To win at offshoring, start slow

As do many IT executives who have outsourced applications development work, Jonathan Sapir, president of InfoPower Systems Inc., in Deerfield, Ill., stumbled at first.

“We’ve been at this for three years, and it’s not nearly as easy as people think. It takes a lot of iterations and a lot of pain to get to the point where you do it well,” Sapir says. His company works with offshore application developers to build business systems for U.S. companies and is building its own commercial Web application rapid-development tool, SnapXT, also using offshore developers.

“I think outsourcing is like a marriage, the two sides have to match up culturally,” Sapir says.

InfoPower’s first attempt at outsourcing failed, mainly due to cultural differences between his team and the Indian outsourcer they chose for making changes to the Java code of an existing application.

“There was way too much bureaucracy,” Sapir says. “They followed very strict guidelines and didn’t seem to listen to what we were saying. We weren’t prepared for that because we have a looser, somewhat experimental approach.”

The Indian provider had been selected informally, on the recommendation of a local company with which InfoPower had worked. After that experience went awry, Sapir tried a more systematic approach, researching offshore service providers on the Web and sending out request for proposals to approximately 50 companies. He decided to try out providers by starting with a small coding project, the development of a search bar in an application that could be controlled remotely via XML.

InfoPower eventually built up a stable working relationship with several providers and now mainly uses a Ukrainian development team through services provider Offshore Creations Inc. Although there is a steady stream of informal communications between InfoPower and Offshore Creations, the companies have weekly conference sessions and established interim milestones for code delivery. InfoPower eventually hired one of Offshore Creations’ programmers to act as the main liaison.

Technology also plays a part helping the two sides brainstorm. A “screen-boarding” application from Offshore Creations allows a systems designer to capture screen shots and attach audio files and notes. The application converts the screen capture and attachments to Shockwave files the offshore coders use to see how the InfoPower staff edited the code.

Ultimately, Sapir has found that relations with providers require a lot of work. “People see that you can get developers for (US)$15 or (US)$25 an hour, and they get starry-eyed. But you have to manage it right,” Sapir says.

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