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How to Minimise the Risk of Offshoring Software Development

As the credit crunch bites harder than ever before, and IT budgets are shrinking, IT directors need to be more creative with their spend and take on some additional risks if they are to deliver more with fewer funds available. Offshoring software development is one such way to get more resources, but it doesn't come without risk. We know that simply throwing more programmers at a project rarely achieves the desired results, and thus it is often quality and not quantity, that IT project managers need to consider when offshoring development.

From managing and working with offshore teams for almost a decade at GE, I think four principles for ensuring progress in offshore software development have emerged through years of trial and error.

Know your customer needs. Software must address customer needs in direct ways that are easy to understand and consume. Your teams must have the necessary skill sets and processes for documenting requirements and asking the right questions to extrapolate upon user demands. It requires patience, and your in-house IT teams must act like a mediator and sales manager between the internal customer and the outsourcer. Designing software that is immediately useful and valuable to your customer requires dedicated, ongoing work, and cannot be expected from the outsourcer without good in-house IT talent to manage the process.

Select the right partner & built team spirit. Trends such as offshoring and remote working arrangements are causing development teams to lose their personal touch and relationships, so it is important to select a vendor that can understand and share your organisation's values. I would recommend investigating your potential suppliers to find out more about their cultural match with your organisation. Secondly, interview candidates within the outsourcer so that you can handpick talent - particularly for key roles, such as architects and project managers. Also, remember to break down projects into ever smaller, ever more manageable chunks.

Communication. In the real world, developers often sit next to you, so communication gaps can quickly be addressed with face to face meetings. But in the offshoring world, this type of communication is a rare luxury. Generally, you need to rely on good written communication. Good judgment requires some familiarity with the underlying communication gaps. Therefore, remember to communicate frequently and use all tools available. Also, take the time to build an open environment, and try to build personal relationships with your developers to ensure that you get the most accurate information. Have weekly meetings so everyone can evaluate the progress to date and ensure the code is reviewed regularly to avoid all hell breaking lose 6 months later.

Integration & Testing. Many software vendors have yet to learn the importance of integration, and they deliver systems that do not integrate smoothly with a client's existing infrastructure. Security deserves high priority. It is harder to add security features after coding everything else than it is to build security components first, and shape other components to fit them. So as a client, begin to assemble pieces of the development early to ensure the vendor understands the importance of integrating the pieces, and make it part of the sign-off process. Testing is one of the areas where you need expertise to write thorough scripts and use cases, and identify functional people in your business with lots of industry experience to complete testing and sign off. This also ensures their buy-in on the project and will contribute to the overall success of the project with regards to adoption and penetration.

Finally, as with any software development project always include 50% extra time for the inevitable delays. I have yet to see a complicated IT project being delivered on time. The reason is most timelines are set by the business as a result of IT providing estimates where everything goes according to plan. We all know that in the real world this is rarely the case.  

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