Build Vs. Buy: A Dangerous Lie

IT's eternal debate sidesteps the complexities of a fragile talent ecosystem and creates a vicious cycle that ensures project failure.

The point here isn't that all your existing processes are sacrosanct. I don't work where you do, but I'm willing to bet that nearly all of your processes have to be re-engineered. The key is to reshape them with your mother's experience in mind, not within the constraints of some product's feature set.

And it's not just HR IT and the home loan division. You can draw eerie parallels with any space dominated by the gang of four (IBM, SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft), whether it's ERP, CRM, or any enterprise function that has a TLA (three-letter acronym). Eerie is the right word because the whole "buy, buy, buy" culture is the enterprise version of Candyman: Look in the mirror and say it enough times and your org gets a rusted hook to the neck.

Before you cloud advocates gleefully chime in, know that you're a variation of the same problem.

Buying failure

Look, the whole build-versus-buy conversation is older than tape. It inevitably turns into an esoteric philosophical debate. The problem is that the collective wisdom around this process ignores the impact on (and of) in-house talent.

Project governance as a discipline has effectively institutionalized Daniel Kahneman's notion of intuitive heuristics. We regularly make technology investment decisions that sidestep the real complexity. We fail to consider how a buy culture exposes that one tiny loose thread on our nice sweater. We look the other way when the resulting talent migration ties that string to a passing bullet train.

Call it intellectual laziness. Call it management truthiness. But whatever you do, don't let some pointy-haired boss perpetuate a dangerous lie.

Stop framing good financial stewardship as having answered the easiest possible question, "Should we build or buy?" That's the kind of shallow exercise that can be mastered with a simple matrix. Discredit the management BS that frames the right question to ask as, "Can our business model accommodate the risks and long-term investment that comes with managing an in-house software development cycle?"

The honesty of it is that if your business model (and talent) can't manage a build, then you won't be able to deliver a buy.

The author, a senior IT executive at one of the nation's largest banks, shares his experiences under the pseudonym Coverlet Meshing. He has spent the last two decades in the financial services sector, picking a fight with anyone who doesn't understand that banks are actually software companies and need to invest in engineering as a core competency. His cheery outlook and diplomatic nature are rarely reflected in his writing. Write to him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @CoverletMeshing.

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