By Renée Magriel Roberts
Long ago in a galaxy far, far away I was not a bookseller, but a VAR (value-added reseller) for AT&T. Our company designed automated accounting systems for retail/point-of-sales, as well as a wide variety of vertical markets. We modified standard accounting code, created comprehensive automation and transitional accounting plans, and provided not only hardware and software, but also ongoing training and support. The Force was with us, but we got to see the Dark Side of automation on more than one occasion.
When I looked at Monsoon automated pricing software in my last article (December, 2005 - http://www.americanaexchange.com/NewAE/aemonthly/article.asp?f=1&page=1&id=320) in AE Monthly, it was not only from the point of view of a bookseller and potential buyer, but also from the hard knowledge of being in the sales and development sides of the software business.
The Monsoon article received quite a bit of feedback from fellow booksellers, so I thought it might be useful to expand on some of the principles of good automation which I suggested in that piece. When I buy software there are things that I look for, both in the product and in the company from which I am purchasing.
First of all, I never, ever, pay a programmer to create custom software for me. Unless you are a programmer yourself, and completely capable of both understanding and taking over the evolution of a product, just skip this route. There are plenty of standard software packages, readily available and either free or inexpensive. Hiring a programmer (either an individual or a company) is tantamount to putting your entire business into the hands of a stranger who does not wake up in the morning with your best interests at the top of the list.
Take, for example, the sad experience of Global Book Mart, as quoted in the IOBA book site (www.ioba.org):
"In August of 2000, we learned that owning your equipment and owning your proprietary programming does not necessarily afford protection from unscrupulous parties. The computer programming firm retained to perform work on GBM demanded that we pay them approximately $187,000 which was not provided for in our contract, or in the alternative, to relinquish to them a controlling interest in GBM, or they would commandeer our equipment (which was physically housed in their facility to have a direct T1 connection), programming and data.If you want to be in the software business, YOU have to either be the programmer, or be as knowledgeable as the programmer. YOU have to have physical control over your servers, your applications, and your data, unless you feel that these things are expendable and/or are completely protected, both legally and physically.
"These same programmers used our equipment to pirate the GBM database and bookseller data for use on a website they registered, http://www.bookcrawler.net which included the use of all of our proprietary code and copyrighted materials, with the exception of changing the name. We were even told by one of these parties that should GBM booksellers not be willing to contract with their new site, these programmers intended to purchase inventory and duplicate the efforts of booksellers. We consulted our attorney and notified all of our booksellers of these events on August 10, 2000. Within 2 hours of our notifying our booksellers, the programmers physically unplugged our servers and severed communications...."
Next, let's talk about what kind of software to use. I never use non-standard software and I try to avoid using software that has just come out on the market, unless it is an update of a product that I already have. I like my software to have all the bugs worked out of it --I do not like being used as a guinea pig. Software development is not an exact science, but a process of continuous improvement and evolution, as we can clearly see from the good and not-so-good versions of Windows.