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"No Customization" Mantra Doesn’t Work Anymore

Rauf Aliev

Lead Software Engineer, EPAM US
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This article was originally posted on hybrismart.com in September 2018. You can read the original article here.

In many projects, I hear the same thing: minimize the number of customizations and stick to out-of-the-box. The rationale is clear: the more things you add or change, the more expensive and complex the further support is going to be. Systems are getting bigger, less transparent, comprehensive and changing the default behavior creates unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects. The cost of errors is increasing too. However, there is a flip side to that, and that is the lack of flexibility and responsiveness. 

There is another trend that we need to take into account: Amazonization. Recently, this great company reached one trillion dollars in value. Amazon has been stifling brick-and-mortars and independent online stores by offering better service and prices. Standard best-practice solutions may not work anymore, because giants will always be certainly out front. Small start-ups will have the advantage of a personalized, custom way of interacting with a customer. Being unique is great leverage to get ahead.

All IT solutions, and eCommerce platforms are not an exception, are aimed at automating and enhancing the business processes you currently have or you need to have. If your business is built with some standard “business template,” you will likely be happy with many packaged solutions, simply because they were made for such companies as yours. However, such businesses are getting to be a thing of the past. In order to survive in this new age, you need to be unique.

Loving diversity, on the other hand, allows us to grow, to understand others in order to better understand ourselves and to evolve. Being different is crucial. Who would want an exact copy of themselves next to them their entire life? The same is with the systems. Can you imagine a world where all human beings are identical? What we see now is a lot of identical stores. Yes, it is a working model today, but what will we have tomorrow?

In the world of the similar-looking things, any bright idea makes you visible. The eCommerce platforms give you some space for that, but, with time, it will stop to amaze customers: your store is no longer better than Amazon. Your solution will be as grey as thousands of others on the market.

Be holistic

Changes are to be implemented across the people-process-technology stack, the golden triangle of change.

Each component of this triangle needs to be aligned with others. The technology stack is inextricably linked to the processes and people. Of course, you can train people to make tools and technologies useful, but you need also to change processes. Alternatively, you need to change the system having the processes and people fixed as is.

Changing the processes is a challenging issue. You may find your processes a key competitive advantage. However, from the IT project manager point of view, changing the processes is something that’s outside the project, while changing the system and training is part of it. That is why many prefer to recommend changing the processes rather than customizing the system.

Configuration and customization?

Configuration is about behavior adjustments while customization is rather perceived as filling a capability gap. This “gap” is actually not simply about “capability;” it also includes differences between business expectations and OOTB features.

A configurable system is an out-of-the-box solution that allows the owner to easily personalize certain aspects of the system themselves, without the help of experienced software developers. The configurable software is flexible, scalable and can be continually shaped to meet an organization’s industry-specific and organization-specific needs. Zero customized Hybris is a configurable system.

A customized system is developed specifically and only for one customer, locking that organization into a static workflow that can only be changed by hiring cost prohibitive engineers to make updates to the system’s code. The eCommerce solution written completely from scratch on top of the framework is a good example of the customized system.

How can we harmonize those two extremes?

My answer is simple: split the system into parts, and categorize the parts, not a whole. Go with “configurable” for parts that don’t make you unique. Customize things that form your competitive advantage.

As utopian as a zero customization implementation may sound, the fact is that most companies customize their SAP Hybris systems – at least to some degree – after the “zero customization” project is started. The truth is the cost of zero customization becomes too high.

In one of my previous projects, for each of the changes, we’re weighing the cost of a change against the benefit. Of course, it is very subjective, but the thing is that such topics were discussible, making the project successful.

For example, Hybris CMS system is not a critical part if your eCommerce system is not going to have hundreds of multi-language multi-domain pages with different layouts and dynamic structure. So, customization is not very important for this component. At the same time, if promotion is your strong suit, then simplifying your current offers to get them better aligned with SAP Hybris out-of-the-box capabilities may not be a good decision.

Keeping control over changes

Hybris eCommerce components are very complex, and even the slightest change may lead to a ripple effect with various corner cases resulting from each other. A good solution architect must be able to assess the risks and impacts, as well as deliver the findings to the business and technical teams in a clear and simple way.

There are many examples where making timely changes is over a fear of risk. A good example is the concept of testing in production. Yes, it is risky, but those who do nothing never make mistakes. The same is with modifying the commerce components of Hybris.

Automate testing

If you go with the customized solution, the complexity will grow every month.

Black boxes

I interview SAP Hybris Solution Architects from time to time. I noticed that many of them look at the eCommerce system as a set of black boxes with some predefined functionality. For some, the boxes are smaller, for others they are huge. They know how to put them together and configure. Yes, in many cases it is a very good approach. However, many of them are not interested in what is inside these boxes. For example, is it possible to replace Solr with Elastic Search? Taking Drools out? Replace the template engine? Centralize the caching subsystem? 

What are your thoughts?