One size does not fit all

One size does not fit all
April 7, 2011 Derek Fournier

Quit snickering.

This has never been more true (man I usually hate throw away lines like that) then in today’s market. The mass production model from the Boomers generation has been tossed aside like MySpace and our friends at the Seattle PI (a nod to my time in the Emerald City) point it out well in this article. (Note: this is actually a reprint from Denver but nothing interesting happens there so I give the credit to Seattle…flame away!)

As a child of the DVR, iTunes and Starbucks, I am increasingly intolerant of having to purchase or use things that I don’t want. There was a time when this was just standard practice. Now, if your business cannot provide exactly what your clients want (or need), you better start looking for a new job.

What makes all of this possible?

Technology.

By leveraging technology intelligently, a company can provide an amazingly customized experience while actually increasing its profit margin.

The customer wins. The company wins. The market wins. It is utopia!

Or is it?

The article points out that until the factory model of the 19th century, custom was the standard. Are we really taking two steps back and only one step forward? I think not.

Technology is allowing companies to provide this amazing customization at prices that are comparable to the mass produced model. Sure, there is a premium for getting exactly what you want, but i you can eliminate the spending of funds on extra garbage you did not need to begin with, the equation gets more interesting. Take software development for instance.

I have long been a proponent of buying off the rack in software. Software is complicated. There is a discipline to the creation of software that most people don’t understand and even the ones who do rarely actually respect and adhere too. So when I have consulted clients in the past, the first approach is to find something that is “good enough” for what they need. Process is usually cheaper to change than product, or at least that used to be the case.

With the global market for development expertise and the improvement in that field, even small and mid sized business can afford to get their intellectual capital in the form of their business process codified exactly in custom built software. They can also do this in a cost effective manner. It really has changed the market as this was historically something only large companies with tremendous coffers could afford to do. Now, if you have a business model or set of processes that make you unique, you do not have to put up with crappy software written in someone’s garage by their 13 year old nephew nor do you have to encumber yourself with 100’s of workarounds and leverage a canned package that does not get the job done for you.

Not without peril

Like they said in Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.” (I do that a lot. More in my speaking then in writing, but I love movies so you have to put up with it if you are reading this.) Just because you can do a thing does not mean that you should do that thing. When choosing a software developer, like any potential contractual or freelance labor, it pays to do your research. Here is a quick list of things to look for when picking a software development partner:

Track Record / References

Pick a firm with a decent track record. Any firm worth their salt will have references you can call even if they cannot list their names on the website. This is more normal than you know. Call those references. It is worth your time.

Smart guys (gals) finish first

This is one of those times where you want to have the people across the table know more than you. Now realize that they have no idea how to run your business. Their job is to listen, learn and then propose a solution that takes the best of your processes (maybe even improves them!) and turns them into technology that will save you time and money and/or make you more of both!

Find a backbone

You want a partner here, not a lackey. If you knew how to do this yourself you would. Expect a good partner to push back for clarification or if something does not seem right to them. That is what partnership is about.

Confidence in Approach

Any development firm worth their salt will want to tell you about their ‘methodology.’ While this may sound like puffery (like Papa John’s ingredient campaign), it is actually important. Pay attention to it but ask the “Why” questions. Why does that matter? Why does that benefit me? Why do you do it that way?

Split Design and Implementation

What? Well, in software, like in many things, you have to plan it first, then do it. The planning part will result in an architecture. Good  development firms will offer to perform only that phase and allow you to ‘shop’ that design to other firms.

Why? That is easy. Most firms make up their profits on implementation. It is like every other business. If corners need to be cut to maintain profitability, your design is subject to modification and not in a way that benefits you. An easy way to avoid that is to get an architecture that you can be sure of and then let firms bid on implementing that architecture. It will eliminate a ton of the variables that you might run into.

In Review

While there is safety in ‘off the shelf,’ the technical advancements and market now provide some amazing opportunities for companies of all size to get their ‘secret sauce’ protected and enforced through systems creation. Follow a few pretty easy steps and you can prevent an expensive mistake and, more importantly, end up with a more valuable company.

PS

Remember that when your firm is valued, the technology is often one of the key contributors to the valuation. If the technology is not sustainable, documented, secure and scalable, the suitor will figure out what it will cost to get it to that level, inflate it and reduce your offer by that amount. Better to make your technology a differentiator rather than a band aid.

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