As a provider of nearshore successful software development services, Scio has a proprietary interest in assuring the success of our customers’ outsourcing projects. But of course, in that respect we’re not different than any service provider. So, it could easily be said that this article, and more that will follow on this critical subject, have a built-in bias we can’t ignore. We want you to understand our experience, our business model, and how it shapes our approach to providing outsourced services. We hope that understanding will lead you to explore working with us and to hire our team. So yes, this is an exercise in self-interest….
But that said, we also have an interest in promoting improvement in our industry and the knowledge of critical success factors (CSFs) for the outsourcing of software development. This certainly isn’t a new subject – both the buyers and the sellers of outsourcing services have been trading tips, CSFs, and white papers on the subject for years. A quick Google search will turn up thousands of papers from professional societies, trade journals, buyers and suppliers in the field. But it is a sufficiently rich subject, with ongoing learning and improvement, to continue the conversation among participants. Do we have important information to add? We believe we do and we’re willing to expose our knowledge and experience so you can judge for yourself.
To begin the discussion, let’s set a few common terms in context:
- Outsourcing is a broad subject and different industries approach it from different angles. In basic terms, we’re only discussing the outsourcing of software development, but many of the lessons learned in outsourcing across other industries do apply. The term comes from tying together the words used to describe “outside resourcing” – bringing resources from outside a company to meet business needs. With that in mind, outsourcing can describe the contract of work to a provider in the same building, city or country, just as well as it can describe the outsourcing of work to a provider in a different country or a different continent.
- Information Technology (IT) Outsourcing is generally considered to be a subsector of Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) that involves operation, management and maintenance of IT services and infrastructure within an organization. Although technical skills are necessary to maintain aspects of IT operations, generall software development is not the primary driver of IT outsourcing contracts.
- Offshore or Offshoring is a term that, like outsourcing, has many meanings specific to the industry where it is used. For our purposes, it means the use of service providers with working hours that have very little or no overlap with their clients. Generally, these providers are on different continents with completely opposite work periods. A great deal of successful software development outsourcing is done by offshore providers so it is not intended to have a negative connotation. But, in many software development projects, communication and collaboration are key and in that respect, using offshore services requires special adaptations that both the client and the provider must be aware of and enforce.
- Nearshore or Nearshoring in our context refers the contracting of work to providers in a different country that shares significant working hour overlap and often shares a border, region or continent. Scio is a nearshore provider of software development services to North American clients. Our services leverage the benefits of a nearshore relationship with our clients so the situations where we work best tend to exploit those advantages. Successful software development outsourcing relies to a large degree on the relationship between the client and the service provider and the requirements of the work itself. Some software development can leverage nearshore advantages better than others. Some providers have adopted practices that lower the risks inherent in software development outsourcing, regardless of their physical proximity to their client teams. Regardless, understanding the differences between offshoring and nearshoring of software development projects is an important subject for all participants in the industry. There is no “one size fits all” as evidenced by the growth of both nearshore and offshore development centers within large outsourcing consultancies.
- Agile Software Development is a methodology that is widely used across the software development industry. It is based on the idea that software development projects should be composed of short, iterative cycles producing valuable software incrementally while allowing for evolution of the results based on constant consultation and interaction with the client and user base. The methodology itself is constantly improving and allows for adaptation to many situations. Because of this flexibility, the agile practices adopted for one project or practiced by a development team will vary, but overall the basic principles as they apply to client and team interactions and software quality during a project are expected to remain.
- Scrum Software Development is an extension of the agile framework for software development down to the team level. It includes descriptions of roles, processes and ceremonies that strengthen agile principles and give structure to the software development process. Like agile, it is an adaptable methodology but it does include more detail specific to the software development process. Scio provides software development teams using a proprietary implementation of agile and scrum. Not all software development projects require agile or scrum, but most can benefit from some level of integration with the methodologies.
- Distributed Agile Teams are a part of outsourcing of software development when you use either nearshoring or offshoring of a part of your agile team. In agile/scrum methodology, a premium is placed on open and frequent, face-to-face interactions between the development team and the product owner from the client side. But, agile is also practical and adaptable, so there are practices that help to overcome the team isolation and improve interaction when parts of your team are remote. Scio is a provider of distributed agile teams for software development and integrates the practices necessary to assure success in these situations in all our projects.
