Aderson Oliveira: I've spoken with Sean Cummings about the pros and cons of offshoring and how that compares to onshoring as well. He talked about the importance of having career goals when undergoing an outsourcing initiative, and also that one of the key benefits of outsourcing is that not everybody is good at everything. He was also very open about a horror story that he shared with us about two vendors pointing fingers at each other in a project he came across in the past.
Hello, hello. Aderson Oliveira here. This is another interview for the OuchSourcing Podcast where we talk to experts, to business owners, to business providers about outsourcing and how to remove the pain that comes, sometimes, with outsourcing as well. Today, I have with me Sean Cummings. He is the CEO of Laminar Consulting Services. Sean, welcome.
Sean Cummings: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
Aderson: Perfect. Sean, let me start with the basics here. Where are you located and how does outsourcing relate to your business?
Sean: Well, we're located in Southern California. We're in the Orange County area, which is about 30 miles south of Los Angeles, a big area in the L.A. area. How we utilize outsourcing really is for -- we're in the business of Software Development, so we make software for a living and it's mostly surrounding business-type applications, a custom application development to solve a business problem outside of the product.
How we use outsourcing is really around some areas that require an extra set of attention or extra set of skills for user experience and/or user interfaces, especially customer-facing type applications. We partner with a firm that provides, basically, the UX, UI design. They also kind of extend themselves in the 3D world. If you need a 3-dimensional, perhaps, a product explanation type of a tool or sales engagement type of tool, we use them for those types of services. Because, most of my folks are really kind of centered around business-centric applications. They don't have to look a certain way versus a customer-facing type of an application. So, that's how we use outsourcing.
Aderson: Got it. Why have you decided to outsource that aspect of your business instead of developing, in-house, the knowledge required for that or even hiring professionals in-house? Why that decision?
Sean: I think it initially started with the fact that by using kind of a creative agency instead of trying to build that practice from scratch, certainly, the move is to move into that and grow that internally over time. But, it's not core to our business, so I'd rather kind of stay with -- this is what we do, and as we need it and bring those types of resources. Because, we don't always need those resources. If we're building an application for a customer, and it's an internally-facing application, more often than not, we can handle all the UX, UI type of things that we need to do.
But, in some cases, when we work with customers that have, say for example, a sales engagement type of need or a sales engagement tool that will lives perhaps on an iPad or lives on a small device or whatever, sometimes it needs a little extra preparation for it to look a certain way, have a certain feel, perhaps some branding, this sort of thing, and that's not just what we're core at, that's not what we're good at.
I like to stay with what's core, and it actually works out to be a really nice thing because if I combine the two different skill set between two different companies, you can offer a much wider breadth. Honestly, of course, you want to maybe pull that internally, but if you don't have the time or energy because you're busy doing stuff, I'd rather outsource that. I know the quality is there. I'm not going to go through that learning curve quite so sharply just starting out with a new practice. If I've got a known partner that can deliver on those services, it makes sense.
Aderson: Got it. I'm usually curious about whether or not you let your client know that you are using an outside resource to, in a way, fulfill part of the project. Do you make that clear or this is not relevant for the client? How do you handle that?
Sean: That's a real fair question. In most cases, we're pretty transparent about it because I would rather be upfront with the customer knowing that, "Hey, they're delivering this part of it and we're delivering this part of it," and the two really do complement each other. I think to keep things kind of hidden from customers, a little bit of a no-no, because eventually these emails kind of fly around, that cat will get out of the bag, and I don't think that's -- I'm an honest guy. I don't think that's good business practice to kind of things behind the scenes.
There are times where we can engage these partners to help us do some little artwork or whatever to get something done. We don't necessarily have to. Unless it's a full-blown engagement, we don't have to necessarily mention to the customer, "Hey, we've got another vendor working on us." You know what I mean?
Aderson: Got it. It makes sense. Can you talk a little bit because one of the goals and objectives here with this conversation, Sean, is to explore some of the challenges that comes with outsourcing as well? So, maybe can you touch on some of the challenges that you have, or you had, or some of the experiences that you came across in the past, and what you have learned from them?
