“Outsource it!” is now in beta

A couple days ago my first full size book went into beta and is now available at the publisher website – http://pragprog.com/book/nkout/outsource-it. I feel very happy and relieved that the book is finally out, writing it was far more challenging than I’ve ever anticipated. At the same time I feel happy and proud, proud to be one of the authors of the pragmatic bookshelf, the group of technology writers that earned respect across very broad and demanding technical audience.

It will take a little while before the book hits the shelves of Amazon and other bookstores, but you don’t have to wait and get your e-copy of it today. While the book is in beta your comments and suggestions would be taken quite seriously and could result in changes and additions to the content, hopefully making the book even better. I am not sure how long the beta would take but hopefully much less than it took me to get here –

Roughly two and a half years ago I came up what seemed a great idea at the time – compile my blog material into an easy to read eBook. In a couple months I produced the first volume that was dedicated to making decisions on whether and how to outsource. In a short order I received substantial feedback that made it apparent that just recompiling the blog and doing surface level clean up won’t add too much value, and probably was not worth the effort. Continue reading

Bidding Sites and Building Frustration

A couple weeks ago I put an RFP out for a very specific set of SEO activities on one of bidding sites. This SEO project was for my darling app – WWHOW!.  Since WWHOW! is based on user generated content it offers serious SEO challenges. Having spent a few months fighting those I knew fairly well what I was looking for and did not make a secret out of my expectations. To no surprise my straightforward SEO request generated a lot of responses primarily from India-based providers. I just finished going through all responses I received to date and it looks like I will have to go through bid-response process again, maybe I have to try a new bidding site, maybe change my request format, content, layout… Frankly, I doubt that changing much on my side will affect the dynamics of the campaign and quality of responses. I might need to change the target development community…

The fact that I received not a single proposal that I could remotely go with was quite irritating. One of the reasons I was annoyed by it is its effect on my “buyer’s reputation”. In some way majority of established bidding sites penalize buyers for not accepting proposals. Some of them will even cut buyers off if they do not meet some criteria, e.g. certain percentage of project acceptance. It appears that they will cut you off independently from the reasons you do not accept the proposals. It happened to me on www.eLance.com a little while ago and since despite multiple attempts I could not reach the customer service I ended up moving to another bidding site.

Continue reading

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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Mumbai Sad Nomination

An interesting and very important aspect of selecting an outsourcing destination is the location safety.  And it is quite different from what it used to be just a few years ago.  The recent terror in Mumbai brought a lot of attention to the subject and put Mumbai in the top ten riskiest places.    Here is a how the list looks today:

The Most Dangerous Ten

1. Jerusalem (Israel)
2. Mumbai (India)
3. Rio de Janeiro/ Sao Paulo (Brazil)
4. Manila/Cebu/Makati (Philippines)
5. Delhi/ Noida/ Gurgaon (India)
6. Kingston (Jamaica)
7. Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia)
8. Johannesburg (South Africa)
9. Bangkok (Thailand)
10. Bogota (Colombia)

The Safest Ten

1. Singapore
2. Dublin (Ireland)
3. Santiago (Chile)
4. Krakow/Warsaw (Poland)
5. Toronto (Canada)
6. Prague/Brno (Czech Republic)
7. Budapest (Hungary)
8. Monterrey (Mexico)
9. Beijing (China)
10. Cairo (Egypt)

See more in Mumbai named second most dangerous outsourcing location by Matthew Scott

CIO.com Perspective on Offshore Risk Management

A very good article on CIO.com – Offshore Outsourcing: A Risk Management Perspective. It offers a high level perspective on risks of offshore outsourcing with specific look into several dimensions –

  • Geopolitical
  • Cultural
  • Contractual
  • Operations
  • Compliance
  • Business Continuity

The article also gives some high level approach to risk mitigation. These risks as well as methods of dealing with those are most relevant to large outsourcing contracts and companies but should be considered even by small companies which in some cases could slide in between the items of that caliber.

Using Contracts to Mitigate Offshore Risks

MSA – a “horizontal” component of an offshore contract can become a powerful tool in managing an offshore engagement and mitigating its risks. My approach to turning MSA in such tool includes several main steps:

1. Identify specific risks associated with the engagement. See my earlier post Top outsourcing risks as an example.

2. Rank the risks and select top ones; limit the selection to 5-10 items. The reason I recommend limiting the list is the cost / length of negotiation process.

