Home 9 Insights 9 Blending External and In-House Developers: A New Era of Collaboration

Blending External and In-House Developers: A New Era of Collaboration

Building a cohesive team where external and in-house developers converge isn't easy but it’s worth the shot. Here's how to do it. 
Daniel Zacharias

Jovana Stankovic

November 1, 2023
Remote team collaboration between in-house and external experts

It sorta bugs me out — Why do so many companies still treat external developers as just ‘contractors’ and not really part of their teams? Don’t they know that they are missing out on cool synergies if they worked together more closely?  

Maybe they don’t know it. Or perhaps they aren’t aware of what it takes to build a cohesive team where in-house and external developers converge. It’s not an easy thing to do, sure. But it’s far from impossible and it can really be advantageous. 

The myth of the “Us vs. Them” mentality

Back when I first started managing external developers, I’d overhear my coworkers at the water cooler saying things like, “They’re not really part of the team. Why don’t they just work overtime to keep up with us?” I suspect that they didn’t know that integrated teams are 50% more efficient.

As my career went on, I noticed more and more of this dangerous “Us vs. Them” feeling. 

In old-school corporate culture, you could see this division right away, but it’s deadly for collaboration and creates dumb barriers. Companies always had a clear line between full-time employees and external contractors. Full-timers were seen as the backbone, loyal, and totally on board with the mission. External devs didn’t get that status. 

But the status quo, with its outdated in-house concepts, is dying. External teams, cultural inclusivity, and fresh perspectives are needed now more than ever!

The benefits of integrating external into in-house

When you ask businesses, “Have you tried integrating your external devs into your in-house operations?”, chances are you’ll be greeted with an eighth-grader girl “Ewww” reaction.

But even though there’s a stigma against it, I’ve seen first-hand that combining these two worlds brings a ton of benefits that really improve a company’s efficiency and ability to innovate.  

Here are a couple of main reasons why I’m such a big fan of getting external and internal teams to collaborate:

1. Diverse skills with fresh perspectives

One of the main reasons why I’m such a big advocate for external-internal dev collaboration is because of the diversity of skill sets they bring to the table and better product delivery that follows.

External devs mostly come from different backgrounds with fresh perspectives and methodologies. It’s free money on the table, yours to use to broaden your company’s technologies. 

Secrets from the Field: I worked with an external team several years ago. Dwight, a leading dev from the team — not The Office’s Dwight — introduced us to a cutting-edge tool that none of our current in-house team members were familiar with. Using this tool, we boosted our development process and improved the final software’s quality.

2. Better flexibility and scalability

It’s the two things every business in town wants. But you can’t reach both with just your in-house devs.

Sometimes, a specific project or an influx of unexpected errors comes along that your in-house team needs help to handle. And if any project owner tells you otherwise, they’re probably lying. 

Integrated external devs adjust swiftly to the newborn change without disrupting your business operations. And if that niche-specific project comes around, no big fuss. You have your integrated devs to lean on, no matter the scope. 

3. It makes better sense financially

The thing that’s mostly overlooked is that external developers don’t have associated costs like benefits, insurance, and long-term salaries. This gives you more space to allocate your resources better, ensuring you get the most value for your buck. 

But don’t go integrating just because you like the cost-efficiency part. 

Back in the day, I advised a project owner to adopt a hybrid model, blending in-house and external developers based on project needs. This shift led to a 25% reduction in development costs within a year without sacrificing quality or speed. But, all those results remain stardust if you don’t have the right strategic blend of in-house and external talent.

 Strategies for successful integration

1. Cross-training initiatives

Usually used in skill development, I often use this method to encourage external developers to conduct workshops on their areas of expertise and vice versa. It’s one of my secret things to bridge knowledge gaps and foster mutual respect.

I also like to organize a “Skill Swap” week where external and in-house developers exchange roles. It’s one of the fun and collaborative ways to showcase your teams’ different challenges. Plus, it’s a great way to entirely grasp the perks both sides bring to the table.

2. Mentor-mentee pairing

If you’re not a workshop person and prefer to do things the good old in-house way, try pairing an in-house member with an external dev. 

Spoiler alert: You’ll create a symbiotic relationship that boosts your integration and increases project efficiency by 30%.

Often, the in-house mentor provides a smoother onboarding experience, ensuring the external developer feels welcomed and informed. At the same time, the mentor gains a fresh perspective from the dev, sparking the continuous learning cycle.

3. Use collaborative project management tools

I had a goal 3 years ago: successfully refactor the entire in-house codebase with the help of external devs.

Tools like Slack and Trello couldn’t cut it, so we needed to take a completely different approach. We integrated tools that allowed for real-time code annotations. Markup Hero, Prodigy, and Code Stream are great at this. 

The result — A spontaneous brainstorming session between my in-house and external devs, creating a flawless codebase refactoring.

4. Feedback loops with a twist

The way that has always been — In-house giving the external their feedback. Sometimes, it’s harsh, rarely productive, and occasionally inspiring. 

But what if you took that inspiring part and created your own feedback twist? It seems wild, but that’s what I did with my most recent team: allow external developers to provide feedback on in-house processes. Unique viewpoints, unseen blind spots, and the sense of being valued start to emerge. 

That’s what happened after my in-house team, with the help of an external dev, revealed they could streamline their development process with a different methodology, saving dozens of hours per week.

2 key challenges to look out for

The first roadblock many face with their external integration is the unwillingness to move away from an in-house team-only approach. Basically, this means that they treat external engineers as mere executors of whatever the in-house team wants to do. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

1. Cultural differences

Every individual, every team, and indeed every organization has its own unique culture. When you bring external developers into the mix, you also introduce a blend of new work ethics, communication styles, and values. 

Sometimes, the in-house won’t adapt to them.

To curb that unwanted effect, I often do team-building activities and cultural exchange sessions and try to foster an open dialogue, bridging those unwanted gaps.

2. Knowledge transfer

The seamless flow of information is the lifeblood of any project.  When integrating external developers, there’s a risk of knowledge silos forming, leading to inefficiencies and potential errors. Critical project details are overlooked, or external devs do double work due to a lack of communication.

I like implementing structured onboarding sessions for external developers to keep everyone on the same page. It includes everything from onboarding with senior in-house members to introducing them to the technicalities of the project and check-ins that follow.

External developers and in-house teams – Unity achieved?

There’s no place for the old traditional status-quo business practices in the future of work.

You can seamlessly integrate diverse talents by leveraging strategies like structured onboarding, embracing reverse feedback, and fostering a culture of continuous learning. It’s not just about filling skill gaps; it’s about creating a unity of varied perspectives that drive innovation. 

The “us vs. them” mindset is a relic of the past, and let’s keep it that way! 

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