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Organic Adoption and the Build vs Buy Dilemma

An exploration of one dimension in the decision to build custom or to use an off the shelf component

The Build vs Buy Dilemma

It Depends, Of Course

Of course, the answer depends on your circumstance. All of the issues listed above, and many more, come into play. Sometimes you can do analysis and come to an answer. Sometimes you use your instincts because who even knows? In every decision, you're making a bet about what the future of your software will be.

For the sake of the argument...

I'd like to explore how the concept of "evolvability" plays into this decision. For the sake of the argument, suppose you have two alternatives: build and buy. Here are some simplifying assumptions:

How Does The New Thing Come To Be?

Since we're pretending both options are identical once they're established, we'll look at how the processes for establishing the two options differ.

Big Bang vs Iterative

In the buy option, the off the shelf component does everything that you need it to do. As soon as it's plugged in, everything works and we're done. But... how do you plug it in? Reading docs, looking at examples and tutorials, trial and error, experimenting. Throughout that process, you have nothing to show for it. If anyone else is working on other parts of the software at the same time, you may not be able to integrate and merge your work, because it still doesn't work. After a long time of saying "yes, it should be done very soon", you finish and merge.

By contrast, in the build option, you can iterate like you would on regular feature work. You take a small step towards it, and you merge. It's demonstrable, and other folks can start using it. Then you improve it more, and merge, and other folks can start using it. This continues until it's good enough to call it done for now.

Organic Adoption

One difference between build and buy is that you can have functional, integrable steps towards the built option, but the buy option is a big bang. This means you can slowly adopt the build option.

Quitting

The trouble with a big bang is that you need to know if it's worth it before you start. The bigger the bet ("I'd like to spend a week integrating with component X"), the more confidence you need that it's worthwhile. In the case of integrating something new, that means we do analysis instead of building a small first step. On the other hand, if the first step is small enough, you can do it without asking anyone or postponing any other work, and then decide if it's worth continuing or if you should quit.

When it doesn't matter

If this is to support the next most important customer facing functionality, then the bigger bet is no problem: "we need to do X, we believe this off the shelf component is the best way to do it, let's begin". However, if you're debating build vs buy for an experimental improvement, it's helpful to get feedback before you commit to the full cost. In the build option, you can build a little, try it out, show it off, reflect on it, and decide if you want to continue. 1/10th of the custom build is demonstrable, but 1/10th of configuring an off the shelf component is often not demonstrable.

The Organic Adoption Principle

Given two alternatives, the one that can be split into smaller demonstrable steps is less risk. For experimental improvements that you don't yet know the payoff for, it is advantageous to pick the alternative that can be split into steps so it's easy to quit (and so, it's easy to start). When the options are building with the tools you have or introducing a new tool or component, often the build-it-yourself approach is easier to split into small demonstrable steps -- and so, it offers a tactical advantage.

Disclaimer

Good tactics are useless without good strategy. If the off the shelf component is the right solution, and you know this is the right problem to solve, then go for it!


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Written 2021-04