Software development nightmares

Nothing is more frightening than the realization that the software project which your institution started months ago is over due, over budget, and missing critical functionality.

In his article Student information systems, revisited, Chris Dawson reminds us of how important it is for your administrators (and your educators) to understand their system requirements before going shopping for software.  Many educational institutions (particularly K-12) are just now going through the the growing pains that many businesses (and larger universities) suffered through during the 1980's and 90's because process owners and software developers did not know enough about each others needs and capabilities.

Emerging technologies can be seductive -- and the (often misleading) promise of lower costs can easily lead administrators and educators alike to jump at poorly thought-out solutions -- and end up blaming the technology when things don't go well. 

First and foremost, educators (or anyone looking to technology for solutions) should understand that rarely are computer-based systems less-expensive than their human-based counterparts.  What they are is dramatically more efficient -- meaning that you can do more with the same manpower and money.  (This is not the same thing as doing the same amount of work for less money.)  And, as I have argued in the past about hardware, total cost of software ownership doesn't change much from solution to solution either.  However, that doesn't mean that poor planning doesn't take it's toll ... 

In truth, the problems leading to failed projects are two-fold.  To be sure, they lie in large part with the ISV (independent software vendor) who may be quick to underestimate the scope of a job -- especially if they are inexperienced and need the business.  Watch out for any vendor willing to 'cut you a deal' to get in the door with you.  (They may very well be the lowest bidder for a reason.  In the end, you get what you pay for, whether you understand what you are paying for or not.) 

Ultimately, hiring an ISV ought to be taken as seriously as hiring any other employee with whom you intend to entrust sensitive personal information.  To lose or distort (or worse, make vulnerable to hacking) such information could bring down an entire institution. 

To make matters worse, those unfamiliar with computer-based systems are easily misled into believing that all you need to do is take your current paper-based process and turn your forms into web pages and then store the information electronically.  The temptation then is to turn around and print out the information recorded in their nice new 'electronic file cabinet' and put it back into real file cabinets for easy access and back up! 

Far too often, those seeking computer-based solutions for the first time try to convert antiquated paper-based systems without understanding how those systems work and why they are designed as they are.  Since most such systems were developed long ago, the assumption that they are the best that they can be is inherently flawed. 

Before moving to any custom software-based solution, you, your administrators, and your educators, need to spend some time analyzing your current system -- it's strengths and its weaknesses -- from each perspective.  Your efforts should result in two lists.  A list of must-haves and a list of like-to-haves.  Only then can you shop for an ISV armed with the knowledge your ISV will need to build the system that your institution requires.

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