3. Find out the reasons the risk mitigation is not in place / insufficient. You need to understand why this presents the problem for the vendor; without that knowledge negotiations are likely to hit an impasse.

4. Identify your preferred risk mitigation plan(s). The plan should include what both parties should do to reduce / eliminate / mitigate the risk

5. Insert and negotiate corresponding language in the MSA. Keep in mind that negotiating each of the topics may require multiple revisions and some give and take on both sides. Taking a win-win approach to the negotiation from early on is essential.

Let’s consider a greatly simplified example: Let’s assume that you are negotiating an MSA with Indian outsourcing company and after second step arrived with top two risk items: “Excessive resource turnover” and “Technical capability of the resources”.

Why is excessive turnover so common? Could it be avoided? Why don’t they (the vendor) just fix it? Well, they can not. The employment situation in India when it comes to IT resource is similar to what we’ve seen in Silicon Valley during the peak of DOT COM.  Can you spell Java? Hired! Inevitably job hopping becomes common… So, facing the facts, you know that there will be turnover on the project, and it will be higher than the 20% average you vendor told you about (see my post Outsourcing Myths: Turnover Ratio).

What can you do to deal with inexorable? Here are just a few options – maintain ongoing recruiting efforts, keeping staff on stand by, continues investment in crosspollination, knowledge management, documenting everything, etc. The list of mitigating techniques goes on and on. Your vendor is probably has a bunch of them in place. Well, it’s a perfect opportunity to ask the vendor to put the money where their mouth is.

For example you can ask for guaranteed replacement of the resource in two weeks. You can consider overlap of the resources in order to perform knowledge transfer for minimum of two weeks. You can ask for periodic audits of knowledge related documentation.

An important consideration to keep in mind: some of the turnover mitigation techniques employed by the vendor do not work in your favor. The most obvious one is moving resources from project to project or client to client in order to keep the resource engaged. I would recommend consider counter measures for example if the resources are moved off your project but retained within vendor’s organization some harsher penalties / longer overlaps applied. But you do not want to push your vendor against the wall making it financially unreasonable or preventing them from doing basically a right thing.

Here is a small example of MSA language:

Vendor shall not reassign any key resource providing Services for a period of 12 months after their respective start date of providing Services without prior approval from Client, provided that Client commits to the resource ramp up outlined in Section 5 of this Agreement. Key resources shall consist of resources critical to the Statement of Work and unless otherwise agreed, will be the Project Manager, Technical Lead, Business Analyst, Architect, and Quality Assurance Lead.

Let’s now cover the technical capability of the resources. Why that could be a problem? Well, try to find good developers in Silicon Valley even today – not easy by any stretch of imagination. Your vendor faces exactly the same issues exacerbated by several factors with huge competition from multiple dimensions – multinational corps, product companies, large offshore companies, etc.

This particular issue fall’s in a category “that is a fact, it is not my problem” but if I ignore the fact it will become a problem. In any case, the quality of resources is not something I am prepared to compromise on. So what could be my mitigation techniques here?

I typically ask for direct access to resources, right to interview and approve / disapprove, etc. That is a huge issue for many vendors though, most of the vendors do not want you to handpick the resources, for obvious reasons. So, it’s likely that you would have to offset it in some way, for example ask for interviews / etc. process for named key resources and allow vendor to deal with the rest of the team. You may consider some compensation (rate, T&C). Another approach could be setting performance benchmarks and holding vendor to those.

Here is a small example of MSA language:

For Statements of Work undertaken by Vendor on a time and material basis, Vendor shall obtain Client’s approval prior to adding any resources to such Statement of Work. Client will have the option of interviewing Vendor’s resources prior to their providing Services under a Statement of Work.

Ready to Outsource?

