Build versus buy? The solar executive take on software

By: Paul Grana and Canute Haroldson  of Folsom Labs

Build, buy, or build-and-buy? That is the question for blue-chip solar companies. At the S3 Solar Software Summit 2016, MJ Shiao sat down with four C-level solar executives to hear their views on software: Steve Simmons of Direct Energy Solar, Dan Rapp of Vivint Solar, Jonathan Doochin of Soligent, and Brian Kelly of First Solar.

All four companies have internal software teams, and so were understandably defensive after Jake Saper’s skepticism of solar companies pretending to be software companies. However, they acknowledged that the solar software sector was evolving quickly, and that they were constantly evaluating the build-versus-buy question.

As Simmons pointed out, the level of sophistication across the industry is currently more like Salesforce in 1999: “There are exciting things happening, but we are still in the early days of the industry,” he said.

Rapp added that developers have been selective about which problems to tackle in-house. “Would it make sense for us to rebuild Salesforce?” he asked. “No, not really. Does it make sense for us to invest in shade tools? Absolutely.”

Nearly all of the speakers highlighted an inherent tension in working with pure-play software developers. Developers have a desire to keep internal processes proprietary, yet also complain that many software products are built around another company’s workflow. “Early-stage software developers often build around the needs of their biggest landmark customers,” Doochin pointed out, saying this can make the products less useful for him.

Yet on the other hand, solar developers are wary of sharing systems, since it would get baked in to a public-facing software program. “I think we’re all looking for that proprietary competitive advantage,” Simmons admitted. “We certainly built our platform looking to get an advantage.”

In spite of this impasse, everyone was ready to adopt third-party offerings as they made sense. For Vivint, the key criterion is the ability to mesh with its sales work flows. But Doochin said his company is open to ideas. “We’re agnostic,” he said. “If we find a better solution we are 100% ok plugging it in and taking our pieces out.”

Ultimately, the most important aspect of any software decision is how it is used. “Echoing Paul’s points from earlier, the software is necessary but never sufficient, and getting people to change the way they do work to exploit the power of the software is often harder than developing the software,” Kelly said. “But you have to do it.”

Join us at the S3 Solar Software Summit this May 16th to continue the discussion on just how workflows will change as the industry adopts solar software.

Also see:

What the solar industry can learn from the industrial revolution: the S3 Solar Software Summit here

An investor’s take on solar software: The S3 Solar Software Summit here

 

Read more Solar Boot-up articles from Folsom Labs here.

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