Sean: Sure. Projects, they're not without risk right, so there's a certain amount of risk associated with it. I think one of the biggest challenges is that when you do use a third party outside of your own control, if you will, you have to make sure that everything is truly coordinated, the goals are very, very clear, everything's communicated in such a fashion that we know this is what we're trying to accomplish. You also kind of mixed in there, you kind of make sure that we're all on the same page as far as the software development life cycle, a cultural kind of work.
It's really important that you do, because if you don't, then you get uncoordinated, obviously it can be a very painful process. The biggest challenge, I think, with any software development process is managing expectations with your customer. And if you don't, and they can even prevent -- customers present their own challenges with us. If you do that with another third party and you're out of sync, it's not going to be a fun experience.
Aderson: Got it. I think that what you mentioned there deals a lot with trust. Clients trust in you and you trust in whoever you are working with. I guess my question is how do you come about a new organization to work with and how do you build trust with them. I'm talking about you hiring an outsourcing partner to work with.
Sean: Well, you're right. There has to be a tremendous amount of trust, and I think everybody kind of does this. We even get tested by our customers on this. What you do is you typically start out with a small engagement: something low risk, something that is just kind of toe in the water, kind of feel it out, and then get to know the people. You got to spend time to do that.
In any sort of outsourcing, whether it's to our customers or we're using the third party, there are relationships - this is a people business. So, it's really important that you check references and this sort of thing, but also that you start working with their people, find out what they're about, and make it very clear. Especially, it gets kind of touchy too because, sometimes, you're sharing IP or any sort of proprietary information that you know. Maybe you know a business process, maybe you have developed a technology or you've got productized things within your service offering.
That's very clear as to where the no-go's and where the go's are, and who owns that, and that sort of thing, and that has to be coordinated. I think it's important to take baby steps first, get to start to work with them and establish it. It's just like with anybody using our services, sometimes they'll give us a small project, "Hey, how'd they execute?" "Oh, they're great. We like their people. Good project managers, VAs are good," that sort of thing and you go from there. That's usually how it starts out.
Aderson: Got it. I was researching a little bit about you, about your website and I saw a few blog posts there on your site, and one of them was talking about offshoring versus onshoring, and you had some strong opinions there. My question to you is when you are looking for an outsourcing partner, I'm assuming that you do that locally, you do that onshore, what's your approach there?
Sean: That's a good question, yeah. I do have some opinions about offshoring versus onshoring. I'm a big fan of near or onshoring, because the challenge, I think, and this is nothing new. Outsourcing has been going on for quite some time, especially offshoring. It's been going on for a while. There is quite a bit of overhead associated with offshoring clearly, and people, I don't think customers and/or companies really understand what that extra overhead is and how it actually fits into the overall cost, because we all know offshore is very inexpensive. However, you're paying more in the long run in some cases, not always, because there's a certain amount of overhead. There's time, there's management of that, there's expectations.
Why I'm a fan of onshore, to be frank, is that when you take on one of these projects, you're learning somebody's business. You're learning a business problem, and unless those people are engaged in a very close, day-to-day type basis working hand-in-hand with the customer, that can be lost in translation as it goes offshore. While it might be very talented developers, they might be very talented, there's something that disconnects there. So, somebody has to be here to really manage that component, and that's cost. It's not always factored, I think, into the big equation when it comes out offshoring.
Also, there's another aspect of it. If I've got a local person that's pretty senior, sometimes - I'm not saying this is always the case or what have you - but sometimes having a senior resource that cost more, actually, they do more work. They can get it done quicker. Instead of using multiple resources, I can use, basically, one or two people that can do the work of basically three or four or a team of four. Then, last but not least, there's the coordination between all that.
So, if I use a senior resource, that costs you a little bit more, okay the other aspect of it too, I didn't even equate this in there, it's time. What is the turnover time if you offshore - I'm not saying this is always the case - but sometimes it takes longer to develop because there's that turnover. Here’s the requirements, you hand it off to the developer, there might be some miscommunication, thing shut down at certain times at night unless you want to be up really late communicating with them the next day.
That overhead does cost you, and it also comes in the form of time. So, how quickly do you want this project finished? Are there certain deadlines to it? Because, if it takes a person over there two times as long because there's back and forth, then are you really getting the benefit?
