Good CAD / Bad CAD
by Tony Richards
Looking for a new computer-aided dispatch and/or records management system? Trying to figure out exactly what you should be looking for? What distinguishes good from bad? We've all heard the stories of computer system disasters, CAD and otherwise, systems that never worked right, that didn't meet the need, with vendors that didn't deliver goods or services.
Like everything else in life, if you are doing this for the first time, you are at a considerable disadvantage in not knowing what to look for, what to look out for, and what questions to ask. Even if it's your second time around, you still likely aren't an expert and the CAD market has probably changed considerably since the last time you looked.
Here's what I've learned in 25 years in this business and having been on both sides of the fence — developing and marketing CAD and records management software and advising agencies on choosing a system.
Generally, a newer system will have fewer features just because it doesn't have as many years of development behind it. Of course, you have to make sure a vendor is selling you a current product, not one that was developed years ago that hasn't been updated in five years. This is one of many reasons why you should get your hands on the software and put it through its paces — and not just watch a salesman go through a well rehearsed demonstration.
Hands on will also tell you and your people how user friendly the software is. As a simple example, some systems today attempt to cram almost everything onto one screen. This results in everything being squeezed into a smaller space. To be specific, consider what happens when your unit status display has room for only 10 units. What happens when you have more than 10? Do you have to scroll to see those additional units? That's not acceptable as standard method of operation for a dispatcher.
Look for a mature system and examine it closely.
These all too common complaints are another excellent reason to ask questions of the vendor and their current customers:
Is technical support available 24 hours a day, seven days a week? One agency told us that if their system goes down after five o'clock on Friday afternoon they go to cards until they can call their vendor on Monday morning.
Assuming a human answers the support line is it someone who can really help you? Many vendors have people manning the support lines who can do nothing more than write down your problem and give you a "tracking number." With others you always get an answering machine and may or may not get a return call. Really.
Are all program updates and "new versions" included in the support program at no additional cost? Can updates be applied without the vendor coming to your site to do it for you (at additional cost). Renaming a product and calling it brand new and incidentally charging current customers to upgrade is not uncommon.
Is there any commitment as to the future cost of their support program? You need protection against a vendor raising your support contract by an unreasonable amount after the first year.
Do they have a users group? Does it actually meet regularly? Are the meetings productive/worth attending? Are user suggestions actually considered in future product development?
Involve Your Users
Because it is very expensive! Because it costs as much as 20 patrol cars! Because it costs much more than its competitors! Be awake. If the salesman deflects cost questions go to red alert! This information should be readily available after you answer a few simple questions. If not, the guy with the smiling face is not your friend.
"We've got this new leading edge CAD product and we'll give you a 20% discount if you'll be our beta test site." What this really means: "We have a new product that doesn't work yet, in fact it's vaporware – it isn't even finished. We're looking for a sucker to pay us 20% less than our ridiculously inflated standard price to endure two years of misery while we try to get this to work. We're willing to promise you anything to get you to sign."
"We're looking for an agency to be our showcase site." What this really means: "There's really nothing special about this deal, but we need a gimmick to make you think you're going to be special."
"Yes." If the answer to every question is "Yes," that likely is a few too many yeses. The reality is that no system does absolutely everything that any single agency would want it to do. Everybody's a bit different. That doesn't mean that an endless series of "sorry, it can't do that" is good, just that you should be wary of anything that sounds too good to be true.
"SuperCAD is capable of anticipating your dispatcher's every move." Question broad, unspecific claims. Ask for concrete examples and don't let the salesman brush you off with vague responses.
"Sure, it's capable of doing that." Be wary of weasel words and phrases like "capable," "has that capability," and "could." Find out if that feature really exists and if it's included in the base product or is an extra cost option.
"It sure looked nice in the brochure." That's you, not the salesman, after you bought a dud. Remember, the brochure is just a few screen shots and a $1,000 investment in printing — it won't dispatch anything.
Do not be misled by the vendor name…nor by how many employees they have. Lots of people does not necessarily equate to a quality product. Quality people make a quality product. More people often means nothing more than more mouths to feed which equates to a higher price.
Stick to the fundamentals. How long have they been in business? How many years of development are behind the product? What is their reputation with their customers?
Unix is the coming thing. Actually, it's been the coming thing for 15 years now. Some vendors base their systems on it and will hype it as a big plus. It's not. Yes, their system may run wonderfully under Unix, but your entire department will be locked into a Unix environment for all your shared applications shared applications. You will also likely be locked into a particular hardware vendor's expensive computer line that requires a costly maintenance contract.
The language the software is written in may seem to be completely esoteric and of no consequence to you. It should be. First, some vendors will not even tell you, calling it a company secret. Nonsense! Are you or anyone else going to go out and duplicate their system just by knowing what language it's written in? What are they hiding? Here's one real life example. A relatively new company advertises a hot new product, glossy brochures, pretty pictures, the works. Skipping the part about how poorly it works, come to find out it's written in Paradox! If you are not a software developer you will not understand the exclamation mark, however, to a developer the idea is laughable. Paradox was big in the 1980's, struggled through the 1990's as newer, more advanced languages came along, and will be completely dead in a few years time. Paradox is not suited and was never intended, even in its heyday, to be used for a large, complex, real time application like computer-aided dispatch.
How would the Paradox issue affect you? With a language like Paradox, you will have a system that will have limitations on how it works and what it can do that will seem unreasonable to you. The vendor will be unable to help you. It will be a slower performer and more likely to have bugs that cannot be eradicated. Worse, when it becomes obsolete and is no longer supported, it will freeze future development of your system. Worst, if your vendor then decides to rewrite in a different language, you will probably be hit with buying the "new product."
What's a good language? These days in the PC development business the big ones are Visual Basic, C++, and Delphi. On big computers people use C++ and even COBOL.
Assuming you don't have the background to ask these kinds of questions, you should find someone who can to help you.
The Final Test
Tony Richards is the creator of RIMS and the President of Sun Ridge Systems, Inc.
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