Like most IT departments, my team at Westminster College stays very busy keeping things running and working as hard as possible to address critical business needs. However, we face a couple of challenges that can be pretty tough to overcome:
- Lack of bodies. With just eight people on the IT staff and a broad support portfolio, everyone on the team has significant responsibilities.
- Skills difficulties. I have a great team working with me, but with a broad portfolio and new projects constantly hitting us, it's impossible for us to be all things to all people at the exact time it's needed. Further, technology changes very quickly, so being up with the latest and greatest can be difficult, although we all do our best.
- Short time frames. Due to the small size, my IT staff has to be very support-oriented, leaving little time for large project work. This makes it tough to turn around a big project is a short time frame.
As much as possible, we try to use off-the-shelf software to meet the College's business needs. At other times, we try to customize existing systems to reasonable limits in order to meet these same business needs. Sometimes, however, a great idea arises that can't be met by either of these scenarios.
The challenge when a great idea comes up is to implement the idea within a time frame that makes it useful. With so many systems to support and other ongoing projects, this can be tough. Often, when we need something, we can work with our ERP vendor, but this tends to be expensive and we're sometimes limited in what systems we can use.
For a recent project, we identified a need to develop a relatively complex system in SharePoint. We use SharePoint for our institutional web site and a number of other tasks, and we're constantly growing its use. We do have a portal product from our ERP vendor, but the new system requires a high level of workflow capability to be present. Rather than code that workflow from scratch, we're going to use SharePoint. From an integration perspective, we can do single sign-on between the ERP portal and SharePoint.
To say that this is a highly visible project is an understatement. Next up, the time frame is very short compared to most of our other projects. Finally, from a staff availability to skills perspective, my team and I can manage the project, but with so many beginning-of-school tasks to complete, we can't do the actual development and hit the target.
So, my next task was to figure out how we were going to accomplish the development goal. I've had mixed success with local lone SharePoint development consultants as they are pretty much booked up. As such, I considered other options. I also knew we couldn't afford a $200-per-hour developer, so I started looking at less expensive alternatives, including offshoring the development, and, during this phase, came across the rural sourcing concept. Now, I had previously heard about the rise of so-called rural sourcers, but I did not have any experience with them. These are companies that either locate in lower cost areas or hire people to work virtually from lower cost areas and they pass the cost-of-living savings on to the client. Rather than outsource work to locations oversees, rural sourcers claim that they can do the same work for a reasonable cost and avoid any potential problems with cultural clashes, time zone issues, and more. Moreover, these rural sourcing organizations say that they help smaller communities thrive, provide people with more employment options, and offer a valuable service to corporate America.
Personally, I'm sold. While I awaited funding for the aforementioned project, I asked Rural Sourcing, Inc. (RSI), with a development center in Jonesboro, AR, to work on a smaller project for which we had a development need. Although I can't discuss specific details or rates, trust me when I tell you that the hourly rate we're paying Rural Sourcing is much less than we'd be paying to most other development houses, and the results are fantastic. The RSI-based development team took my specifications and developed a solution that far surpassed my expectations. Further, in one part of the development process, I came across a commercial web part that might solve one particular issue. Rather than try to code it themselves or talk me into simply having them develop it, they tested it for me and, because they were so familiar with my goals, made a recommendation that we simply buy that web part to accomplish the task, which actually meant a bit less development work for them but a much better overall result. For me, the RSI crew acted as an extension of my team, with daily progress meetings taking place.
Just last week, I received notification that the funding for the original project had been approved. We are now embarking on this development project with the able team from RSI. As I look at ways to add staff at the College, these kinds of options affect my direction. With development rates that are very, very good and a plethora of development skills in their portfolio, companies such as RSI can handle my one-off needs, and as time goes on, I may use companies like this to handle some more of our project work.
While these are not new concepts, economic challenges and budget realities will force more organizations to consider their use.
Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive with CampusWorks, Inc. Scott is available for consulting, writing, and speaking engagements and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.