Moving to Minneapolis, my efforts to launch a mobile cloud learning application were stalled by an unfortunate reality: the Palm Pilot was the best platform available to host the solution, and the advent of mobile as we know it today was still years away.
Technically speaking, the product remained tabled, but the idea, fortunately, didn’t lose steam. And while success didn’t materialize immediately, it was clear that MentorMate’s current momentum — our ability to help clients overcome complex business challenges with custom software — hinges on a chance encounter and conversation at the Dunn Brothers Coffee shop at 34th and Hennepin Avenue.
A fellow entrepreneur was struggling to reconcile new ideas with the limitations of existing technologies.
But he did have something that I didn’t.
Getting the Job Done With Offshore Software Development
Eric introduced me to Dimitar “Mitko” Dobrev, who lived in Bulgaria at the time. After some instant messaging (international phone calls were prohibitively expensive at the time, and therefore used sparingly) it was clear Mitko had the expertise and critical approach that could take an idea from stalled to accelerated.
After a few months of consulting, Mitko and I combined our efforts formally in 2002. Mitko’s friend and technical confidant, Ivan Peev, joined shortly after him, and they are two of six Bulgarians who have seen MentorMate evolve from startup to an offshore software development force over 400 strong.
“I never thought of it as offshore, just getting the job done.”
Björn Stansvik, CEO & Founder, MentorMate
Mitko, Ivan, Georgi, Vesselin, Martin, and Tisho hand-selected the teams that continue to push the boundaries of what is possible with the newest technologies, building innovative digital solutions for a range of companies across industries.
Why Inquiry is Essential to Success in Offshore Software Development
In 2008, as MentorMate’s presence in Bulgaria pivoted from nascent to established, I asked the staff of 22 there the following question:
“Why should a business choose to work with MentorMate?”
Starting with the newest hires and junior developers and working up the hierarchy to the managers and senior developers, I sought their responses.
“Flexible, dedicated teams.”
The obvious responses ran out quickly, and those waiting to answer had to be more creative with their answers.
We didn’t find the right answer that day, but still, we were on to something. A question was asked, ideas were exchanged. This was new, especially for software developers.
How Offshore Software Development in Bulgaria is Different — and Better
The MentorMate team has never existed behind some wall, whether real or imagined. Our Bulgarian counterparts work directly with clients daily, asking and encouraging questions from ideation to product launch. Their work is completed rapidly.
But the work is not simply a matter of checking features off a list of requirements produced by the client.
Rather, time and space are allotted to ask the questions that inform an intentional and holistic approach to solving business needs through the user’s perspective. Comfortable with ambiguity, these proactive critical thinkers are unafraid of asking, “why?”
It’s Time to Think Differently About Offshore Software Development
Typically, when offshore software development is mentioned, poor communication and over-the-fence development spring to the minds of many.
It’s a classic story:
A product owner defines requirements and ships them to a team located in India or China. The product is developed and shipped back to the client. If it isn’t apparent at first, the software is usually found to be flawed later on. Having wasted time and money, the product owner is unhappy, and the development firm loses business.
In the classic offshore software development story, no one wins.
Companies must continually adapt the arrangement of their business models and workforces to respond to new economic — and sometimes political — realities. When it comes to investing in new talent, some might feel the need to look closer to home for a variety of reasons.
But Offshore Software Development Isn’t Going Away
The risks entailed in working with remote technical teams are better understood. Tools like Slack or Google Hangouts increase the frequency of communications and the overall transparency of development processes for technical teams and product owners alike. Requirements and features don’t have to be thrown back and forth over a fence but ideated, executed, and improved in real time with all stakeholders who care to be involved.
Offshore software development isn’t only easier for your company to leverage. It’s also necessary for most businesses looking to innovative while controlling their costs, especially since real talent is always scarce.
How Onshore Software Development Can Slow Down Innovation
As of March 2017, it was estimated that 43,000 US students graduated with degrees in computer science. At the same time, about 500,000 jobs in computing were open nationwide.
By 2020, it’s estimated that there will be 1 million more IT job openings in the US than qualified applicants who can fill them.
In Minnesota, there are almost 12,000 open IT jobs. But in 2015, fewer than 1,000 students were expected to graduate with degrees in computer science entered the workforce.
