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Working with offshore web developers

Advantages and pitfalls
Author – Alexander Levashov, Altima Web Systems

The goal of this article is to give potential clients of offshore web developers information about specific outsourcing of web development to offshore service provider. I am not pretending to list all problems, but just attempt to highlight most typical of them from my 3 year experience in this business activity.

Introduction

In the modern business environment outsourcing is one of the mainstream trends. Businesses outsource many processes from accounting and law service to office cleaning; web development is not outside of this trend. There are many sources of information about working with web developers and how to make this work fruitful and successful; the following article is concentrated in specific aspects of work with offshore developers. I hope that this small peace of writing will be useful for end clients that use offshore developers as well as (what is more typical) for web developers who outsource whole or part of their productions to an offshore contractor or consider

Advantages

I’ll not speak about general outsourcing advantages such as possibility for company to focus it’s efforts to core business activities, but list distinctive advantages of offshore outsourcing. Why should somebody consider a developer situated on the other side of globe instead of going to a local provider? Obviously no one would do it without serious reasons. The main reasons to do it are:
· Lower cost: It is well-known that even most high-end brands of clothes and shoes are manufactured in China, Bangladesh, Malaysia and other Asian and Eastern European countries. A similar situation can be found in software development, including web development, where labor cost factor is even more significant. Professional programmers or designers in countries such as India, Russia or Ukraine cost the employer several times less than in USA or European Union, which leads to significantly lower cost of web development services
· Lack of specialists: In some cases customers simply can’t find a locally available specialist of desired qualification even for higher rates. They are busy and if the project is urgent, the customer has to seek professionals outside the local community

Pitfalls

Each medal has the reverse. Work with offshore providers has some issues that organizations considering this option should take into account. Taking no notice of these problems may lead to failure of projects, financial losses and stress. Here I suggest some ways to solve these problems.

Development process and communications. The main problem with business partner situated on the other side of globe is effective communications. It’s impossible to invite the developer in your room and show ‘by hand’ what you want. Any serious software development requires formal process and in offshore development these requirement is extremely important. You need to be precise and specific in your instructions and spend more time analyzing and preparing design directions and specifications. The development process is much more formal that it could be if you work in-house and little bit more formal than work with local developer. You should be prepared to communicate mainly by e-mail (phone calls are possible but quite expensive, instant messengers are OK for quick questions but not good for serious tasks). Some providers use web based tools that help better organize some process of development, like bug-tracking, that greatly helps. I could recommend Mantis as a good open-source example of such tool. Another example of open source software that helps in work is so-called “groupware” systems like PHProjekt and PHPCollab that assist better organize project management. After using these tools you may find that they are not ideal and develop something custom, but for the start it’s OK.

Culture differences. Due to culture differences you also need to be prepared to explain what may seem like some obvious things that even a schoolboy may know in your country. For example in the US almost everybody knows that Wal-Mart is the biggest cheap supermarket, that maybe unknown by developer who live in Russia or Romania.

Transition expenses. If you use some very specific system or technology that not wide spread like HTML, C , Linux or Java you need to be prepared invest your time and money to transition process, while your offshore provider’s staff will learn it. This learn time either will be longer than if you study somebody in house or more expensive if you decide to invite developer in your office or send trainer to his country.

Language barrier. It also takes place sometimes. While most companies who market themselves as offshore developer has specialist with comparatively fluent English, you may experience some difficulties in this area if you will use some specific or slang terms.

Legal issues: A contract with an international company will require more effort from you and your lawyer than a domestic one. A second problem is that in the case of a big problem that can’t be resolved by negotiation with your offshore provider, you may find it difficult to force him to execute the contract. Expenses related with such enforcement may be several times higher than the sum of dispute. This problem has no simple remedy, but to reduce such risks:
- Always sign a contract and have detailed project specifications. It helps you in case of possible dispute to find out who is right;
- Ask for references and work with more-or-less established companies;
- For big projects establish several milestones with several payments rather than just one big deposit payment
However the best possible protection is make business with you profitable and beneficial both for your partner and for you.

Time differences. You should take in account that the time difference between US and Russia, Ukraine or India is 7-12 hours and when you just come into the office, the working day of your offshore partner may be near the finish. It may be almost impossible to make changes in a website at 3 or 5 pm US Eastern Time.

Conclusion

Despite the pitfalls related with offshore outsourcing in web development this business has significantly grown in recent years. If you take into account all possible problems and are prepared, you can benefit from the offshore outsourcing. I read an article in CIO.COM The Hidden Costs of Offshore Outsourcing and made calculations using their quite pessimistic figures. Even in this case the cost saving was approximately 60%!

References to articles related with the topic:

“Working With Contractors Made Easy”, Dave Hecker http://www.sitepoint.com/article/1246

“IT Outsourcing 101”, Simon Blanchard
http://www.altimawebsystems.com/resources/articles.shtml?nid=3&cid=67&lid=3


“Offshore outsourcing”, Loretta W. Prencipe http://archive.infoworld.com/articles/op/xml/01/06/11/010611opbriefing.xml

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