Making Offshore Design Work

offshore oil rig

When companies first start off-shoring, they usually send the “low level” implementation work overseas first, to work out the process kinks and manage risk. Over time, your valued, domain-aware developers will perceive a lack of career opportunities with this limited role. Naturally, you will want to consider sending design work offshore too. You can make it work. If you do it wrong, you’re toast.

Different Models for Offshore Development

There are many ways to organize software-creation teams (where creation includes product management, design, development and testing). When developing an organizational design that incorporates elements of off-shoring, there are four primary models for outsourced software creation.

  1. No offshore development at all. Occasionally referred to as insourcing, this is the traditional “everyone in one place” model – or at least “everyone in similar time zones.”
  2. Low-level outsourcing. The implementation teams (both coding and testing) are located offshore, with design and product management staying local.
  3. High-level outsourcing. The focus of this article. Keeping product management “local” but moving design and development responsibilities offshore.
  4. Complete technical outsourcing. Everyone except the product manager is offshore.

The models can be most easily compared when the same process is compared in each – just with different locations. Co-location of team members has an impact when comparing face-to-face communication with online / phone / remote communication. But this factor is not a primary one in influencing team-decisions – it is no different than having someone who works from home. The key element in team dynamics is a dramatic shift in timezones.

This timezone shift causes a latency in the communication process, illustrated by the following example:

Imagine the following expensive question and answer session:

  • Person A asks person B a question.
  • 12 hours later, person B responds with a request for a clarification.
  • 12 hours later, Person A clarifies the question.
  • 12 hours later, Person B responds with an answer.
  • 12 hours later, Person A acknowledges the answer.

When this communication channel happens between an onshore person and an offshore person, it takes 48 hours instead of 48 minutes. The more this happens, the more expensive it is to outsource. The key to making low-level outsourcing work cost effectively is to minimize the impact of this communication latency, while realizing the benefits of lower salaries in the offshore location.

Making Offshore Development Work

This is why proper communication design is the make-or-break element of making collaborative teams work when using an outsourcing model that involves anyone being offshore.

High-Level Outsourcing

Consider the following software development process diagram (from Four Application Development Outsourcing Models):

high level outsourcing process flow

In this off-shoring process flow diagram, the shaded areas represent the activities that happen offshore. Note that this is the exact same process flow that is used to describe the other outsourcing models. The difference from other models is primarily where resources are located, but also the relevant scope of responsibility. In comparison with low-level outsourcing, the only difference in the process flow is that responsibility for test design and solution design is transitioned to the offshore development team.

Artificial Boundary

This model creates a bit of an artificial boundary between the “interpret requirement” step and the “design solution” and “design tests” steps. This artificial boundary creates a potentially odd dynamic within the team.

To make reading easier, we’ll talk about the development side of the process flow only, but the same ideas apply on the testing side.

This model has one developer interpreting requirements, and a different developer doing the design work. In an insourcing model, those two developers are usually the same person. In large development teams, a common breakout here is architect versus senior designer. The architect (the figure on top) would be responsible for those design considerations that span the enterprise and the senior designer would be responsible for those design considerations that affect a single application. Here’s a good background article by Scott Ambler on approaching enterprise architecture.

Why have an artificial boundary? Because this model is an emergent design.

  1. A company starts with low-level outsourcing.
  2. The offshore developers complain about a lack of growth opportunities (both career and skill).
  3. Executives are not prepared to completely outsource all technical work (risk aversion), or the team is not ready to succeed with that approach.

Splitting the “interpret requirements” task from the “design a solution” task is a compromise. It minimizes the risk associated with providing growth opportunities to offshore team members. That risk is minimized by avoiding the high-latency communication channel (from onshore to offshore) when communicating requirements. Instead, the interpretation of the requirements is done onshore, and that interpretation is communicated.

You can argue that this model is the offspring of a trust issue within the organization. A company can absolutely say “We want growth opportunities for our offshore team members” and at the same time say “We are not ready to relinquish complete technical control.” This is definitely a trust issue, and therefore a perceived risk mitigation strategy. The risk may be very real, or non-existent. In either case, it is emotionally present.

Vague Scope and Role Conflict

If, while reading this, the notion of splitting interpretation from design feels uncomfortable, that’s because it is. For many teams that are evolving their outsourcing model, it feels uncomfortable, but it feels less uncomfortable than releasing complete technical control.

One problem, which I completely grok as a former developer, is that it is almost impossible to interpret requirements without imagining designs. But this model has different people performing the different tasks. So should the interpreter just discard those designs? Presumably the interpreter is more experienced, certainly more knowledgeable about the domain. It would be a shame to discard those design insights.

