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4/26/2018
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Has IT Gone Packaged Software Crazy?

When it comes to software, why choose out-of-the-box plain vanilla when there's a rainbow of other flavors that you can choose from and swirl together?

A lot of work has been done with software since Ada Lovelace’s algorithm. Not only have the programming languages changed over and over and over again, but how we get software on our devices and who we make software for has evolved a lot as well. 

And there are options. You can write your own software, buy a customizable piece of software, or go completely out-of-the-box. 

But as IT teams (and other business units) continue to “do more with less,” developing your own software to meet your business needs and customer challenges become less and less appealing. Software developers are expensive and buying something out-of-the-box (so to speak) frees up time to deal with other pressing issues, or even just day-to-day demands. Almost anyone can install and use out-of-the-box software, a CS degree is not required. 

However, the farther we drift toward a totally hands-off approach, the harder it is to find one piece of software that includes all of the features you desire. 

“[Out-of-the-box software] is becoming a problem for government for the for the very same reason that it has become a problem for the private sector,” says Jeff Stovall, CIO for the City of Charlotte, NC. “We’re finding that the out-of-the-box solutions don't fit the use cases we’re trying to drive in government…Local government can have quite a bit of variation in how we implement things.” 

Image: Pixabay
Image: Pixabay

When it comes to taking on complicated or very specific tasks to your industry, packaged software, or as Stovall refers to it, “plain vanilla” software, may not have the options you’d like to see. 

If you’re looking for out-of-the-box software that can do something as specialized as local jurisdiction code enforcement, Stovall says you’re going to have a very hard time finding a quality vendor.   

“With such a small pool [of vendors], sometimes those packages aren’t truly competitive with more modern application development techniques,” says Stovall. “If we’re going to stick with packaged software, it may not fit from a scale or ‘dev’ quality perspective and then application development starts to look more attractive.” 

Stovall adds that sometimes the features that the out-of-the-box software is missing aren’t negotiable. 

“Vendors may be able to anticipate 80- or 90% of the challenges, but the [missing] 10% may not be optional.” 

The next tier of software is customizable. But the question is always, how much customizing does the software? 

Stovall recommends asking yourself: “Are the compromises that you’re going to have to face when you customize an off-the-shelf suite comparable to the amount of effort to something that you’d have to develop in-house?” 

The final tier of software is custom. Which to some might sound like an exciting challenge, while to others, may sound like a ton of work and a huge expense. 

However, developing in-house is no longer as onerous as it used to be, says Stovall. 

“Development tools have gotten a lot easier,” says Stovall, citing the impact of cloud computing on the development process. “There are a lot of things that reduce the barriers to application development that weren’t there 10 years ago.” 

So now that you’re thinking about developing in-house again, you still have that tricky resource issue to tackle, but doing-it-yourself doesn’t have to mean do it all by yourself. 

Jeff Stovall
Jeff Stovall

“Just because you’re creating custom software, doesn’t mean you have to have all of those application development capabilities in-house,” says Stovall. “The outsourcing capability, renting the talent, that’s probably the easiest way to get into an app development environment,” he says. 

Another approach to the talent piece of developing custom software is to grow an internal team. “That’s going to take a little more time and might not be the best approach for an individual project, but may be a way to create some sustainability,” says Stovall. 

Ultimately, Stovall suggests that finding the enthusiasm and motivation to swing back from a deluge of packaged software (to choose swirl over plain vanilla) comes from a mental shift. 

“As IT pros, we have conditioned ourselves to think that buying software is the only or best solution, the but…the market has changed, how software is deployed has changed, the solutions for very small shops have changed. If a world-changing mobile app can come from a handful of guys, then maybe we need to think about our relationship to application development differently…Maybe we need to think of ourselves as the handful of guys in a garage.” 

If you’re interested in learning how to go about finding the right mix of packaged, customizable, and custom software for your organization, then attend Jeff Stovall’s session, Swinging the Pendulum: Balancing the Packaged Software Portfolio with Custom Development at Interop ITX next week.

Want to hear more from those in government IT? Check out these articles:

Government IT's Risks and Rich Rewards

Town of Cary Embraces the IoT to Serve Citizens

Government IT: Time to Catch Up

Emily Johnson is the digital content editor for InformationWeek. Prior to this role, Emily worked within UBM America's technology group as an associate editor on their content marketing team. Emily started her career at UBM in 2011 and spent four and a half years in content ... View Full Bio

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