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How to Buy Custom Programming / Do I need a Custom Program?

By Larry Gordon

Step 1 - The Primary Objective is to Manage
  • No pain no gain! In looking at implementing computer programs in your organization you are talking about you or someone with authority in your organization, taking the time and effort to set up NEW processes.
  • A famous Dale Carnegie saying comes into place at this point: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it
  • That is what computer programs do, they track, measure and relate facts about your company. If it’s payroll, invoices, sales tracking, inventory control, etc. you are looking for the ability for the program to take in data and put out information to you, your customers, and or accountant to measure things and allow YOU to manage things.

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Step 2 - Understanding People & Processes
  • Have a good understanding of how to manage your company (People and Processes).
  • Understand how to determine what is the biggest problem.
  • Have some ideas what might solve the problem.
  • If this is something you are not good at, take a Dale Carnegie Management course. The course I like the best and have paid for some of my employees to take is Leadership Training for Managers. Take a look at it. http://www.kansascity.dalecarnegie.com/

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Step 3 - Pick a Small Problem 
  • Pick ONE problem to solve. Don’t make it your biggest problem, you need a good team before your ready to tackle your largest problem.
  • You are looking for a problem your willing to spend $2,500 to $4,000 for a test. If it works, you are going to have a team that will allow you to grow your company, if not your ok with the gamble and losing the money. (Step #10 further explains the gamble)
  • What is common in the programming business, is to sell you a program to solve every problem you may or may not have (It will get you lunch also.). Don’t be tempted to buy such a program, you understand you got to were you are today by mastering processes one at a time. (Could you tell someone else everything you know and have them get to where you are today in a year? I don’t think so, you are where you are because you learned as you moved forward.)
  • Once you have the problem your going to solve, sit down with the people you trust and determine the possible long term solutions for this one problem. (We are not interested in just putting out fires, we need to put out the fire and make the problem fireproof).

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Step 4 - Can Shelf Software Solve Your Problems
  • Can the problem be solved with software you buy at your local computer store (Shelf Software)? Remember you want a long term solution. You don’t want something that takes your people lots of time and complicated process to get the information you are looking for. If it gets too complicated, it won’t be done. 
    • Will QuickBooks™ or Peachtree Accounting™ solve the problem? They are made to work for all businesses in your town. Anything that is standard for most businesses can probably be done with these programs.

    • Will Excel or other spreadsheet program solve the problem? Excel is a good start to see how to track things, it’s a short term solution that at a later date can be moved over to a custom program. (Remember we don’t want your people spending their time playing programmer, when they should be doing customer service etc.)

    • Are there programs that are written for your specific industry that you can use. Talk to other successful companies in your industry who are outside of your marketing area that you don’t compete with. See what programs they use. If they like the programs they use, talk to both the owner/manager and the people in the office who actually use the program. Also talk to your trade association. Do they have programs they recommend.
      If you are thinking about buying one of the above programs, it might be worthwhile to visit one or two companies that are using it and see the program in use.

                             See --> Questions to Ask the Vendor of the Software

                             See -->Questions to Ask the Users of the Vendor's Software 

  • Do you need a Custom Program?
    • Is your business unique?
    • Do you have unique processes?
    • If your business is unique, you will need to look at custom programs. Custom programs can track difficult processes quickly (if built properly) and report problems and exceptions to the people who should be tracking the process. (“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” - Dale Carnegie)
    • Do you need detailed reports with a one page summary report that points out problems and exceptions on the first page (Exception Report)? If so you probably need a custom program.
  • Make the decision of how you are going to go Canned or Custom.

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Step 5 - What to do if Shelf Software Can Solve Your Problems
  • You will need to put in writing a checklist or other implementation tool so each person understands what they are responsible for in the implementation process.
  • There needs to be processes, dates and the people responsible for them on the list.
  • You or someone with authority in your organization, needs to meet weekly with your people and check the process of the implementation of the program.
  • Once the implementation is in place, there should be a check list of what needs to be done for the this process to continue successfully.

    See --> Sample Check List

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Step 6 - What Qualifications does the Person Need to Write Your Custom Software
(If you got to this point you want a unique solution for you and your company.)
  • The first qualification needs to be a knowledge of how businesses and organizations work. This person also needs to be able to communicate well with you and your staff. Make sure you talk with the person who will be the contact during programming and after programming, not just a salesperson.
    • Tell them your problem you want to solve.
    • Have them come up with possible solutions.
    • Explain some of your thoughts on solutions.
    • You have talked to people who you admired how they understand business and you have talked to people who had no idea how business run. What category does this person belong to.
    • If they can’t communicate during the sales process, trust me, they won’t be able to communicate after the sell.
  • The second qualification needs to be someone who knows how to program in one of the popular database front end languages. You are going to need someone who programs in Microsoft Access (my preference), Visual Basic, or Visual Basic .Net which are the most popular database front ends. (I am presuming for this article that your problem has to do with information that is for internal use of your organization and is not something that needs to be on a web page at this time.)
    • How long has the person been programming in this language.
    • You want a list of the type of programs they have written and then ask them questions about a couple the these programs.  How well to the communicate?
    • Is this their full time job or do they do it on the side. (You want a person who does this full time. They are going to know the software and just as important they are going to be available 9 to 5 Monday through Friday to answer your question.)

