Somewhere in an IT department right now a team of people are choosing a software vendor. This vendor could be for just about anything in the corporate IT sphere. You can imagine the usual roundup: analysis packages, data providers, software components, UI controls – the list goes on and on nowadays. The people in the room are bright hard workers. And the problem they are solving is varied. Like how can the project succeed with the minimum work from in house staff or how can it be done without breaking the bank. And finally, wiping the sweat from the brow and mustering up the old college fighting spirit – how to deliver the best possible product.
Does this sound familiar? Bueler? Bueler?
These goals are altruistic and, some would say, commendable, but they aren’t always realistic. Why not? Because choosing a vendor is too often the default option when business is faced with a problem these days. And when that occurs, the We Could Have Built It Already principle is at work; otherwise known as WCHBIA (pronounced wa-chee-ba). In a nutshell, it’s a simple way to call out the business analysts, non-technical managers, technically challenged managers and the technical, but wet blanket managers, from wasting time on vendor product selection for systems that can be and more importantly should be built in house. Really, this is in hope of preventing Yet Another Integration Project, which we’ll touch on later. Don’t read this as all products should be built in house – they shouldn’t.
You can see WCHBIA all around you if you look close enough. It’s the multitiered, web front end, Ajax enabled, 14 pt font Web 2.0 web analytics package that tells you conversions of a shopping cart. It’s the “if you bought this, you’ll like this” recommendation platforms. It’s the five thousand dollar site licensed UI components that don’t scale on server farms. You’ve seen it or experienced it by now. Heck, if you work in corporate IT you’ve most likely integrated some third party (system, component, service, data feed).
Luckily there are ways to avoid WCHBIA. Let’s look at them.
–The Real Purchase–
Most vendors aren’t just offering product X, they are offering a solution. This solution involves downloads, installs, setup,configuration, documentation, maybe some scripts and a plethora of meetings. And that’s just for the technical staff. Project managers, lawyers, directors (up to CTO often) get involved because at the end of the day this is a capital investment with contracts to read and negotiate. This is a lot of people and consequently and lot of cycles at work across teams. Are you analyzing this time before heading down the vendor selection path? Have you really considered who the “third” in third-party means. Are you willing to actually estimate these hours? After all, multiple vendors will be investigated and probably tested in house which is an immediate time investment for the internal staff.
Next, is this system critical to your company? Is it used on a revenue producing product? Will it give your platform a leg-up? If you answer yes to these questions (or even two out of three) that is a big red flag to pay very close attention and tread carefully. Vendors go bankrupt and close down. They are sold and resold. They have their own internal priorities (and strife). They are very rarely plug-and-play no matter what Chaz, their outside sales guy, tells you.
At the end of the day, do you trust SimpleSoft LLC’s product to reliably be part of your revenue producing system. Do you trust it to fund payroll? And if this thing is so great, aren’t your prime competitors already using it or going to deploy it as well? Where is the market advantage in that? That’s just keeping an even playing field and not leveraging technology for market advantage. You won’t drown, but you won’t swim to shore either.
–Investing in Your Team–
There are significant advantages to investing in and improving a software platform. Solving the problem at hand is a key advantage. Although the vendor wants to sell a solution what’s usually required is a product – which is just software. So why even test drive a Ferrari when what you need is a Volvo?
Next, outsourcing interesting and challenging products to a vendor is a really good way to homogenize your development staff. It sends a signal that they are good at building houses but not skyscrapers. Sometimes this goes as far as turning them into glorified UI designers, that is, before the real UI designers are brought in. Management should know if their staff is up to building important revenue producing pieces of the platform. Most developers I know drool for the chance. That’s why they come to work. To build cool things and make an impact. It takes the same level of commitment to requirements and limiting scope – but if the focus is on building a functional product that fills the void it’s a win-win.
If you’re thinking that your teams software developers don’t want to build cool products and be challenged then you probably haven’t spent much time talking with them or listening to their conversations. If you know for an absolute fact that they would rather not build high impact features into your platform or deliver differentiating features to clients then you might have an unfortunate favor of “career” programmers on your team. And if that’s the case…there are other rivers your team will need to cross.
Constantly looking to vendors is demoralizing for developers. If this is so important to spend 80, 100, 200K on why is it not entrusted to the development team to accomplish? Frankly, an investment in people is clearly lacking here and as outlined in the seminal book PeopleWare, this is as good a path as any toward Teamicide. Somewhere along the line managers have grown the thought in their head that software developers prefer integrating vendor software instead of writing software. Poll 100 developers and I’d hazard to guess that less than 10% of them say they’d like to spend their career integrating vendor solutions. This is where the term Yet Another Integration Project comes from; the constant churn of them in corporate IT software departments.
The churn of integration projects is justified by a claim to cost savings. The general thinking is that it would cost an in house team more to *build system X than it would to purchase it. But looking at the number of people involved, testing time, up front purchase cost, integration cost and maintenance cost of the “solution” – it’s tough to say it’s an accurate justification.
Remember when everyone was afraid of another acronym? NIH; Not Invented Here. For a time managers feared systems that were so complex that it couldn’t be maintained and someone would have to put a deugger on the equality operator because someone modified it’s behavior. That would be a terror to any reasonably sane person. But now the industry has swung hard the exact opposite way. Now, the fear should be systems built around vendor solutions and the lack of control. Who controls the roadmap for SuperMega EverywhereCache? SimploSoft LLC does, not you.
While looking for a vendor, testing their products and having lawyers read contracts, a decent set of software developers could often have built the technology in the same amount of time. Or maybe a little more time. It’s still software after all and integration projects are just as suspect to go dangerously off course as starting with a compiler. And given that developers (or system designers, architects) are roped into these vendor dealings, the time could simply be allocated towards building a working product. Basically, design and prototype sessions. The kind of things that really talented engineers want to do. In fact, the kind of thing that they were hired to do.
*If you work on a big CRM package and read this thinking “awesome, roll my own”, don’t show your employer this part of the article. Your type of software is what vendors are perfect for; unless your backoffice operations will generate more revenue or market share for your company. And if that’s the case, you are indeed in a very interesting industry.