Did Boeing's Software Development Outsourcing Affect the 737 MAX?

Oct 24, 2019 7:09:36 AM / by Ashish Patel

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The tragic case of consecutive crashes involving Boeing's ambitious new 737 MAX 8 model airplanes has forced both governments and the public to more deeply assess the current lay of the aeronautics industry.

And although many factors have likely contributed to Boeing’s challenges, potentially significant issues with the development of the faulty planes' internal systems have taken on a troubling new dimension with the revelation of Boeing's reliance on outsourced development talent.

Whether your company currently outsources its software development needs or are considering doing so in the future, there are important lessons that all those in related positions should be taking from Boeing’s example.

 

Boeing's Issues with the 737 MAX 8

The repeated failure of Boeing's updates to its world-renowned flagship 737 passenger planes has brought public attention to the potential pitfalls of coordinated development across loosely connected teams. 

Issues currently under investigation by the company include:

 

  • MCAS:

The Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) introduced a significant degree of automation to the flight process on Boeing's 737 MAX 8 planes. Unfortunately, the roll-out of this feature proved to be poorly documented and lacked proper instruction for pilots, who were left in the dark when the system went haywire in flight. 

A couple of key design flaws brought about the new system's critical malfunctioning: a faulty angle of attack sensor, which made it seem to the system as if the plane was severely tilted, and the absence of a fail-safe deactivation option, which made correcting the issue in time impossible. 

Although previous systems could turn automatic aids off in an emergency situation, the 737 MAX 8 could not (among other things, this was changed after the accidents).

 

  • Cockpit Warnings:

A related issue concerning the inclusion of an angle of attack alert arose in the wake of Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 accidents. Though this alert was not included in most of the planes manufactured, it has since been slated for mandatory inclusion in all models moving forward.

 

  • Type Certification:

Another troubling facet of Boeing's issues with the 737 MAX 8 model stem from the role the company played as part of the FAA in self-certifying the readiness of its planes for release to the market. 

 

Boeing’s Offshoring Concerns

Both scheduling burdens and budget cinching appear to have played a part in pushing Boeing to lay off multiple in-house software developers and inspectors in favor of more aggressive outsourcing efforts.

According to an article by Bloomberg reporter Peter Robison, Boeing partnered with the India-based consultancies HCL Technologies Ltd. and Cyient Ltd. to support its flight-test group - talent that was compensated “as little as $9 an hour to develop and test software.” Robison and others suggest that the time-costly code integrity problems and rushed workarounds could have substantially contributed to the challenges the company has experienced with the 737 MAX 8 model.

"Outsourcing has long been a sore point for some Boeing engineers,” writes Robison, “who, in addition to fearing job losses say it has led to communications issues and mistakes." 

 

Multiple Revisions

The time investment needed for back-and-forth collaboration between outsourced teams and in-house developers is a given. But reports suggest that the situation Boeing faced in developing its flight software passed beyond the realm of acceptability.

In Robison’s article, Mark Rabin, a former Boeing software engineer, is quoted as saying, “It was far less efficient than Boeing engineers just writing the code.” Rabin recalled that, often, “it took many rounds going back and forth because the code was not done correctly.”

 

Patches and "Quick Workarounds"

Code revision challenges may have been compounded by the demands made by Boeing’s leadership for fast development. Robison shares a resume bullet point from an HCL Technologies Ltd. employee in support of this allegation, which appears to bring this imperative to light:

"Provided quick workaround to resolve production issue which resulted in not delaying flight test of 737-Max (delay in each flight test will cost very big amount for Boeing)."

 

How Can Outsourcing Risks be Mitigated Effectively?

In fairness, a Boeing company spokesman interviewed by Robison states that, “Boeing has many decades of experience working with supplier/partners around the world. Our primary focus is on always ensuring that our products and services are safe, of the highest quality and comply with all applicable regulations.”

Regardless of who ultimately bears fault in Boeing’s current situation, there are a number of lessons that can be taken from its example in order to mitigate communication issues across teams, whether they’re made up of traditional hires or outsourced support.

 

Press for employee retention rates and domain expertise

The ability of your development partner to retain top talent matters when it comes to managing the risks associated with outsourcing.

Long-term team members not only perform better alongside their own coworkers - they’ll also carry all of the experience they have with your business's goals and expectations from your current projects to future engagements. New hires are not only new to your outsourcing partner's environment, but to your company’s requirements as well. In this way, team stability plays a major role in minimizing mistakes and streamlining development.

Compounding this is the provider's overall knowledge of your industry. A “one-size-fits-all” approach might not be sufficient for your business if your needs encompass highly technical or time-sensitive tasks. Niche and highly specialized partners could actually represent a greater ROI at a higher per-hour or per-project cost, should the work they complete require fewer revisions.

 

Insist on shared language comprehension and objective clarity

Sharing a language - English, in most cases - is especially important for communication between company leadership and its outsourced points of contact. But a case can be made that it’s just as important between your company and all members of your development partner's team. 

Imperatives delivered through the grapevine risk dilution of purpose; direct access to the hands on deck can make a major difference in establishing and maintaining acceptable lines of communication throughout a given project.

 

Remain open to feedback on timelines and deliverables

There are scenarios that may call for additional help to be brought on board or more niche specialists to take over. That said, outsourcing partners should be vocal about their ability to deliver your proposed project on schedule, and should be supportive of you seeking other options, should they be unable to accommodate your needs.

Mismatches at any level between a company and the capabilities of its outsourced development partner introduce the potential for negative outcomes - as seen in the extreme, in the case of Boeing. Although the company’s upfront savings through offshore outsourcing may have appeared attractive on paper, the alleged reality of extensive revising and the dire consequences of mission-critical component failure far outweigh the potential for savings.

"As a case study in outsourcing, Boeing’s handling of interactions with remote teams effectively demonstrates a few of the major pitfalls worth planning against at a project’s start. For more guidance on the subject, check out Simpat's white paper, "Driving Growth in a Competitive Labor Market Through Strategic Software Development Staffing."

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Ashish Patel

Written by Ashish Patel

Ashish Patel is the CEO and Founder of Simpat Tech.