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Busting the top five myths about remote workers

Scott Ritter - Senior Supervisor at Toptal


Click here for the original blog. 


The remote employment stereotypes you’ve had in your mind until now aren’t entirely unfounded, especially when it comes to offshore workers. Recent years have seen an increasing flood of cutthroat overseas development shops promise extremely inexpensive services and then fail to deliver by even the most basic of professional standards. With so many negative experiences, a growing stigma has developed that all offshore workers are low quality, undependable, and unable to communicate effectively.


To be sure, there certainly are pitfalls to be aware of and to avoid when hiring remote workers, especially overseas. But if the negative stereotype of remote hiring were as across-the-board-true as some would have you believe, then how does one explain the dramatic 80% increase in the remote workforce from 2005 to 2012? The simple fact is that working and hiring remotely is a growing and increasingly successful paradigm.


This post pulls the rug out from under five of the most prevalent myths about remote workers, with a specific focus on software developers.


MYTH #1: You get what you pay for.


REALITY: Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. It all depends.


Many growing companies and start-ups are realising that the very best developers may not be located within commuting distance of their offices. Even if they are, their rates may be ridiculously disproportionate to their skill levels. A local hire in no way guarantees a wise investment.


A key problem with hiring overseas team members is that most employers go about the process of selecting and hiring these remote workers entirely wrong. When most employers turn their sights to hiring overseas, they make the penny-wise-and-pound-foolish decision to exploit the differential in labour costs to its fullest and hire the cheapest labour they can find. Some even fool themselves into thinking they’ve avoided this trap by hiring a not-quite-as-cheap software developer, but they still rarely find in the long run that their time or money was well spent.


When hiring a remote worker, the primary focus (as with any hiring) needs to remain on quality. Any cost savings that result should merely be viewed as an added bonus. Decisions in life that are solely based on economics rarely prove to be wise ones, and the same most certainly holds true for hiring remote software engineers.


Employ the best, not the cheapest, and you’ll be the beneficiary of remote team members who are nothing short of stellar.


MYTH #2: Offshore software developers aren’t as good as domestic software developers.


REALITY: As a generalisation, simply not true.


Ever worked with anyone from the U.S. who was fired for underperforming? I would venture to say that we all have. There are great and terrible developers in Atlanta, Chicago, and New York, just as there are in Argentina, Portugal, and Hungary. Quality is not a deterministic function based on geographic location.


And not anything against the good ol’ USA but it actually ranked 30th worldwide (out of 65 countries tested) for math in 2012, and that’s down from a ranking of 25th worldwide in 2009. Not a good sign. And this is particularly significant with regard to hiring software developers, since algorithmic aptitude can often be an essential underpinning to effective software engineering. Don’t get me wrong, it has some of the very best developers here in the U.S., but to say that top developers from other countries are not as good as those in the U.S. would simply not be true. Top developers are who they are because they stay up-to-date on leading-edge technology and because of their commitment to technical excellence, not because of where they are located geographically.


Remember the following truisms:


  • A good remote developer is better than a bad local developer.
  • A great remote developer is better than a good local developer.
  • A top developer is a top developer regardless of where they are located.


Top of Form


Bottom of Form


MYTH #3: Differences in culture, language, and time zone are serious problems.


REALITY: They can be, which is why it’s so important to hire wisely.


Yes, the potential for cultural, language, and time zone challenges do exist when hiring a remote web developer or software engineer, but they can certainly be surmounted through a highly exacting recruiting process that centres around an uncompromising commitment to excellence.


Hyam Singer’s post In Search of the Elite Few discusses a methodology for finding and hiring the best software engineers in the industry. That approach is no less applicable to remote or overseas candidates than it is to those who are local.


