Outsourcing Large Scale Web Development to India – a real life example [guest post]

This is an anonymous guest post by a good friend of mine who recently outsourced a very large web project to a team of developers in India.  Throughout the entire project I’ve been thoroughly fascinated by the concept.  He was kind enough to take time out of his busy day to write a post about his experience.

For the last year I’ve been working on developing a fairly large scale web project, not an Amazon, Twitter, Facebook or eBay caliber project but with good planning and a little luck it could conceivably attract any of those web all-stars to acquire our site down the road. I’ve known Adam for several years and we’ve become friends and a good source of advice and guidance for each other in entrepreneurial decisions and experiences. Please understand it is very difficult to sum up an 11 month project like this in a single blog post, but I will do my best to hit key points at the sacrifice of some key data.

The key data I will not include is who I am, what my site is, who I used for outsourcing and who my business partner is. I am doing it this way for a few reasons but primarily to keep things simpler for this post and we have some potential partnerships we are working on and we will be making significant changes to our site if they go through so we don’t want to push or create any extra buzz at the moment. Additionally I will be painfully honest at times and do not want to insult or hurt anyone’s feelings.

  • It seems obvious, even foolish, to mention this but the first thing you need is a viable project to outsource, in my case it was the programming for a fairly complicated website. Protect yourself, but remember NDA’s and CA’s are only as good as the people signing them, if someone is going to breach the contract are you prepared to take legal action against them? Chances are slim that you are, so be careful who you approach when obtaining estimates. Don’t allow this to scare you away from contacting programmers for estimates, just don’t broadcast the details of your project to the world blindly. I hope if you are planning a project like this you bring something to the equation that no one else can, this makes you a valuable asset to the project – also remember that programmers as a whole are not entrepreneurs and have little desire in stealing your business or business model.
  • Shop wisely, we ended up using a larger firm in India for our programming, but we contacted various companies from all over the globe and our estimates reflected this. Our highest bids came from US based companies(which we’ve come to find they typically outsource the programming themselves and function as a liaison between the companies abroad and you the client and charge you a premium for this service). There was over a $100k spread from our highest to lowest bid. There are many things to consider when looking at bids.
    • Look at other work they’ve done, make sure it doesn’t all look and feel the same. Contact webmasters and ask them about their experience.
    • The size of the company, is it a one man show or if your project lead gets hit by a car will someone else be able to take over. This happened to us, our project lead was hit by a car and was out of work for over 2 weeks – thankfully he was OK and someone was able to continue this project, things could have been worse, but it only turned into a week or so delay.
    • Ask to interview the project lead, this is a mistake we made. Moving forward I will demand this before I go through with the deal. Both my business partner and I feel if we had a different project lead our site would have been completed months quicker and with fewer headaches. We think the scope of our project was over our lead programmers head and as the client we paid for it in many ways.
    • Clarify the price and create a schedule with accountability, the main reason people outsource is to maximize the usable hours in a day(India is 8.5-9.5 hours ahead, depending on the time of year, in EST which is where I live) and save a small fortune in the process. Create a very firm contract and terms with deadlines and ensure that everyone understands completely.
  • There are many myths with outsourcing, this became very apparent in a short amount of time. Some are quite humorous when I look back at our misconception of outsourcing, others are lessons learned.
    • Even with highly detailed project specifications you will need to hold their hand every step of the way and constantly test and check their work. The projects specifications for our site is over a 120 page document. We were very specific in what we were asking for and were very clear in needing the ability to grow and in which areas. Many people think you simply send your 2-3 page project specifications and they drive the project home, that is not my experience at all. I acknowledge that our site is far more complicated then most sites, but I cannot imagine letting them have free reign, the results would be nothing short of a disaster. In other words you are the project lead, they are the programmers.
