Outsourcing developers abroad … Do people still really think its a good idea?

Had an interesting evening went to the gym and ran into an old friend I’ve not seen in a few years. We sparred for a bit (its a guy thing … guess we wanted to see which of us had improved the most since our last … encounter … it was me of course not that I’m insanely competitive … honest!)

Anyway afterwards we went to to grab a bite to eat and catch up on what we’ve both been up to. We both work in the IT industry and love development but we tend to have differing views on a lot of things ( Listen J were not starting the Java vs .NET argument on my blog if you do I’ll really kick your ….). Anyway J and I both used to work for the same company and the senior management of that organisation has recently announced that its going to outsource the development of some its long term projects overseas to India, citing that engineering talent over there is cheap and thus far more cost effective … but they intend to run the projects from over here. As a result my friend, like many of his colleagues are obviously worried about their futures and whether the company will want to retain their services as developers for much longer. Anyway this kind of got me thinking …

I’m not going to pay credence to any of those boorish, tired and lamentable arguments about how its morally wrong to take UK jobs and hand them to people overseas. The fact is we live in a global economy and we have to accept that we need to remain competitive in that economy. Besides I believe that kind of xenophobia generally tends to cloud the issue and overshadow far more important reasons as to why outsourcing is a bad idea for our industry.

I remember towards the tail end of the 90’s when venture capitalists where really pushing the idea of outsourcing development to places like China and India it’s cheaper, more cost effective and will help the organisations overall operational effectiveness. I’m of the opinion that this was generally because they looked at other industries where that model worked really well, I guess what they thought was if Matel can manufacture toys abroad cheaper, why cant we get software written abroad cheaper, right? Lots of large firms bought into this thinking Oracle and Hewlett Packard are just two examples of companies that followed this trend … only to slowly distance themselves after encountering the problems I touch upon below.

The problem though, is that writing code isn’t something you can translate into an assembly line. What I think the people pushing this type of outsourcing failed to comprehend, and seemingly still dont understand is that farming out development overseas doesn’t lead to innovation. The idea that you get a a large group of programmers together and they’ll just produce cool code – doesn’t work! I remember at university I did an elective in post-war Japanese history (wish I could tell you that I did this cos it was interesting but the truth was the lecturer was the hottest chick I’d ever …*off daydreaming*), anyway one of the things we were taught was that the japanese rebuilt their economy around their manufacturing industry, using automated methods of production and rigourous quality control. Through all of this they actually revolutionised manufacturing industry globally the effects of which are still being seen today.

Towards the end of the seventies and into the eighties Japanese companies tried to set up software factories where they basically got a shed load of developers together and tried to apply their tried and tested manufacturing experience to writing software … they failed miserably and learnt that putting loads of developers together doesn’t create innovative software. The reason is that writing software isn’t something that translates into a purely mechanical activity – like making a toy or a car. So none of their tried and tested rules applied.

Someone famously once said every line of code is a design decision, I’m struggling to remember who it was [insert clever guys name here]. But that single statement embodies for me what the real problem is with outsourcing projects abroad. You loose sight of the decisions that the developers are making as they piece together the product from your requirements. Farming out to developers overseas successfully means you have to pay meticulous attention to the details of what is being produced, and that’s damn difficult when you factor in communication problems, cultural differences and attitudes, and like it or not glaringly obvious fact that this model makes it difficult to be flexible or be able to react quickly to changes in your market place.

3 thoughts on “Outsourcing developers abroad … Do people still really think its a good idea?

  1. I agree (bizarrely – as someone who spent years trying to convince others to outsource their software work to my Company).

    Bill Gates has a great line on outsourcing: “Your IT systems are your brain. If you take your brain out and outsource it then any adaptability you want becomes a contract negotiation”. Bright guy that – he’ll do well for himself 😉

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  3. Rob, some excellent points mate. I haven’t read Reeve’s essays, but I think I will. Thanks pal!

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