So with that in mind, let’s examine the cultural, language, and time zone challenges of remote hiring in more detail:

  • Culture. In the context of hiring, when people refer to culture, they often really mean work ethic and moral standards. During the interview process, posing hypothetical “ethical and moral dilemmas” – that don’t have black-and-white right and wrong answers – is a great way of gauging a candidate’s business ethics and moral compass.
  • Language. There’s no denying that the ability to communicate clearly with our colleagues is essential. Problematic misunderstandings can easily arise from misinterpreted subtleties in language, a problem which is exacerbated when working with someone remotely. It is therefore crucial to thoroughly evaluate communication skills when selecting a remote team member, especially if his or her native language is something other than English. An otherwise stellar team player can prove to be more of a liability than an asset due to an inadequate command of the language.
  • Time Zone. First of all, the U.S. shares its four time zones with numerous other “offshore” cities that have high concentrations of talented software engineers, so “offshore” and “time difference” are not necessarily synonymous. Moreover, as long as the time of day at the remote location is within five or six hours of your time zone (which is true in a large percentage of cases), you’ll always have at least a few hours of overlapping “at work” time each day.


MYTH #4: Remote developers won’t integrate well with your team.


REALITY: If they’re good, they’ll bend over backwards to prove themselves to be stellar team players.


A sharp developer is not only sharp technically, but is also socially and professionally astute, and is therefore well aware of the reservations and scepticism that you may have.


Moreover, just as it is hard for top-notch companies to find superior developers, it is often hard for top-notch developers to find superior companies to work for, especially remotely.


For these reasons, a high-calibre remote developer will often work that much harder to gain your trust and respect. Show her that trust, grant her that respect, and you’ll have more than a team player, you’ll have someone who’s unflinchingly loyal and committed to the success of your project.


MYTH #5: Qualified remote software developers are next to impossible to find.


REALITY: Not if you know where and how (and where and how not!) to look for them.


Well, if you get an unsolicited email from a company touting offshore resources, and it contains a whole slew of grammatical and typographical errors, that’s probably a pretty good indicator of a source that you don’t want to turn to for offshore hires. Remember, we’re looking for quality.


The sources for remote software engineering team members basically fall into three categories:

  • Offshore body shops. This is, unfortunately, the majority of what’s out there and much of the reason for the negative stereotypes that exist. They’re the ones we referred to earlier that promise extremely inexpensive services and then fail to deliver by even the most basic of professional standards. Avoid them. Like the plague. Period.
  • Independent consultants. This is where the needle-in-a-haystack challenge comes into play. The quality can vary widely. Some can be cream-of-the-crop, but many tend to be inferior. The inferior ones are usually fairly easy to detect based on the low calibre of their communication skills or the level of desperation that they exude. The premier ones, on the other hand, can be elusive and hard to find, typically finding work through their own network of contacts. One negative with the best of these remote software developers is that they sometimes overcommit (to avoid a dry spell) and may fall behind on some of their deadlines as a result. After all, it’s hard to be your own marketing department. But that said, if you find one of these aces, and if they make your project a priority, they can be a tremendous asset to your team.
  • International freelance networking sites. A number of international freelance networking sites have emerged in recent years, intended to serve as marketplace to connect customers and remote software engineering resources around the globe. Many independent consultants utilise these networking sites as a means of augmenting their efforts to market their services. As a result, these sites offer customers a more centralised means of accessing global technical resources. However, these networks themselves are really just focused on providing a marketplace for technical services, rather than focusing on (or vouching for) the quality of the individual services offered. Accordingly, the challenge here remains that of quality; while some of the resources available through these networks are top-notch, the majority tend to be substandard.


To be sure, global networking is a greater challenge – potentially a much greater challenge – than local or domestic networking. But as has been discussed throughout this post, high quality technical resources do exist around the globe. By identifying a core group of stellar software engineers in key remote locations, and then using them as the nucleus from which to build out an ever-growing A+ network, one can realise the benefits of (and offer) a globally-distributed workforce, while minimising the downside. The company I work for, Toptal, has done precisely that, and is in fact employing this business model with great success.


Wrap-up


Great developers live where great developers live. It’s that simple. Many are here in the U.S. Many are in South America. Many are in the Ukraine. No country or region has a monopoly on remote developers.


The challenge, whether domestically or abroad, is to navigate through the masses to identify the elite few. International high-end developer networks are emerging as a highly effective means of finding and tapping into these valuable resources across the globe. Indeed, great developers tend to gravitate toward great developers, wherever they may be. And that’s a fact.


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