Sunday, May 10, 2009

Custom software development is really better than complex configuration?

Another week in Mexico City, and nothing chaotic or remotely strange (by Mexico standards) happened. Life is heading back to its usual modus operandi. Offices have thermal imaging cameras at their entrances to catch suspected flu carriers, but traffic on the streets is back to its chaotic self and everyone is happy that this signifies a return to normality.

As for my current project with the large multinational insurance company, things are getting interesting. The team has entered an iterative 'construction and validation' series of development 'sprints'. The Case360 product is doing exactly what it should: providing a flexible platform for rapid development of process and document management solutions. Its nice to know that the messaging I put around it from a product management and marketing perspective while in the company was really true! I have to hope that Global 360 manage to keep some level of focus on the product in the future, since it really is a great technology.

Some interesting facets of using a product of this type, which allows production solutions to be configured without coding (beyond a little script here and there), are:

(a) how fast you can put skeleton solutions together that you refine over a series of iterations

(b) what a waste of time documenting and formally designing a solution can be

(c) customers start to think this is so easy they can do it themselves

The power of a software product that allows configuration of meaningful solutions, based on its templates and best-practices, also carries some risks. The major one is (c). A deep understanding of what the product offers, and how all the available pieces fit together in a usable and maintainable way is required by the consultants doing the work. Otherwise the solution becomes a series of disconnected and confusing components for the end user to navigate (how many of you remember Lotus Notes applications?). And some complex requirements, though possible to meet, require some serious thought, prototyping, rework, and occasionally coding, that can be hard for a customer to comprehend.

Its strange to me that customers are often willing to accept the opaque nature of custom software development if the whole solution is based on this. But if a solution is largely configuration and clever reuse of templates, anything complex is looked at with contempt, even though that the final solution is far more manageable than most custom software. There's no pleasing some people!

A post from the Improving It blog


Joe Stewart said...

Phil: good to hear that Case360 implements the case management ideas you worked on years ago at Tower / Vignette. Not sure you are aware, we released Vignette Case Manager (built on Seraph) and it works great. The observations you make in this post ring true to me:

quick to implement & easy to upgrade
document ahead of time? don't bother
clients do it themselves, alone.

We're pretty happy with what we've implemented and our customers are slowly digesting it and getting good at it!

Phil Ayres said...

Hey Joe (aka 'testing it out').
I remember Vignette Records and Document Server very well. I was unaware of 'Case Manager' as a standalone product, although I'm guessing it took the really useful parts of the product, hiding the complexity of the records piece.
I would suggest that both Case360 and Vignette (RD / CM or whatever) have their own distinct advantages that match specific customer requirements. If some smart person could merge the two (forgetting the many overlaps), I believe that there would be an unbeatable solution. Since I'm not tied to either anymore, good luck to everyone trying to sell them!

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