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The changing face of custom software development

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For many businesses, the battleground for winning and retaining customers has shifted to digital platforms that are able to deliver an experience that is simpler, more intuitive and constantly evolving to user needs, writes Sameer Deans, GM of ThoughtWorks.
This has serious implications for business leaders who are increasingly finding themselves in unfamiliar territory. So much so that IT leaders often find themselves sidelined in a decision-making process that is progressively shifting toward business, product and brand managers.
To determine how business leaders are responding and where their priorities lie, ThoughtWorks commissioned Forrester Consulting to survey more than 200 businesses and IT professionals on how companies are designing, building, and maintaining customer-facing systems of engagement.
The study revealed three main challenges for these leaders: mobile is dramatically affecting developer skills and velocity; the need to scale and do so using cloud infrastructure affects architects and required infrastructure skills; and open source and public cloud infrastructure are affecting IT control points.
As a consequence of these challenges, organisations are turning to custom software solutions that offer the ability to adapt and iterate at pace while providing a user experience that is unique and responsive to needs.
The Forrester study reveals that 82% of respondents believe custom software increases their ability to meet business needs and offers a competitive advantage.
The advantage of custom development is not only in building such unique solutions, but also the ability to deliver enhancements and features more rapidly. This is a philosophy that is embedded within ThoughtWorks, but not one that is yet fully appreciated or adopted at the customer end of the equation.
Custom solutions have the added advantage of introducing process improvements enhanced by automation that packaged solutions cannot necessarily leverage. This provides businesses with complete ownership of the delivery chain by eliminating dependence on improvements from the packaged solution vendors.
The implications for developer teams – whether in-house or contracted – is that they have to possess a wider range of skills. This applies as much to the architecture or language employed as it does to having a deeper understanding of integration into legacy systems, business processes and priorities as well as customer needs and preferences.
This need for polyskilled developers is a trend that is as prevalent in the South African market as it is globally.
And it is becoming more prevalent as the need to present a simple and clear user interface grows – irrespective of whether the data is integrated with internal legacy systems, or drawn from new applications using cloud services.
One should also not underestimate the importance of the business itself having a similar view that cuts across processes and dependencies. This is particularly important in the pursuit of remaining relevant into the future. The pace of evolution in solutions to meet customer needs is moving ahead at breakneck speed and an industry leader can rapidly become a laggard if the foot is removed from the accelerator.
A methodology that has worked well for ThoughtWorks to inculcate this silo-free mentality within customers is to identify a single problem and to develop a process that cuts across systems, business units and areas of responsibility. Once confidence is gained in addressing such contained problems, the business gains confidence in adopting that approach to subsequent projects and areas of the business. You then end up with an organisation that is more geared towards servicing its customers by virtue of the enormous collaboration that happens between various facets of the business.