Organization outsourcing maturity is one of the most important ingredients for an outsourcing initiative. Attempts to force outsourcing to an organization that is not prepared / not ready for it are likely to fail and chances are with a lot of collateral damage. That is true for any outsourcing initiative, not only for offshore; well, it applies to pretty much any organizational change, but my focus is on specifics of offshore though. What does it mean to have your organization ready for offshore outsourcing? Here is a high-level checklist to consider:

  • Solid justification / objective reasons for outsourcing. Jumping into outsourcing following the lemming instinct would end up with pretty much the proverbial result. The industry is full of examples when organizations went after outsourcing just because it was “the best practice” and ended up with massive losses – financial, customer satisfaction, knowledge, etc. Take a look at “reasons for outsourcing” or “my reasons”, go through your own list, and make sure that you have solid objective reasons to even consider offshore. Go through a thorough and very conservative what-if analysis and unless you see a substantial ROI set the idea aside.
  • Sufficient budget. You most likely heard about a hockey-stick or a J-curve – a curve / a pattern of success in business. Look at the budgets you have in-hand with the same perspective. Success requires initial investment and ability to sustain negative cash flow for some time, you need to survive that dip, before you start realizing ROI.
  • Executive commitment / sponsorship. Lack of executive commitment is certain to ruin your offshore strategy. If your executives do not accept the realities of offshore savings, if they are not prepared to wait through a negative stage of the J-curve you are certain run out of budgets prior to getting offshore initiative on the path to success. It’s even worth if your executive team doesn’t buy into offshore idea due to political or personal preferences. The last thing you want to do is spear head an initiative that’s only purpose is to show a bad example.
  • Team understanding, support and commitment. Chances are you can’t do it alone and through out all stages of outsourcing you will need to rely on support of your team. I do not think I need any mountaineering metaphors here. However, strangely enough, I have seen many times when offshore initiatives were driven down the thought of a core team, at the expense of the employee morale and wellbeing, without support and consideration. In my view that results at best in malicious compliance, more frequently in clever or blatant sabotage.
  • Processes and procedures. Often undermined in small organizations immature processes and procedures, in particular in SDLC / project management, are almost certain to result in offshore failure. Large process-savvy organizations are also not immune as the need for the processes is proportional to organization’s size. The most important aspect of the processes is communication channels and their efficiency, inter-departmental handovers, and internal roles and responsibilities definitions.

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It’s Not Over, Till It’s Over

I was fairly certain that an offshore development company with majority of their staff in St. Petersburg, Russia was the best choice for a large scale initiative for my company. The decision came after complex vendor selection process which included on-site visits, marathon interviews, long and pricy MSA negotiations, etc.

I hang up the phone after final discussion with the CEO and smiled. I liked the team in Russia, some of the guys I met there were at par with my best developers in-house, I was happy with the location as it was offering a cure for my nostalgia, and I was proud to be able to deal with the biggest obstacle I faced on the day one of the negotiations – substantially higher rates of developers in Russia comparing to those in India.

“Why work with India if you can find more expensive developers somewhere else?” is not exactly the question you want to be discussing with BoD or your executives. My convoluted negotiation scheme has paid off. I was quite happy with what I was able to squeeze out of the vendor. There were only a few formalities to take care off and I would move forward with the project.

I have t ell you – having had set my eyes on the Russian vendor I had to stick my neck out a great deal. There were plenty of concerns with outsourcing in my organization to begin with, moving it to Russia was a challenge of a much high caliber. “If the creator had a purpose in equipping us with a neck, he surely meant us to stick it out.” [Arthur Koestler] Those are the words to live by. I was selling idea of using the Russian team as there was no tomorrow. My efforts were paying off on that side as well – I had full support of my executive team and was ready to move forward with the contract and a very hefty budget.

Next day I was on my way to LA, long weekend offered a perfect break from the grueling selection process and contract negotiations. I was in a wonderful mood and almost all the way through the 10 hour trip when I got a call from my vendor’s CEO. For some reason he decided to speak in English: “Nick, my board of directors has reviewed all the details of the contract and after much discussions had made the decision to withdraw our proposal and exit the negotiations.” I said something borderline polite, hang up the phone, and issued a very loud, long and very politically incorrect tirade…

Funny enough things worked out to the best, the vendor that was awarded the contract instead of the Russian team in many respects offered a better match, stronger skills and less time difference… Plus, I added a few more notes to my bag of tricks, tips and traps:

  • Never come to the finish line of selection process with a single vendor in mind. Make sure that your short list has at least two, better three capable companies.
  • Do not rely on your intuition (bias, preferences, etc.) when selecting the vendor; let the facts, spreadsheets and team consensus drive the decision.
  • Do not oversell your team, company, and execs on the benefits of outsourcing and especially on any specific vendor. Remember no matter how low you set the expectations your offshore vendor will easily fail them.
  • Do not get lost in complex gambits and convoluted negotiation schemas.
  • And the most important, do not try to pay the vendor less than they can generally get in the open market.

