The Buy vs Build Debate: Why Is It Still Happening?

This article originally appeared on my LinkedIn Profile January 25, 2016

January 25, 2011, I was driving back to the airport from a meeting with a potential client, my CEO in the passenger seat.  “How do you think it went,” he asked.  “I think it went okay.”  I was kidding myself.  We were ambushed.  We never should have flown out for the meeting.  I had a few follow up conversations after the fact, but I knew I was wasting my time at that point.  The problem was, I completely underestimated who the actual decision makers were in the room.  I was trying to solve a business problem for the environmental team; yet their own internal IT group wanted to solve the same problem, by building a custom solution.  We were essentially invited into the room to help them scope it out.

The Buy vs Build debate has been a heated one in many organizations.  I am reminded of a quote from Mark Lutchen, former Global CIO for PriceWaterHouseCoopers.  Mark said,

“Everybody knows that the more you buy off-the-shelf, the more cost effective it will be for both implementation and ongoing maintenance.”

Well, if everybody knows it, why is it still happening?

When DIY Doesn’t Happen

There are many reasons.  Ego could be one.  Perceived competitive advantage by having something nobody else does could be another.  What I find, more often than not, is simply underestimating the scope of the project from the onset.

In the absence of a specification, needs analysis, software architecture, data model, development work plan, resource requirements, screen design and so on, building a custom solution looks very attractive.  Most software companies invest millions of dollars and 1000s of hours to build their product.  Most industrials can’t do the same thing—it’s just not their core business.  Why should they when someone else has done it for them?

Here’s the rub: building custom one-off software applications is difficult, expensive and rarely economically feasible given a commercial alternative.  Without a detailed engineering specification, I have doubts that any consultant or developer could give an accurate price estimate.  With Off The Shelf software, you know the cost right now.

Additionally, you may be compelled to take short cuts, avoid building certain key functionality or configurations because at the time it doesn’t seem important all in an effort to keep costs down.  In other words, you probably won’t end up with the application that you want or the one that will generate the highest overall benefit.

It becomes impossible to take into account the magnitude of the level of effort required to develop and document decisions, requirements and specifications.  Ultimately you probably find out that “buying” software is a great deal.

Fast forward to this past summer.  I get a call from that same company, only different people.  The old guard was gone and the IT group didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.  The business never got their solution.  All the problems remained and the manager of that group lost his job.  So my question, “What’s different now?,” was greeted with a laundry list of reasons why they were ready to be a customer.  We took our time though, essentially starting over to make sure we didn’t miss a single detail.  In the end, they had underestimated the scope and the requirements.  The business, to their credit, refused to settle for a half-baked solution, and just before Christmas they became a customer.

So you are probably wondering if I felt vindicated in anyway.  The answer is no.  I would have preferred to help them 5 years ago and help someone save their job.  A lot of the issues that still exist would have been solved, they would have already gotten their ROI and now moved on to creating additional value for their company as a whole.  You never want to see people make mistakes that you have watched others make.  As a parent, I definitely understand that.  So hopefully, this cautionary tale could help you or someone you are working with avoid similar pitfalls.

So have you experienced this? How did it end up? What did you do?

Read this paper and see if it’s what you are looking for.  Learn more about the complexities and challenges of creating your own environmental management system.

The Greatest Salesman in the World

This post originally appeared on my LinkedIn profile December 22, 2014

Don’t worry; this is not a post where I try to convince you that I’ve found the secret formula to sales. Far from it actually. I have always approached sales like a student, in a constant state of evaluation and education. I think a lot of us get discouraged about things that are completely out of our control. However, we fail to recognize the one area of our lives and careers that we have total control over – our emotions.

I relocated a few months ago and am still unpacking boxes. I recently came across a book, The Greatest Salesman in the World, by Og Mandino. Hands down, this is my favorite book written on the subject of sales and ranks very highly with my favorite books of any genre. My copy is nearly destroyed. Dog-eared and tattered, filled with underlines, highlights and notes. I received the copy in 1998 at the end of my freshman year in college.

I was embarking on my first job in sales – a summer “internship” with the Southwestern Company. If you’re not familiar, here is your crash course. I drove from Ohio to Nashville, TN in a caravan with about 15 other students for a weeklong sales training with other kids from all over the country. Then we were given a territory; mine was West Memphis, AR. I knocked on doors that weekend to find a room for rent and then I opened my business as a student dealer, selling books door-to-door. I was essentially broke, homeless and isolated from friends and family. This was a situation where I certainly needed to control my emotions.

I learned some of my best life lessons that summer. Nothing builds character quite like having your teeth kicked in over and over again for 8-10 hours a day, in person, at someone’s front door. After one especially taxing day, I was picked up by the police in front of an apartment building. Apparently one of the residents was not amused when I slyly told her I thought the “No Soliciting” sign instead said “No Smoking.”

Throughout the good and bad days in West Memphis, I kept that book with me. I would read a couple passages each morning. I would read a few while I ate my lunch (usually warm PB&J and water on the sidewalk). I would read after making a sale and after getting rejected. This is a practice I’ve continued throughout my entire sales career. Sure, I’ve read other books, lots of them, but I always come back to Og’s wisdom.

If I become overconfident I will recall my failures. If I overindulge I will think of past hungers. If I feel complacency I will remember my competition. If I enjoy moments of greatness I will remember moments of shame. If I feel all-powerful, I will try to stop the wind. If I attain great wealth I will remember one unfed mouth. If I become overly proud I will remember a moment of weakness. If I feel my skill is unmatched I will look at the stars. Today, I will be master of my emotions.

Are you always in control of your emotions? Ever let one bad call or meeting dictate the rest of your day? Have you lost a customer and allowed that defeat to ruin the rest of your week? Or did you crush your goal and then try to rest on your laurels? All of these reactions ultimately waste time and as we all know, time is a non-renewable asset.

Weak is he who permits his thoughts to control his actions; strong is he who forces his actions to control his thoughts.

All Quotations from The Greatest Salesman in the World, Og Mandino, 1968, Bantam Books.