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A Developer’s Uphill Journey From Custom Development to Software Vendor

Jonathan Cogley: From Custom Development to Software ISV

February 26th 2009 | Jonathan Cogley

From Custom Development to Software Vendor: A Developer’s Perspective

Every software engineer dreams of the day when he can stop working on those awful Test Process Specification reports (the TPS reports made famous by Office Space) and build his ultimate product, sell millions of copies and live in the Bahamas-or at least a moderately priced condo in a major metropolitan city!

In the last quarter of 2005, Thycotic Software started on this journey.  The bulk of the company’s business was in a successful custom development consulting practice but the sights were set on building a base of product-driven revenue.  The logic leading to this decision was something like this: “We build great custom software for our clients; therefore we should be able to build a great product and sell it.”

The product veterans can stop laughing now. As we learned, there are many differences between these different worlds of software development.  Secret Server, our first off-the-shelf product, would teach us new things about building software: choosing features; support calls with the general public; and how to set new records for daily caffeine consumption.

What are the typical characteristics of custom development?

  • The software caters to a particular business need.
  • It’s time-sensitive due to a market opportunity, budget or fiscal cycle.
  • You have a limited set of users.
  • Users are frequently mandated to use the software.
  • Aesthetics are typically the lowest priority.
  • Stability is often negotiable as long as there is a workaround.
  • The deployment environment is well known and can often be controlled if necessary.

This is the typical world of the corporate developer-ugly applications with aggressive time lines, and very forgiving users.  How well do these traits relate to the world of the software vendor marketing to the public at large?  In many ways, they don’t.  Our team quickly started to notice the differences as the project got underway.

Figuring out the Customer Requirements

First, when requirements were unclear, we had no definitive customer who could give us input.  A large corporation might enlist focus groups of potential customers to understand wants and needs, but for a small team, this option is costly in both time and resources.  This forced us to generate the customer requirements internally, which basically meant guessing.

You have control of the requirements!” noted Bryant Smith, a Secret Server developer, when discussing the increased burden on the team to define the feature set. Some developers may feel empowered by this control but it is a dangerous game since the chosen features, their value, and their usability will determine your sales and ultimately the success or failure of the product.

How can we bring customers back into the loop to make these decisions easier and relevant to their real world needs?

Next week’s blog will answer this question, and reveal how aesthetics affects the quality of user experience.

Jonathan Cogley is the founder and CEO of Thycotic Software. Test Driven Development (TDD) is the cornerstone of the Thycotic approach to software development and the company is committed to innovate TDD on the Microsoft .NET platform with new techniques and tools. Jonathan is an active member in the developer community and speaks regularly at various .NET User Groups, conferences and code camps across the US. Jonathan is recognized by Microsoft as an MVP for C# and has also been invited to join the select group of the ASPInsiders who have interactions with the product teams at Microsoft.

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