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Build Vs. Buy: A Dangerous Lie

IT's eternal debate sidesteps the complexities of a fragile talent ecosystem and creates a vicious cycle that ensures project failure.

About The Author: The author, a senior IT executive at one of the nation's largest banks, shares his experiences under the pseudonym Coverlet Meshing. He has spent the last two decades in the financial services sector, picking a fight with anyone who doesn't understand that banks are actually software companies and need to invest in engineering as a core competency. His cheery outlook and diplomatic nature are rarely reflected in his writing. Write to him at coverlet.meshing@ubm.com. Follow him on Twitter: @CoverletMeshing.


There are no good "buy" options. Period. I'm not saying there aren't any good products out there. There are. But given the complexities of fluid business conditions and the peculiarities of the internal processes that support them, the term "off the shelf" is a marketing gimmick.

"Buy" is never just "buy." It's actually "integrate." So is "build," which means they both require similarly skilled engineering talent. Therein lies the dilemma.

Culturally the word "buy" in large IT shops is a not-so-subtle signal of disinvestment in a declining, increasingly commoditized function/department/division. In a field that has grown sensitive to short cycles of obsolescence, that signal creates a powerful, self-perpetuating downward spiral for top engineering talent -- an exodus of ambitious hackers, ever-vigilant about remaining relevant.

The space in decline experiences the opposite of gentrification. The allure of someone else's "build culture" sucks out all the talent that matters, leaving behind non-technical project managers (the overzealous and process-focused) and technical order-takers (under-motivated second- and third-tier engineers). In the Mortal Kombat vernacular, that combo leads to a fatality because that diminished internal team simply can't deliver what the business thinks it's getting "off a shelf."

[To hear about how financial firms are managing their complex data architectures, attend the Future of the Financial Services Data Center panel at Interop 2014.
You can also REGISTER FOR INTEROP HERE.]

Note that I can't stand those three words: off the shelf. They're classic marketing misdirection, implying, "What could be simpler? You have a can opener, right? Well, we sell cans!" Mmmm… deeeelish!

The problem, of course, is that the flight of engineering talent from your "buy" organization means that you don't have a can opener. If you're lucky, you have a hammer, and it's somewhere out in Chennai. Most orgs-in-decline don't even have that. They just have to learn to eat the can.

Enter senior management

The decline plays out predictably. That ripe smell of flop sweat, even before the buy engagement starts, causes senior management to overcompensate and hire an army of external professional servicers. But it's already too late because the home team is no longer strong enough to support those occupying forces.

Ever-diligent about project optics (and their own career paths), senior management pivots and starts talking about the need for talent upgrades. Hilarities ensue, because it was their framing of the space as a commodity function that essentially caused its accelerated decline -- a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Read the full article on InformationWeek.

The author, a senior IT executive at one of the nation's largest banks, shares his experiences under the pseudonym Coverlet Meshing. He has spent the last two decades in the financial services sector, picking a fight with anyone who doesn't understand that banks are actually ... View Full Bio
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