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

This approach has clear benefits for the offshore developers who are now presented with growth opportunities. Unfortunately, you run the risk of sucking the fun out of the role of the interpreter – a senior, experienced developer with domain knowledge. While proper requirements interpretation can be fun, it usually is not fun for a developer. Only requirements people will enjoy those nuances, generally.

You risk eliminating a career path and growth opportunities for your onshore resources with this model.

Division of Labor

One approach that keeps the growth opportunities open for your senior onshore technical resources is to have them play multi-product, or architectural roles. This presents an opportunity for these individuals to apply organizational insights across products, finding synergies between applications and driving consistency and consolidation among applications. You essentially split the responsibilities “broad and deep” where the onshore designer is looking across the portfolio and the offshore designer has ownership responsibilities for a single application or scope. This is similar to the division of responsibilities that works well for tackling enterprise product management.

Instead of preventing communication of requirements across the high-latency channel, it minimizes it. The onshore designer acts as the liaison between multiple offshore designers, fielding interpretation questions, and more effectively, preventing them. Developers have a language all their own. Through a shared perspective on common experiences, they can communicate very efficiently – by analogy, symbolically, and via design patterns. These communication opportunities (between like-minded individuals) can have very high information density. For example, one developer can say “MVC pattern” to another, and that serves more effectively to communicate an approach to designing a solution (and a context / interpretation of requirements) far more efficiently than a product manager describing requirements that multiple tools and platforms should expose the same set of capabilities or behaviors [and that is overly short, because I don’t feel like typing a comprehensive explanation of the MVC pattern].

Another approach is to silo the developers vertically – having some applications (or modules) following a low-level outsourcing model, and others practicing complete technical outsourcing. Any given team is operating discretely with a clearly defined set of responsibilities. The teams may just be operating differently. Essentially, you’re saying that your “average” is high level outsourcing, even though it is really a mix of two models. This doesn’t really count, since none of your teams are addressing the communication challenges of this model – your company is leapfrogging over it, but choosing to mitigate risk by doing it a little bit at a time.

You can also take the approach of having the onshore designer be responsible for over-arching and high-complexity design issues, with offshore designers owning more straightforward and lower risk design activities.

The best approach for maximizing your team’s effectiveness (and your HR goals) will be overwhelmingly determined by the individuals involved. If you’re in a large company, you probably don’t get to maximize team effectiveness – you are likely to be forced into a particular model. If you’re doing the forcing, recognize that one size does not fit all.

High Latency Communication And Designing

When circling back to the main challenge of offshoring – communication – you need to look at the nature of the communication that is subject to the high-latency of temporal displacement within the team. The key to making this model work is to leverage the efficiency of cross-talk between developers. That means having experienced people on both the offshore and onshore teams who share common design backgrounds (patterns, analogies, examples) and deep domain understanding (reducing the provision and clarification of context across the communication channel).

Design reviews are also very effective at eliminating the impact of this latency on communication. Design reviews typically happen as follows:

  1. Designer A spends time creating design based on an interpretation of requirements.
  2. Designers A & B get together and review the design in a relatively short meeting (or Designer B reviews a design document). Feedback is delivered in a burst.
  3. Designer A spends time updating the design based on feedback from step 2.
  4. Return to step 2 as many times as is needed.

There is a big chunk of work involved in incorporating feedback from a design review. This can be folded into the “white space” between communications. In other words, while designer B is sleeping for the night, designer A is making updates. This looks like, but is not the follow-the-sun pattern.

The follow-the-sun pattern is one where someone is always working. I’ve made this work on a project where there were two teams working 12 hour shifts with a 4 hour overlap (and a 4 hour “blackout”). Note – that isn’t sustainable, just anecdotal. I think the linked article is right, commonly, follow-the-sun implementation does not work, for the reasons cited in that article.

What makes this very different is that we are synchronizing the naturally-occurring time lag between design reviews with the geographically-induced time lag in communication.


The strategy for successfully utilizing offshore resources for both implementation and design starts and ends with communication. It also requires attention to your specific people and their career aspirations.

  • Utilize design reviews to take advantage of serendipitous time-lags in the communication cycle.
  • Assure that your role definitions are clear, and aligned with the aspirations of the people on your team.
  • Follow the tips for effective offshore development – this strategy builds on that one, it does not replace it.

4 thoughts on “Making Offshore Design Work

  1. I have been looking at offshoring for many years and keep coming to the conclusion that only low level items can be “shipped off”. True innovation is only achieved when individuals collabrate and communicate – which is impossible working in opposing time zones

  2. Hey Doug, thanks for commenting, and welcome to Tyner Blain!

    I agree that collaboration along the high-latency communication channel is much slower, and for most people, much harder. There are things you can do, like idea seeding and daily stand-ups that avoid or at least minimize the penalties.

    I’d classify as very different, and harder, but not impossible.

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