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What does the offshoring backlash tell us?

Making the most of distributed resources

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Reader Poll We’ve had some great responses back on the article we posted earlier in the week, about how software development is becoming increasingly distributed with the twin prongs of outsourcing (vs keeping things in-house) and offshoring (vs keeping things local). Unsurprisingly perhaps, the most spleen is vented on failed offshore projects.

To quote one such rant in its entirety:

After 2 years of excuses, laziness, constant turnover (complete waste of training time when the guy/girl buggers off and leaves you with a new muppet), terrible or copied-from-Google code, never-ending bugs, headaches, baffling phone calls where no-one understood each other, emails that promised to "do the needful" but went ignored, applications that just didn't work, MILLIONS of dollars, and much, much more....... we had enough, and told the Indian coding behemoth we'd had enough and brought our dev team back in house.

Saying that things go more smoothly is a massive understatement. Don't know why we bothered. Oh yes, some spreadsheet said it would be cheaper.

Ouch. And we thought Google code was supposed to be good (just kidding, we knew what they meant really). But what is causing the problems - particularly given that at the end of the day, code is code?

The answer seems to be in no small part down to good communications, driven (in no small part either) by a level of connectedness to the business. There was a level of good-enough-ness in the past, we are told, which was adequate to support more successful development activities, and which is impossible to replicate across contractual and international boundaries:

This informal communication is completely lost when parts of a project are outsourced. Sending the same spec to another country to be evaluated by a developer who has never met the author and who must route all queries through an account manager just does not work.

And:

Yes, there is a loss of informal communications, and of developers with the deeper knowledge of the "widget" business that comes from being part of the "widget" industry and not the software consulting industry.

It's ironic perhaps, that it is the business’s perceived failure of understanding this need to communicate that lies at the root of the problem, so we are told. Says one of our correspondents:

The one thing that has remained the same is the core business. Whether it's being a supermarket, a plumber, a bank or whatever - this is what makes the money that payes everyones' wages - not the IT element of the organisation. So when the opportunity presents itself to get shot of the whole kit 'n' kaboodle you shouldn't be surprised when the board of directors breathes a sigh of relief and signs a very large cheque”

To be fair, things never really did run that smoothly in the past. Which begs the question - given that the genie of international resourcing most likely won’t just hop back into the bottle, just what can we learn from less successful outsourcing experiences? Or perhaps more pointedly, if we take such emotive terms as ‘outsourcing’ and ‘offshoring’ out of the equation, what can we learn about the increasingly distributed development organisations that exist, and how well they are operating?

We’ve put together a short reader poll to consider some of these questions, and we’d love to hear your views.

Reader Poll

Q1. What is your current set-up in terms of development distribution?

Mostly centralised but we have a few satellite development teams (hub and spoke)
We have a number of development centres which operate independently or in partnership
We have a combination of all of the above
Development activity all takes place centrally, in a single place
All our development activity is sourced externally

Q2. And where do you fit into the scheme of things?

I am working on software projects at a central or main location
I am working on software projects at a remote or subordinate location
I have indirect knowledge or experience of how my organisation distributes development
I work for a company providing external development services
I work as an independent or freelance subcontractor
Other (please state)

Q3. What are your organisation's primary reasons to distribute development as you have described? (please check all that apply)

We want to make the best use of resources, wherever they are
Distributed development is a management strategy to bring parts of the company together
External development centres act as an extended resource pool
Primarily for cost control by taking advantage of cheaper resources elsewhere
An accident of history, just the way we’ve always done things
Other (please state)

Q4. Which activities tend to be kept centrally, and which can be distributed across sites? (please check one for each)

Kept locally Distributed
Project management
Specification
Analysis and design
Coding
Testing
Integration

Q5. What mechanisms are in place to directly support distributed development activity? (please check one for each)

Extensive use Limited use Not used
Social networking tools, wikis and blogs
Email and document sharing tools
Problem and change management tools
Software configuration management tools
Remote file systems and remote access tools

Q6. What do you see as the main challenges with the way your development projects are distributed? (please check all that apply)

General communications and collaboration challenges
Configuration management and versioning challenges
Project management issues caused by the complexities of distributed development
Political issues with the way the organization is structured
Software quality issues due to the variable level of skills between locations
More general quality concerns introduced due to differences in processes/practices
Integration challenges of bringing unnecessarily disparate software elements together
Other (please state)

Q7. Taking all of the above into consideration, how well do you think you have distributed development under control?

Q8. Finally, if you could offer one piece of advice in this area, what would it be?

Build a business case: developing custom apps

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