The fallacy of building vs buying

It didn’t happen once or twice, that I fooled myself into thinking that I can build the very thing that I aka my organization needs. Even when I in fact was able to, it doesn’t mean I should’ve done so.

See, when you’re growing an organization and you happen to have your own software engineering team, it’s easy to push more work on them. It’s easy to assume that they can build something in a week to fit the needs of your particular usecase, which will save you a few $thousands/year on a subscription to the 3rd party service. Building your own toolkit is great and is often the right thing to do. But at a certain point, you need to start more thoroughly evaluating the question of – will this investment be sound if I look back at it 9 months from now?

There is a bunch of tools every IT company needs to have tailored to their needs. Scripts, one-off programs, orchestration software capable of dealing with the custom nature of you infrastructure and all that. Then, there is software which appears to be cheap to build and relatively cheap to maintain and extend. But as your organization grows, so grows the needs of that software to fulfill more duties.

Initially you’re happy that you’ve saved your budget a $3k spend on third party tool, by utilizing your in-house engineers who’ve built it for $1k. The misery kicks in, when you get attached to the investment you’ve made in building that piece of software. Your company grows, and you need one more functionality to the original program, so you decide to add it, because you’ve already built the core framework and you won’t kill the project to buy 3rd party solution – current parity of core features doesn’t justify replacing the thing that your engineers built.

And so it goes, week by week, month after month, and ultimately you get to the point where your spend on this single piece of software already matched the pricetag of 3rd party solution. You’ve spent much more time of your engineers, yours, your project managers and product owners than it was reasonable. There was a point where you should have stopped but you haven’t because you couldn’t step back and see what is going on.

I myself am an engineer by heart. I love building things, I love to bring my creations to life and create my own little piece of art.
All that needs to be put aside, when you’re working for a business, you need to focus on what’s best for the company both in the short and long-term. Your ambition is often the reason for unnecessary waste of resources. You feel like it’s beneath you to delegate responsibility of building a tiny program to 3rd parties, because you can roll up your sleeves and build it yourself.

Leaders in startups that have to manage growth with limited resources really need to learn how to disassociate their ego from their decision making process. If you aren’t able to detach yourself and see through things objectively, you’re at risk of wasting the most scarce resource every startup has – time of your engineers. You can’t just put a market value as an hourly pricetag for an engineer who’s been working on your systems for a year. The reality is that if you’re spending an hour of an engineer who’s paid $50/hour, then it’s actually costing you 10 times that number. That’s how much you’re losing not letting them do the work they’ve been trained to do. In that sense, each individual who’ve been trained with your systems is in a sense irreplaceable, when you consider the cost of them being distracted. The opportunity cost is real.
Now consider the lost focus, that you could’ve invested into the things that actually matter. And the perk of using 3rd party solutions, which can sometimes surprise you with great features you didn’t event know you needed til they built and gave it to you.

If you still believe you need to build it, so be it. Hire a bunch of contractors to do that work for you instead of pulling your resources from their daily work which immensely contributes to organization’s bottom line.

In the early days of my career, I’d pick build nine out of ten times we were evaluating a solution. Now, a decision to buy is what I usually end up doing, because when you take into consideration the hidden costs of building, extending and maintaining the solution, it just doesn’t make sense to follow my ambition to build it.

At the end of the day, it’s not my ambition which will be staying long hours on weekends to debug the custom system we’ve built accruing a lot of technical debt along the way.
It’s my people who’ll be dealing with my lack of thoughtfulness and I don’t want that for them.

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