Five years ago, my conversations with tech executives were mostly about augmenting and scaling their engineering teams with remote developers. We’re still talking about that. But now we’re talking about outsourcing for new product development, independent R&D, as well as advanced 3rd platform tech. It’s an interesting shift, coming from two directions. First the demand side, where hiring and retaining tech talent is grindingly difficult. Second, the supply side, where mid-size engineering providers, domestic and offshore, have evolved dramatically over the past 5 years with new levels of operational skill.
Operational Excellence (OE) is often taken for granted when evaluating providers. It’s the “execution” side of technology development, and it drives many factors that impact a successful project and provider relationship. For example, requirements traceability, quality standards, process standards, team performance, adherence to industry regulations, and interestingly, even innovation. In the past 5-years, I’ve observed OE as a key differentiator among technology providers.
Here are a few characteristics you’d find in a mid-size technology provider who’s seriously invested in OE.
Firstly, we all know that distance is a factor that needs to be managed in any remote engagement, including software engineering. It doesn’t matter whether it’s across a city, or across an ocean. More operationally capable providers carefully manage their onboarding and integration into your team by assigning process and communication leads. These roles guide and monitor your experience and assure their team is onboarding efficiently and increasing its performance over time. Providers should also take initiative to assign quality advisors to every team, for a deeper look at how to assure that quality is integral to their delivery. For independent projects, devops engineers can structure test, integration and deployment pipelines, to speed and optimize the whole development and delivery process. What is notable in the best providers is that they strive to improve their clients’ software holistically, far beyond writing code.
OE is key to talent and retention as well – critical to bringing professional, skilled, and motivated people into your project. Engineers generally have a sense for the characteristics of employers in their region. Providers who excel at OE, relay a sense of confidence and professionalism and are generally more respected in the community. They consequently attract better talent. By contrast, poorly managed operations leave mid-level managers and leads struggling to meet client expectations, which often results in low employee satisfaction. No doubt, these issues have impact on the end results.
A new trend that I’ve observed in the past few years is providers innovating on their people pipeline, by going up the value chain and fostering talent with their own engineering boot camps and academies. I’m impressed by this initiative! Some of the best developers I’ve worked with have diverse backgrounds and don’t necessarily follow the traditional computer science academic path. Recognizing this, some providers seize the opportunity to transition smart tech enthusiasts across career paths. And it makes a lot of sense – managing their talent pipeline is do or die for them. My take is that outsourcing providers are much better equipped to do this than most businesses. They may get a call tomorrow to staff a product team of 6 developers. It takes a robust talent pipeline and a certain operational fortitude to say “yes” to that, and truly deliver.
Yet another characteristic of good OE in software outsourcing providers is their ability to “swarm” onto new challenging projects. I’ve often taken a two-page vision document for a new software product, and within 2-weeks had a team running workshops with business analysis, technology analysis, budget, timelines, risk assessments, to provide options and a tech roadmap to stakeholders. It’s not easy to do well. Providers get a lot more practice than most software product companies. And with architects and consultants in different domains, specific technology choices are no longer the focus – the technology solution is driven by the business objective – the way it should be.
There’s much more to OE. It would take a book. I hope this post at least helps broaden your picture of what is possible with today’s mid-size software providers.