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Outsourcing custom software development: Should you be wary of Agile?

Nisha Gopinath Menon
August 20, 2018

For any given project, there are many different ways it could be developed. This is a massive advantage for all. Instead of having to rely on a hammer to nail every issue, we have at our disposal a toolbox containing various powerful tools. Even so, most developers find it tempting to use the same trusty hammer they’ve always used to solve every problem. This leads to teams who swear by one framework, language, or method and fail to see the bigger picture or broader range of options. Of course, everyone has their favorites, we do too, but it’s essential to look outside the box. Competent outsourced teams are creative in their approach to developing custom software. But today, Agile has become the new normal. While a few teams still hold on to waterfall practices, and fewer describe themselves as solely waterfall shops, the tide is clearly moving towards agile.

For many vendors and digital agencies, Agile has become synonymous with innovation, speed, creativity, and continuous improvement. In line with the worldwide trend, we too have expanded the use of Agile methodologies to deliver complex solutions in uncertain and time-constrained environments. Still, it is not unusual to encounter a client or a stakeholder who is skeptical about the advantages of using an Agile software development team. We consulted with our team leads and project managers to narrow down the most abiding misconceptions about Agile and weigh them against our experience.

Will the quality be affected?

That’s definitely one of the top concerns. Some perceive agile as unsuited for developing mission-critical solutions because of no far-reaching estimates, less rigorous upfront planning, or just because they tried Agile with a different team and ended up disappointed. However, this shouldn’t blind you to the fact that when applied correctly, Agile methodologies can provide more value on mid and long-term, resource-intensive projects such as, say, an enterprise-wide workflow management system or a large OTT platform. Splitting a big task into manageable pieces and focusing exclusively on each one until the task is complete is one of the core conventions of Agile. Every detail is double-checked and can be adjusted right away with tighter feedback loops. There are fewer cracks for errors to slip through and early mistakes are not allowed to fester. Over 80% of CognitiveClouds’s Scrum-based projects delivered products that met all of the client’s quality benchmarks. On one of our projects, the client agreed to switch to agile about halfway through development, and the number of major and critical issues plummeted by the next review.

Is it true that agile and off-site teams don’t mix?

Most believe agile won’t work unless some members of the team are working onsite for the entire project. Meaning, agile teams can only deliver with the client’s strict oversight. When the agile process is well-structured, and the distributed team has established clear rules of communication from day one, there’s no reason to keep everyone in the same room, or the same country, or even the same time zone. Agile encourages transparency and accountability by its very nature, so the clients have unlimited access to progress reports and team efficiency metrics, wherever they may be. That said, some team members do spend a period on site as a way of establishing a good rapport with the stakeholders or mapping out complex business logic before crucial stages.

Will I have to oversee every step of development?

For one, it's your project. It'll always pay well to remain involved in the process. They’re not building a house, so don't send them off with a blueprint and expect the development to be Agile. That said, there are all kinds of ways to go about it. For every client who is willing to monitor each aspect of development, there are enough clients averse to day-to-day involvement. The incremental nature of Agile with the regular course and retrospectives correction might come across as needlessly fussy for ones used to straightforward workflows. The product owner’s involvement is essential in agile, but it needn't be overly time-consuming. Over the years we’ve worked with clients who had little in-house technical expertise or little time to spare for meetups with the team. Here, you arrange the process in a way that gives the product owner complete visibility over all changes and utilizes their time more efficiently. The bottom line here is that outcomes are valued more than outputs in Agile teams. The team will plan and prioritize tasks in a way that allows achieving the desired outcome when specified, with or without daily discussions with the client’s side. Make sure you get frequent updates into what’s happening and open access to the source code. Also, give the outsourced team the freedom to innovate as they go. The outsourced development team comes in with a fresh perspective. You can use that perspective to make your process more agile and your solution more innovative.

How to cap the costs on an agile-based project?

The geographical location and the different time zones can cost you money. The cultural difference can cost you money. In the end, it’s not only about out-of-the-pocket costs, but the output you get. It’s a widespread perception that agile projects end up costing you more than waterfall projects. The Agile projects we work on generally come in two flavors: Time and Money (T&M) or fixed budget. Some clients are prepared to exceed the budget target if it means bringing every detail of their vision to life, others prefer to be flexible when it comes to scope. Any overspending can be anticipated well in advance thanks to sophisticated metrics and dashboards available today. This is why methodologies like Scrum provide more transparency and even better cost control, while waterfall often gets expensive because of change requests.

With agile, the outsourced team could get lost without a clear plan of action?

Clients who have had bad experiences with Agile, mention missed deadlines, many release cycles and other effects of poor planning. That’s not how things work in a mature, coordinated agile process. It’s true that you can kick off agile projects without extensive brainstorming. However, careful planning is still extremely crucial. Only, it happens throughout the entire project, not just at the start. Agile’s iterative nature brings inefficiencies to the surface, disciplines the development team and reduces the number of unexpected risks. It's easier to meet deadlines with Agile. First, there’s the ability to prioritize some features over others and manage the scope. Also, to discourage last-minute scope expansion, agile methodologies have in-built mechanisms. Scope restriction improves team focus, keeping the project from losing steam. However, here’s the caveat, only go agile with people who can prove they know what they’re doing.

One man's agile could be another man's horror. Too many teams and organizations try to mold themselves to fit a methodology perfectly and in turn, end up failing as they have spent far too much time doing nonproductive tasks. Organizationally, most successful companies place these agile team practices in the context of a sequential or waterfall lifecycle. Release management and planning are very waterfall-oriented. However, development itself is very much Scrum. To make it a success, it is essential to choose a software development team that can offer rational advice on the ideal choice of a methodology without pigeonholing your project, while showcasing a substantial agile-based portfolio. You’ll usually be able to tell if they’ve got what it takes to really deliver on your project within the first hour of talking with a development team. If you're still grappling with certain uncertainties, we might be able to help.

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Nisha Gopinath Menon