A brief exploration of the radical differences in contract software engineering quotes.

Software companies are everywhere these days. If you add in the number of freelancers on contractor sites, craigslist, or the guy your friend knows, they are like grains of sand on the beaches. And they all get the same question every day: “How much would it cost to build an app?”

This is a question that has been addressed on a thousand blog posts, mainly by frustrated engineering firms who struggle to understand how people can ask such a question. They give answers like, “How long is a piece of string?” or “How much does a house cost to build?” These examples are designed to show that the cost of something custom varies wildly based on what the specification is. This, however, is only the most surface level answer to that question. The real cost multiplier, and the hardest part to explain and quantify, is quality.

Quality of development is not simply a measure of your experience (e.g., How nice were your agency’s offices? Did they perform frequent check-ins? Did you feel good about the process? etc.). I’m talking about the actual quality of the code itself – not just the final product’s look-and-feel.

If you are paying a lot of money (relatively speaking) for a custom built application, it should be obvious that it was made with a thoughtful user experience and appropriate graphic design, while not throwing errors or leading to dead ends. Right? Unfortunately no. Even though this should be the bare minimum, getting the basics handled correctly is rare in my experience. As sad as that is, these signs of quality are something that you can shop for. You should be able to see examples of your potential agencies’ previous work or of your freelancer’s portfolio. But you need to test them in real life, as if you were a real user, before committing. Do not believe anything you see in a PowerPoint presentation.

The biggest difference in software design company prices is the quality you don’t see. These are the tougher to articulate items. What I’m talking about here is the commitment to engineering best practices and processes, the quality of the code, and the thinking behind that code.

A decent developer can build many of the same applications that a great developer can – especially your typical business software system. It might even take the two teams the same amount of time to complete the same project. And the apps might be indistinguishable when they launch. Great code, a real belief in process and best practices, and solid team management is not as apparent in the first iteration of a product, but it becomes glaringly obvious in later releases.

As a product matures, new features are added, interactions with other systems are required, and user bases grow in size. These three fundamental points are rarely considered by your average development firm or freelancer.

When you add new features to a piece of software, you will often need to change the database structure or the APIs of the original design. These can result in large scale, breaking changes; meaning updates will break previous versions of the application. This type of work often requires huge time commitments to testing the new versions, providing triggers and fail-safes for existing users, and of course writing all new code. Top class developers on the other hand design their systems from the get go to be extensible. They plan multiple API versions from day one, have contingencies in place for breaking changes at inception. They may have already built your system to be multilingual (even though it is only launching in one language) because they know it would be a huge undertaking to add on later. They will take into account accessibility standards, security, and data optimization.

The ability to interact with systems outside of the application’s native environment is another frequently overlooked engineering problem. Abstracting your APIs with middleware might take an extra day or two at the beginning of your design process, but it might save you months of work down the line when you want to change out a data provider. Documenting the process as you go along, explaining to future developers how this should work, is easy when you’re building it. It becomes a huge task of reverse engineering if you have to do it a year later.

Finally, we should talk about scalability. A well-designed system will have architectural structures in place that are designed to expand or to leverage scalable hardware systems, while balancing the long-term costs of growing. A lesser development firm will have a “cross that bridge when we come to it” attitude or will throw expensive additional monthly hardware costs at a problem that could have easily been avoided in the design process.

Conclusion

The problem with picking a software engineering firm is that they are not going to bore you with the details of their documentation process in the sales pitch. I haven’t even touched on things like automated testing of code, good relationships with distribution partners, well qualified project managers, and penetration testing as a standard practice. The problem is that almost no one is going to include these invisible quality requirements into a specification they put out for bid. Yet, these are the strongest determining factors in the long-term success of any software project. I promise.

Your options are to have a really solid technical lead on your team to evaluate the work being done or to pick a company that does go into these details in their sales pitch. You should be aware that doing things the right way is going to cost more up front, but it will save you double or even triple the time in the future if you do it the wrong way.

