The Importance of Composability in Enterprise Software

In my career, I’ve spent 15 years helping organizations select and implement enterprise software. There’s a pattern that I would see happen over and over – a lack of balance between not enough and too much.

Whenever you buy software, you put a limit around your needs. The upper limit of what the software can do is restrictive. You need to figure out how far you are from that boundary and how long it will take you to get there.

At the same time, people and organizations have a “maximum technology absorption rate”. Change is usually incremental and rarely a transformation, and too much software can be overwhelming. It is a constant tension.

When we had a puppy, we bought a kennel for her to sleep at night. We sat it at the foot of our bed and the dog loved the little space to curl up in.

There is a canine psychological aspect to this. It turns out that dogs are “den animals” – they love small spaces that make them feel safe. Put them in a big empty room and they’ll probably find a corner.

However, the dog has grown and what was once comfortable soon became constraining.

Luckily the kennel was expandable. It was two or three times the size we needed at first, and it had a back wall that could move. As the dog grew, we continued to move the back wall a few inches at a time. The space remained nice and cozy, and we’re not sure the dog ever noticed.

If we didn’t have an extendable kennel, what could we have done? The first night the dog crawled, we would have looked at the few inches between the dog and the wall and thought, “Well, when she hits that, I guess we’re getting a new kennel.” When that time came, we would incur the expense, effort and time necessary to change kennels and get the dog used to the new one.

There are two similarities between this scenario and the software. First, too much software can overwhelm your users. Users like to feel like they’re in control of their tool, and any part of a software package they don’t use is a loose thread that captures both their attention and their desire to feel like they like being in control.

Second, too little software can lock down your organization. If the “back wall” can’t move, you end up constantly switching between platforms. Along with expense, effort, and time, it drains your team’s morale as you lose any sense of permanence. Any urgency to make full use of current tools is also removed as users know the technology won’t be around for long.

When evaluating an enterprise solution, how far are you from the back wall? And is this wall moving? In any healthy organization, your needs will evolve over time, so will the solution evolve with you?

It’s the eternal fight – how do we avoid overwhelming our organizations while not retreating into its entrenchments?

The hottest buzzword in enterprise software these days is “composable”. The promise is that companies can “compose” a solution by putting together elements that are usually provided by the same vendor. This is a change from the tradition, which previously saw organizations build a best-of-breed solution from multiple vendors.

Start small and expand outward. Interact with your provider at a level that won’t exceed your budget or your users, but gives you room to grow and experiment. Your users are part of your organization’s story, and they want both to be engaged by their current capabilities and to know that there’s a larger ground to take them forward.

Microsoft Azure is a great example. There is an amazing depth of tools and services on the cloud platform. I don’t know what most of them do, but that’s fine, because they’re outside my sphere of need. I don’t pay for them and I haven’t signed up with them yet. I have what I need right now, but the functional horizon is so far that I will never reach it.

And that’s the promise of composability: it won’t overwhelm or constrain. The walls move – you can stay comfortable while expanding over time. Your users will thank you for it.

Deane Barker is Senior Director of Content Management Strategy at Optimizely

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Technology Record. To receive future issues straight to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.