Mobile app development - why wage arbitrage matters little!

Wage arbitrage has defined the IT services sector for over a decade. Companies in the US in particular, and high cost countries (HCC) in general, began to take notice of the Indian IT workforce starting in the late 90s when preparing for Y2K. In fact, like with many other process optimizations, it was GE under Jack Welch, that began the trend of outsourcing IT services to India as far back as 1991, which was the year that India began to open up its economy. That said it was the noughties when IT outsourcing really came into its own. It was the decade that saw Accenture and Deloitte swell from sub-50K person consulting companies, to 200K+ person outsourcing behemoths, with a majority of that workforce added in low cost countries (LCC), and India in particular. It was also the decade that saw spectacular rise of the Indian IT services sector, most prominently Infosys, Wipro, TCS, Cognizant, and - until its eventual accounting-scandal led demise - Satyam.

However the tide has started to turn. It's not so much that wage arbitrage opportunities have disappeared - in fact an argument can be made that arbitrage opportunities will remain well into the next decade, particularly between India and the US. However, as companies move from leveraging IT to drive internal efficiencies to leveraging IT to build new digital products and services, i.e. towards digitalization, the need for wage arbitrage becomes somewhat irrelevant. Let's consider why.

When you shouldn't offshore:

Consider the following digitalization scenario. You are a large automobile company that is looking to develop an augmented reality app for Google Glass. The app essentially digitalizes your driver manual, by overlaying information pertaining to a specific automobile component or feature simply by looking at it and activating voice commands. Now assume you are the executive within the large automobile company, whose organizations responsibility it is to deliver this app.  From the executives perspective, which do you reckon is the most important success criterion vis-a-vis this particular app are:

  • building the app for the lowest cost possible
  • building the app of the high quality possible

With consumer facing products that represent a brand, it is rarely the former. The goal is usually to build the highest quality app possible under some realistic cost-constraints. This is where mobile application development begins to differ from traditional enterprise application development. With mobile you can build some very very powerful applications, e.g. augmented reality or sensor based applications, with minimal back-end, organizational, or process-driven complexity. What does this lead to? A lower price point than traditional enterprise application development. Traditional enterprise application development generally fell into one of two categories:

  • customization of complex packaged applications like SAP, Siebel etc.
  • full blown customized applications

In either case, these applications generally required integration with a multitude of complex systems and some very esoteric technology skills to build out the application. Additionally, to build these traditional applications, an army of professional services consultants is generally required for everything from gathering business requirements, to change management (as generally these applications required a change in organizational behavior), to deployment and a transition to operations. It is not uncommon for these applications to cost north of $100M, with prices north of $1B to deliver in the case of the most complex transformative apps - think healthcare.gov 2.0 to be delivered by Accenture. At a $100M price point, wage arbitrage makes a lot of a sense - a $20M savings is pretty significant in almost any context - but the average mobile app costs under $250K. Here savings of even $100K are easily trumped by working with a more expensive team but one that can deliver a very high quality product and significantly greater business value.

When should you offshore:

Wage arbitrage is by no means over but, when it comes to mobile application development, building a product offshore is not by any means purely a price decision. It usually only makes sense in one of three conditions:

  • the offshore team is very good at what they do - and is worth offshoring to regardless of price.
  • the client is offshore and needs a team that works in the same time zone/city/region.
  • there are some pretty significant budget constraints, and the individual/company requiring the offshoring capability has experience in managing the offshore team.

As discussed in our blog post on the golden rules of outsourcing, if you are an entrepreneur or a marketer that has no experience in managing an outsourced team, then you should try to avoid outsourcing all together or else enlist the help of a trusted individual/team that has experience outsourcing to do most of the heavy lifting while you learn the ropes. This is quadruply true if you are considering outsourcing to an offshore team for the first time.