What is a Successful Software Development for You?
It is hard to discuss “success” without knowing what it means to clients in general and it is almost impossible for a specific project to be “successful” unless all participants understand what it means from the start. In simple terms, most people would say without thinking it means providing software on time, on or under-estimated costs and that delights users – but that simple definition ignores all the trade-offs and pitfalls that need to be avoided or mitigated and the stakeholders who must be satisfied to arrive at a successful outcome. In researching the literature on this subject, an IEEE literature review came up on the subject that found some interesting results:
Top 5 CSFs for Success in Software Development Outsourcing
- Contract Flexibility
- Trustworthy Relationship Management
- Competitive Bidding
- Consultation and Negotiation
- Quality Management
Last 5 CSFs for Success in Software Development Outsourcing
- Time Management
- Culture Awareness
- Intellectual Property Rights
- Data Security and Privacy
- Detailed Specification of Product and Project
These results came from a specific set of criteria concerning the basis of the outsourcing contract and relationship, as well as the contract and contract management – rather than a soft assessment of project outcomes, so it is probably not what you might think at first.
But consider the elements of the top 5:
- Contract flexibility, like agile practices in software development, this allows the project to evolve in various ways to reach a successful outcome. It is a realization of the simple fact that at the outset of a project, and throughout the development cycle, participants don’t know what they might discover or how they will work together. A flexible contract, instead of locking them into a tight box, provides a framework for realizing opportunities not foreseen at the beginning of a project or dealing with unexpected issues that might derail the project. A good contract focuses on the objectives of the outsourcing relationship rather than operational details.
- Trustworthy relationship management gives everyone involved the ability to bring issues up without fear and mistrust. It allows open negotiation during the development process without bringing everything to a screeching halt. Again, it acknowledges the established truth of software development – there are things we don’t know and opportunities we haven’t considered that will be discovered as we move forward. We won’t be able to consider them if we don’t have a relationship of trust between the players.
- Competitive bidding, when it is done not just on price, but on a range of weighted factors, helps to increase the feeling of trust and control between the service provider and the client. Everyone understands what is important from the outset or has explored the issues until a successful conclusion is reached. Blind bidding, where bids are submitted, but no discussion or negotiation occurs among the top bidders and the potential client do not build this level of understanding however. No amount of paper and diagrams can substitute for the level of understanding that can be reached in direct, verbal negotiation.
- Consultation and negotiation are a realization of the fact that constant communication is necessary in all software development projects to insure the development is on track to meet the goals set out in the beginning of the project or, where needed, the teams can negotiate in good faith to reach alternative outcomes that better fit the situation as it has developed. Virtually all software development projects need both a mechanism to ensure open communication and negotiation.
- Quality management, not just against a set of detailed requirements (that is number 15 in this list after all). When everyone is involved in quality, it becomes a key to reaching a successful outcome. But as the agile methodology guides us, only if the management of quality is a continuous process throughout the incremental software development process. If it can only provide feedback at the end of prescribed phases or the end of the project, the risk of going off-the-rails becomes too large and failure to reach the necessary outcomes of a project area almost assured.
Now, of course, you are likely to see a different list in your head or have a specific list of CSFs in mind for a project. But list brings up an important consideration – what weight should you put on the need to deal with change and to work successfully with your vendor throughout a project or relationship? And it is important to understand, this is a result of the frequency of a CSF being identified among several papers, not the weight it was given in any one paper, if indeed weights were given. So the number of times a CSF was mentioned in the surveyed literature produces the order of the list.
We find these kinds of communication problems come up in many aspects of the provider/client relationship in outsourced software development. Agile and scrum development practices address these problems well, but in the case of offshore services, the agile model becomes stretched in ways that require adaptations that can be costly or distracting in the course of project operations. That is not to say that nearshore distributed teams, a model we use frequently, do not require specialized planning and adaptations, but it is part of our standard practice package, not something we do on a one-off basis. We find all projects benefit from attention to better communication and tighter relationships between our teams and their product owners. And we have that built in advantage of nearshore; our development team is working in real time with the client team.
There is a lot more to discuss about successful software development outsourcing – and we will be doing just that as we continue to provide information from the field.