The Case for Custom Software

Custom software can be expensive to build, and the process is fraught with uncertainty. Can you complete the project on budget and schedule? Will there be a positive ROI?

The more innovative a software project, the more challenging the delivery. Typical bug trend lines on custom software projects should give pause to anyone considering one. And if that doesn’t discourage you, consider that custom software in many large IT organizations has a bad name. “Cottage apps” they call them. Ooo, yuck. Reminds me of cottage cheese and who likes a big bowl of cottage cheese?

From the CIO’s perspective, these cottage apps proliferate and break corporate standards. Too many varieties of applications require too much support, on too many uncertified platforms, and god only knows what security vulnerabilities are lurking.

These are all valid concerns. So why go through all the trouble and cost of developing custom software or owning and maintaining source code that meets IT corporate standards?

There are some common reasons cited, which I think are correct, but miss the full picture:

  • Build it if you have to, if no packaged solutions do what you need, and,
  • Build it if it gives you a competitive advantage.

The first reason seems straightforward enough. And the second offers a solid premise on which a business case could be developed.

But I’d offer a third reason that might tip the scales even when answers to the first two criteria are ambiguous.

That third criterion would be, “Do you need flexibility? Is the ability to rapidly adjust your processes important to your business?”

Even when custom software promises a clear competitive advantage, that advantage can be erased by other firms developing the same process improvement. It may not be the importance of any single innovation that makes the difference, but the ability to constantly evolve and change ahead of the competition.

The reality is that even in businesses with standards driven corporate IT environments there’s an organic tendency toward proliferation of cottage apps. I’d suggest that’s a sign of continual invention and creation rather than organizational dysfunction.

A good portion of business activities, and even the rules businesses must play by, change rapidly. Software customization is natural and organic to businesses because change is too. The goal of stamping out software diversity, in the end, may be at odds with the needs of dynamic, competitive organizations.

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