Buy vs. Build

5 October 2015

I’ve recently moved and have begun to furnish my apartment. As I sleep on my bourgeois self-inflating air mattress, I debate whether or not I want to purchase a more permanent bed. The pallet aesthetic excites me, and I’ve thought about building one. But would the effort and resources needed be worth it?


In the case of my desk, this was the case. I wanted something simple and sturdy, so the one I constructed fit the bill for nearly half the cost of purchasing one of similar quality. But this was not the case for my dining table and chairs. To build these, I would’ve not only spent a copious amount of time, but a larger sum of money than simply buying them at Ikea. Balancing cost and benefit is nothing new. The concept, though, is often misconstrued by many professionals.


In the information industry, many WebEx meetings are spent debating whether or not to buy new software, upgrade existing platforms, or build something new. Like anything, there are pros and cons to each avenue. Often, financial cost is a main driver. It may be a large upfront investment to buy new software, but the amount of human resources needed to develop it may be more expensive than the investment. Other times, functionality and support are drivers. The latest technology is often riddled with bugs, incompatible with other systems, and can require a good deal of training to get users up to speed and functional. So do we buy or build new technology?


Personally, I’m a DIY-advocate and supporter of corporate insourcing. The product is often better, as the on-site team can more easily communicate with stakeholders to ensure the various requirements are met; the time to produce is often shorter, as the local talent may be quicker at aligning tasks with objectives; and sometimes even cheaper as one talented employee may carry the work of several contractors. Insourcing development can be cheap, fast, and good. But is it cheaper, faster, and better? There are times when this isn’t practical. There may be no local talent. There may be external benefits to outsourcing—public relations, issues with benefits, and even attitude. But these aren’t the only options. There could be insourced-outsourced hybrid solutions. Or maybe the need isn’t really there…


It’s difficult in an age where the information industry is characterized by its technology. As a whole, the industry has a technocentric view, one where information and technology are so intertwined that they become tangled. Unable to fix the knots—let alone identify them as such—we have a default response of building or buying new technology in hopes that it will remedy an information issue. This scenario is not unique to one industry. Using a hammer to fix all problems is widely adopted across several sectors and professions. The question is not “do we buy or build?” but a series of three:


Does a problem exist?


If so, what is the source?


What are six solutions to the problem?


Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, once said that he tries to think of six impossible things before breakfast. If one guy can think of six impossible things before he starts the day, surely we can devise a few solutions. We may not need to buy or build. We need to think.