Two years ago, Y Combinator cofounder Paul Graham wrote on his blog that 95% of great programmers are not from the United States. Luckily, today’s interconnected world grants us access to resources and talent from the most remote corners of the earth. It’s become easier than ever to source, build, and manage a team of developers in practically any part of the world.
However, many people still view international development teams as less optimal than US-based teams. After all, there are challenges such as time zone differences, language barriers, and cultural differences. But with the right attitude and approach, an international development team can actually be a competitive advantage. Here’s how to make it work:
Build relationships with people, not outsourcing firms
When I was searching for a team of developers to build ProofPilot, I was geography agnostic. I was looking for smart, capable developers regardless of where they were. What I wasn’t looking for was a ready-made team. I was looking for people that could become part of the company.
Look for individuals first. These are people that you’ll work with every day. Make sure your relationship is direct, without a middleman. Social media, LinkedIn, and other online job sites give you ready access to millions of talented individuals with expertise on any imaginable subject. Just as you would in the US, find a couple of core people you really relate to first. Then build the team around them.
Get to know your team in-person
I ultimately decided that a distributed international team wasn’t right for us. We were developing a highly complex product from scratch and wanted our product dev team in one office. So we focused our hiring efforts in one community, Lviv, a small city of 750,000 in western Ukraine.
As the team grew, I wanted to instill our corporate culture, but I knew I couldn’t do that remotely, so I spent six months living in the country. While this isn’t realistic for most entrepreneurs, you should still make an effort to stay for an extended period — not just a “special” visit. You get to know the team in a very different way.
I was able to quickly identify which developers shared in my vision and truly understood what this could become. This part was especially important to me because when your core product or service is technology-driven, developers are critical members of your team; if they don’t believe in what they’re building, they’ll never be able to help you improve upon and exceed your initial expectations.
Leverage the local community and culture
Living and working with the team on an extended basis gave me a deep insight into uniquely cultural work styles, some of which I actually brought back to the US.
Software development is an abstract process where you define requirements and then go through a painstaking process to make them real. Frequently, you need to communicate by example. You create use cases around specific personas. By knowing the culture, you can create use cases and cite examples that the team can immediately relate to.
Running pilots in your international destination — while there is an initial investment in localization — gives you unique international experience and also allows your development team to intervene personally with changes and suggestions.
Learn the unique motivators
Businesses that blame cultural differences for misguided development likely failed to make an effort to learn their team’s desires, preferences, and habits. Beyond unclear communication, culturally misplaced motivation is also a likely culprit.
In some countries, stock options may be an abstract concept that has little or no value in the hiring or retention process. Long work hours may be culturally inappropriate in others. Getting to know the culture may uncover unique and exceptionally cost-effective motivators.
Make them part of your team and reward them properly
Most companies treat and pay their overseas development teams in the same manner as any other vendor or consulting firm. I personally went to the other extreme by making them as close to employees as legally possible. Each member is directly employed and paid by ProofPilot. We share successes, face challenges, and fix problems together as one team.
For their continued hard work, I’ve granted them stock options. In return, they’ve made significant contributions to the product, made personal introductions to further our business, and are continuing to go above and beyond what is expected of any contractor, whether foreign or domestic.
Again, this may not be realistic or ideal for most businesses, but the lesson remains the same: Treat your overseas development team as an extension of your team and reward them accordingly.
Finding an employee as dedicated to the vision as you are is rare — no less, an entire team all the way across the world. But when you do, it can make for the beginning of a wonderful partnership if you navigate these murky waters with patience and an open mind for new ideas. If you’re just getting started on your quest for developer talent, here’s a tip: Don’t think of your overseas team as “outsourced.” They’re your development team that just happens to live in a different country.
Matthew Amsden is cofounder and CEO of ProofPilot.