for Open Source make sure that you do not stray off the beaten track and stick to very stable and mature products with strong development community. Too frequent release cycle, fluctuating quality of products, unstable supporting community can add insult to injury when combined with inevitable issues of outsourcing.
  • Don’t let the tail wag the dog. Some advanced technologies come with very costly or complex development tools. Some technologies require you to invest heavily in workstations or development environment. Some technologies require extremely high investment in training. And so on. Unless you have extremely compelling reason to do so, do not consider such technologies. Investing into a partner or their environment is not what you want to do especially in the early stages of the partnership. What if the partner already has it all in place? Well, do you want to be locked into using a specific partner? I don’t think so…
  • You can only find free cheese in a mouse trap. In development today there are a plenty of “very simple” technologies. Those technologies could be quickly learned, and superficial or even spurious expertise sold to a naïve buyer. That usually attracts gazillions of providers and inevitably drives the price down. Have you heard about PHP freelancers for $4 an hour? Just go to elance.com or guru.com – you will find a plenty. The chances are you will get what you paid for. The main point here is while the technology at question could be extremely solid it doesn’t mean that any code monkey can operate it. Finding good providers in such technologies could be a challenging task due to the high pollution of the field. Unfortunately PHP today falls into that category, and I am certain tomorrow that will be the case with RoR.

Pros and Cons of Outsourcing to India

India offers the most developed, experienced and sophisticated outsourcing community. No surprise – embedded advantage of ESL, huge supply of IT talent, and low standards of living made it a top destination for IT outsourcing long time ago. Y2K and management talent solidified the success creating multi-billion dollar giants and changing ethnic landscape of many cities in the USA. As I mentioned in Offshore Vendor Selection: Choosing the Destination “if your risk tolerance is low and/or your organization is new to outsourcing go to India, you can not get fired for hiring IBM. Go to India if you have to choose on a spot, or have little knowledge of outsourcing, or have to deal with large scope ERP implementation, or … as a matter of fact if you have to ask this question chances are you should consider India as your top destination.” Now let me put a few bullets here supporting my statement:

Infrastructure. Unless your partner is tiny and located in a 3rd tier city you won’t have any problems with infrastructure. Well, you may have to deal with some irregularities in connectivity due to some natural disasters, it gets quite rainy during monsoon season out there, but I tell you that: we use AT&T as our internet provider in our San Francisco office and once in a while they drop connectivity despite blue sky and sun outside. With a huge supply of IT services in India you can find infrastructure that would cater to most ridiculous demands.

Operating Environment. Flying to India is far from fun especially from the west coast, in particular if your company doesn’t cover first class travel. 30 hours in transit plus you arrive there in the middle of the night. Unless you time your trip well the nature would great you with heat and humidity. Flying back could be so much better if you did not need to deal with airport lines and crowds. The good part, that’s pretty much the extent of the adversities. Chances are you will be staying in a good hotel, will have a personal driver, eat in good restaurants, and even corruption is wide spread in India at all levels you most like won’t need to deal with it.

Skills Availability. That’s is one of the strongest Pros of the country. No matter what skill you are looking for there will be at least 10,000 people who have it. Well, more seriously, the supply of IT talent in India is outstanding, some areas more than others of course. Mainstream technologies of today and yesterday – Java, .NET, C/C++, ERP, Cobol, etc. – have substantial oversupply. You also can find a lot of talent even on a cutting edge of the technology. The quality of the talent follows the bell curve and nowadays the median has gone up comparing to late 90th.

English Skills. Well, that’s a hidden gem isn’t it? Of course with English being widely popular in India the main issue you would need to deal with would be an accent. Maybe some idiomatic expressions, some speech forms, etc. but generally it is not an ever a showstopper and forms a huge Pro of the country.

Cultural Compatibility. While there are a plenty of cultural differences between India and USA I would put the Cultural Compatibility in a category of Pros, here are a few reasons:

  • The cultural differences on business side were not so dramatic to begin with considering history of British influence on legal and business system of India.
  • Resources from India have been in this country in large numbers and for a long time. People in the USA learned the differences, behavioral patterns, and idiosyncrasies to a pretty good degree.
  • Many Indian vendors invest a great deal into cross-cultural training as well as in accent training. As a result the gap between cultures is narrowing considerably.

There are of course cultural differences that are deeply embedded in people’s psyche, here are a few most notable:

  • “Never say No” or “Yes to Death” – while working with Indian resources you always need to keep in mind that they might have a very difficult time say “No” in any shape or form. “Can you do that? – Yes, we will do Nick.”, “Do you have access? – Yes we do Nick”. That doesn’t mean that they can cater to any need or demand, they just can’t say NO.
  • No bad news is a no-news. While the times of chopping off bad news barer heads are over, the habit is still there. So if you do not hear about bad news, it doesn’t at all mean that everything is going well, it just simply means that you do not hear / do not know what is going on.
  • Motivational hierarchy. Of course Maslow’s Pyramid rules. But there is a plenty of subtle differences in how its upper levels translate for a specific culture. Not bad / not good – just different. For example, personal success in India outsourcing is often measure in number of people the person supervises. “I have 100 people under me…” That pushes good developers away from the technical track towards managerial with inevitable profound negative impact on technical abilities of the organization.

