If you build it, will they come?

Ask Helmut Becker how much internal software development his information technology staff does, and he has a quick answer. “As little as possible,” says the director of computing services at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. “Our core mission is not to develop software.”

A lot of Canadian IT executives would agree with Becker, it seems, although the minimum of internal development varies with the organization.

The selection of off-the-shelf software has grown to the point where ready-made packages cover a lot of the functions that most organizations need, but they don’t always meet a customer’s exact needs and they don’t always work together without some custom integration work. And some CIOs find it more economical to build than to buy.

Becker says the development Mount Allison’s IT staff does is mainly building interfaces to link off-the-shelf systems such as those the university has acquired for student management, library operations and scheduling. He keeps integration work to a minimum by making purchasing decisions partly on the basis of how well commercial software products will work together.

Becker says one reason he favours buying versus building is that Mount Allison’s location makes attracting software development skills difficult.

He adds that he doesn’t know of any university in Atlantic Canada with a custom-developed student management system today, and most Canadian universities use ready-made enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems for the purpose.

However, Toronto’s Seneca College still runs an administrative system built in-house, “because the alternatives are so expensive,” says Terrence Verity, Seneca’s CIO. With 30 years’ experience with its own system, Verity says, Seneca is better off continuing to build its own applications around its core Oracle Corp. database. Seneca has 16 programmer/developers on staff, all skilled in Java and some with COBOL experience as well.

Seneca does buy some software. Its MySeneca portal is based on a commercial product called Blackboard, from Blackboard Inc. in Washington, D.C., and the college uses commercially developed help desk and learning management software.

Wirth Canada Ltd., a Toronto-based subsidiary of a German equipment, chemicals and materials group, also does quite a bit of its own development. “It hasn’t slowed down at all,” says Richard Kipin, Wirth’s IT manager. “Some days I wish it would slow down, but no, we are constantly developing applications and moving forward trying to improve things.”

Kipin says Wirth often uses commercial products as components and then does custom work to integrate them. “Even though you buy the package,” he says, “there’s still a lot of development that has to happen on the back end. Nothing’s a seamless fit.”

For Wirth, Kipin says, in-house development is essential to maintaining a competitive edge and living up to the company’s ISO 9000 designation.

The City of Brampton, Ont., prefers to buy software whenever possible. “We actually have a stated guideline for off-the-shelf,” says Chris Moore, Brampton’s CIO, “and that’s the first place we go.” The city does some internal development, though, particularly smaller systems that can be put together in 30 days or less. These are sometimes more cost-effective when they’re built rather than bought, Moore says.

And, like other IT departments, Moore’s staff spend some of their time integrating separate commercial applications. “We buy best in class,” he says, “and where we integrate it is at the data level.”

The city has also begun using a “design build” approach for some larger systems. Moore says the technique is based on what has worked well for the municipal government in building construction – Brampton outlines its requirements in a request for proposal and asks bidders to propose a solution. In the case of software systems, bidders will usually start with something they have built for someone else or with an off-the-shelf product and then add some custom work to bring it into line with the city’s requirements.

Brampton is about to award a contract for a fleet and fuel management system using this approach, and has a similar request for proposal out for a development tracking system.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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