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We devised our own business software

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When the economy tanked, RCKa knew that efficient monitoring of its projects was essential to the practice’s survival, writes director Russell Curtis

We started RCKa right at the beginning of the financial crisis in early 2008 – in fact a little bit before that, but by the time the economy tanked there was no turning back. From past experience working at larger practices we knew that we needed to start the business on a sound footing, implementing robust systems that would be scalable as our workload grew.

In those early days, when projects were modest in both size and fee, we knew that the ability to monitor the time spent on each stage of work would be crucial to making a profit.

Having had some previous experience with programming, we set about creating a series of simple databases to store our timesheets, project contacts, invoices – that sort of thing. In order to ensure that everyone in the office could access the information, we developed a simple web interface that allowed staff to input – and extract – important project information, interrogating these databases quickly and easily.

Over the space of several years, we have added further functionality. The system now handles all of our drawing issue sheets as well as our quality management system; and directors can output detailed PDF reports on the status (fee, expenditure, profit and so on) of all stages of all projects in real time. All the data is interlinked, so that for every contact on the system we can see which drawings they have received, who their colleagues are and when we last contacted them.

It seemed a shame not to allow others to benefit from our work

The system also provides an early warning if fee stages are at risk of losing money, and automatically generates forward projections allowing us to accurately forecast future workloads. Most importantly we’ve built up a huge amount of data of the last few years, which provides us with an invaluable resource when establishing fee levels for future projects.

Although the system is robust enough for our own use, it’s clearly far from being a commercial-grade product. With hours of additional testing and independent auditing it might be, but the practice has neither the time nor the inclination to take on such a mammoth task. Releasing the software in this way would also involve all sorts of liabilities that we are reluctant to take on – including an obligation to provide ongoing technical support.

However, with many hundreds of hours invested in developing the platform it seemed a shame not to allow others to benefit from our work. We therefore made a decision to make the code available on an open-source basis, accessible to anyone who wants to make use of it. While this process is at a very early stage, we hope that, over time, others will contribute to our efforts, with the aim of creating a useful, robust and attractive tool suitable for all sizes of practice.

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