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Offshoring your digital product development? Read this first

Cambridge Landscape Image Cajeo Zhang

There’s more to your development process than the bottom line. Discover why offshoring on the cheap might not be the right answer for your business.

Being in Cambridge provides a lot of advantages. Europe’s most successful science park, hospitals doing ground-breaking research, and one of the world’s most prestigious universities are but a few of the neighbours.

For years, that’s given us a wealth of exciting challenges on our doorstep. Then 2020 happened and… well… you know.

In a brave new remote working world, have we lost that local edge? It’s possible to develop digital products offshore, sometimes at a fraction of the cost. So what’s the difference between a Zoom meeting with someone in Cambridge and someone in Ho Chi Minh City?

We think the difference is huge.

And yes, like a dog argues for a bone, we would argue for businesses developing their digital products locally instead of buying on price. But please do indulge us. After all, this is your business’ future and a hefty chunk of cash we’re talking about.

You don’t know what you don’t know

Of course, there are situations where offshoring or buying off-the-rack prebuilt software is going to work better for you. If you know exactly what problem you’re solving, why reinvent the wheel?

There are plenty of tools out there for solving everyday business challenges. You can buy an oven-ready EPOS system or a white-labelled ecommerce site. Heck, a lot of things can be modelled using a simple spreadsheet.

That’s all fine, because those aren’t the kind of problems we solve. We add tangible value in cases where you don’t fully know the exact shape of the problem yet.

In those early stages, the analysis and design processes need to be done in a tight feedback loop to identify the right solution fast. You can’t do that when all your development work is broken down and rigidly defined for testing.

Sorry to interrupt…

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Going beyond digital transformation

Take, for example, a project we completed for the University of Cambridge. They needed a new housing management system for university-owned properties. At that point it felt like a simple matter of taking their old filing cabinets digital. Greater volume, increased efficiency. Easy.

What nobody could have foreseen was the scale of integration the job demanded. The solution had to play nice with the university’s student database, HR records, payroll, the works.

This integration was the real challenge, not digital transformation. Would this have been identified if the University had simply instructed an offshore company to develop a digital filing cabinet? Unlikely. The project would have risked obsolescence before it even launched. We avoided that.

In other words, offshored development companies can be great because they deliver exactly what you ask for. Or they can be utterly catastrophic because they deliver exactly what you ask for.

Thinking beyond geography

When you offshore a development project, there are risks involved. Some of these risks involve communicating across borders, time zones, and business or societal cultures. It’s important to have a grown-up conversation about that before you make the decision.

On the other hand, there are clear advantages to working with a team who, figuratively, speak the same language as you. We implicitly understand the context of your questions. You instinctively get where we’re coming from when it’s crunch time and important decisions need to be made.

These shared shorthands for various processes streamline discovery, produce clearer briefs, and add value to the feedback process. All those incremental gains add up, and go towards offsetting the added cost of buying local.

Slotting into your software engineering team

Our work with Ieso benefitted hugely from this philosophy. They’re the UK’s biggest provider of online one-to-one therapy for NHS patients, with capacity to help over 9 million people. They came to us, at first, for help updating their patient-therapist interface.

The intricacies of working within the NHS model might not be second nature to offshored companies. For our team, it was something we’d known and loved all our lives. This let us step in fast, augmenting Ieso’s team when they needed it most.

We even went as far as joining them in their office a few days each week (in happier times, of course). We joined planning meetings, daily stand ups, and generally gelled with the team.

When it was time for Ieso to hire permanently, they could do so without feeling rushed. Our support was there for as long as it was needed. Could they have said the same of a team based in Zaporizhia?

Crafting a long-term partnership

We’ve saved the most important point for last: successful projects can go on for years. The long-term cost of support could be many times that of developing it in the first place.

Because of this, you need to lay the right foundations. Automated testing, proper documentation, using futureproof technology, all that good stuff. But it’s also vital to invest your time in a sustainable, long-term relationship with someone who can continually build on their knowledge of your business.

Projects completed piecemeal by those with only superficial understanding of what you’re all about aren’t going to scale. Even if the software is initially perfect, it’s a fixed point in a changing landscape that becomes useless over time.

The literalist approach you tend to get from offshored companies risks creating a situation where you’re locked into working how your software works. A better idea is to create software that can continually adapt and flex around your business needs.

That takes the kind of relationship that’s more concerned with doing things right than trying to pin down contractual deliverables through endless layers of project management.

Long-term web development success

Nothing demonstrates this better than our ongoing partnership with Checkatrade. What began as a trades directory with 1,000 members exploded into a 27,352-member success story by 2018. We’ve been with them every step of the way.

Their staggering growth presented a number of technical challenges, ones we could handle thanks to our familiarity with their platform. The cost and hassle of briefing an entirely new company project by project would, by this point, have reached ridiculous levels.

Now, when people come to us asking for a Checkatrade-like product, we can say with confidence that such a creation is the result of a deep, lasting partnership. And we’re always happy to take the first step on that journey.

Final thoughts

All we can do is present the facts as we see them. For some projects, simple jobs with clearly defined goals, buying offshore or off the rack might work wonders for you.

But if you’ve got a real head-scratcher, with blank bits of the project map marked ‘here be dragons’ to explore, we want to hear from you. That’s where we add incredible value to solve problems you didn’t even know you had.

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