For Andrew Brecher, senior vice president of IT at Coventry First, customization was the right answer when he purchased Microsoft's Great Plains accounting software for his organization, a Fort Washington, Pa.-based insurance company.
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His other choices were to buy less expensive accounting products like QuickBooks or Peachtree, but none of those products offered him the customization he needed when dealing with the medical and financial data his company generates.
"You get what you pay for," Brecher said. "We were willing to pay for it, knowing that it would solve a business need." Brecher was among those who debated the merits of customization at last week's Wharton Technology Conference.
According to Sheryl Kingstone, an analyst at Boston-based The Yankee Group, customization can be super costly. "If you go crazy with customization, it could cost four times the license price for a midmarket company."
Wharton event attendee Timothy Levine, IT manager at Earth Sun Moon Trading Co., a T-shirt retailer and manufacturer in Grove City, Pa., said conventional wisdom simply doesn't always apply.
Levine spent more than four years trying to find a way to export data from QuickBooks accounting software to UPS WorldShip, a Windows-based shipping software application -- because his accounting people needed to look at invoices from UPS in QuickBooks.
"When companies build software on proprietary databases, it makes it difficult," Levine said, expressing his frustration about moving data from one off-the-shelf software package to another.
If Levine had spent the money on a customized approach when he first purchased QuickBooks, it may not have taken him four years to find a product that would solve his problems. That, he said, is the opposite of ideal.
"We solved it in a very messy, messy way," he said, explaining how he finally found QODBC, a software package from Flexquarters. According to Levine, QODBC is very slow and cumbersome, but it works.
According to Taylor Collyer, a senior director at Microsoft, industry standards solve this type of integration problem. Collyer defended Microsoft's products for midsized companies, saying that it's "ridiculous" to allege that different packages "don't talk or interact." Collyer claims the answer to this problem is XML, which "enables a lot of the data to be unlocked."
Demonstrating a too-common gap between vendors and users, Levine scoffed at the XML argument.
"When you're running a staff of one-and-a-half people, it's tough to justify bringing someone on staff to program XML," he said. "If we hire someone who programs in XML for $50,000 a year, are we going to see the value?" Levine's answer to his own question was no.
"Small businesses can't afford to do that," he said. "At the end of the day, we make our money selling product."