Aderson: I see. One thing that I would like to challenge you a little bit there, Sean, is just that -- I'm pro-outsourcing in general. Not necessarily near, offshore, onshore. Whatever shape it comes, I'm all in for it, but let me challenge you on something there. I think that miscommunication can happen regardless. Of course, language barrier and even culture, it plays a big aspect into that miscommunication.
Sean: I totally agree.
Aderson: My challenge to you is miscommunication happen locally and remotely as well.
Sean: It can. But, I say, anytime that you can try to reduce risk within a project, you should try to do it because development is very expensive. This stuff is not cheap, and we all know projects can be -- I'll use the term, have you ever had a perfect project? I've certainly not. I'd like to think we have and we delivered certainly. But, are there such things as a perfect project? No. But, you can closely manage it, and if you can get in there and reduce some amount of risk, whether it be miscommunication or misdirection or whatever, you should try to take it. It's important.
It's an important aspect because you are spending the customer's time, their money, their investment in near resources, and I think it's really critical that if you're putting people in there that there's some miscommunication, whether it be cultural or time or whatever, if you can put the right resources in the right spot you can mitigate quite a bit of that. Certainly, it's not perfect, but I think there's some advantages to having somebody local, because they're in the day-to-day phase of the stakeholders or they're in the day-to-day phase of the business. I think that's critical.
Aderson: Because you're seeing local in the day-to-day, I'm assuming that then you only work with local clients, your clientele. Now, think a little bit about you as an outsourcing provider as well to your client. So, you only work with local clients? Is that, more or less, your business?
Sean: Well, we're in it, It's a fair question. Since we're in the Los Angeles area there's lots of opportunity here. It's a giant place, right?. Multi-millions of people here. It's quite large. To answer your question, yeah, we mostly work with local folks just because there's a lot of it. Orange County is a very tech-centric area. We also have a lot of biotechs. There's lots of companies here in Southern California. Yeah, I say local, but is that to say we haven't done project for folks out of state? Absolutely, we have. We've got this type of technology that really lends itself, and coding is coding. It can be done, really, anywhere.
Aderson: Got it. Makes sense. Let's talk a little bit more specifically, Sean, about tools that you use for communication, for project management. What is it on your tool belt there? Can you talk a little bit about those?
Sean: Yeah, tools that communication could be a Skype, it could be GoToMeeting. We use GoToMeeting quite a bit, and of course, good old picking up the phone and/or meetings - going down, sitting down with the client and then spending time. But, the other things that we kind of use, of course, from a project or from a development point of view, we use Microsoft TFS. We're Microsoft partners, so we use a lot of their technologies.
Not always, but for the most part, all our codes manage through TFS, Team Foundation Server. We use a little bit of SharePoint for our team sites so we can actually throw in and collaborate all our documents, throw them in one spot so the team can get there. We even give access to our customers to do that so they can get in, look at anything they want, or download, or pull up whatever they want.
Of course, as far as our development methodology, we get a mix, so it depends upon the customer. Some customers are very savvy and take on Scrum and Agile. We're very capable of doing that type of work. That takes a certain customer and a certain sophistication to be able to do that, and not all customers are set up to do that, really.
But, we do try to use some of the newer methodologies and, of course, we can always fall back on traditional waterfall type of methodologies as well. It just depends upon the customer. We have to kind of go by what they're used to. Some customers are very advanced and they've really gone down the line of Scrum, Agile, and that's how you have to work for them. So, we have to have that capability.
Aderson: Okay. What you don't outsource and you'll never be outsourcing?
Sean: That's a good question. Well, some of the things that we have been really doing a lot of work in lately is around workflow. We've actually gone as far as we don't have a product -- I don't want to call it a product. Something like I can hand you a CD or a DVD and you go load it up.
But, we have a pretty vast library of things and our tool belt that is literally proprietary to us. We built it. It's custom-built. We have, essentially, an engine. It would be something that we would know. It's kind of core to us. We've been doing a lot of it lately, so it's not something we would outsource to anybody else, and I've got a couple of my guys in the team who really know their stuff when it comes to workflow. They know how to ask the right questions when they're dealing with customers and make customers think about things, because a lot of people go, "This is workflow," and they think they have an idea, and come to find out it's really they confuse tasks with what workflow can really do for you. Anyways, that would be one area that we wouldn't never really outsource.