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Step 7 - How to find Someone to Write Custom Software
  • Talk to other companies you know and see if they work with a custom programmer.
  • Almost every large city has user groups. Call local universities, junior colleges, and ask them if they have any user groups for Microsoft Access, Visual Basic, or Visual Basic .Net . Do a search with Google for "access user Group" with your city or state. Once you find a group, go to the group and see who knows what they are talking about and who can communicate well (hopefully the same person). Go ask the person if they would be willing to meet with you to talk about your project.
  • There are also consulting companies who can send someone to your office for so much an hour to work on a project. I don’t recommend this process because when you have a problem, that person is going to be working on someone else's job and will not be available to you. You want to build a relationship with a person and continue that relationship as you need new programs.
  • Most companies will come to your place and talk with you about a project for about an hour with no charge. But each company is different so make sure you know if there is any cost involved.
  • The perfect programmer would be someone who you get to know, they get to know you and your company, and the two of you end up having a long term relationship.

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Step 8 - The Design Process
  • After you have picked the person you think you want to write your program and they have given you the free hour to talk over the program, it’s time to take some money out of your pocket.
  • The programmer should be willing to come up with a design that includes the fields you are tracking and the reports you want. It will also allow the programmer to come up with a firm price - usually the price is something with a low and a high number such as “a minimum of 35 hour and a maximum of 50 hours”. The design process will take the programmer 10 to 15 hours for a small project. You need to make sure that once you spend the 10 to 15 hours, you get to keep the design. It should be such that the person who made the design could write the program, or someone else could write the program from the design. If the programmer says they can do it without a plan, my question would be would you want to pick a builder to build your house without blue prints? Something tells me you wouldn’t get what you wanted.

    See -->  An Example of a Design  
  • Once a design comes back to you, it is important that you spend some time without the phone ringing, to go over the plan with the programmer and make sure you are happy with what you are getting. The last thing you or the programmer wants is for you to expect something different from the design. You will most likely want to make some small revisions.
  • Remember if it's not on the design, it will not be in the program.
  • If you like the revised plan, the programmer and the price move forward.
  • If you don’t like one of the above at this point, you will need to move accordingly.
  • Trust me, you are looking for someone who you feel comfortable with and your better off spending a little more money at this time, than having a person or a program that doesn’t solve your problem.

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Step 9 - The agreement
  • Make sure you sign an agreement that explains what each of you will do and how long the programmer will be responsible for the product. It should reference the design above.
  • You need a delivery date and what happens if the program is not delivered by the delivery date.
  • You should not pay for the program (you will need to pay for the design once it is done) until it is installed on your computers.
  • The programmer is going to own the code, but you need an electronic copy of the code, and have the right to edit the code or do anything you want with the code inside your company. Normally a good programmer is not going to let you sell the code or program outside your company.
  • If you have the code and the right to edit the code, you can hire another programmer if something happens to the relationship with the programmer.

    See --> An Example of an Agreement

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Step 10 - Evaluation once the Program is installed
  • Pick one person on your staff who is confortable with computers, and communicates well, to be the liaison for for your staff and the programmer.  Do not allow all your people to communicate with the programmer, because they will be asking the same question over and over.  Your conntact person can become very familar with your people and educate them on how to use the program.  Anything they don't understand, and any bugs that are discovered, they will call the programmer.

  • Test the program immediately. I can’t stress this enough. All programs have bugs and you want to find them in the time that is allowed for in the agreement. This way the programmer can fix them immediately.
  • Does the program do what the design showed it would do? If not get with the programmer immediately.
  • Make sure you work with your staff and also make sure the people who use the program, know how to use it. Make sure they have it on their daily checklist to do what needs to be done on a daily, weekly, monthly basis.
  • As you build your processes and programs you will see possibilities that you will not see at the beginning. It’s an evolving process. The more you do with computers the more you will see that can be done.
  • Is this programmer the right person to hire for future programs you might want?
    • Do you and your people feel comfortable working with this programmer?
    • Are you satisfied with the way the problem got solved, the way the program works?
    • Are you willing to take on bigger problems with the same people?
    • Did the programmer deliver on a timely basis what he/she said they would deliver?
  • If you are not satisfied start over with a new team.
    • This might sound expensive, but not nearly as expensive as having programs and people you can’t work with or communicate with.
    • The only way you are going to succeed with your business is to build the right team. This many times includes having a programmer who can come in and write the program you need on a timely basis

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