Accounting software source code presents consulting opportunity

Modifying source code in accounting software applications has emerged as a strong opportunity for accountants who want to be involved in technology consulting but may want to stop short of reselling or implementing systems.

There is much confusion in the business community over the availability of source code in popular accounting software products and over other issues associated with modifying the software to meet users' special needs, says Richard Morochove, a Toronto Canada-based technology consultant and columnist for PCWorld magazine. He makes that point in his latest column for that magazine, which is suitably entitled: Tech at Work: When Off-the-Rack Software Doesn't Fit.

He notes that small businesses running "off-the-rack" accounting software -- that is systems that are pre-packaged for general market use and are not extensively modified when implemented -- can be quite satisfied with the software until the businesses develop new special requirements. Then, he warns, "Using a packaged application can be like wearing a jacket with sleeves that are uncomfortably short."

Examples of how a small business's operations may go beyond its packaged accounting application's capabilities include dealing with customers in a distinctly different way or offering more options in products and services than most of the competitors in their industry offer.

While off-the-rack accounting applications are typically designed to allow businesses to run operations in much the same basic ways, it's a different story when the end user business makes a part of its operations distinctive or unique. To make the system workable when the business has special methods can require modifying the system's source code.

But, according to Morochove, while some business accounting applications claim to be "open source," accessing the code and adjusting accounting systems can require paying additional, unexpected fees to the vendor. "Applications for which source code is available should not be confused with open-source software," he warns.

For the CPA providing technology expertise to their small business clients, this means there's an opportunity to advise on just how available the source code is in the packages being considered for purchase, and to later help modify the software as the client's requirements change. Morochove notes, "Modifying the source code for an accounting application requires more technical knowledge than installing a packaged application. You may need support from a contract programmer or experienced consultant."

In his full-time work, Morochove advises businesses on technology implementation issues, but does not resell any specific products. He is well-known to some CPA technology consultants because he has been a featured speaker at annual conferences of what is now the Accpac group of Sage Software.

Richard Oppenheim, a certified public accountant and head of the Oppenheim Business Group in Denver, agrees that open source code issues are a critical consulting area. .

"Open source code applications are an important part of the computer landscape and need a proper evaluation when making computer decisions. While open source code licensing has no cost, open source computing is not 'free'." Oppenheim wrote for in an article entitled "Pros and Cons of Open Source Code Accounting Software."

To be sure, his article dealt primarily with open source code accounting applications and operating systems, developed by public user groups rather than the issue of the source code available in pre-packaged solutions. Just the same, the article notes that open source code accounting applications are highly preferable over typical off-the-rack "paid for" accounting applications.

However, Oppenheim also notes that open source code can have a negative side, and urges small businesses considering using open source code accounting to first ask themselves: :

  • Do you have technical staff or will you rely solely on outsiders?
  • Does the staff have the time and resources to learn the new application?
  • What resources will be needed to convert your existing data?

Written by John Covaleski.

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