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A Build Or Buy Christmas

January 8, 2016

We started last January.

Kids, we had a thought. Instead of buying Christmas presents this year, we’ll make gifts. 

How would that work?

We each draw two names and then you have the entire year to make a present for those people. 

Of course, that’s not the way it worked out. 

I’ve spent my career working for software companies. I’ve worked for large ones like WordPerfect and Microsoft. I’ve worked for small ones like Agile Studios and RESMARK. 

I’ve worked on multiple software projects. The size of the project was not necessarily the same as the size of the company. At Agile Studios we often worked on projects that had budgets of a few thousand dollars and a schedule of a couple of months. But, we also worked on the software that we would spin off into RESMARK. It was a reservation system for the rafting industry. Our project had a two year schedule and a budget of about $1.5M. 

At Microsoft I was part of the massive development team for Microsoft Vista. I also was the Program Manager responsible for a project that retrofitted our older disability awareness framework to the new tools framework. It involved a half dozen developers and took a few months. 

Software costs money. That’s not news to anyone. But, part of the role of a project stakeholder is to determine if it would be cheaper to build a program internally, or buy an existing program. Ironically, building is often more expensive than buying. The RESMARK reservation system, for example, cost us about a million and a half dollars to build, but sold for $10,000. The advantage of course, is that when you build it, you get to put in what features you choose.

It’s not just software projects that need to make a build or buy decision. While I was the Executive Vice President of  Agile Studios we had to decide how to handle our payroll and taxes. Our receptionist offered to help out.

You know, I could just do the taxes and the payroll along with my other stuff.

Do you have training in accounting?

Not really, but it’s pretty simple with TurboTax.

Did you know that if a company fails to withhold the proper amount of payroll taxes, that the company executives are personally liable for any discrepancies? If the court determines that fraud was involved, the principals can even go to jail. I wasn’t willing to trust my freedom to someone using Turbo Tax. We opted to “buy” payroll services from a firm specializing in taxes rather than “building” it ourselves.

Our Christmas build or buy decisions were similar. Our project schedule was eleven months. The budget was whatever scrap wood I had in my workshop plus a modest and the feature set was whatever my kids could think up that I could build in my garage workshop. 


I created trunks for my two boys. The process took months. I build the basic boxes out of 2×2 boards, 3/4″ and 1/2″ plywood.
After building them, I sanded them then painted them and finally added all the hardware. I’m not sure what a wooden footlocker would cost, but the hardware alone was pretty pricey. Ultimately, I may have spent more building my present than it would have cost to buy them. However, I got to include exactly the features I wanted. 
 It was fun to take time throughout the year and occasionally work on the trunk project. I kept reminding my kids that the calendar was slipping by. 

I know, Dad. I’m fine.

Many of my kids were diligent about working on their gifts, but their were some that seemed to put it off indefinitely. It’s not like I was involved with every gift. Christmas morning we had our share of ceramic dolphins and other school projects. But, not everyone planned well. About two weeks before Christmas we had a family meeting. 

Okay, we’ve got two weeks until Christmas. I’ve got time to help any of you with your gifts, but I don’t want anyone coming to me for the first time on Christmas Eve and saying, “I need help with my gift.”

Okay, Dad.

No problem, Dad.

We’ve got it covered, Dad.

Christmas Eve I was in my workshop with one of my kids who was there for the first time.

Dad, I need help with my gift. 

The parallels to software projects made me laugh as I set up my shop tools. There’s an 80/20 principle in project work that say that 80% of the work gets done in the last twenty percent of the schedule. I’m not sure that Christmas Eve qualified as the last 20%, but it wasn’t the first time I’d spent the night prior to a project deadline frantically working to complete the last of the features. 

Fortunately the projects all got completed on time. In fact, some of the last minute projects were the most popular. This Christmas, building was definitely the right decision. 

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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(c) 2015 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

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