Another area where we're really kind of investing in pretty heavily now is mixed reality, Microsoft really pushing this whole concept of augmented reality. Their buzz word is "mixed reality" with the HoloLens and this sort of thing. We're starting to make some pretty big investments in that spot, because it's going to be the wave with the future. All these wearable devices, our phones are going to have this in the next year or so. There's already, I believe, Novo, already has an augmented reality phone. I think it's in its infancy, but it's out, and we're going to start seeing this so we're putting a lot of investment in that space where we want all the STKs and this kind of stuff, and we're putting time into it.
Aderson: Got it. For instance, augmented reality, you want to keep that as part of your core, correct?
Aderson: Got it. So, as you mentioned at the beginning, Sean, you said that, "I would love to see projects going all well and without a problem," but projects and things, in general, they can go wrong and they will go wrong, and one of the ways that we learn and we grow, as people, as businesses, as organizations, is with mistakes that might have been committed by us, it might have been committed by or done by an outside entity, client, whatever it is. But, I'm curious, at this point, to know if you'd be willing to share any, what I would call, horror story with us, and what was learned out of that horror story. Again, feel free if you have anything in mind. One, I just need one. I know that you might have many there, but just one.
Sean: Well, yeah. Being in this business for a couple of decades, you come across a lot of horror stories, right? I think the biggest challenge of any project is when you have multiple vendors involved. This is a setup between, essentially, it's a healthcare company, and we're in the midst of a pretty lengthy project, and what ended up happening was they split the project between us and another vendor, who was competitive to us.
Of course, I always try to put on my good guy consulting hat and advise my customer ins and outs of that and some of the challenges with it, and what ends up happening is, inevitably, because you're dealing with personality types that aren't necessarily super social, there could be some finger-pointing, and in this particular case, the customer wanted to do a project where this outsource vendor, not us, was going to actually host the application for them.
Well, they ended up hosting application for them, but they couldn't get it set up. They said they have the skill set to set everything up, and they really didn't, and they kind of floundered. The customer ended up bringing the project back in-house and hosting it themselves. But, inevitably, what happens is we're developing stuff, this company is going to host it, some security stuff went wrong, and of course, we get this, and it's a mess, and we ended up -- I don't know if the customer kept that particular vendor. I know we got fired out of the deal, and that's perfectly fine.
But, perception is everything, and it doesn't really matter. At the end of the day, the customer was not happy. They're spending a lot of money, and regardless of the two vendors that are buying for business, I'm not suggesting that this other vendor was talking behind our back. I had no idea. I don't think so, but it does happen. People are very competitive. When it comes to my company and my people, I won't let that happen. You always have to be customer-centric or customer-focused, because if you take that shortsighted view, you're not going to have customers, right? It takes so much energy to actually land a customer, it's just not even worth it to be shortsighted. It's not worth it.
Aderson: Now, let's look back at that situation, Sean. What is it that, if you could control a little bit better, that situation, how would you have handled that not just from your point of view? Was that the case of putting all three stakeholders in the same place and hashing things out? What could have been done differently there?
Sean: I don't know that we could have really done a whole heck of a lot, but I would offer that what would have really helped is we had two vendors that are basically saying, "Here's best practices, and this is how you should approach this," and I think what happened was this particular vendor was really not able to deliver on their side, so as things kind of get scrambles and pulled back in-house. We're still advising them and we had to rework a bunch of things and refactor a bunch of things because working off prim in somebody else's environment then bringing it over here has a whole slew of security issues and this sort of thing.
What ends up happening is the vendor is saying, "Hey, their stuff's not working," and we're saying, "Well, their stuff's not working." Where do you fight? Where do you draw the line? So, all you can really do, I think, is, like you said, it's probably a good idea to get all the stakeholders in play. But, I think, at that point in time, there had been so much pain, and kind of so many back-and-forth going on that they just said, "You know what? We're going to stop," and we'll just use this vendor and finish things out, I think, is ultimately what would happened and that's where it went.
