When I visited Chicago a couple of weeks ago, I met the founder of a small analytics startup. Showing my San Francisco bias, I asked him if it was difficult to find the talent he needed in the Chicago area. He scoffed and began rattling off a list of the various states and countries where his developers worked.
What's happening with remote work now is different than the wave of offshoring that crested in the 2000s, which was driven mainly by a misguided zeal to cut costs. Today's programmers can work almost anywhere, anytime, and you don't need to go through a big offshore outsourcing shop to find them. The nature of work, particularly coding, is slowly beginning to parallel the distributed open source software development model.
Sharp contractors or valued employees typically have some degree of power to pick the projects that most interest them, almost like open source contributors do. Very likely they document all communication about a project openly and electronically, as with open source projects; undocumented face-to-face meetings can actually be a liability. People check out code, add to it or modify it, and get it reviewed by the project leader before it gets integrated or kicked back. No part of this process requires a physical office.
How do you hire remotely? The same way you hire locally: by drilling deep into candidates' experience to find the combination of skills that suit the job. Give programming tests. Check references and seek word-of-mouth referrals. Conduct interviews to determine the character of the person you're dealing with -- by Skype or old-fashioned physical visit depending on the nature and duration of the job.
Communication skill is the one area where the bar must be raised for remote talent. No matter how many conference calls you make, there's simply more room for misunderstanding when people are remote. A shared work vocabulary and clear written communication are vital. This goes both ways, of course: Remote talent needs to receive explicit requirements, expectations, and feedback.
The reward for that discipline is a vastly wider talent pool -- and that applies to enterprises headquartered anywhere. How can remote app dev succeed in the enterprise when agile development demands increased interaction between business stakeholders and developers? It works if you separate demand management from delivery. As a senior IT exec at DirectTV told me last year, you don't want your best and most creative developers "constantly pulled off of what they're doing to go estimate something that's never going to see the light of day." You want your ace coders coding and assign others to handle the bulk of face-to-face business interaction.
When I talk about the shift to remote work, I'm speaking from experience. For more than a decade, InfoWorld has been written primarily by freelance contributors who work remotely. Why? Because the combination of the writing and technical talent we need is so rare that I have no sane reason to restrict my possibilities to the Bay Area. The key is in finding people who love what they do and know their stuff, and in developing trust relationships.
Silicon Valley is addicted to youth, exorbitant compensation, unhealthy work hours, and disruptive innovation for its own sake. That creates an incredible intensity, with a whole lot of scary smart young people in one place, but this concentration can't help but diffuse over time as barriers to remote learning, hiring, and working fall further. Quality MOOCs and code academies will arise to help widen the funnel. The explosion in mobile, TV, car, and wearables platforms -- not to mention open source projects in general -- will help the truly motivated everywhere gain experience. Remote collaboration tools will continue to improve.
In the 2000s, no one could stop talking about India and China. Now I hear more about developers in South and Central America, not to mention those in Pittsburgh, Madison, Philadelphia, Durham, Austin, Portland, and yes, Chicago.
The nature of work has changed in other ways. Gone are the days, for the most part, when companies made meaningful long-term commitments to their employees. We are all freelancers, in a way, even if a W-2 says otherwise -- and thanks to the Internet, where we decide to do our work matters less and less.
This story, "You don't need to be in Silicon Valley" was originally published by InfoWorld.