Friday, 8 January 2021

Smoke ‘Em

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I am sure regular readers to my posts here, are familiar with my reflections on application software and how it differs markedly from real world product, such as the humble washing machine.

While we wouldn’t ask for a demo of a washing machine, in the real world we are used to having to check out details in bigger purchases. For house purchases, we generally engage a surveyor, because that is how our mortgage lender evaluates the value of the property we are about to purchase. When buying a car, particularly a used one, we drive it, we may even get the RAC or AA to do a proper check over it. For software (a £750k+ purchase), we might engage a Critical Friend, to ensure we are asking the right questions and will in practice get what’s being sold.

Software sales persons are often at the end of the ‘trust-worthiness scale’, together with politicians and estate agents. Using an analogy of the latter, some software has ‘potential’ (i.e. its not fully written yet), other options are like a ‘Do-er Upper’ (i.e. few reports come as standard and you will be working on those yourselves, like adding an extension or an indoor bathroom). ‘Professionals only’, well, maybe set up screens will be missing and you will need a good working knowledge of VI screen editor.

To caveat, I don’t regard all software sales folk as untrustworthy, in fact some I would trust some with my life. Honestly. It depends what’s being sold, is it really going to fit your needs and will it provide the benefits expected/promised? That’s a fluid thing too. Application software and suppliers vary over time. They can be world leading one year and laggards the next. Its up to you (Caveat emptor), to find the holes in the inevitable Swiss cheese, which is software.

So, what are some of the signs you are caught in some smoke and mirrors, in the demo where the supplier is showing you their wares?

Firstly, unless you see their wares, inevitably they are missing certain wares. They might be missing for lots of reasons. They may not have even evolved beyond a sales persons imagination, they may be on a roadmap, or very close to release. All three of these should flag up alarms for the customer to various degrees. Highest risk is the former and the lowest risk is the latter. If the latter is reality, even though a release is ‘just around the corner’, if the supplier cannot demo, they should at least be able to show you images of what’s coming. After all, if its in the ‘next’ release, someone has already been writing it from a spec and testing it by now, eh?

A great way to reassure the buyer is to let you know its being released soon.

Be as irritating as me and ask, who is taking that release and when? Will it be the full product or a MVP? The MVP is a ‘Minimum Viable Product’. The important word there is ‘minimum’. You may be able to do the minimum to get the job done, or not, depending how special your processes are. What your software supplier might regard as ‘the minimum’, might differ greatly, to what you might regard as the acceptable minimum.

Secondly, verify are you seeing product, or wire-frame prototype models? Are you just seeing Powerpoint slides or a PDF? Now you are probably asking who would be so stupid to buy just from those? Well, I am far too polite to name the guilty (as always), but I have come across many. A lot often saw no product forthcoming, or waited 3 or more years to receive a mongrel version of the utopia, originally promised. That includes social landlords of over 30,000 homes in size too, making schoolboy errors like that.

Thirdly, a dead ringer to spot is over-zealous waffling. If you have got a supplier in, over Teams/Zoom etc, for a limited period to see their wares, you don’t want to be lectured about where the sector is going, what might come out of the Grenfell enquiry, or the latest social care scandal etc. If your supplier had solutions to all the described ills, they would be showing you and knocking you dead with them, not death by PowerPoint. If you didn’t see the solutions, chances are they are not actually there. Possibly they are very dated or disjointed solutions, looking nothing like the really sexy bits they were desperate to show you. Do by all means, question it and give your supplier a chance to show you. Me & Paddy power however, might not give you great odds, you will see the goods.    

Fourthly, its being unable to complete a demonstration of something end-to-end. Software is developed from start to finish and in a demo its easy to show the initiation of any process. Anywhere the supplier seems to hit an issue, being only able to show you part of something, be suspicious. Remember these guys hopefully have had sometime to prepare this demo and are using demo kit that’s used for many demos. I know from being on the dark side 10 years ago, ‘Demoland’ is like Disneyland. Everything is cool there and everything (should) work. If its not working on demo database & kit, it’s a good chance its not working in reality.

Lastly, if a supplier is allocated, say a couple of hours and while others are generally up to the limit on time, one or more might be done & dusted really quickly or pad out the time with some diversion on to some unrelated/unwanted product. This should ring alarm bells. If you are seeing something you didn't expect to see, check its a freebie the supplier is just chucking in for you (unlikely). If its not relevant to you to see, politely tell them so. Otherwise, that's thirty minutes of you and your staff team lives, you will never get back!

In fact that same adage can also be applied to test systems too. If a supplier cannot get a test system working correctly, just the act of migrating to live, will never fix it. I remember back on the dark side, a big fat bullshi**er developer, trying to convince me that something that was even incapable of writing correctly to a test database, would magically be ok on a live situation. He knew his fat ar*e would not be on the line, at the live site when it all went wrong. Just like sales persons will not have their bottoms on the line, if you choose badly and its you and your team holding the baby.

I hope this has helped you hone your antenna for entering the smoke and mirrors zone. Clients often congratulate me for sniffing out the more subtle areas. Most are in truth, are hiding there in plain sight. Bear this in mind, during your next software procurement, feel free to get in touch. If you need help, maybe just minimal assistance in some situations, I am sure we can work together to obtain best outcomes for you, your team and your organisation.  

Related Post: For training materials, start with video


I would be pleased to connect with you on LinkedIn - Message me with any issues or queries, you would like to be explored in this blog. We generally receive a couple of suggestions each month.

Fun Lovin’ Criminals – Smoke ‘EmFun Lovin’ Criminals – Smoke ‘Em.
(c) Tony Smith, Acutance Consulting 07854-655009

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