But you're right: as much control as we would like to have. Sometimes you just don't. You don't have the control. You don't have the right people or, what have you, in that room saying, "What's the problem? What's the issue?" It can be very political too, because now you're dealing with corporate culture and it can come from some other higher-up or somebody on the side saying, "This is bad," and you're out, and there's really a little bit you can do. You don't even know.
Aderson: I see. One thing that I could think of is that trying to identify those potential situations as early as possible, and again, then before, a lot of finger-pointing was already in place, then it would the place and time to put all these stakeholders together and see if that could be hashed out. What is the key to succeeding with outsourcing, Sean, from your standpoint?
Sean: Well, I think it's really important you have clearly defined goals like "What are you delivering?" and making sure that everybody's all on that same page. Then, how to accomplish goals, not just the goals, but how are we going to accomplish the goals together. Because, it truly is, in any sort of project, whether again, we're the outsourcers, we're doing outsource from our customer, or the other way around with third parties working with us.
It's really important that everybody is in sync with each other, and I think where things kind of fall apart is as soon you get out of sync from how to accomplish the goals. Those are pretty easily defined, you can say this is what we're trying to do, but if you don't say, "Hey, this is what the path that we're going to take to accomplish this," then you get kind of lost in the middle, and it happens quite often.
But, the idea is to mitigate that right up front. So, clearly defined goals, and also again, that big trust factor, getting to know that outsource vendor, making sure that you've seen what they have done in the past and that they're there for when the things do go bad, right? That's the other aspect of it. If something goes a little awry with the project that you're very, very in tune with each other. You're there to, again, not looking shortsighted, you're looking long-term with this customer. What are they going to do to pull this out? What kind of resources will they maybe be willing to pony up to make sure? And you want to make sure that the vendor that you're selecting is going to do that for you. I mean, you're trusting them to do your software project, but it is a two-way street. It's a two-way street, you have to trust each other, and you have to be able to be flexible together in order to be successful.
Aderson: I get it. There's something that I saw as one of your offerings from your company, which is quality assurance outsourcing. If this is a big element of the organization, and I don't think that I will have too many opportunities to talk to people about quality assurance outsourcing, I'd like you to talk a little about that aspect of your business and how, again, it applies back to your outsourcing offering as well.
Sean: Sure. So, not only do the full blown application development from, literally, the whole STLC process, which includes QA, and we do actually incorporate QA in all of our projects to a certain extent. Now, QA is one those funny things where people either like it or they don't. But, it's pretty easy to have a conversation with a customer and convince them. Quite frankly, they should some amount of QA, whether it's their own internal people trying to save money.
The reality is you're either going to be doing QA prior to going live and squashing all those bugs and making sure that you got a really nice project and it's actually matching up to not only code standards, but also a business standard, or you're going to be doing QA in production. So, which would you rather do? It's much better to get that out of the way, and it's one of those things that we offer as part of our software development services, but we're also finding that companies like to use third parties in some of their own cases for their own IT folks in their projects, and they don't want those -- they don't necessarily want to grow that part of their IT practice, if you will, but they'll come to us and say, "Hey, we used you guys in the past. We want to do a third-party QA to make sure that our team is actually performing as expected, and we're developing something. We need the resources, we don't have them," that kind of thing.
Aderson: As you're saying there, it's not only QA for your own development that you provide your clients as an outsourcing option, but also you didn't develop that and you're asked to QA that piece of software, correct?
Sean: Correct. So, what happens is, obviously, doing it for our own projects, inevitably, what happens is that they've used us in the past. Maybe, we've developed something for them, and they got to know our resources, and they go, "You know what? We got another project going on, we may use your services to come in and help with that project as well." There's all kinds of projects that can take place. It could be infrastructure, it could be software. IT folks who usually have kind of a marching order throughout the year of what projects they have, and they'll just be like, "Hey, you know what? I've used these guys in the past. They were very good. We got a good quality product," and I think once people embraced QA, it's pretty to step away from.
