Is “Homegrown” Software a Derogatory Term within Higher Education?

Industry insights

Overcoming negative perceptions of internal software solutions.

homegrown software
Netta Caligari    Published Feb 21, 2023

The word home.

It’s inviting, familiar, and comforting. But in certain contexts, it can take on a somewhat negative connotation.

This includes in-house software within higher education, often referred to as a homegrown solution.

For the end users, homegrown software (as opposed to vendor or commercial software) helps ensure that the campus community’s needs are perfectly met by the software. 

Even though there may be nothing inherently wrong with the system itself, homegrown software can sometimes be in need of modernization as it frays around the edges with time. And regardless of functionality, there is an inherent mistrust of software that looks old—particularly when it comes to security and stability.

However, those undertones are not always accurate, and plenty of higher ed institutions have mature, modern, secure solutions developed and maintained by their internal IT teams. 

“I think a lot of people use the term homegrown as a synonym to the term legacy. They put all of the negative baggage that they attach to legacy on homegrown because they make the logical leap of faith that every homegrown solution either is a legacy solution, or will become one,” said Rob Carter, middleware architect at Duke University. “But, homegrown automatically doesn’t mean legacy—it can just as easily be applied to commercial solutions.”

Duke University is known for having exceptional in-house software. It’s beautifully architected, and maintained by a large IT team so that it stays vibrant indefinitely. But when it’s appropriate, they also recognize the value of outsourcing. Still, it’s vital that all software solutions live up to their standards, and sometimes that means putting their unique spin on off-the-shelf software.

In his decades-long career, Rob has worked with numerous tech professionals. He believes some of them are abraded by the term ‘homegrown’ because they’ve been conditioned to think of that word harshly – sometimes based on feedback from their CIO or other leadership. But talking with them a little longer often reveals a longing for homegrown (and the control it brings) if they just had enough resources.

“We like to give our users a consistent experience, which sometimes results in us building and maintaining user-facing applications that then interact with the vendor software behind the scenes,” Rob said. “In a way, when we have a sufficient amount of influence over it, some of our externally-sourced software operates kind of like homegrown for us.”

The most important thing to keep in mind, Rob stated, is matching what the team is trying to do—and how they want to do it—with the overall organizational capabilities and goals.

“The default assumption that commercial is always better than homegrown for some is no better than the default assumption that homegrown is always better than commercial for others. There are homegrown solutions that are better than equivalent vendor solutions, and vice versa,” Rob asserts.

“I think there is a lot of good to be said about properly designed, properly deployed, properly maintained, homegrown solutions, and the same can be said for vendor solutions.”

We’ll be sharing additional insights from Rob Carter as we unpack the nuances guiding software decisions within higher ed.

Rob Carter

Middleware Architect, Duke University

Rob has been working in Central IT at Duke in a variety of capacities for the last 35+ years, and has been engaged with identity and access management since before that phrase was in common use.  In his current role as a middleware architect, he’s been involved in the design, development, deployment, and retirement of numerous software solutions, both homegrown and commercial.  When he’s not working for Duke, he’s working for his six cats and four dogs, who are less forgiving taskmasters than any at the University.  He can occasionally be found standing in rivers, scaring fish.

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