How to make outsourcing bad ass
Hint: it's not with Zoom or a better project management tool
Hi!! Thank you so much for reading and subscribing, especially if you signed up after reading last week’s post on Hacker News. I’m super proud that article went to number one.
I’m gonna try and write a short one this week because we’re off to Spain for a year abroad, and I’m writing this from the airport in grimy clothes having crawled on the ground under my truck in the rain to fasten the car cover I bought for long term storage.
This past weekend, during our bon voyage barbecue, better than half of the conversations were about traveling, and India came up. I was telling my friend Elizabeth’s partner, a guy I don’t know well, that in 2002 I spent some time in India hiring a team of software developers just as Bangalore was being discovered by the tech industry.
Elizabeth was curious about Bangalore and Indian outsourcing and asked a question about how the city has grown. Her partner, a startup executive, jumped in and said, “Yeah the thing with India is that you can pay them almost nothing, and there are a ton of them. You could hire like five of them for the same price as one guy here, so even if they weren’t very good individually, you still end up saving.”
It was a going away party, not a cultural empathy workshop, so I bit my tongue, chalking up his impolitic way of characterizing an entire nation’s people as “cheap” to his American ignorance and political bubble. However impolitely he said it, he’s not alone in his sentiment. When you view software engineers as “resources” and payroll as “expenses,” the lens you put on outsourcing is narrow, and broken.
There’s a better way, and it’s simple: Make outsourcing your way to explore the world. You’ll build better relationships, have better business outcomes, and a better life.
Outsourcing to India in the early days
When I was working at StorePerform in 2002, we had an Indian CEO, Srikant Vasan. Srikant studied at the Indian Institute of Technology and then at Wharton. He definitely had a “Cost of Goods Sold” (COGS) view of software development and wanted it as low as possible. Since he was from India, he was interested in hiring developers there.
There was no Upwork. Srikant and CTO Shawn Davison contacted big companies like Tata but thought our small startup wouldn’t get the kind of attention it needed from such a big shop. Srikant wanted the lowest possible prices, and for that, we would need to go with a boutique agency.
There was never any question that someone would go to India. Outsourcing was new to all of us, and the idea of working with people you had never met was unthinkable. I volunteered myself for the trip with a presentation that included a three week itinerary of specific milestones.
I got a green light, then a business visa, and then I got on a plane alone. I was told to connect on arrival with a guy named Steven (his client-facing name) who worked as a project manager at a small outsourcing shop. He would set me up at a guest house and introduce me to the team. I stepped off the plane in India with no cash and no working SIM in my phone. So much for my detailed plans. After panicking, I begged some people at a rental car booth to let me use their phone to call Steven, and he came to pick me up.
He arrived on a motorcycle with no helmet for either of us and scolded me for showing up in India with no cash. For the first time in my life I got on a motorcycle sitting behind Steven, and we accelerated into the dangerous Bangalore traffic.
I soon realized that Steven was working very hard to insert himself between me and every person I interacted with. Fruit stand orders, rickshaw drivers, and the developers on my team talked to me through Steven.
I told Shawn and Srikant back in Denver about this, and then told Steven I needed space in my daily interactions with the outside world. I said I needed to work with the engineering team directly, not through him. I also contacted his boss and let him know that we didn’t need the type of project management that Steven provided for our project.
Then I got busy getting to know the team. They were terrific. Sid, Manjunatha, Shilendra, and Chandresh were hard working, curious, and so smart. They also wanted to help me learn Indian culture. We ended up working together for several years. I visited again two years later when the team was a bit bigger, and they visited our team in the US. When they were here, I asked them how they felt about downtown Denver. “It is very clean, but there are no people.”
A boondoggle to Thailand
My efforts in India weren’t perfect. I had a lot of difficulty keeping the team on schedule and catching issues before they became critical. But I had learned that working directly with the developers helped.
I also learned that my trouble understanding Indian accents and remembering and pronouncing Indian names fell away after a few weeks in the country.
A few years later, at another company, IP Commerce, I was working with a team from Thailand on a project to build a point of sale system, and we were struggling badly with communication. I was working with a Jirapong, the sharp lead developer at a shop run by a couple of expat Americans, but even with carefully worded emails, miles of chat logs, and frustrating, poor connectivity phone calls, our communication lacked all nuance.
I told IP Commerce CEO Chip Khan I could get the app done, but I needed to go to Thailand and work directly with Jirapong. Chip agreed, but the head of project management, Doug Hurst, couldn’t believe it. He howled with laughter when I told him I was leaving for Thailand in two days, then he messaged me every day asking how my boondoggle was going.
Guess what? It helped a ton! In the same room with Jirapong I learned how to understand his accent, and he understood how to communicate what he was working on with me. He introduced me to the other developers on the team and we all ate every lunch together (spicy rice and eggs).
Guess what else? I did go to temples, ate amazing food, and had adventures. Just like I had in India, I soaked in as much of the country as I could.
My advice for you
When I tell people some of the places I’ve worked, it’s not uncommon that they’ll tell me they’ve worked in far flung places too. And when I ask if they did anything fun, I’m SO SURPRISED how often they’ll say they didn’t really have time for that.
I admit, I’ve had some boring business trips. I’ve spent weeks in Dallas, Tex. and Columbus, O. not getting any more local color than what I heard in the Chili’s waitstaffs’ voices. But if you’re going to spend more than 12 hours on a plane, your company owes you a few days of sightseeing, full stop.
Let’s take this a step further. Building great teams is about great communication. Go ahead and explain how you’re going to have great communication with your team while you know nothing about the place they live and their culture. I’ll wait here for you to type that up in the comments. GL with that.
So yes. Today it is possible these days to go on Upwork or Toptal or ask your brother in law who you should outsource to and you’ll get an answer. And you can just start talking to them on Slack, and you can maybe get some solid code out of it.
But think about how great it would be if you met the people you outsource to. What if you understood why their holidays were important, could reminisce about food at their favorite restaurants, and meet the children whose lives were better because of the money your company was paying their parents? Wouldn’t that be better?
How hard is it? Just go there. Book a ticket. Meet them! It’ll improve your life, I promise.
So as I head off for Spain, I am definitely thinking about what’s next for Kelsus, and I know that the chances of forming great relationships are so much better by my being there. I hope we find some Spanish software developers whose values mesh with ours. Maybe we’ll also some European fintech startups to invest in. Please let me know if you know of any.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll write again next week.