The Case for Collaborative Outsourcing

While outsourcing is almost as old as the computing profession itself (in the early days, corporations didn’t always have their own development staffs), the nature of outsourcing has changed. With today’s enterprise apps penetrating the core of the business far more thoroughly than yesteryear’s general ledger, outsourcing has had to morph into a more dynamic, collaborative process. And obviously, with the Internet, the business has globalized, enabling any region with the right infrastructure and expertise to play.

The conventional wisdom is that offshore is becoming mainstream because it’s the only way that enterprises or software vendors can afford the cost of development. However, if price is the sole criterion, the customer will only get what they pay for. What’s more interesting is looking at the levels of collaboration that are emerging in some of the more advanced engagements.

For instance, mortgage broker Ameriquest used personal connections to gradually evolve relationships at the staff level as it and Tavant Technologies (the outsourcing provider) ended up seeding each other’s organizations. Another interesting angle: because the firm was aggressively doing custom development (prompted by a booming refinance market), no internal jobs were lost to outsourcing.

SpikeSource, an open source software testing vendor, added yet another angle. According to CEO Kim Polese, the firm works with its outsourcer, Cognizant, jointly interviewing job applicants for the offshore team.

Then there are outsourcing providers who specialize, not on corporate clients, but vendors, who add another angle to collaboration. Providers like Sonata Software take VAR approaches because they target many of the same ISVs whom they previously represented as local sales and integration channel. That means not taking engagements from client rivals, to ensure that intellectual property is protected. But there’s another angle. Extending the outsource relationship, one of Sonata’s ISV clients testified that the outsourcer wasn’t simply taking orders for developing new product features, but was also suggesting them.

These cases – especially Ameriquest’s – aren’t necessarily typical. But the emergence of collaborative outsourcing points to a principal too often overlooked by organizations sourcing development as if they were shopping at Wal-Mart: even if your development team is 12 time zones away, software is not an arm’s length business. As one software CEO remarked, even if you can source offshore for 30% less, it’s hardly a bargain if the project takes twice the time.

There’s a more powerful reason to collaborate. With today’s most successful businesses competing on their ability to collaborate (because they know their limits and focus on their secret sauce), why should software development be any different?

There’s a lesson for outsourcing providers as well. If all you do is deliver traditional staff augmentation body shop approaches, you’re eventually going to hit a wall when your rivals provide tangible evidence that they are helping their customers, not only save money, but grow more competitive.

Flash in the Pan

Getting the content and development folks together has always proven challenging. Exhibit one? Rational Content Studio, an attempt to apply the rigors of the Rational Unified Process and its associated configuration tools to content developers and artists, which became a hidden footnote in software history.

The problem boils down to a left brain/right brain sort of dilemma. With the left being more logical and structured, and the right more intuitive and nonlinear, to develop any successful software, you need a mix of both. Initially, the web world was the domain of right brainers because of the need to develop original compelling content. But as web traffic grew and web apps became more corporate, a dose of left brain infrastructure became necessary.

Yesterday’s announcement of Adobe buying Macromedia was a fresh reminder of the precarious balance of left and right brain in web content development. Adobe is the leader in web publishing while Macromedia has become known as the company behind the popular Flash plug in that adds animation and other rich media capabilities to Microsoft Internet Explorer and other browsers. While Adobe’s core market has been visual graphics designers (the right brain folks), Macromedia of late has become more associated developers (theoretically more left brained).

Ironically, Macromedia used to be a lot more like Adobe, and in web authoring they still compete (the onStrategies website uses Adobe GoLive for web publishing and Macromedia Contribute for making after the fact edits to web pages). But more recently, Macromedia has been trying to make Flash grow up, morphing to a full-blown run time environment for developing rich web clients more suited for enterprise development, as opposed to graphics animation. In other words, a renewed emphasis on left brain.

The obvious question is whether the combined company, whose products on paper mostly complement each other, can successfully develop a consistent message and become a trusted source for two very different end markets. Adobe and Macromedia aren’t alone in trying to overcome history. With Avalon, the next-generation user interface for future Longhorn (the next version of Windows, Microsoft is trying to pull off the same feat.

We’ won’t bore you with the specifics of Avalon, but take our word for it, it’s very ambitious and will require use of a new language that, while XML-based, is still proprietary. Avalon is supposed to unify all the elements of a GUI in such a way that it can be managed like business logic components.

There are a couple reasons why on this go round, it might be possible to finally get the graphics/content authoring and software developer folks on the same page. The first is the absorption of IT into the business, as we noted last fall, while the other is the need to assert governance in an era where publicly held companies are under pressure as never before to demonstrate that their processes are consistent and transparent.