Custom Software, Executive Q & A
This post aims to answer some of the questions we frequently get from executives on what we do, the business and process behind information technology in general and software in particular. First a preamble. I don’t expect an executive to understand the intricacies and details of what we do as software engineers and consultants. My job is to understand what an executive requires, what “pain points” might exist in the operation of the business, what opportunities might lie ahead and to devise and implement solutions through information technology. My job is to understand and communicate the nature of the solution, scope it, price it, build it and integrate it. Our primary expertise is software, more specifically custom software.
What is custom software?
You can buy “off-the-shelf” software. Software of this type is often, quite literally, available on a shelf at a computer or electronics store. Other times it is downloaded or procured from a commercial or open source vendor. Most people are familiar with this type of software because of the ubiquitous availability of some well known off-the-shelf software. If you have used Microsoft Office, you have used off-the-shelf software. Custom software is purpose built, or rather purpose “assembled” from readily available and custom-built libraries. You don’t buy or download it ready-made.
Is custom software built from scratch?
Not at all. Today’s application development is more accurately described as application “assembly”. Architects and developers combine readily available libraries and components to meet the business and functional requirements of the system and the needs of the organization. The widespread availability of these (often open-source) components has created a new breed of software development, one that relies on rapid prototyping and frequent iterations. Good developers don’t reinvent the wheel. They use tried and true readily available components, libraries and best practices. They don’t make, they assemble.
Why do I need custom software, can’t I customize off-the-shelf software?
It does depend on the software but in the vast majority of cases, you can, to some degree. Appearances can be deceiving however. Making changes to a large one-size-fits-all software application or platform can often be more expensive than purposefully assembling an application from loose components. The economics of “buy vs build” hinge on the nature of the application. This is why neither should be a foregone conclusion. Always start with your business and functional requirements, initially ignoring what you think is doable, perceived costs and complexity.
Brand “X” off-the-shelf software does 80% of what I need. How expensive will it be to build the remaining 20%?
As I said above, I can’t quite answer this question for each and every situation without further analysis. But I can say this with absolute certainty: a lot longer than you could ever imagine and often a lot longer than the vendor is willing to admit. Nowhere does the 80/20 rule apply more so than in systems. You will meet 80% of your requirements in 20% of the time and budget. Commercial vendors know this and are quick to sell you those features that come to mind. Don’t assume what you didn’t see is easy to get; it isn’t. The remainder will be expensive and difficult because by design, off-the-shelf software is meant to fit most organizations’ needs, not yours specifically. Custom built software has a more predictable and linear complexity curve. While not all features are equal in complexity and scope, building custom software has few or no limitations. Any experienced professional can accurately scope and estimate the time and costs involved in building the features needed.
How do I kick-start a software project?
Every software project needs a mandate. Software exists to serve a business and functional purpose. Elliciting requirements is a job fit for professionals. Any good software consulting organization will put forth experienced individuals in this area. They will meet your stakeholders, will interview current and future users, will seek to understand the current business and functional processes the new piece of software is meant to support, alleviate or replace. From this process, a list of mandatory business and functional requirements emerge. Be specific and get everything in writing. Upon delivery, the software will be passed by user acceptance. User acceptance ensures that the system meets all requirements stated and is fit for deployment.
How do I measure success on a software project?
Sofware should be easy to use. What goes into usability is open for debate but the outcome isn’t. Are your users productive? Do they (the people actually using the software, be it your employees or clients) find it easy to use? Have previously difficult and time consuming tasks become easier and faster? Is the software intuitive? Does it lend itself to experienced users and novices alike (a difficult balance by the way)?. Usability is important. Make sure you work with people who read, think and speak usability. There are other facets, but this one cannot be overlooked.
Software needs to be fast. Give the most patient person in the world a web browser and make him wait 4 seconds and you have a frustrated irate user. Rightly so. Software needs to be fast. People are used to thinking fast. Customers demand highly responsive interactions or they move on. Fast requires proper software engineering and infrastructure. Don’t assume any piece of software can scale. That is simply not true. Principles of scalability must be embedded in the application itself. We listen to every word Google, You Tube and Facebook software engineers have to say because scalability is very much a science that relies on software patterns, design and infrastructure decisions. You may not be as large as Google but scaling down is easier than scaling up. In this regards, there is absolutely no substitute for experience. Don’t hire an organization that hasn’t built something comparable in size or scope. They will learn on the job, they won’t meet your expectations and you will miss your target. Software engineers are worth every penny you pay them. Expensive? Just adopt the agile methodology and ensure most of your dollars are going towards the end product not superfluous management (not that management is superfluous but in agile development, extra process can in fact be detrimental).
Software must be easy to change. If I had to pick one symptom of poorly engineered software I would say, without a doubt, a pattern of “I asked how long it would take to make small change X and they said it would be Y weeks”. The truth is not all software is created equal. Good software is what we call “declarative”. It can be changed easily because only key functions are “hard” coded, the interactions between code modules and functions to actually create processes are “soft” coded, typically in XML or configuration files. If your vendor consistently tells you it will take days and weeks to do simple things, they may in fact be honest but (regrettably) incompetent. Talk to a vendor’s existing or previous clients. Was the software written on time? Did it perform? Were changes easily accommodated? If any of these answers is negative, move on.
Can my IT department write software?
Some can. However most IT departments are usually barely keeping up with the ongoing needs of the business. Freeing up resources to write and integrate complex software is often prohibitive. Another angle is while some IT departments have in house talent able to write software, writing enterprise software is complex and very much a profession in itself. Technical skills and development methodologies are taxing and time consuming to learn and master. A little knowledge can indeed be a dangerous thing. If a system is mission critical and/or will affect your bottom line, leave it to people who do nothing but software development.
How do I choose a vendor?
In operational and logistical areas, the size of the vendor is often proportional to the size of the project. Software is different however. Software scales, not according to the number of people on the team but according to the experience of the engineers who architected it. I once worked for a large consulting organization. The pitch to your new clients was often the same: at the first meeting, they’d bring out the “stars”, the experts. The client was wowed. Clearly this is money well spent they felt. Unfortunately, the contract would be signed, the stars would disappear, never to be seen again, and the client would be stuck with a team of recently hired “B” developers. Projects at these large consulting houses go notoriously wrong and over budget. Not to say that there isn’t a place for them. But when working with software, get to know who you are working with. And keep in mind that small teams do great things.
What vendor would you recommend?
I thought you’d never ask! We at Betterdot Systems practice what we preach. We’re a small company of ultra-motivated highly-experienced software professionals who do great things. Speaking with us is not cheap. It’s free. We want to understand your business and your needs before commitments are made or sought. There are other vendors out there. In fact if we feel that your requirements don’t fit our expertise and skill set, we’ll happily recommend a few. Speak with your peers and ask them about their experience with software vendors. And as I mentioned above, ask to speak with a vendor’s clients. A good vendor has happy clients. Happy clients are willing to talk.