The build vs. buy guide

The complete guide for enterprises building custom products, buying software, or customizing off-the-shelf application software

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Case study: How a buy morphed into a build

The company

Even though Devbridge is a product development consultancy, operationally, we use both built and bought software. Many of our operational tools are licensed (e.g., HR, accounting). We built the Team App for people working across our geographies to share pictures and social posts with one another. We also created the PowerUp application to foster transparency within our organization and our clients, sharing details of active sprints, backlog, time entries, and more. This application delivers project health reporting to CIOs tasked with an agile transformation actionable insight across a portfolio of agile enterprise projects.

The need

We licensed software to track time entries and billing. The product aggregated data into client invoices and PowerUp. As the volume of the data grew within the system, performance became a real problem. Customer support revealed we were the largest user of the system and an outlier in their customer base. API calls failed. Page loads took up to ten seconds. The product’s future roadmap and application architecture were unlikely to meet our growing needs. Compounding these issues was the increasing cost of ownership. Each additional consultant at Devbridge required a license to track time. With 50% growth year over year, long-term licensing costs caused concern. We needed to explore our options.

The approach

We began by investigating SaaS products, which included defining the ideal feature set to measure against the current product and other options.

Buying: Evaluation criteria

  • Projected headcount accounting for the growth over the next five years

  • Feature parity replacement cost

  • Time to deploy feature parity

  • Benefits of build path outside of immediate performance issues

  • Costs to build custom features

  • Ongoing maintenance cost

  • Opportunity cost in dedicating team members to this initiative vs. working on billable client work

After evaluating twenty-seven off-the-shelf options, we narrowed the list down to four products. These finalists all included solid APIs, supported multiple currencies, allowed timesheets to be locked, and generated invoices—all non-negotiable features. 

In tandem with our purchased product exploration, we ran a Lean Requirements workshop internally to estimate the duration and cost of building bespoke. The team outlined mission-critical features driving benefits beyond current market options.

Building: Evaluation criteria

RequirementsProjected outcome
Customizable workflows for users needing to add timeAn easy-to-use experience leads to a smoother onboarding of resources and better data hygiene. Users are better incentivized to report entries while the context is fresh in their minds.
Control over the product roadmap and underlying architectureAs the business evolves and priorities shift, editing the time tracking workflow and new features implementations need to be handled quickly.
Integration with Jira cloudThe ability to quickly marry delivery metrics (e.g., story point velocity, defect rate, backlog size, etc.) with actual billable time spent working provides a strategic advantage in reporting transparent results to clients.
Ownership and access to raw, underlying dataExposing the data to additional reporting tools (e.g., Power BI, Excel, etc.) in the ecosystem presents new opportunities to inform the organization of key performance indicators.

The outcome

After careful analysis, Devbridge opted to build a custom solution to replace the incumbent. To orchestrate and aggregate the build, we created a mid-tier layer that tapped into the services offered by all of the products and SaaS providers needed to aggregate the data.  Using an agile approach, the first version of the product dubbed “DevBooks” was successfully released to five hundred employees in less than four months. The product featured a scalable, modular architecture that allowed the product to scale with the unique needs of our business and volume of data. Creating an extensible microservices layer exposed data and business process logic from our accounting software, Atlassian JIRA, PowerUp, and DevBooks provided Devbridge with a new standard of transparency and accountability.

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