    • Those of us in America and Canada take for granted our infrastructure, same is true of all advanced nations. Power failures and the internet going down is extremely common in India. Additionally bandwidth between India and the USA is weak during peak use hours and there are constant delays and breaks in communication because of this.
    • They are humans just like us and have the same human problems that we all do. They get sick, they need to eat, sleep and have a life. This sounds so foolish to say, but it seems most people view outsourced labor as a form of robot, this is NOT the case. They have families, good and bad days and they take off our holidays and their holidays. This leads me into my next big point.
  • Things will go wrong, they will make mistakes and it will be frustrating beyond words. To this end, you will have to pay for all of these things not just in a loss and delay of potential revenue but in additional fees from the programing company. There is probably one of those catchy laws to explain this web development phenomenon, as with any system, the more complexity there is in the system the greater the chances of things getting screwed up and it costing you more time and money – both directly and indirectly.
  • The language barrier is a very real problem. At some point everyone has had a problem with a call center based in India, not understanding what they say and/or is offended by their tone of talking to you. This is not intentional and frustrates them as much as it does us. Most of us have heavy European and Christian values instilled upon us and find it difficult when faced with a value system or habit that is unlike what we know and understand. Be patient and work hard to understand them, they will genuinely appreciate your effort and as with all human relations they will work harder knowing that you have respect for them as an individual and their values. With that said there will be misunderstandings, miscommunication and other painfully frustrating times that would probably not exist if you both spoke English as your first language.
  • I cannot stress this enough, they are humans and peers despite living 7,000 miles away, treat them with respect and as a human being and it will make the whole experience more pleasurable and effective.
  • You will learn a lot dealing with a foreign culture, I remember vividly the first time I heard them laugh at a joke. I tend to make constant jokes out of all things all day everyday, it keeps the mood light and people happy. My business partner uploaded a photo onto the site for testing and the photo was him next to a dead and mounted bear, one of the Indians on the call asked if that was my business partner in the picture and I jumped in and said “yes, he’s the one on the right” which was the bear, my business partner was on the left and the Indians on the call laughed until near tears at that remark. At other random times throughout the project they would totally lose it, typically over what we would find as a fairly insignificant thing, sometimes I couldn’t figure out what triggered it even with replaying the call.
  • The timezone difference was confusing at first, now it’s fairly simple and extremely effective in getting more out of a day. We would have nearly daily updates and my business partner and I would test during our day and get notes out to them for their morning. I am on the east coast(EST) and India does not use Day Light Savings Time and further they are not a standard time, so depending on the time of the year they are 8 ½ or 9 ½ hours ahead of me. I set up a clock widget with their timezone so I can discern what time it is for them in seconds with no additional thought, in fact I do that with all timezones I deal with now and it has made my life surrounding time zones much simpler.
  • Communication was mentioned in several capacities above but I feel it is worth stressing this point by itself. With all communications be very specific, do not leave room for interpretation or you will not be happy with the results. Be accurate with your information and what tasks you assign to them. Be curt, not rude but do not allow them to control the project, you lead it and being a leader means you sometimes have to make decisions that will not leave you popular. I’m not sure if it’s just the team we worked with but it is my experience that any specific detail or item that cannot be explained in two or fewer sentences needs a picture outlining the problem. As the details started to mount and our corrections were becoming more pointed it required us to take screen shots or web-image grabbing software with a brief explanation or simply use red arrows and lines to get our point across. This may have been a case where all of the Indians we dealt with were A.D.D and could not grasp paragraphs or complex theories in word, or it’s a trait of those who don’t speak English as their first language. What was most frustrating, was until we realized this they simply skipped or ignored our detailed explanations, often if there was an important detail in the second sentence it would frequently be missed.