Aderson: Got it. Perfect. So, just wanted to have a little bit of your perspective there on the QA side of the outsourcing that you provide as well. Next one here, Sean, is - and we're coming towards an end here. I think that we have covered a lot of the bases that I wanted you to cover. Next one here is if I'm new to outsourcing, new to subcontracting, and I have a business, and I want to try out, and to experiment, and see if outsourcing is for me or if it’s not for me, what would be one advice that you would give to someone new coming into this field as a business that wants to hire outsourcing providers?
Sean: Well, you got to do your due diligence, right? You have to -- I think it's really important that for somebody that's kind of new to it: one, you have to not only invest some time in researching the company, and look at the kind of projects they have, and definitely look at the references, if they've got references, it’s key. But, another aspect of it is that, I think, the challenge that I think some people think is, "I'm going to outsource and I'm going to save a bunch of money," and if money is really kind of everything, you may want to look at that and understand what the real goal is, what's it going to really accomplish.
It could be that you’re lowering headcount, it could be that you're doing it because you don't want to grow that part of your IT practice, or you want to outsource it entirely. But, I think it's important for people to have that, those companies, and spend time learning about what type of services they offer, learning about what their SLAs are, if they have SLAs. It's really important to understand what they can promise you or guarantee you during their service.
Again, you may want to start with something small. Toe in the water approach, and as you get used to, understand you could then relinquish more and more to them as they take on more of, in our case, like software development or whatever it is, infrastructure projects. Try them out and see what they're like and make sure the thing match up with corporate culture and that they're going to deliver on what they say they're going to deliver. It's really important, so start small and go from there, and grow it slowly. Because I think if you say, "Hey, come take over my shop," you're going to have problems.
Aderson: I'm a big fan of starting slow. Starting small, and slow, and grow with -- as you feel more comfortable and confident that a partner can deliver what you are expecting them to deliver. I think it's really key. Anything else that we haven't touched here, Sean, that you find it important to when it comes to outsourcing? Any last words about outsourcing and if we left anything outside this point?
Sean: I don't know. We covered quite a bit. I think it’s something that you can talk about at length. Outsourcing conjures all kinds of things. We talked a little about the offshore versus onshore, new-shore or any of that. It's one of those things that's inevitable. I mean, not everybody's going to be good at everything, so you're going to hire vendors. I mean, if you're in business, you're going to hire vendors. I mean, I hired you to help out with some of the website stuff, right?
I think it's important that people sometimes look at it purely from a dollar at cents point of view. I just look at it, really, from a practical point of view. It's like where does it make sense where we're going to focus? I know what my company's good at: delivering. Am I going to really go grow that? Am I going to really bring that in-house and make that part of it? I don’t want to grow a DNN practice. It's just not what I want to do.
So, it's important that whatever it is that you want to look at, my marketing is all outsource. I don't want to hire marketing people, not with the size of my company now. Perhaps, in the future, I might bring on some people, again part-time. But, right now, I'm using a vendor and it works out really wonderful, I get access to all kinds of services that I would never have, and it would take so much energy to go ahead and build in. Quite frankly, I wouldn't even know how to hire them. Do you know what I mean? What are your writing skills? I wouldn't really know how to do that.
It makes sense for you to toe in the water, like we talked about, think about your core, what is it that you guys do. If you make something, you make a product, you sell services, focusing on core is really important, and then you can look at the outside and say, "Okay, you know what? We'll bring in the third party to deliver on that," whether it's marketing or, in my case, 3-dimensional modeling or whatever.
Aderson: Perfect. How can people reach out to you if they have more questions, or even if they want to engage with some of the things that you and your company are able to provide? How can people reach out to you?
Sean: Well, they can certainly look us up online. The website's really simple, it's www.laminarco.com. Of course, you can call. I'll give out my cellphone. It's the best way to get ahold of me, and I can arrange whatever you'd like, if you want to talk to a technical resource. It's 714-450-0099, and it's Pacific Coast Time, so anytime.
Aderson: Perfect. And as usual, all the links will be posted in the show notes, so you don’t need to write them down. You can just look up in the show notes and they will be all there. Sean, I can only thank you so much for the knowledge that you have shared with us, and your experience, and your willingness to do that with us. Thank you very much.
Sean: No problem. It's a pleasure. Take care.