Rates. India rates fall neither into Pro nor into Con category. They are benchmark against which other rates are compared. And I guess that makes for a nice segue into Cons discussion:

Resource Turnover. Turnover is very high, it is high to a degree that it almost outweighs all pros of the region. See my earlier post Myth for more thoughts on the subject.

Resource Quality / Technical Capability. IT Outsourcing proved to be a rather lucrative business for many social groups in India – entrepreneurs, engineers, education providers, etc. Millions of people moved into the field in the Golden Rush of the century. As a result average quality of resources started going down to a degree that even time-proven trademarks of quality do not work anymore. Not long time ago I was stunned when I had to fire a consultant for incompetence; the stunning part came from the fact that he had a master degree from IIT.

One more Con related to the Golden Rush is worth mentioning: huge number of companies with a large number of low quality fly-by-night vendors makes it extremely difficult to find a right provider. It’s very much like looking for gold – you have to go through the tons of dirt to find the right substance. However, you are looking for gold, and one thing I am certain of is that you can find that gold in India.

Pros and Cons of Outsourcing QA

I saw a question on LinkedIn early this morning on a topic I was planning to cover “Pros and Cons of QA Outsourcing” – I jumped to the answer and typed up an answer while on BART, ironically it turned out to be too big for LinkedIn and so I decided to put it here. The answer is not complete and I am planning to come back to it some time. In meanwhile here are my thoughts:

1) Outsourcing QA is often a meaningful thing to do, an easy way to start and a potentially very dangerous trap. In particular companies that shed internal QA resources and move their QA operation abroad typically pay the price in knowledge loss and ultimately in degradation of the product quality. I have seen it on numerous occasions. QA engineers in well run teams often have better product knowledge than any other part of the organization, and offshoring that knowledge falls in a category of “outsourcing crown jewels”.

2) Companies in US often consider outsourcing QA for all wrong reasons, like for example “Cost”.  Cost advantage is just a myth, see my earlier post for details Outsourcing Myths: cost advantage. And going offshore for wrong reasons is guaranteed to give your wrong results.

3) QA as a subset of IT field offers a few interesting dynamics

a. It’s one of the most important areas of SDLC which typically is given the least attention.

b. The average quality of talent pool is dreadful, independently of geography. There are many reasons for that, for example here in SF Bay Area one of the main reasons is huge pollution of the pool by fraud and mediocrity – I met 100s of people who fake their QA background or think that a couple months of homegrown education makes them top notch professionals.

c. A perception of QA skills/occupation as a substandard one. It takes as much IQ to become a solid QA engineer as a Java developer, maybe more, but what can you do about perception? As one the best QA guys I’ve eve met put it talking about his resume “going to QA is like going to morgue – there is no way back”. And why don’t developers enjoy testing? Because it’s hard, it takes serious effort to put together a decent test harness, to organize your code, etc. Yet look at the average salaries, at layoff patterns, offshore dynamics – the trends are obvious.

4) Good QA engineers, automation specialists, functional testers, etc. like any other good resources are not easy to find, considering the quality of the pool, much harder. So it’s no surprise that that many organizations after interviewing a couple dozens of key-punchers who can’t tell the difference between priority and severity and ask for $90K move to offshore. The problem with such decision is obvious – it is as difficult to find good testers in Bangalore, Kiev or Beijing as it is in Boston. Of course a large supply of IT talent in countries like India and China makes it so much easier, yet the vendors in these countries have a plenty of own issues and challenges. Outsourcing the problem will not eliminate the problem, it only passes it to a different organization which is hopefully is better equipped to deal with it… But is it? Is your perspective vendor better equipped to do your job? How do you know it? By their brochures? Having interviewed hundreds of engineers in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America I can tell you with certainty – far not ever vendor is equipped to do so, many of them are squarely in a business of selling mediocrity in bulk, and the quality of the resources is far less impressive comparing to what you can extrapolate based on what you see locally.

5) Having said all that I have to state that I still outsource a lot of my development and QA activities and get great results from my partners. There are a few ingredients to that success story, here are the most important:

a. Rigorous vendor selection process with the focus on “the match” between my organization and vendors’. Search for the match on multiple dimensions.

b. Resource augmentation and joined teams rather than complete outsourcing.

c. Abundant communications in all forms with fair portion of face-to-face meetings and on-site / offshore swaps

d. Control and ongoing preventive maintenance in all aspects of the engagement.

e. Adjusting SDLC to accommodate for idiosyncrasies introduced by offshore.

f. A “disposal outsourcing” model that I worked out with my one my partners – augmentsoft panned out quite well in QA arena.

g. Working with nearshore partners was much easier in many aspects especially when running agile projects.