Growing Your Engineering Team: Creative Alternatives to Traditional Outsourcing

Neil Mitchell

Head of Platform Engineering at Valley National Bank



What do you do when you need to scale your team, but you're not in a major tech hub, so the hiring process is slower and the talent pool is smaller? What's a creative alternative to the common practice of outsourcing and what unique challenges does it pose?

Actions taken

We created a priority checklist to vet potential partners:

  • Being in the same time zone, or as near as possible
  • No longer than 6 hours away by travel
  • Solid English-language skills
  • A big enough talent pool to support large growth
  • Ability to work with us as if they were part of our team
  • Price: A factor, but in this case, less important than the others above The structure of the arrangement was important as well. We didn't want a typical body shop situation where you just give people to give work to do. Instead, we wanted to make them a partner, empowering them to govern and manage parts of the process. They would be in our standups and they would have the same access to everyone as internal employees — they wouldn't have to go through a special route. They would be more like an extension of the existing team, but hired through a supplier service rather than by us directly. We met with a bunch of companies — some in the US (in places like Ohio, Nebraska), some nearshore. We also looked at some companies that could manage a lot of the process for us. Ultimately, we picked a supplier in Bogota, Colombia (same time zone as Austin, TX). The question then became how do we make a partnership work across different cultural values, and how do we address the process if they're accustomed to a supplier-oriented model where they expect specific requirements, basically having work handed over. So it's not just about selecting the right partner, but following through post-selection on how you execute the plan and really make it work. We spent time with the supplier over a couple of weeks to get them familiar with our culture, not only the engineering people but those from the business and product, too. We also set up a mentor they could use as a touchpoint, in terms of what tools to use and also how we communicate and our processes. This was before we handed over any work. There's a cost incurred from this proactive approach, but that cost was necessary to lay a foundation and establish the right kind of engagement model. After the initial period, we had regular touchpoints with the supplier and good rotations of team members visiting back and forth between Colombia and the US. We also created social events every other month — "code and brews" sessions, trying to develop the relationship. Even though the Colombia team works for a supplier, they're an integral part of our team.

Lessons learned

One of the nice things about having a partner is you can rotate people in and out. If there's more backend work, we route to that group. Ditto if we need more frontend developers for a particular project. The supplier handles some of the cultural aspects on their side, so when new people start, they are shared on our culture like a normal onboarding process for employees. They feel like they're part of the wider team, and it also works the other way around — on our end, we do this internally within the business to teach our staff that there's an amazing team of talent in Bogota. However, a supplier/partner relationship is an evolving process. It needs to be refined over time. We had a bit of a lull in the middle of the process. People naturally gravitate to Slack or other chat tools instead of face-to-face meetings because engineers are introverted. This is also true because of the language difference. Even though the Colombian team speaks very good English, they are more comfortable communicating in Spanish. So you need to reiterate the importance of one-on-one interactions using video conferences, setting up small group meetings, and online whiteboarding. The main takeaway is you've got to keep on top of it, keep driving it. You can't just think you've solved it and move on.

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Neil Mitchell

Head of Platform Engineering at Valley National Bank

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