Overall I enjoyed the experience and learned more then I could have imagined. At times I had regrets and if I could go back I would do things differently, but I would still outsource and probably go with the same company. We saved a small fortune, which was the difference between us creating this site or not. We’ve all heard tales of outsourcing, though it’s rare to encounter someone who’s actually done it. I hope my brief outline has helped to debunk some of the misconceptions and share some of my hard learned lessons when outsourcing so you can decide if it’s the right path to pursue down the road.

9 comments on Outsourcing Large Scale Web Development to India – a real life example [guest post]

  1. Dave says:

    Interesting read, I definitely appreciate you sharing. I’ve had the experience of using things like oDesk and eLance at times in my life to outsource certain projects, and it’s just really tough for me to get over some of the communication stuff. You have to weigh whether the costs outweigh the frustrations in communications and make that personal decision which is better.

    Would love to know what the site is, and I hope once it’s launched you’ll be able to share that with us.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      “You have to weigh whether the costs outweigh the frustrations in communications and make that personal decision which is better.”

      This is what has always fascinated me. Based upon his last paragraph (and just in talking with him), I know he’d do it again, albeit slightly different. I keep wanting to give it a shot, but then I wonder if it’s just easier to pay the premium to have better communication.

    • Udo Dirkschneider says:

      I am the guest blog post writer, I am not the real Udo Dirkschneider it’s just a name I like using when I don’t want to use my real name.

      You bring up some interesting points and they certainly do have merit. With that said this was an enormous project and anyone taking this on is going to experience large amounts of frustration and a ton of headaches, it’s just the nature of the beast. Is that worth the savings? I guess it depends how much money you have and the scope of the project. In our case we had 3 full time programmers working on it for 11 months, it was a BIG project. There were additional support used for design and security when those items came up. Additionally, my business partner and I worked on this full time testing and developing. In the USA an average programmer will make around $65k/annually, a senior programmer will make $75k+, in India a senior programmer will make around $15k/annually – the savings are significant. The actual amount saved will of course vary dramatically based on the size and scope of the project, on a simpler e-commerce site the savings will be less because the project itself can be buttoned up, from a programming standpoint, in 1-2 months.

      The site is currently launched, but we are not pushing too hard at the moment, we are working on forming a new partnership which will require some significant reformatting, we don’t want any more data and users on our site then necessary until this either falls through entirely or we complete the reformatted site – a partnership deal will require a very significant facelift. We’ve been able to test our systems live and thankfully things have held up well, a few minor snags, but nothing close to catastrophic.

  2. Jenia Laszlo says:

    Adam and the Mystery Guest Blogger, I would say that the below description quite fairly represents my experience of outsourcing work to Mumbai: down to extremely detailed instructions, leading the project even though there is a project lead, screen grabs with red circles and arrows showing what needs to changed, delivery delays because of power outages, flooding, very frequent family calamities…

    Except for one part: the Mystery Blogger seems to have way more patience, understanding and compassion when I could master in a similar situation. From reading this passage, I definitely see how they got frustrated with the extra resources, communication and hand-holding that was required, but I also see them standing up and looking for ways to understand the people 7,000 miles away and looking for ways to relate to them and win over their trust and commitment. This is really admirable and made me think very hard about what I could have done differently.

    Mystery Guest Blogger – thank you for sharing the depth of your experiences, and good luck with the launch!

    • Udo Dirkschneider says:

      Thank you for your kind words Jenia. I never would have thought of myself as a patient individual, but I guess the older I get the more understanding and compassionate I’ve become – at times I think I am too ruthless and cold blooded it’s nice to hear the opposite for a change!

      As the old saying goes “before you judge someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes…. this way when you do judge them you are a mile away and you have their shoes!”

  3. Dale Ting says:

    Great post. I’ve had experiences both in my day job and after work job on offshore outsourcing. This post has some great insights!

  4. Adam McFarland says:

    Glad everyone enjoyed it. I really wanted him to do the post because I had a feeling that people would be as curious as I was. If you’ve been in web business, you’ve been tempted to try it at some point, myself included. I’ve learned a ton from him and will definitely approach it with my eyes wide open if we ever decide to do it.

  5. nethy says:

    Mystery Guest Blogger,

    I’m going to join in and tell you I enjoyed the post.

    I work on a lot of projects of various sizes outsourcing often to several sources. Like most, this is >50% India with ‘the rest of the word’ (for me it’s Canada, Indonesia, US, South Africa in that order). It also gets more interesting when you have repeat projects. While I do bang my head against the wall in frustration at times, I am fascinated by the whole thing. I’m even vaguely considering taking a trip to India partly to get a closer look.

    Interesting extrapolation:

    which we’ve come to find they typically outsource the programming themselves and function as a liaison between the companies abroad and you the client and charge you a premium for this service

    and

    In other words you are the project lead (interesting how much of the rest of the myth-busting boils down to this)

    As you say, getting things outsourced well is tricky. You seem to have been managing the outsourcing of something that you could have done yourself given enough time. That gives you one massive advantage. Imagine outsourcing something that don’t know about.

    The people who gave you the quote in the US don’t just have to do what you did (be the project lead), they also have to work with you, the client who may have no idea what he/she really wants or some really terrible ideas. I’m not saying that you should have gone with them, far from it. Just pointing out the role in the process they play professionally which is, I think, an interesting one.

    I also have a suspicion that the people playing that role should be in India themselves.

  6. Philam says:

    Yeah it’s really a great guest post. We are thankful for sharing this experience. This helps give idea to those who haven’t tried outsourcing yet.

    Phil

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