Why Do Software Projects Take So Long?

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In the time is takes to purchase and implement a company’s software systems, an infant can become a first grader. Degrees can be earned. And a lot of money can be spent. This is one more reason why people find software so maddening.

The classic ERP implementation, which many companies dove into in the 1990s, is a huge endeavor that can last years for even the most tech-savvy companies. As Cynthia Rettig wrote in an October 2007 MIT Sloan Management Review article, ERP systems are “massive programs, with millions of lines of code, thousands of installation options and countless interrelated pieces….they introduce so many complex, difficult technical and business issues that just making it to the finish line with one’s shirt on is considered a win.”

More often than not, studies have found that the original scope is not achieved, and it may take years to optimize the solution so that it delivers real value.

Lengthy implementations have become a sore point for software buyers. Companies and governments often see large software projects as a nuisance. There has been a backlash against the big, interconnected, and costly-to- implement applications. Executives no longer readily accept big dedicated teams working on a project.

A few years ago, you may have seen the cartoonish billboards that say “Down with big ERP.” The ads are part of a campaign begun in 2009 by, ironically, one of the largest ERP software companies, Infor. Sensing the negative turn against large software implementations, the company sought to differentiate itself from its large competitors SAP and Oracle.

In launching the campaign in November 2009, Infor’s then-CEO Jim Schaper said: “Obviously our industry hasn’t done the greatest job serving their customers. Software implementations have become disruptive. They’ve become known for over-budget and seemingly never-ending implementations, increasing maintenance costs every year, and forcing customers to upgrade or exchange software when it wasn’t advantageous or economical to do so. In many cases, the ‘software experience’ has been anything but a good experience.”

Why does it take so long? Software is the result of converting information – human thought — into computer instructions. The “information” could be as simple as a mathematical formula, or as complex as the mind’s sequential thoughts and logic. Much of the time is spent understanding what the user wants and how to convert it into business rules that a computer can apply. Large blocks of time are also spent testing the software code to make sure it does what it was intended to do.

Another reason that projects take so long is that the software must fit hand-in-glove to your business process. Remember, the software knows nothing about your business. It is told by its lines of code to perform certain calculations and transactions using data you provide.

So in a sense, you are building a bridge.  On one side is what your enterprise knows about its processes, data, and transactions.  On the other side is software code — some of it is ready to take what you have and run with it, some of it is at odds with or irrelevant to your needs.  Success will depend on maximizing the former and minimizing the latter.

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