The last bullet deserves special attention as a fair rate is a moving target and depends on many aspects and circumstances. I guess that will be my next post.

Offshore Risk: Cost-reduction expectations

Establishing high cost-reduction expectations is one of the most serious traps a technology leader can get him/herself into. If the only reason you are going offshore is cost savings – my best advice would be – stop right there! If you are very good at utilizing offshore you may realize 30% savings on somewhat sizable initiatives, and you still will need a lot of luck. That’s aside even if you do understand the paradigm of cost savings you still have to establish appropriate expectations with your execs / peers / team. Failure to establish correct expectations results in insufficient budgets, often in a collapse of the entire outsourcing initiative with a serious ripple effect.

I receive emails from one of Beyondsoft (China) sales execs on a pretty much monthly basis. While his tenacity is commendable his message is totally ludicrous, here is one of his emails:

Dear Nick,

I know your schedule is very tight, but I really hope we have an opportunity to share our ideas on how to help you decrease cost by 300% in next 12 months.

I thought that’s a good opportunity coz you are in Beijing now, and our meeting would make you more impressive.

Looking forward to your early reply.

Best regards,

George Tong

300% wow! where do I sign!? Think about your execs who are continuously spammed with such messages. Direct mail, articles, whitepapers, case studies and so on conveniently delivered to your boss’s ear scream about potential saving from offshore. Setting appropriate expectation on your part will be a balancing act of delivering a bad news without sounding like a sandbagger. Here is a presentation approach I found somewhat successful in setting my audience’s expectations at a reasonable level.

Start with debunking the Myth of Cost Savings

  • What vendors are telling us
  • Couple genuine offshore horror stories
  • Rates vs. True Cost of Outsourcing

Change audience focus to specific challenges / reasons for outsourcing, e.g.

  • Time to market
  • Access to specific resource type
  • Refocusing internal resources

Setup SMART (specific measurable actionable result-oriented and time-bound) goals for outsourcing, e.g.

  • Move 100% maintenance of product X to Worksoft team by 5/15/210
  • Deliver 50 functional points by ZenSar’s team by 9/20/2009

Another pointer – my recommendation is to setup an expectation that there are NO cost savings and work in terms of alternative delivery benefits rather than cost. For example:

  • The project Odessa requires 5 FTE for 10 months.
  • While we do have a budget for it we do not have the resources.
  • Finding skilled developers and QA engineers is likely to take us over 3 months and we will need to train them for about 2 months.
  • To save the ramp up time we are going to us MindTree team.
  • The budget allows us enough resources to deliver the project under 12 months.

There is another trap here – what if the team you recommended can not deliver on time? Well, that’s not at all inconceivable, yet easier to control and deal with.

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Top outsourcing risks

Putting development of your product or any other aspect of technology in the hands of a third party is certainly a risky proposition. To properly mitigate the risks of outsourcing one needs to understand the outsourcing landscape quite well. The top offshore outsourcing risks fall in several main categories. There is much to be said about each of the categories; I am planning to add more substance / clarifications /examples to each of the bullets below, as well as some ideas on risk mitigation. For now, here is the high level list:


  • Government regulations, on the both sides of the equation
  • Political stability
  • Legal maturity


Internal – Organization

Internal – Team and Personal

  • Loss of team support / respect / relationships with the team
  • Loss of team spirit / internal unease
  • Loss of key personnel / technology and business knowledge loss
  • Decrease in team’s productivity / commitment
  • Career impact
  • Lifestyle impact

Vendor capabilities

  • Financial Stability
  • Organizational maturity
  • Organizational commitment
  • Infrastructure (macro / micro view)
  • Technical capabilities
  • Ability to deliver
  • Personnel turnover

Joint responsibilities

  • Process confluence
  • Scope management
  • Geographical dispersion
  • Cultural differences
  • Knowledge transfer
  • Communications