Opinion: Distance and difference do more than make managing offshore development difficult. They make it impossible to give developers a tight-enough grasp on user requirements to make good software.
Here's a software usability example: For users whose language flows bottom to top, menu bars in software should be at the bottom. How many developers, regardless of intelligence and determination, know that?
Oddly, intelligence and general education level doesn't trump cultural immersion when it comes to tool building.
I've worked with development teams from India and Eastern Europe. In each case the developers were "better educated" by my own standards (history, science, literature, geography, social sciences, art) than their American counterparts.
They also seemed generally more intelligent, though that may just have been my own bias, generated because they were better educated.
In spite of that, the offshore programmers are almost all missing the culture of programming that's developed in mid- and large-sized American organizations over the last 35 years. Without exception, they failed to understand the importance of documentation, QA, usability, and a half-dozen other project essentials.
That programming culture (like all cultures) involves residual knowledge of things that were tried and discarded for good reason; it includes an awareness of which methods work well alone, which work well only in combination with other methods; of things (like structured techniques) that everyone knows will work, but which they won't use because of dysfunctional external pressures.
Even the better-educated and more sophisticated offshore workforce can't deliver better products, largely because they didn't learn to program within an evolving environment made up of the perceptions of both developers and the people who would eventually use the product.
Just as the best American auto-workers can't build Cadillac SUVs that will become best-sellers in Venezuela, and the best American McDonald's kitchen help can't build cheeseburgers that will become best-sellers in India or Iran, quality procedures in offshore development operations can't overcome lack of immersion in the user's environment and more general differences in national culture.
There's no amount of labor-cost cutting that can balance this equation. Those who think differently are just fooling themselves.
It just doesn't pay to offshore development no matter how great your passion for cutting labor costs.
The ugly alternative is that you have to become more disciplined, clean up your own processes, invest in training and hire locally.
It's the only alternative.
Jeff Angus is a management consultant and has been working with IT since 1974. He has held IT management positions in user interface design, marketing, operations and testing/analysis. Look for his book, "Management by Baseball: A Pocket Reader." Jeff's columns have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Baltimore Sun.
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Read part 1 of this article to see Offshoring, the Self-Inflicted Wound.
This article was originally published on 05-25-2005