What You Should Know Before You Offshore Your Startup's Engineering Team
"Everything now, everything fast" is the way of a startup. It's a race against competitors, what's still interesting and getting users to care. Offshoring engineering teams has become a popular solution for large corporations as well as startups -- it's an easy, cost-efficient way to get things done, right? Not so fast! Offshoring engineering teams can be a huge asset for your startup, but it comes with a sea of entirely new challenges.
As someone who’s done it, here's what you should be prepared for before you jump overseas:
Determine a single source of truth.
This is a catchier way of saying “you’re going to need a reliable way to manage software development.” Before you even think about building anything, you need a project management and software development tool that will work for you and your team. For us, our “single source of truth,” is Jira, a software development and project management tool. Having a single source of truth also means there’s accountability. You’ll probably cringe at saying “The date says due here and it’s not done,” but likely as a project manager you will.
With a team that’s not in the same physical office, it’s even more important to manage communication, projects and owners; luckily messaging tools like Slack, hangouts, Skype and join.me make it very easy to communicate in real time, regardless of the location. Clear communication and met deadlines are especially crucial at a startup, where it’s always a race against the clock.
Expect a language barrier.
If you're considering offshoring some or all of your engineering team, a new language often comes with the territory. Does this mean you should power up Duolingo? Not necessarily, but you will want to make sure there’s someone in your overseas office that is proficient in both english and the local language. This person also needs to be in a manager role; otherwise, it will be more than code that’s lost in translation. I’m working with a Ukrainian development team right now, in addition to our U.S. engineering team -- am I going to learn Ukrainian overnight? No, but I’m very grateful for the engineering team lead over there who translates (I think) most of what I’m saying.
You need a trusty counterpart.
How you build the team in an offshore office depends on your needs and intentions with this office. You can either focus on building an autonomous team or set up auxiliary development offshore. If you decide to focus on developing an autonomous team, you’ll need to hire the right senior person up front and then grow a team of more junior engineers. This senior person needs to be your trusty counterpart. Look to hire a self-starter, who has the right instincts to make decisions. You’ll want to empower the engineering team abroad, just like you would if they were in the same office, to make things happen. Someone who needs approval from you for every small change will not be an effective use of their or your time, especially with a time difference.
It's not as cost-effective as you think.
Sure on a spreadsheet it might look like you’ll be able to save money by offshoring your team, but there are non-monetary costs that definitely add up. You trade leaning over to tell the engineer next to you for the 100th time to “please stop blasting bassnectar!” with sending gifs on Slack, which always run the risk of not getting the intended reaction. Additionally, if you want a team that really works together, you’ll need face time with both, meaning your overseas team should definitely meet with the U.S. team and your executive team should get used to cashing in some airline miles. Without meeting face-to-face at least once, you lose the ability to ensure the intangible “vibe” is right.
If you’re thinking about using an overseas team for engineering at a startup, what you need to remember is that this team is simply your team in a different location. Treat them like you would if they were in the office, make sure there’s an easy way to communicate and schedule frequent trips to the other location or bring them to HQ. Between real-time messaging tools, high-speed wireless available in most countries and mobile tools, it’s easy to bridge the physical distance, language and cultural barrier. Integration makes everything happen!