7 reasons why hiring offshore based developers is a bad idea

Over the 15-years I’ve spent as a PHP programmer I’ve seen the rise of offshore development, the fall in average cost of development, and more recently the resurgence of on-shore development as customers realize they’re sacrificing business opportunity when they hire the cheapest developer they can find. Today Upwork, the largest freelancer site is dominated by Indian, as well as Pakistan based developers. There is no doubt that this region serves a definite need in the marketplace. Just look at some of the jobs posted at Upwork. Build me a WooCommerce website with a custom theme for $200 reads one. Build me a massive social network like Facebook for $120 reads another. One wonders what happens on these projects? Does the budget increase? Does the project fail? I can only gauge from what I see, which is the work provided by new customers whose previous developers were from India. Based on that experience of being “the guy that takes over” the site/plugin, here are 7 reasons why hiring Indian based developers is a bad idea.

  1. Many offshore developers fail to respect even the most basic development principles. The most common example is the “hacking” or editing of base themes and plugins. Nearly every site we take over from an Indian based developer has edits to plugins. The result is those plugins cannot be updated. This is a problem worthy of it’s own blog post. If you’re unsure if your site already has these kind of edits, ask your developer about it. While in some cases editing a plugin might be necessary, it should be a last resort. WordPress has a hook system, and is a modular framework that is designed to enable custom functionality and new features without editing existing plugins and themes. On the theme layer, a child theme should always be used rather than editing the base theme for instance.
  2. Errors are ignored and not fixed. Often sites built in India have hidden errors, or functionality bugs that have not been detected. Thorough testing reveals these errors, as does turning error reporting on. Because error reporting is usually turned off for live websites, as a site owner you might never see these errors. While they don’t break your site (warnings) it is possible data isn’t being stored correctly, notices are not being sent to customers, form submissions are not being processed, and a host of other actions are not happening. At the very least these errors indicate a lack of quality in the work, and symptomatic of larger problems hiding under the surface.
  3. Are you really saving money? An all too common story of the website development project sent offshore to an Indian developer is that part-way through the project the scope changes, more money is demanded, and the final cost is much higher than expected. In fairness scope management is a factor for developers everywhere in the world, but Indian developers have a reputation for holding their customers hostage refusing to deliver work or finish projects if their demands for more money are not met. This cuts into the savings you might perceive from the initial quote. A much costlier problem is that if you eventually realize you’re not getting good work from an Indian developer, you might bring your development projects back onshore. But is the foundation of your WordPress website solid? We’ve seen sites built in India that require major fixes before any new work can be performed, and the costs of this repair eliminate or deeply cut into any savings.
  4. Schedules are often missed by Indian-based developers. Having hired over 30 India based freelance developers myself before I stopped trying to work with developers from India, at least half of them stopped a project partway due to a festival. Now to be clear these were 30 different developers working on different projects at different times of the year over a decade. Yet, midway through the projects, it was suddenly festival time. Either India has a lot of national holidays, some that last for weeks, or developers use these kind of excuses to buy them time before they are fired when their unable to meet a deadline.
  5. Lack of commitment to project completion is one of the scariest factors in hiring offshore developers. In the west we are used to professionals feeling a sense of obligation to finish what they start, and unless there is a significant reason such as missed payments or serious disagreement over the terms, we expect once we’ve hired a freelancer that they will finish the job barring something catastrophic happening. Perhaps it’s a cultural difference, or just a side effect of trying to work on a massive volume of projects, but many offshore-based developers have been known to end a project over trivial disputes, or simply say “this project is too difficult we cannot finish”. In those situations there is often an unapologetic attitude, the offshore developer simply says the project is over, often refuses to refund any pre-payment, and will argue that even something as basic as sending over partially completed work is not something they need to do. When things go bad in India for example, they go really bad, and there is little recourse in these situations. Don’t be under the false impression that a freelancer website such as Upwork is going to resolve these issues, though they do provide some protection for buyers it’s often not enough to offset the damage done when a project fails.
  6. There are affordable developers in some parts of the world with vastly superior track records. Many buyers today feel they have to offshore somewhere, they simply cannot put together a budget high enough to hire an American or European developer. And the availability, and willingness to work on certain projects is also a concern with on-shore developers. So where can you offshore more safely than India? Personally I’ve had the most success with Ukrainian developers, and other Eastern European locations such as Serbia. The work ethic and attitude of developers there is much more similar to Western Europe and North America. The communication level is also better, with many Eastern European’s able to both write and speak fluently. You will certainly pay more for developers from these regions, but there is still substantial cost-savings compared to on-shore development.
  7. Offshore developers are rarely able to provide consultation and make development choices, which becomes a big burden on project managers and site owners. A typical situation early in a project is the Indian developers asks what to do. You might (should!) have a written project plan, requirements document, perhaps visual designs. You provide these to the developer and offer to clarify them. More often than not they will come back to you and say okay I got your docs, now can you tell me what to do? Whether it’s a communication issue, or lack of experience, Indian developers are famous for not being able to identify the tasks required to turn requirements into deliverables. If you want something done, you literally have to ask for each step. This leads to micro-management. It’s also dangerous for project scope, because now you’re essentially looking over the developer’s shoulder and telling them which steps to take on a one-by-one basis. If things go wrong and the requirements are not met, the developer can simply say “well I did what you told me to do, sorry it didn’t work out”. That’s why you should always try to ascertain that a developer is results-focused, that they can convert requirements to working solutions, and they can do this without hand-holding.

I know I might take some flak from those who would say this is generalizing about a large number of developers from a specific region who vary tremendously. There is no doubt that there are many talented developers in India and other major offshore regions. But is it 1%, or 5%, or 10%? Who knows, but I can say that in dozens of attempts, I rarely found an Indian based developer that would be considered equal in merit to the average hire from the Ukraine, as an example. And in cases where an Indian based developer is a proven professional, most of them are not available for freelance work as they either have high paying jobs, their own firms, or work on a select number of big projects. Like any other market, top developers in India earn double or triple that of their counterparts, so don’t expect the truly qualified to be bidding on what is effectively a $3/hour job.

Let me close with a tip when hiring WordPress plugin developers from any part of the world. Always ask to see a plugin they built, they should be able to share at least 1 that is publicly available either hosted at WordPress.org in the plugins directory or for sale on a site such as CodeCanyon. Verify they actually have plugin experience, rather than just being site builders. Going back to Indian based developers, I’ve rarely seen a WordPress plugin that was built in India. They do certainly exist, but rarely do they rank in the top options in any of the plugin categories. And of all the Indian based developers that routinely respond to our job posts, out of around 200 we asked to send us proof of plugin development experience, the number that were able to do that was 0.