In our last article, we discussed hard questions to consider when deciding to custom build your IT solution. Competency of skills, length of time required, impact to other projects, and the ability to provide ongoing support and upgrades all need to be taken into account for a home-grown solution.
After reading the last article, you might wonder if it is just best to buy a commercial, off-the-shelf solution (COTS) and skip the hard work of analyzing your situation.
Not so fast!
Choosing to purchase your technology solutions comes with its own host of considerations.
Does it exist?
Just as custom building came down to one question, so too does buying: Does the right software exist to meet your identified needs?
And just like our one question wasn’t so simple with building, there are some things to consider when buying. No one wants to buy a product knowing the time to customize that square peg into a round hole is longer than custom building a solution.
Is the software part of the vendor’s core competency?
It’s important to know if a product is the vendor’s “main thing”. Is it what they focus on day in and day out? Is it their secret sauce? Or is it a byproduct they decided to sell after solving their own problem?
A vendor focused on a product is more likely to know the nuanced challenges concerning your needs. When a product is their business, its future is continually in the minds of their executive decision makers and supported by passionate developers.
But a vendor offering a product which isn’t their core business isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. Products developed this way are built to solve real world problems. The real point is whether the vendor is committed to providing ongoing support or information about how to customize the product to YOUR needs.
Almost three years ago exactly, Google introduced Wave as their newest and greatest product. I remember watching the live video feed of the announcement at their I/O conference and seeing the excitement in Melissa Mayer’s face as she introduced numerous developers who had worked on the product. Picking up on the excitement, every tech site rehashed and speculated how our lives would be changed with the tech giant’s attempt to improve communication (i.e. the email killer).
Less than a year after its release, Google officially discontinued development on what was arguably a failed product. Did this hurt their core business? No…because it never was their core business. If it had been, the minds at Google might have fought to make it work.
Make sure the solution you choose is something a vendor is committed to or you may find yourself waving good-bye to it tomorrow.
If customization is necessary, how long will it take?
Business users can use Microsoft Word the moment installation is complete. It’s good to go right out of the box. The IT solutions we’re discussing, however, are seldom useful to the business without some customization.
Customization requires resources like developers, time, and money raising the cost of an off-the-shelf solution too more than just the price tag assigned by the vendor. If these costs aren’t accounted for from the start, your project might hit a wall or have to be tabled due to unplanned costs.
Research the product as well as work directly with the vendor when trying to estimate how long customization will take. And like any other project, make sure to plan for unexpected delays.
Does the vendor provide adequate ongoing support?
Some companies excel at customer service and support. Outside of the tech industry, Zappos is known for “beyond amazing” customer service. Instead of frustrated customers, they have created a cult following of raving fans.
If only all vendors were like this!
Unfortunately, not all vendors are good at providing ongoing support. Many of us have dealt with problematic software only to discover the vendor is not prepared to handle the issue. Questions go unanswered. Issues remain unresolved. Needs are unmet. The result can be costly if it begins to impact your business’s competitive edge.
Sometimes you may find yourself in need of software that is great for your needs but has lackluster support. Another option is to look outside of the original vendor and consider outside consultants who are skilled in pushing the product to its fullest potential.
What is the vendor’s history regarding updates?
We picked on Google a few points back with their less than stellar release of Wave. Yet just yesterday it was announced that another of their products, Google Chrome, has officially exceeded Microsoft’s Internet Explorer as the number one most used browser online. This is a testament to the quality of the product which, I believe, is due in part to how they handle updates: seamlessly and regularly.
Upgrades to Internet Explorer, FireFox, and numerous other software often require work. Clicking, installing, accepting…work. And let’s not forget the occasional error that renders a product that WAS working as NOT working. Yet Chrome updates regularly without any required action from me. While this is just the common browser, the point holds true for more robust solutions too.
It’s also important to also know if a vendor’s updates tend to work retroactively with pre-existing development. Many of us have worked with products in the IT space which require mass effort and planning to upgrade from one version to the next. In these situations you are forced to decide between spending time supporting an external software or losing your competitive edge by utilizing outdated solutions. It’s one thing if your old Xbox games don’t work on your Xbox 360, it’s quite another when your entire reporting and analytics suite has to be upgraded because a vendor didn’t plan for retroactive functionality.
When looking at software, make sure to consider a vendor’s history regarding updates. Are they hailed as seamless, consistent enough to remain competitive, and able to work with existing development? Or are they notorious for requiring tons of work (and aspirin)?
What do other customers have to say about the software?
This is quite possibly your best insight into the future relationship with a vendor! What are other customers saying? Do they have a cult following (e.g. Zappos, Apple, Xbox) or is the internet riddled with frustrations and unanswered questions from current users?
A vendor with raving fans is much more likely to have produced a great product than one whose users are continually frustrated. Remember, once you purchase their product, you’re part of that group. You don’t want to buy into something that has warning signs from the start.
Keep in mind though that a lack of positive feedback may not be negative. While many people are moved to publicly voice their opinions when things go awry, fewer are likely to sing a vendor’s praise when software works as expected. In these situations, perhaps it is better to seek out other customers and proactively ask for feedback. While people may not be moved to write unprovoked about a solution’s merits, many people are more than happy to offer their opinion when asked.
No vendor is perfect
We wrote in our article on deciding when to build that no company is perfect. The same holds true when buying a solution as no vendor or off-the-shelf solution is perfect either. Just because a vendor scores less than 5 stars in one of the preceding questions doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be considered as a valid option.
The goal of this article isn’t to dissuade you from utilizing COTS solutions. Rather, it is intended to get you thinking about questions often overlooked by IT professionals. The best plan of action is a well thought out one. And even the best, most applicable solutions occasionally have unexpected problems that may require augmenting your staff with outside resources.
Our next installment in this series will compare often overlooked differences between buying and building in terms of implementation, training, and support.
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