Outsourcing IT projects may bring cost benefits, but it has its challenges too
The A Suit That Fits story started over in Nepal, where my friend and soon-to-be co-founder Warren Bennett was volunteering. He met a family of tailors who made him a natty three-piece suit; fast-forward seven years and we now have a team of more than 100 amazingly talented people we work with to support the local community. So it’s safe to say we’re huge fans of working with skilled people from all over the world.
My passion has always been in IT; I started playing with computers when I was about seven years old (annoying my entire family by writing a small program that blocked anyone entering the old BBC computer without the password that only I knew).
With this in mind, I wanted to tell you a little story about our IT journey at A Suit That Fits…
Back in 2006, we started with a really neat concept; we wanted to make bespoke tailoring accessible in the UK by bringing it online. We were a little naive in thinking that we could establish all aspects of it ourselves – including the IT platform – on a shoestring budget. Although my skill level has never been anywhere near as good as that of an experienced programmer, I did have a clear vision of what I wanted it to look like.
I had a good idea of the system that we wanted to create on the website, and started by downloading an open source (free) web platform. We then began tweaking and perfecting it – with a few good friends also pitching in along the way.
We managed to create something completely unique to the tailoring industry (a gizmo we now call our ‘suit wizard’).
It enabled customers to design a suit by going through all the options – from the number of buttons on their cuff to the colour of their lining. We worked out that there
were more than 40 billion different style combinations. Once the customer had made those style decisions, they could then input their measurements, and the site would take payment.
The business model revolutionised the tailoring industry – we were the world’s first online bespoke tailoring company. These core elements are still critical to our business today, even in our studios manned by our style advisors – of which there are now more than 30 across the UK.
Once the concept started to gain momentum, our IT had to keep pace with it. We couldn’t just leave it as it was – instead, it had to adapt to our constantly evolving business model.
I was too busy trying to manage the business to spend my time programming. At the start, we were producing lots of tailored garments, but had to watch every penny: we could only justify working on things that we knew would give an immediate return on investment so there was also no way of affording anyone UK-based to do the programming.
With our experience in outsourcing tailoring production, we started to look all over the world for programmers to provide value-for-money projects and enhance our web platform.
There are lots of websites that you can post projects on and freelance programmers from all over the world will apply. We tested the water by putting up a couple of these adverts. There were quite a few applicants – the stand-out candidates had good feedback on their records, were sensible with the estimated timings of the project, and were reasonably priced.
We took the plunge and started with a programmer based in Thailand for our first mini project.
Rather than go into the detail of the project, I’ll just highlight a few of the challenges:
1 Communication – Even if language skills seemed proficient over email or chat, once a specification was written and questions needed to be answered, the fact that English was not the native language meant that things tended to go back and forth – almost to breaking point.
2 Culture – It’s really difficult to write a specification that does not require the programmer to make assumptions. When you’re working with a local programmer, you can be confident that the assumptions will be in line with what you meant. However, with a programmer from a different culture, they will invariably assume something totally different. This means that specifications have to be very comprehensive. Our first few specifications were not comprehensive, and we spent many hours redoing entire projects time and time again.
3 Trust – It’s very difficult (and verging on irresponsible) to trust a freelancer with your data; as a result, we could only commission discreet projects with no effect on our current system – we just wouldn’t have felt comfortable otherwise.
4 Priority levels – Unless a company is working on your projects, the individual can go on holiday when they like, get a more important project, or just have a lie-in. In short, you’re not always top priority.
We delivered a few projects in such a way, but it would have been impossible to complete a single one of them without my IT knowledge. All of the projects were lower cost, but resulted in much more effort and stress than delivering the projects in the UK.
This was our first foray into programming internationally, and it almost completely put us off. Nevertheless, we kept on trying, and have been through some different styles of working with an international programming team. We have found that hiring a local CTO, coupled with an international team, works best for us. We now have the benefit of a fantastic team of international programmers, and the local peace of mind, to support our fast growth. It’s win-win.