Business Agnostic Software – Buy rather than Build

A solution that you can apply to any business at all, is what I might call business agnostic software. If you feel the urge to build such software, think again.  Buy it instead.

Examples of business agnostic software

An insurance company maintains correspondence with the insured.  The company buy’s or subscribes to an email service.  It does not build the email service from scratch.

A bank generates statements, and various notices that the government mandates.  For this, a bank might need a template engine that generates PDF.  Buy that template engine.  The bank itself will have to build the templates for these business documents.

All companies have business processes that they wish to start, track, execute, and end.  This is what BPM (Business Process Management) engines are for.  Buy that BPM engine.  The business can implement its business processes using the BPM engine it buys.

Health insurance companies that are in the Medicare business, receive beneficiary information from the government.  Many rules determine how the company responds to this information.  A company could use a rule engine to manage these rules.  Buy that rule engine.   The company should stick to only implementing the rules.

Wait, here is the simplest example.   Why do you buy a database management system?   You don’t build an alternative to SQL Server, or Oracle, do you?

Why avoid building business agnostic software

The primary purpose of an Enterprise IT shop is to support the business. Learning the business, analyzing it, modeling it, and implementing it, is a significant challenge in itself.  Focus on that.  Master that before taking on other problems.

Business agnostic software focus on more general problems.

Take rule engines for instance.

  • What is a rule?
  • How can rules be combined to produce new truth?
  • Devise an algorithm that can execute 10,000 rules in a few seconds.

An insurance company could use a machine that answers those questions.  Does a health insurance company want to spend time and money on building that machine?  For most companies there will be little value in it.

People spend their lifetimes studying these fundamental questions.  There are PHds galore in rule systems.  Let them build the rule engine. You confine yourself to identifying an effective rule engine, and using it well.

We do build business agnostic software though

I am surprised by how often Enterprise IT shops end up building business agnostic tools.

In my work experience, I have seen home grown solutions to these problems, which are best left to the experts.

  • A web framework
  • An Service Locator/IOC container
  • A rule engine
  • A BPM engine
  • A scheduler

We can never avoid this completely.  Start with management that lacks engineering savvy, throw in gung-ho developers, and mix with institutional inertia.  Less than optimal decisions will happen. So it goes.


Some companies do focus on fundamental problems.

They have deep pockets.  They have the means to invest in fundamental research.  Their business model, their operating ethos, includes such effort.

Their business problems are of such scale and complexity that currently available solutions are inadequate.  They must invent new solutions themselves.

Unix and C came out of  AT&T.  Ericcson created Erlang.   UML came out of research at GE, and IBM, among other places.  Xerox pioneered Graphical User Interfaces, and Object-Oriented Programming.

Ask yourself.  Are you one of these companies? I am confident most Enterprise IT shops would say, no.

Build vs Buy – asking for an engineer

When a build vs buy discussion comes up, a few questions start to rattle around my head.  I suspect this is the engineering side of my brain acting up.

Skills you don’t want

Supporting a business with a computing solution is an intricate dance between several players.

It is analysis of the business problem, large and small-grained design of a solution, construction, testing and delivery of the solution, all enabled by effective communication between people, agile planning and execution.

Which of the above work are you expecting to avoid by buying rather than building?

What skills will no longer be necessary, when you buy instead of build?

A business machine

A person buys insurance from us.  Over the years, as that person and we do business, a lot of information accumulates.   This information is in various media.

  • Paper that we send back and forth
  • Electronic text that we send back and forth
  • Still pictures
  • Moving pictures – video
  • Audio recording

To run our business, we must be able to do the following.

  • This information must reside somewhere.
  • We want to be able to search for stuff in this information.
  • We want to view this information when necessary.

Now, consider a machine that promises this.

  • Here is a box.  The box has a hole.  Drop your information in this hole.
    • Anyone can do this.   My 3 year old niece can do this.
      • This is your information repository.
  • The box has a screen, and a keyboard.  When you want to search for something, ask the question on the screen.  We’ll find and show you what we think might answer your question.
    • Anyone that knows English and your business can do it.
      • This is your search
  • When you decide what you want to look at, the box will bring up that material to you, as you put it in the box.  It will come out of a second hole.
    • This is your view.

If this machine existed, I would buy it.

The interesting question is this. Look at the skills in play.  You only need people that know the business.  And you need the cash to buy the machine.  A guy with a trolley to wheel the machine in would also be useful.  You need none of the drama that we think of as IT.

What skills do you want to acquire, maintain, and manage.  There is your build vs buy decision.

Mistakes you want to avoid

What mistakes, errors, failures will buying avoid?

What mistakes are you looking to avoid?

The analyst gave the developer a table of numbers, which affects a customer’s bill.  The developer discovered that the industry specifies a formula, which generates those numbers.   He used the formula and generated the table himself.   He found that his table and the analyst’s table were different.

The developer asked the analyst to review the tables.   The analyst said she did, and the table was fine.  She was talking about her table.  The developer thought she meant his table.   The developer implemented his table.

The developer had made a subtle error in floating point calculation.    His numbers were wrong.   This led to a small increase in the bill that customers got.  We got wind of it only when the customer complained.

The developer and the analyst built something wrong.  What can you buy that will make their work, and associated error, unnecessary?

Communication problem

When two people collaborate, they will misunderstand each other sometimes.   You can avoid that ubiquitous human snafu only if they never have to communicate with each other.   What can you buy that will accomplish that?

What makes a man a man

We speak to people within and without the organization.   We use phones.  We buy phones.  We don’t build them from scratch.

We communicate via written word.   We buy paper, and pens.  We don’t make paper.   We buy a word processor.  We don’t build a word processor.

We want to maintain a correspondence with people.   We buy or subscribe to an email service.  We don’t build an email server and client from scratch.

We built a web application that accepts a beneficiary’s enrollment application.  We did not buy this application.

What makes the word processor and that enrollment web application different, which caused us to buy one, but build the other?