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Is it Possible to Offshore Agile Development?

On first read, offshoring agile development sounds a bit like trying to mate an Elephant and a field mouse - absolutely incompatible. Trying to move agile development offshore is a bit like building a data centre on top of a volcano, the real estate is a bargain, but if mother earths decides to let off some steam, it could all go horribly wrong. Offshoring development generally requires thorough documentation, and largely frozen predetermined requirements. It often follows the waterfall methodology. The IT project manager and customer step through requirements capture, analysis, design, coding, and testing in a strict, pre-planned sequence. Progress is measured in requirement specifications, design documents, test plans, and code reviews. A contrasting methodology as defined by Wikipedia: "Agile software development refers to a group of software development methodologies that promotes development iterations, open collaboration, and process adaptability throughout the life-cycle of the project." So how can a development method that relies on face to face communication over written documents move to a location where that element never takes place?

Teams working with agile development are usually cross-functional and operate with little regard for hierarchy. Central to the success of agile development is the role of the functional SME who must always be available to answer process or business logic related questions. Often the doers play an important role during development - particularly during "scrum" discussions where daily updates and activities are coordinated. This open communication prevents problems being hidden. We can see why most companies prefer to resource agile development locally. On fixed or semi-fixed price agreements, service providers can be very quick to asses extra fees for change requests or minor enhancements, rendering offshoring an unsuitable avenue for projects where requirements are even somewhat fluid. Or at least that is the perception.

We met with Mindtree, who has been engaged in agile development for eBay since 2004, to understand what it takes to successfully offshore an agile development team. While eBay certainly isn't struggling for cash, most small web-based or web-heavy start-ups are extremely keen to control costs. This makes offshoring very attractive to even the smallest companies, provided that they can be operationally successful. A few of the key takeaways...

Developing Culture:
- Give top performing programmers a chance to rotate onsite, this will build a high performance team culture.
- Use offshore and onshore visits to build trust. This is very important to establish a solid team cohesion & effective execution.
- Don't Underestimate the need for a cultural fit, in other words, ensure the vendor you chose has a similar culture to your organisation.

Operational excellence:
- Use Web based documentation and project management tools.
- Build a common test script template and ensure everyone uses it to understand requirements.
- Separate teams by functionality, not activity.
- Interview every member of the offshore team and ensure they have the business analyst mindset to enable them to ask the right questions.
- You can't run away from the need for more documentation if your team is offshore vs local agile development so expect to need more documents.
- Pragmatically integrate pieces of work to avoid any future integration challenges.

- Have daily status meetings using tools like sametime or webex so people can illustrate ideas.
- Get multiple communication modes working early, for example, VOIP, chat tools, eMail, web based content and knowledge management repositories.
- Since agile development relies heavily on open communication, try to secure developers within the vendor who have spent some time in the west.

Anyone who thinks that agile development is only possible using expensive local contractors are wrong. The level of skill in India and other off-shore destinations can be as good or better; the challenges lie in distance, time zone, cultural gaps, communication, which are difficult to overcome unless the organisation is willing to embrace a new style of working that includes stronger lines of communication, tolerance, adherence to processes & leveraging tools that can help bridge the gap. 

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