The Consultant’s Story originally appeared in the Packet Pushers Human Infrastructure Magazine, a twice-monthly newsletter about the human side of working in IT. You can subscribe for free here.
The team is gathered around the table wearing old trousers, sneakers, and ‘free’ t-shirts from a wide range of vendors. They drink the stale, bulk-buy instant coffee from the kitchen. The discussion includes a fair amount of resentment at the lack of pay rises or bonuses.
The managers wear worn suits with cheap leather shoes, pretending that they are important and valued. In review sessions, it’s clear they work hard, but there isn’t enough time to cover all the work. They aren’t the best people I’ve worked for, but they care about the company in a “want to keep my job” kind of way. I’m not here to judge whether their work is useful–that’s for management specialists.
I think back to my walk through the car park as I arrived. Older cars, mostly second hand, looking well maintained but still a little tired.
I’m a consultant (hired directly over the Internet because recruitment fees are expensive) to review the proposals and offer advice about a major purchase. I’m here to help fit a project into the budget.
There have been a number of network failures over the last year. The budget has been sliced with a spreadsheet, resulting in a made-up number of dollars available for ‘solving the problem.’ The number has no basis in reality.
A quick review of existing infrastructure highlights long-term under investment in the network. Physically, the network is less than 10 years old but fear of failure means that the devices haven’t been updated since installation. No one can remember why they bought the equipment they have, the cabling isn’t right, and the level of networking capability is narrow. They know what they know, they don’t know what they don’t know.
The resellers have been here for the last two days, pitching their solutions. It is immediately clear that reseller competence is limited to a single vendor because they don’t have the budget or available staff to expand. Any questions about other vendors lead to puzzled looks. Clearly, they don’t bother to learn what the competition is doing; they have one vendor for networking, and that’s it.
Any moderately complex questions are noted and will be answered later because the person who can answer that isn’t here today. Turns out, there is only one person who can answer the question anyway because the reseller has a small networking team, say less than five people.
All of the proposals are basically the same. Same vendor, same products, and roughly the same design. When asked, they admit that they have ‘engaged’ the vendor who produced the design.
So we have three identical proposals from resellers that were produced by a single vendor employee who has a limited knowledge of the actual solution but ‘approved’ the same design for each reseller.
During phone interviews, it’s easy to see that the resellers don’t really understand why the specific products were chosen or why the solution costs so much. They’ve simply taken the vendor document and copie/pasted into their own proposals.
Just like last time, none of them realize how obvious this is.
The reseller employees have become friendly with the team over the last few years. They don’t just sell networking, they sell anything that the customer needs in the IT arena. The relationship might be a little too cozy and the reseller is taking advantage of poor leadership by the managers, who are too tired and busy to care much.
Everyone is upset when I ask uncomfortable questions, clarify logic, and challenge assumptions. The ‘preferred’ reseller starts to complain that solution is the best available. The managers are getting excited thinking they can use the disruption to drive a better price. They are supporting me while their own staff supports the reseller.
The reseller can see the deal coming unstuck as I highlight the hugely over-specified hardware in the design. Of course, the reseller points to the vendor who created the design and says it wasn’t them.
The sales rep starts to panic and makes an attempt to undermine my position. He hasn’t done his homework and isn’t aware of my background or why I’ve been brought into the process. The managers finally spark into life and gently point out that I’m here to help evaluate the solution and get the best result for them.
I ask the reseller people if they understand the requirements and the solution. Of course, they say they do. So I drill in to the decision-making process to understand the justification for unnecessary hardware and software.
The usual responses come out: quality, trust, future growth, flexibility, long lifecycle. This company doesn’t need those things: it’s starved for funds and just needs to survive.
The Final Phase
I’m in the final meeting with the managers. The process has to be wrapped up this week and a-decision-must-be-made.
All three resellers on the short list have offered the same solution from the same vendor. I discuss the business reasons why this happens. I explain the vendor has enormously over-specified the solution because that’s standard practice. It’s not malicious or likely intentional but all vendor designs inherently lean into high-value solutions, and most vendor employees lack the field experience to rightsize their designs.
The solution will work but the team will struggle to cope with extra technology that isn’t necessary or relevant.
The solution costs three times more than budget available. Something has to give.
I’m asked for options. I’m prepared for this. I look down at my list.
I recognize that the team wants to stay with the trusted vendor because that’s what they know. It’s going to be hard to persuade them to change for fear of losing skills and what they know. The reseller is a trusted party and my advice isn’t what they want to hear. Managers just want this to go away.
I shrug my shoulders and recommend biting the bullet on the cheapest proposal. There are three likely impacts:
1) Cut back to 60% of the proposed solution, or about twice the budget available. The vendor expects it will get the deal via one of the resellers and is unlikely to discount, so there is no leverage. The largest reductions will come from the reseller professional services component and likely lead to rushed deployment. There’s significant risk that reductions will render the solution unworkable once deployed.
2) Headcount reductions to cover the funding gap within the year.
3) Cut something else from the budget to allocate to the network.
Recommend finding a network-specific reseller that can offer new proposals with different vendors, technology, or structure that can fit the requirements and the budget. Network-specific resellers are more likely to propose a better solution.
This could upset the incumbent reseller, who may react negatively at the loss of a deal. The team may also be upset because they are friendly with the reseller and don’t want to see their ‘hired friends’ lose out.
On the other hand, networking isn’t a big deal to the reseller because they make 90% of their revenue selling MS Office licenses, servers, and desktops, and they might be relieved to get out of the deal.The sales rep wants the commission badly, perhaps badly enough to put the reseller on the hook for a solution it cannot properly support.
The managers are tired of the network problems but also don’t want to keep spending valuable time with resellers instead of on core activities.
Instead of funding a new network, point out that the existing network equipment is fit for purpose but needs an overhaul and update of the design. There are two key factors here.
First, the existing team will certainly oppose this since they hope to keep their careers relevant, and have been working on the new design for a year or more (sunk investment). Recommend allocating some funds to training and conferences (knowing it won’t happen) to placate people who are disappointed.
Second, the update will require a number of planned outages and outside skills to supplement the team. Recommend allocating funds for reseller services knowing that the reseller is not competent to deliver the design because they rely on the vendor professional services that will want to be paid.
Finally, an upgrade will require deep and continuous engagement, which won’t be possible at the reseller’s day rate.
The EtherealMind View
Which do you choose? Are any of these outcomes a win for everyone concerned, or even most?
In the end, the process that we use to buy technology is badly flawed. It’s a sliding scale where customers rarely understand what they are buying, resellers don’t know what they are selling, and vendors lack real customer awareness.
Enterprise IT has many problems to solve if it’s going to push back against the transition to public cloud, which is much easier to buy. Right?