I’m often in a position to evaluate whether a problem should be solved with custom software or with off-the-shelf options. Here’s the secret: custom software often isn’t the answer.
Awhile back I scheduled a phone call with a director of technology at a large forward thinking non-profit and I wanted to learn how they work. They’re trying to maximize their impact on providing their services, so providing high quality tools with a reasonable bottom line is key. On discussing custom software, his way of framing the question was something like this:
Is the problem I’m trying to solve both unique to the world and core to our goals as an organization?
When framing it as such, it’s really quite simple.
If your problem isn’t unique to the world, then there’s likely an off-the-shelf solution that should service you well. You should spend a lot of time here. Let me repeat that, you should spend a lot of time here. It will take time to determine if your problem truly is unique and it will be worth the hours you put into researching this. The economy is excellent at identifying opportunities in bulk and providing solutions for them. Yes, If you use off-the-shelf software, there will be small tradeoffs, but they’re likely to be insignificant to solving your biggest problems.
If your problem isn’t core to your goals as an organization, then it’s just not worth it. There’s no way around it, custom software costs more than off-the-shelf solutions. If you can’t connect what you’re doing to improving your performance metrics in a measurable way, it’s likely not necessary.
If your problem does pass the tests above, it’s likely you need to move forward on a custom solution.
When it’s worth it, custom software can be an incredible change agent. It’s created for you and your goals. It is the right tool, in the right hands, at the right time.