Sundial Services
Professional Software Engineering Consultants Since 1992

How to Make "Remote" Work For You – and, How Not To

What I am about to say will not be popular with those of you who are in the business of renting "class-A office space" in glass-walled high-rises, nor (heh ...) the cubicles that go in them. It will not be popular if you are the sort of manager who likes to look through the glass window of his corner office to see if any of your employees are "wasting time" by standing up and talking to one another over the tops of those cubes. But it might become popular if you realize that most of your programmers are under the age of thirty, and they seem to be posting an awful lot of questions to stackoverflow.com.

Today, virtually every urban household in America has extremely high-speed Internet access. Fast video-conferencing is entirely the norm. Secure (VPN) networking has been perfected. Your company's "road warrior" salesmen rely upon this every night in their far-flung hotel rooms. And, the very best software developers that money can buy have learned to rely upon it, too.

Conventional wisdom says that "real work" must be performed "right here," wherever "right here" is. But this means that you can only hire people who live "right here." And it means that the "star talent" that you would like to hire must be persuaded to sell their homes, uproot their families, and move "right here." Hard to do if "right here" is Podunk, and somewhat unconscionable to do if the project that needs to be achieved is of finite duration.

21st Century wisdom recognizes that it no longer really matters where an employee is physically located. (Especially given that the computers are probably no longer "right here," either – they're in the Cloud or in a highly secure co-location center.) You need to be in visual contact with the employees, you probably need for all of them to be in the same or in an adjacent time-zone, and you need for them to have secure access to the elements of your infrastructure. And – you have to trust them to be the professionals that they are. But you don't need to provide them with parking spaces, cubicles, or necessarily even computers. And you no longer have to content yourself with people who are willing to relocate.

When Your Author was in his early twenties, and felt that he was "living in Podunk," and had just got married and was given the offer to move to Silicon Valley – he and his beloved "seized the day." Never bought a house, never intended to stay and never did, but it was an opportunity, of course a chance to blast out of Podunk, and at that time it had little opportunity cost. It's fairly easy to get people who are "fresh out of college, and fresh out of the nest" to do such a thing, and Your Author (and his beloved) still have no regrets. But, roots do grow and people do settle down. And the people who do this are not among the people who ask 25,000 questions a day on stackoverflow.com – they're the ones who sometimes answer a few of them.

There is in fact a very large group of seasoned professionals out there who do all of their work "remotely." Over the years, Sundial engaged with many of them on a regular basis, while accomplishing most of the work that we were engaged to do in the selfsame manner. This is the best way we have found for us to tap into the attribute that is most important in an operation such as ours: experience.

The Critical Value of Experience:

Today it is relatively easy to hire a programmer with "3 to 5 years of experience" if what you want them to do is "a JavaScript-driven web page running against a <PHP | Perl | Java (maybe) | Ruby | dot-Net> back-end and a <MySQL | PostGres (maybe) | MS-SQL> database." That's the low-hanging fruit and there is plenty of it. But, these waters often prove to be shallow. If your actual situation is technically more complicated, your new-hire might have no idea what else you are talking about. This can become very expensive.

"The people who still know" are still out there – now in their home offices – selling their well-honed ability to zero in quickly on the essential elements of a complicated problem and to implement the best answers quickly. Your main concern will be finding such a person who is presently available. These people may or may not work as "independent contractors" – for income tax purposes they often require to be a W-2 employee of your firm. They might well report to one of your on-site managers. The key difference is that (a) they have the experience you need, and (b) they're rarely if ever on-site.

Project management in this scenario is also fairly conventional, although the work that should be parceled out might be initially completed by the remote worker without, say, "continuous" visual contact with that person. (As I said, you have to trust them.) Furthermore, companies who embrace "remote" often find that they can efficiently use this model for employees who live in town. (You don't notice how much time is wasted by "twice a day commuting" until your employees don't do it.) In a few very enlightened communities, companies can even get various kinds of tax credits by reducing the number of commuters who have to be on the road each morning and each night.

What Doesn't Work – "India"

Many companies have sallied forth down the primrose path of hiring "inexpensive" programmers in places like India – and/or "inexpensive" workers on various kinds of non-immigrant visas. And, more than quite-a-few of those companies have promptly sailed right back.

There are three problems which essentially defeat these proposals:

  1. Time Zones – they're asleep when you're awake and vice-versa.
  2. Having anything to do with Immigration authorities and associated paperwork.
  3. Experience – again. "If it sounds too good to be true ..."

(Every country in the world of course has excellent, knowledgeable professionals. But, "there" as "here," they can pick and choose, and they do. They can find plenty of work in their own country, and/or with remote work that is connected to a client in a time-zone much more favorable to them ... and where "the language barrier" does not apply. The best programmers in India simply don't need to do work for companies half-a-planet away who don't readily speak their language, and who by-the-way don't pay well.)

By leveraging the "remote" model, you are able to gain access to the most-experienced programmers on the planet – people good enough and well-seasoned enough to let work come to them – and you substantially reduce the cost of providing for everyone in a traditional office-building facility. But you are not trying to "save money" on the people that you do hire. The simultaneous availability of ultra-high speed Internet connections, secure crypto technology and "cloud/co-lo" hardware facilities very simply means that this is a personnel model that you can take seriously, and that you would do well to seek to leverage heavily.