Sunday, September 18, 2011

“Friends Don’t Let Friends do Outsourcing” [Sam Hahn]

EL SIG's co-chair contributes this cautionary story on outsourcing.

I have a friend (let’s call him Andy) who used to work for me and was a good engineer. He subsequently became VP Engineering at an outsourced software development company overseas. I have another friend (let’s call him Don) who also worked with me at a large software company in the sales group; we went on a couple trips together to call on customers when I was a product manager.

So when Andy wanted to spin out his own outsourced software development company (after learning the business), and Don wanted to find someone to develop a Web 2.0 demo / app so he could pursue funding or BD opportunities, I thought it a no-brainer to hook them up, as they could help each other out, right?

I’ll never do it again. At least, never without adult supervision.

Expectations were very high on both sides. Andy wanted this to grow into a big project once funding happened, so he put a lot of effort into getting the code developed exactly per requirements. Don wanted to see regular quick progress, but worked from a fairly detailed PRD. Neither had a good issue or bug tracking system in place. Meetings weren’t scheduled regularly; a date was set, but when that date came and went, many unmet expectations surfaced, to the detriment of the continued beneficial relationship between the 2 parties.

Of course I blame myself. I should’ve seen this coming and inserted myself into this process to make sure things went smoothly. But I assumed that I would be invited to do so if needed. Indeed Don had prepared several proposals to engage me in his venture. Each version had an issue we needed to discuss, so disappointment had already begun to set in by the time I considered looking into the outsourcing relationship in detail.

What did I learn? In no uncertain terms, “Friends don’t let friends do outsourcing.” (At least without Adult Supervision.)

By “Adult Supervision”, I mean with professional engineering management expertise on the client side. Sales people cannot assume they are going to succeed at engineering management of remote outsourced staff. To assume this is to make light of the engineering management profession. It’s challenging enough to get distributed development working for well-running, well-managed engineering organizations. It’s folly for an inexperienced person to step into an engineering management role to attempt to lead a successful remote outsourced offshore development. Don’t do it! When you see this coming at you – go to DEFCON3!

Friends just don’t let friends do outsourcing!

Originally posted at SV Project Management.

Sam Hahn

Since graduating from Stanford University, Sam has spent over 2 decades in just about every aspect of coding, research, product definition, customer understanding, system architecture, data modeling, team building, strategy formulation, corporate startups, executive management, private equity placement, and entrepreneur mentoring. In some of these positions, he has also been responsible for product management and sales as well. Sam was the first at TRW (and possibly elsewhere) to architect systems that integrated relational database management systems, hypertext, vector and raster-based cartography, elevation data, multiple sources of intelligence data (yes this must be vague!), image processing, document management, character recognition, text indexing, search, and reasoning systems as early as the mid-80's. Sam was responsible for 4 development teams at Siebel Systems (web engine, handheld, eService, and in his 7 years there. As one of the core architects at Siebel, Sam oversaw research in presentation technology initiatives, including metadata-driven portal frameworks. Sam was co-founder, VP of Engineering, and CTO of DocuMagix (now part of, and has also held VPE positions at and Purisma. Sam is a partner at Sand Hill Angels, and now advises entrepreneurs in startup strategies and companies on effective application of Chasm and Agile thinking and practices. Attempting to live an enlightened life, he is too often tempted by sushi, Cambodian food, and white mochas with soy, only somewhat balanced by his enjoyment of tai chi. Please agree, disagree, laud, personally or professionally engage Sam via

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