Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Subcontracting is a recipe for disaster

A friend of mine recently told me about a tricky situation he was trying to solve. A software company was supposed to develop an application, but they subcontracted development to another company. After a while, the project started going out of control: features were late, quality was poor, bugs were not fixed and release date slipped indefinitely. Things were so bad that lawyers started to warm-up.

As many of you, I had a sense of deja-vu, when hearing this story. The thing that struck me was that this type of project is doomed from the start! Why do people repeat the same mistakes over and over and over?

Money for nothing
Let’s dig into the scenario: customer asks Company A to produce some piece of software.
The price can be defined in many ways, but it’s normally related to a rough estimation. Anyway, Company A gets the contract. Even if they are not going to write the code, they want to be paid for the marketing, and everything that comes before the project starts, somebody will be paid to “manage” the project and some money will be allocated to cover project risk.

Budget splitting from Company A’s perpective.

Ideally, such project should provide a good ecosystem for communication between the customer and the developers, allowing developers to explore and to build consistently upon frequent customer feedback.

The supposed development ecosystem: project manager deals with high level issues, while detailed communication happens informally between the team and the customer

The subcontracting scenario
In a common subcontracting scenario, Company A decides to outsource development operations to Company B. However, since the original deal was between Customer and Company A, a new deal is necessary between Company A and Company B. Sometimes this deal is completely visible to the customer, but sometimes Company A is just pretending to develop the application while Company B is developing it behind the scenes.

Anyway, the new deal between Company A and Company B is based on a different project budget, since some costs (marketing, risk and project management) are accounted on Company A.

Now the project may be worth about 1/3 less than its original budget (the exact figure may vary according to greediness and other human factors) but Company B still needs to allocate budget for its own project management and risk coverage: nobody wants to be sued for somebody else’s mistake.

The project budget, now seen from Software Company B’s perspective.

Adding two separate management boxes around the project doesn’t provide any real value in return, the financial effect is that now the project is a low-budget project, so company B will probably start looking for the cheapest software development resources available.

One would expect that the extra money put in Project Management and Risk Coverage would turn into a perfectly managed, risk free project. Well... not exactly so.

By the way, this is often the schema which is applied in offshore software development, where the common belief is that developers are so cheap that you can compensate the extra costs related to offshoring with huge savings in product building. I am not going to dig into offshoring in this post, but it’s definitely not that simple.

Messin’up with things

Unfortunately, this type of two-levels management doesn’t only duplicate costs, it does more: it makes the whole process inefficient, and it’s actually effectively working against project success.


The subcontracting development ecosystem: formally the referring person is still belonging to Company A, but development is performed by Company B. The key communication channel is now obstructed.

  • Communication flows from Customer to Company B through Company A. If Company A is the one to be paid, then all of the key discussion must pass through A, transforming the supposed Project Manager into a bottleneck.
  • Indirect communication means delay, important information may rot in a mailbox, before being forwarded to the person associated with the solution.
  • Indirect communication means also information loss. Some information must be understood, not only listened or read. Sometimes forwarding it’s not enough to ensure some key detail is not missing.
  • Since the information is sensitive for two different contracts, all parties become more inclined to write key issues instead of using face-to-face communication. Some issues are then carefully evaluated and involve more negotiation on an official level. The entire process becomes then waterfallish: having three players, with higher risk and no effective direct communication, paper (specifications, change requests, and so on) becomes more important than face-to-face communication eventually slowing down the process.
  • The customer role becomes awkward. The customer is the real customer, but for Company B, Company A is ‘the customer’. Unfortunately, the quality of information you can get from a customer who is not the user of the software it’s a lot lower. So the risk of doing the wrong thing it’s extremely higher.
  • If Company A is still pretending to be the developing company, direct communication between Company B and the Customer might even be forbidden, making things even more awkward.
The overall effect of all these factors combined is often pure havoc. A project with a decent budget becomes staffed with inadequate people, in an ecosystem that obstructs good communication between the customer and the developers, and where management roles are duplicated adding costs and subtracting value.
Is there any hope?
In theory, there is one scenario where it could still work: it’s where Company B is so good at building software that its estimations are significantly smaller than Company A ones. But to put this scenario in the real world one should answer the question: “Why a company that is so good at building software needs marketing from another (and poorer) Software Company?”

As developers, we’re probably associating this situation with the decorator pattern, which is simply adding features (a more effective marketing) to some other (the development) without changing it. Well ...this is simply not the case with subcontracting. The act of subcontracting has a negative impact on development and should be avoided or limited. As a customer, it does make a lot of difference if the software company is actually developing the software or simply playing the role of a broker. Having seen many of these situations going straight to non-recoverable state, I really think that special care about these issues should be taken in the pre-contract negotiation phase to prevent unavoidable surprises.

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