Author: Curtis Springstead
Stefan Dietrich’s post of 5/18/12 on Forbes.com makes some very salient points, but also holds on to some well worn myths about vendor supplied advice. If you have developed true partnerships with a limited set of vendors, you can gain a lot of valuable input as the CTO that makes your IT strategy stronger and your work easier. In my experience, the belief that the internal IT organization has the resources to independently understand and solve all business and technology issues has led to more failures than the use of well adopted vendor expertise.
In his opening, Dietrich hits on the real issue that it is “…tempting to think that vendors can be good sources for your IT strategy, relegating the CTO role to a sideshow.” However, firms following this path are destined to regret that approach. If as a CTO you think you can occupy that seat very long simply channeling vendor decks as your IT strategy, you best keep your resume handy as your tenure will be short. Dietrich’s caution that believing “…strategy itself, just like engineering, is something that can be purchased as (or with) a product…” further acknowledges that CTOs must take an active role in the process. In addition, most documented vendor strategies are hardly actionable by themselves, particularly with the heterogeneous landscapes in most IT architectures.
The VMware Accelerate Advisory Services team believes that technology is a tool to enable realization of business goals. In our customer engagements, we insist on getting the business context first, which candidly is not always well known at the IT level due to communication issues between IT and the business. Since we strive to establish long-term partnerships at senior levels with our customers, we are compelled to keep them from solutions that, while carrying our VMware brand, may not meet their need or perform at their level of need.
Can we recommend any solution on the market? Not really, more because we are experts in many but not all products, rather than we have a particular bias. In my experience, I have found few consultants who have a broad, independent knowledge of all the solutions in any domain. We often recommend complementary products demonstrated to fill gaps not addressed in VMware’s product line, yet are consistent with our vision.
During the nearly 20 years I spent at a major systems integrator, we were often hired to create architectures and strategies because we were one of the few “technology agnostic” vendors—a badge we wore proudly. However, as we filled the columns of our evaluation documents with vendor names, customers frequently asked, “Don’t you already know the two or three I need to look at?” Of course we did, but we wanted to be open-minded and consider all options – they simply wanted to save the time and money by cutting to the chase, which is the reason we were hired. Based on this experience, I am quite comfortable in my role as an expert advisor in the particular domains VMware addresses and the approach they propose.
I found Dietrich’s statement that “…vendors simply can’t separate their ‘vision’ from their product…” could be compared with asking me to step away from my experience in my engagements. Having spent time at services and products vendors, I can assure you that the vision was created in collaboration with customers to address the problem as we understood it and to guide the product development. I would counter Dietrich by asking, “Why I would separate myself from the investments made to create what we believe will be the best overall solution and therefore drive our firm’s success?”
When we create our strategies as part of a VMware Accelerate engagement, we capture the needs of the business and IT as input to the recommended approach; an approach composed of people, process and technology changes. We do base our strategies on the VMware vision for the solution to the need because we have direct experience on the success of those strategies at other enterprise and industry-specific organizations. As the CTO, this is where you start to earn your title—your need to ask some simple questions. Does the solution seem overly complicated? Are the justifications for certain decisions weak when you poke at them? Does it conflict with what you are seeing in the broader market for this issue?
The inevitable discussion of vendor-integrated products versus best- of- breed is highlighted when Dietrich questions the option of following a single vendor or your team taking a known vendor path. He offers no consideration that while it may not be optimal for each aspect of your needs, following a single vendor may be the best solution overall for your company. For example, the cost of integration as he accurately points out earlier in his post, can be substantial and recurring as the various component players move at different rates and in different directions. When he suggests that technology solutions may need to vary by division, I recall my days running internal IT and the challenges of maintaining extra skill sets, dealing with integration issues and vendor finger pointing. However my real concern was to not be an impediment to business change. Will I be seen as the technology visionary when I can’t simply merge those formerly “unique“ business units?
In summary, I agree with Dietrich at the headline level, which most readers will likely take away from his post – don’t rely on a vendor to create your IT strategy. Embrace the needs of your business—not by the way of wants, but by needs—so you can drive a solution that meets those needs. Understand that no outside vendor, service or product, comes without some bias, even if simply based on their experience.
My advice? Consider all proposed vendor solutions, and take into account the impact to your business and IT, and balance the costs and benefits of previous investments with the costs to maintain the proposed solution. Leverage those biases to assemble the best IT solution that will drive your business transformation.
Curtis Springstead is a business solutions strategist for VMware Accelerate Advisory Services.
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