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I help cruise lines turn their technical ideas into reality. I'm experienced in all stages of innovation and technology management. I've also been programing since I was 8 years old, and have somehow retained the ability to have normal human interactions. Occasionally I speak about how Industrial Psychology and Neurophysiology can be interrogated with IT and systems management, because I spend a lot of time thinking about the subject, as strange as that may seem.

Are Platform Technologies A Scam?

Can someone actually explain to me what Sharepoint does?  If I worked in Microsoft’s sales department the best pitch I could give is:

“It’s the greatest, most versatile product that has ever existed. You can use it to run any complex system that your imagination could dream up.” This however would only be what I would pitch, not believe.

I’ve asked the question “ What does Sharepoint do?” to Microsoft sales staff, developers, and consultants. It always starts with something like: “Well… it’s, you know, like… a collaboration tool… BUT! It can do a ton of other stuff too”.

And that is the best answer I’ve gotten.

I’ve asked the same question of SAP vendors, Microsoft Dynamics consultants, and IBM Watson Cloud experts. The answer is always some amorphous, borderline ridiculous answer consisting of “well it does a lot of things” and “it greatly depends on the user”. This was not me asking rhetorical questions either. I was not trying to be glib, or overly clever, or even to pull some sort of #iamverysmart coup de grâce. I was trying to articulate what I do for a living by standing on the shoulders of “giants”.

You see, my company builds a “platform as a service” (roughly) type product as well. Something that could be more than one thing to more than one person. I struggle constantly with explaining that our product is better than anything else on the entire market. This is not a brag, nor a marketing ploy – but only because what we do is so niche that only 100 or so companies in the world might care. And that is not the game IBM, Microsoft, and SAP are playing. They are ultimately the owners of your software. Sure the configurations, the modifications, and the custom programming on top of these platforms is yours, but if they take the platform away, or stop supporting it, what do you really have left? It’s even tougher in “the cloud” business because then if your subscription runs out you’re dead.

I recently made a prediction to a friend who was starting a project with IBM. I warned them of the potential lock-in problem by making a prediction something along the lines of “They are going to tell you they can build it quicker and more effienctly with IBM Watson Cloud. No project ever runs perfectly, and when you finally step in to set things straight, you will find out you have zero leverage. They will simply say you are more than welcome to fire them, because they know you would have to build everything over from scratch”. My predictions were to no avail. No one ever gets fired for hiring IBM. And guess what happened? The only upside is that I get to say “I told you so” a little more often.

There is hope! There are other ways that platforms can be useful but also safe. One way is to use an open source platform, one that if at worst comes to worst, you can fire all your consultants and hire new ones, and the platform is still going to be around.

This is a little tougher with very niche enterprise products like ours, but we’ve done something a little different to combat my lock-in loathing: Our  products are OWNED by our clients. We sign a three year, non-exclusive agreement with our clients for support and maintenance,  and a traditional license fee is baked in. They get all the source code, and agree not to resell it. But if we don’t perform, or our clients want to go a different way, they get to keep the software and build on it themselves. We earn our right to be at the table by being the experts in a system we designed, working with their developers, adding new features, bringing our industry expertise to the conversation, and hundreds of other small bits of value. In this way we hope to be at the top of the renewals list in three years.

The idea of someone taking your software away from me is abhorrent. If your car company one day sent you an email saying that you now had to upgrade your fuel tank, and there was going to be a new subscription service if you wanted to keep using the same type of gasoline, you would riot in the streets. The model of software is not what is wrong here, what is wrong is the lock-in. Vendor lock-in is amoral. If there is no ability to keep something running, and there is no TRUE data portability option, then you are basically being extorted.

I get that as a business you are trying to maximize profit. I try to do the same thing. However I want to my product and my company to seen as sticky because we are valuable, and not because we would just be too painful to get rid of.