It’s a common story. Your team has many times more work than you have man hours to accomplish. Complexity is increasing, demands, are rising, acceptable delivery times are dropping, and your team isn’t getting money for more people. What are you supposed to do? Traditionally the management answer to this question is outsourcing but that word comes with many connotations and many definitions. It’s a tricky word that often instills unfounded fear in the hearts of operations staff, unfounded hope in IT management, and sometimes (often?) works out far better for the company providing the outsourcing than the company receiving the services. If you’ve been in technology for any amount of time, you’re likely nodding your head right now. Like I said, it’s a common story.
I want to take a practical look at outsourcing and, more specifically, what outsourcing will never solve for you. We’ll get to that in a second though. All the old forms of outsourcing are still there and we should do our best to define and understand them.
Professional outsourcing is when your company pays someone else to execute services for you and is usually because you have too many tasks to complete with too few people to accomplish them. This type of outsourcing solves for the problem of staffing size/scaling. We often see this for help desks, admin, and operational tasks. Sometimes it’s augmentative and sometimes it’s a means to replace a whole team. Either way I’ve rarely seen it be something that works all that well. My theory on this is that a monetary motivation will never instill the same sense of ownership that is found in someone who is a native employee. That being said, teams don’t usually use this to augment technical capacity. Rather, they use it to increase/replace the technical staff they currently have.
Outside of the staff augmentation style of outsourcing, and a form that usually finds more success, is process specific outsourcing. This is where you hire experts to provide an application that doesn’t make sense for you to build, or to do a specific service that is beyond reasonable expectation of handling yourself. This has had many forms and names over the years, but some examples might be credit card processing, application service providers, electronic health record software, etc… Common modern names for this type of outsourcing is SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) and PaaS (Platform-as-a-Service). I say this works better because it’s purpose is augmenting your staff technical capacity, leaving your internal staff available to manage product/service.
The final and newest iteration of outsourcing I want to quickly define is IaaS (Infrastructure-as-a-Service) or public cloud. The running joke is that running in the cloud is simply running your software on someone else’s server, and there is a lot of truth in that. How it isn’t true is that the cloud providers have mastered the automation, orchestration, and scaling in the deployment of their servers. This makes IaaS a form of outsourcing that is less about staffing or niche expertise, and more about solving the complexity and flexibility requirements facing modern business. You are essentially outsourcing complexity rather than tackling it yours.
If you’ve noticed, in identifying the above forms of outsourcing above I’ve also identified what they truly provide from a value perspective. There is one key piece missing though and that brings me to the point of this post. It doesn’t matter how much you outsource, what type of outsourcing you use, or how you outsource it, the one thing that you can’t outsource is responsibility.
There is no easy button when it comes to designing infrastructure and none of these services provide you with a get out of jail free card if their service fails. None of these services know your network, requirements, outage tolerance, or user requirements as well as you do. They are simply tools in your toolbox and whether you’re augmenting staff to meet project demands, or building cloud infrastructure to outsource your complexity, you still need people inside your organization making sure your requirements are being met and your business is covered if anything goes wrong. Design, resiliency, disaster recovery, and business continuity, regardless of how difficult it is, will always be something a company will be responsible for themselves.
100% uptime is a fallacy, even for highly redundant infrastructures run by competent engineering staffs, so you need to plan for such failures. This might mean multiple outsourcing strategies or a hybrid approach to what is outsourced and what you keep in house. It might mean using multiple providers, or multiple regions within a single provider, to provide as much redundancy as possible.
I’ll say it again, because I don’t believe it can be said enough. You can outsource many things, but you cannot outsource responsibility. That ultimately is yours to own.