The CIO and the fine art of vendor negotiation

“Don’t write about that,” I’ve been told by several colleagues, when I’ve mentioned that I was working on a post about how best, as the senior technology executive, to negotiate with vendors.  “You’ll give away all your tricks!” they’ve said.

Well, actually, no.  Here’s the main trick: this particular CIO doesn’t have any “tricks”, if by tricks you mean ways to outfox the opposition, or anything else that is best kept secret.  In fact, I’m not a natural avid negotiator. I’m not one of those people who looks forward to buying a new car because of the thrill of haggling with the salesperson.  But I’ve learned over the years how negotiations can best be structured for the optimal outcome.  Like cryptography, where greater obscurity isn’t equivalent to greater security, successful negotiation isn’t dependent on tricks or subterfuge.

I’m quite content to tell any vendor or salesman how I go about negotiating, because doing so doesn’t provide them any kind of advantage.  If anything, it’s beneficial to me and my company that all parties in the negotiation understand clearly the basic principles and approach that I’m using; it cuts a lot of the normal gamesmanship out of the equation.

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IT transparency is good. But how transparent should you be?

A few years back, I had an extremely surprising and unpleasant experience as CTO. The director of my Program Management Office ran a weekly status meeting for project stakeholders, where we’d all methodically go through the current project portfolio, in order to communicate on issues, gather necessary feedback, and align everyone’s expectations. I typically attended in order to provide input and executive-level decision participation, but left it to the director to actually run the meeting and present the topics.

Unfortunately, immediately before one of these weekly meetings, that director was given bad news (in a brief hallway conversation, no less) about a major bug that had just been discovered in the software for our highest profile project, which was currently in testing and due to launch in just a couple of weeks.  This project, with its strategic and revenue-enhancing potential, was foremost in the minds of everyone in the company.  Stakes were high, in other words.

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Complexity isn’t simple: multiple causes of IT failure

Roger Sessions recently published a white paper on IT complexity and its role in IT project failure: “The IT Complexity Crisis: Danger and Opportunity”.  It’s certainly possible to quarrel with bits and pieces of his analysis, and thereby tweak his numbers, but the overall thrust remains undeniable: IT failures are costing the world incredible amounts of real money. Sessions even sums it up under the dire-sounding phrase, “the coming meltdown of IT,” and says, “the out-of-control proliferation of IT failure is a future reality from which no country—or enterprise—is immune.” And he presents “compelling evidence that the proliferation of IT failures is caused by increasing IT complexity.”  He points out that the dollar cost of IT failure in the US alone is close to the cost of the recent US financial meltdown, and cites indications that the rate of failure is also increasing by 15% per year.

Roger’s paper is excellent and thought-provoking, and I recommend it highly. And I do agree with his view that complexity is the chief culprit in IT failure. That said, I think his argument focuses a little too strongly on one cause of complexity (unnecessary overcomplexity of architecture), to the neglect of other important factors.

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“Refuse to lose”: how executive pressure contributes to IT failure

“We went live before the system was ready”.  It’s a common excuse/explanation that I hear from IT people when they tell war stories about system launches that failed miserably. Implicit (and sometimes explicit) is the add-on statement: “and we told them so beforehand, too.”

There are obviously many things (and many parts of the org chart) that contribute to a failed launch, but here I’d like to focus on what drives this particular kind of launch-before-readiness, where the views of the rank-and-file are unheard or ignored.

In a nutshell: it’s management pressure. Sometimes that pressure comes from middle management, sometimes from the very top, and often from both.

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Conventional wisdom that fails for IT

I’ve done several posts featuring what I call “Peterisms”, which are basically aphorisms I’ve adopted that encapsulate hard-earned IT lessons. Let’s turn it around this time, and talk about two sayings that sound equally folksy-sensible, and that I hear again and again, but which I feel are actually dangerous to apply to information technology work. And, of course, I’ll discuss why that’s so.

  • If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
I know of very few aphorisms that tend to be repeated as smugly as this one, particularly by scared people. The implication is that action is generally to be avoided, that the status quo is probably just fine, and that one should wait for a true crisis before intervening. And, of course, that it’s your fault if you’ve ignored this sage advice and intervened anyway. It’s ironic, then, how IT departments themselves end up complaining endlessly about how they’re always in fire-fighting mode.  This prevailing attitude evolves among (and is a telling symptom of) burned-out sysadmins and developers, especially those who are stuck maintaining systems they didn’t themselves write or engineer. It can be equally summed up as a “don’t touch it, don’t breathe on it” kind of superstition. Or, perhaps, it’s akin to the proud but defensive statement that “we’ve always done it that way.”
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A case study of “going to the cloud” (SaaS)

Here’s one series of questions that’s great to ask a candidate for a senior position in IT, be it in project management, development, operations, or whatever: Tell me about a recent project or initiative for which you were responsible. What was the goal, and how did you ensure that the goal was achieved? What were the roadblocks you encountered along the way, and what did you do to address them? What mistakes did you make? What would you do differently if you were faced with a similar project or initiative again?

For this post, I’ll play candidate and outline the kind of full and detailed response I would be looking for as a hiring manager, based on a project from my own experience. Let’s use a relatively simple one: implementing off-site (Software-as-a-Service, known as SaaS) email, replacing a poorly implemented in-house email system. Today, this would loftily be called “going to the cloud.”  (Yes, I’m aware that cloud computing encompasses far more than SaaS, but that’s not my thrust here).

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The Practical CIO: Difficulties in project prioritization & selection, part 2

OK, let’s assume you’ve gotten great at picking the right projects to do to benefit the company. How do you know you can actually accomplish the ones you’ve picked with the resources you have? If you’re like most companies I’ve seen, it’s done on a wing and a prayer. But there’s a better way.

Last time, I wrote about ways to pick projects that satisfy the company’s “SHOULD do” dimension: ones that are strategic, financially beneficial, risk mitigating, or legally mandated, for example. I set out practical guidelines for the process of selection in that dimension, to ensure as level a playing field as is possible.  And I left it for this follow-on post to discuss prioritization from the perspective of the other dimension, the “CAN do” dimension, which needs to calibrate the list of chosen projects to what can actually be accomplished by the available resources.

Both dimensions inform each other, of course; they’re not independent or sequential. In other words, the company might be able to tackle five smaller projects rather than one huge project, and figuring out if it’s a good idea to actually make that trade-off will be based on executive judgment of the benefits in both scenarios.
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The Practical CIO: Difficulties in project prioritization & selection, part 1

How does your company pick which projects to undertake?  Demand outstrips available resources: nearly always, there are far more “good ideas” for things to do than can actually be done in a given time period.  So how do you decide which ones you take on?

If you research this general topic, you’ll find a lot of rather intricate, idealistic screeds that detail how to model an admixture of financials, market potential, risk factors, etc., and promise that this will get you “the” answer.  I don’t dismiss the importance and general validity of such approaches, but let me be frank: that’s actually not what usually happens at most companies. Not even close. Here are some real-life (albeit generally unsuccessful) approaches to project selection that I’ve seen in real companies. In no particular order:

1) Do ’em all: everything proposed by anyone goes on a list, and people just work like crazy and do the best they can to accomplish whatever;
2) Let a single executive (CEO, CIO, CTO, whoever) decide. That’s what executives are there for, right?
3) Insist that all proposed projects be evaluated for ROI, and do the ones that produce the biggest ROI number.
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