4 Reasons Why Offshore Web Development May Not Work For You

Lately I’m getting more and more messages from people that sound like this:

I hired foreign developers to work on my website. Now it’s all messed up! Can you fix it?

Though that’s flattering, and I like the idea of being the hero coming to the rescue, it’s not always that simple. I’d like to point out some things you need to know before hiring someone thousands of miles away.

Language Murder Most Foul Causing a Fail

There are lots of reasons why long distance communication doesn’t work. The most obvious is a language barrier. It’s tricky enough getting ideas across with your same-language neighbor, much less with someone having shaky mastery of your language, or a heavy accent. I love doing accents myself, and have a good ear. Still, I remember a great guy I worked with in an office, and although his English was very fluent, I sometimes had to ask him to repeat things several times, which was more embarrassing to me than it was for him. If you’re not adept at handling accents different from yours, you may be in for a rough ride.

One trick I used to suggest was to stick with written communication in these cases – sometimes it helps. But if the problem is more than just an accent, things won’t go well.

Time Wounds All Heels

Do you enjoy getting up in the middle of the night for conference calls? I didn’t think so. 🙂 Neither does your developer, most likely, so that’s a standoff. If you’re someone who doesn’t like to communicate in writing, you’ll be frustrated trying to communicate in real time if they are halfway across the world, even with the handy tools such as Skype and Go To Meeting. Even if that’s going OK, it still can be a little problematic, figuring out the timing of things, when are things going live, what’s our target date and time, etc.

The Clash – Culture Clubbing

A subtler problem is cultural expectation. Are you a Type A personality who expects a developer to drop everything else they’re doing, neglect their family, and avoid sleep so that they can cater to your every whim in return for $10 an hour? I know it’s surprising, but in some cultures this might not be the norm.

How about timeliness? Some cultures tend to be extremely punctual, and they might be upset by people from elsewhere showing up “late” for meetings, when in their area a few minutes here or there are not a big deal.

There’s also quantity of communication. Some people like to share every detail, including when they go to the bathroom and what sort of bodily fluids their kids are producing. Others are very quiet until they have essential info to share. This can go both ways. Imagine these scenarios:

  • The client tells the developer almost nothing, either because they expect the developer to be a mindreader, or because they’re just too busy. Poor results either way.
  • The client piles on the work requests, and keeps adding and changing specs. The developer rarely “returns his calls”. Probably both of them are now going crazy.

We Have Met The Enemy, and They Are Ours

I think that most people are hesitant to hire distant help. So why do they do it? Sometimes there are good reasons, such as no one in their area having technical knowledge of their system. But the obvious culprit is the Supreme Universal Motivator – no, not love or sex, but Cheapness. And although developers may indeed be awful or crooked, I rarely hear a site owner admit that they may have played a role in their site’s offshore snafus. They may be totally unaware that they’re doing it.

Your Emotional Rescue

Can I fix an overseas fiasco? It really depends. Often, yes. But a recent case shows that it can be tricky – a site owner contacted me, explaining that her WordPress site’s 3rd party plugin update had created some error messages. Her offshore developers were willing to address the problem, but not fast enough in the owner’s view. I can wade through custom code, and do it frequently, as I enjoy puzzles. But it takes time, because it’s not familiar. Also, in this scenario there were a lot of moving parts: WordPress, a theme company, a plugin company’s ambitiously big update, the offshore company’s lengthy code, etc. So rather than blow a lot of time (and her money) stepping into a complex situation bordering on a dispute, I recommended that she stick with the offshore people for now. In other cases, I would have rolled up my sleeves and gone for it. It’s on a case-by-case basis.

Full Metal Disclosure

Sometimes I’m an offshore developer myself! Though most of my work is for fellow US residents, I work with people in Europe regularly, and I recently wrapped up a project for a colleague in South Africa. I’ve found that my foreign projects sometimes go better than my domestic ones. Why? Mostly because I strive for communication – written, verbal, and illustrations. Experience also helps. My overseas colleagues are usually very experienced at this as well, so we have little trouble. I’m also a lucky benefactor of English being nearly everywhere, my decent Spanish skills notwithstanding. Finally, after having done this for a long time, I can very rapidly get a sense of whether a work relationship will succeed.

Offshore development can be great – I wholeheartedly support it, and it supports me! 😉 But give it some thought first. Cheapest is not always best. Have you had positive or negative experiences with offshore developers? Please let us know in the comments.



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