Mister (Higher) Ed and the Enterprise Software Trail


Universities deserve to lead the way in developing software solutions that fit their specific needs.

By Netta Caligari ∙ Published March 3, 2023

A horse is a horse, of course, of course.


The opening line to the theme song for the American sitcom Mister Ed starts off by exclaiming things (or in this case, a hoofed mammal), are what they are at face value.

But the main character, a loose-lipped horse who has quirky conversations with his owner, is, of course, more than what he seems to the outside world.

In the article Homegrown vs. Vendor Software: A Multifaceted Decision, it was stressed that several important considerations are bundled together when deciding on software solutions in higher education. But it’s also important to understand that there are other implications when deciding your path.

Rob Carter, middleware architect at Duke University, often uses the equine animal as an analogy to what higher education professionals really need to consider with enterprise software.

“Something I’ve said many times before is, when you buy a solution from someone else, you’re essentially hitching your wagon to their horse. As long as you don’t care where you go, or you’re confident that their horse is going where you need to, that might not be a bad idea,” Rob explained. “But if you’re not careful, you can hitch your wagon to a horse that goes somewhere you don’t want to be, and then you have to detach your wagon and try something else.”

“On the flip side, if you hitch to your own horse, you have control over the software, “ he added. But that horse has got to be fed. It’s gotta be maintained. That’s the cost of doing business that way.”

Duke University builds and maintains an impressive suite of in-house software. And if the university decides to implement a vendor product, they are very careful about who they contract with, and the timing of outsourcing a vendor solution.

“By the time we decide to go with a commercial product, it’s pretty clear to us that we don’t have any needs or expectations that aren’t needs for every single organization. Not just within higher ed, but the world – mom-and-pop shops, automobile companies, governments, etc.,” Rob noted.

“And in that sort of situation, there’s a lot of good reasons to consider outsourcing/using a vended solution,” he explained. “What the vendor is going to do in the future is almost certainly going to track with the forces that are driving the decisions you would make if you were doing it yourself. So, there is a very, very low chance that the two are going to diverge in the future.”

But, in my opinion, it should be the other way around. Universities deserve to be leading the way to a solution that fits their needs, be it an in-house or a vendor solution. Software companies would benefit from following the university’s trail and customizing their software to fit the specific needs of the institution. This would offer more viable solutions in the marketplace that don’t disrupt the organization’s tech strategy.

And, if a higher ed institution is having trouble deciding which trail to take, Rob advises organizations to figure out where their competencies are, and how they want to budget resources. It’s a matter of spending money to hitch your wagon to another horse, or maintaining your own horse with care and upkeep.

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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