At the local level and beyond, demand exceeds available resources and talent. While the percentage of workers employed in Minnesota’s tech industry has grown steadily for the better part of the last decade, hiring enough of the proper talent will remain prohibitively expensive for many companies, preventing both businesses and technologists from going faster.
Elsewhere, the talent is more evolved, more readily available, cheaper, and capable of producing work that is of higher quality. Elsewhere exists, and it’s called Bulgaria.
Bulgarian History is Essential to Better Offshore Software Development
Bulgaria is one of Europe’s oldest and continuously inhabited countries. It’s a crossroads of East and West — Roman ruins and Ottoman-era mosques can be found within walking distance of each other in some towns.
Over the course of its histories, Bulgaria has cultivated a forward-thinking culture that embraces the opportunities offered in new technologies. Conversations around what makes an effective solution are frank, but they achieve an effective synthesis of ideas to improve outcomes for businesses and individuals alike.
In the early 20th century, the Bulgarian government formally dedicated resources to teaching mathematics and sciences in its schools’ curricula. By the 1980s, government reforms explicitly emphasized information technology as a core component of national education programs. One program introduced computers to a majority of schools, and English became the most studied foreign language by the end of that decade.
It is during this era that Bulgaria earned its reputation as the Silicon Valley of the Eastern Bloc, exporting computing technology and services at a large scale throughout the region.
With the end of communist rule in 1989, a young and well-educated generation of Bulgarians left home to experience life in the countries from which they had been barred access. However as more government labs became privatized and economic conditions in Bulgaria improved in the new free market, many looked back to Bulgaria, realizing the potential to tap the talent and energy that had been denied stimulus in an international market for decades.
The Bulgarian workforce is highly educated. Its rate of post-secondary education was 24.4% in 2016, which is on par with Germany’s workforce. Furthermore, labor rates there are some of the most competitive in the EU, especially for companies that cannot afford the rates demanded by American development firms.
A member of NATO since 2004 the European Union since 2007, Bulgaria has proven its workforce’s capacity to achieve considerable economic growth by leveraging historical specialties to serve markets at the national and international level.
Offshore Software Development Needs to be Personal
As much as offshore software development is viable when the right talent is outfitted with the proper tools, enabling teams to travel to one another is essential to combining Agile methodologies with software development using distributed teams.
Fostering these human connections builds the connective tissue that makes teams effective when building solutions. They achieve better results for businesses that need to overcome increasingly complex challenges.
A Swede and five Bulgarians walk into a field of bison…
On their first visit to Minnesota, a colorful road trip brought to life not only their team members in Minneapolis, but also the context in which they and MentorMate’s clients ideated and launched new software.
Driving around Frontenac State Park, a field of bison caught the eyes of this Swede and a contingent of Bulgarians.
We wanted a closer look.
A farmer spotted us, inviting us to hop over the fence for the chance to see the animals up close.
Wielding an apple and a hockey stick — one to attract a bison, the other to ward off danger in the event of a stampede — the farmer beckoned the herd our way. But the most we got from the bison were weary looks before they scampered away from us. To them we were just unfamiliar creatures on their turf.
Everyone emerged unscathed (although we did buy a few pounds of bison meat for burgers). We laughed at this scene over beer samples at one of Minnesota’s cherished breweries before returning to Minneapolis to grill.
That trip was a step towards merging global expertise with a local desire to go faster, even in unknown territory. It was the first step in what has become a 16 year process.
For many, the imagined fences in offshore software development loom high. Is a hockey stick enough to keep the risks that wait at the other side at bay?
Offshore software development has gained a reputation as unfeasible or unconducive to optimal outcomes for businesses. The best outcomes, some might argue, are earned by spending more and by looking closer to home, as it is easier.
Occasionally, the barriers that separate people can feel insurmountable, whether they are actual oceans or differences in languages spoken, cultures experienced.
But to me it’s clear that, in the right circumstances, climbing that fence and leveraging offshore software development results in better outcomes over the long term.
If the unfamiliar is slowing down your software, it’s time to get familiar. The best software comes from transparent processes that accommodate an exchange of ideas.
Rethinking Offshore Software Development Since 2001
Almost 20 years after the encounter that sparked the creation of an international team, which now spans three countries, our clients understand that offshore software development isn’t incompatible with pushing the limits of available technologies as they are applied in and beyond business settings.
Image Source: Shutterstock, Todor N. Nikolov