In my entire career as an IT consultant, I’ve never known anything that compares to the sick, sinking feeling that I get when I realize that my customers want to buy zombo.com.
I haven’t been called upon to do this in a while, but there was a time in my career when I was often asked to sit through product demos to provide a technical assessment of each offering. I’d sit in a room with a bunch of people whose job it was to assess proposals against a Request For Proposal (RFP). One after another, I’d watch a group of product companies come in a pitch their solutions.
I remember in my early years of doing this: I’d sometimes be gobsmacked at how baldly the sales people would overhype their product’s capabilities. Did we need workflow with that? Sure, they supported workflow, and our guy, Dennis, will demo that to you. Then Dennis would do his thing and I’d think, “Yeesh. Everyone on our side of the table must feel super-embarrassed for these guys.” But then the sales drones would leave, and we’ve be comparing notes. Frank, from Marketing, would say, “We can give them full points on the workflow capabilities.” And I’d sit there and think, “Did you just see the same demo that I saw?” And then I’d realize: “oh, this is why they need a technical person at the table.”
But the problem has always been that they don’t realize how desperately they need a technical person. They feel like they’ve seen the demo, and are strongly persuaded by the evidence of their own eyes. And that’s how they want to buy zombo.com.
I’ve had this situation many times. The zombo.com sales people have just left the room, and we’re all comparing notes. Me, I say something like, “Um, folks, you know that this doesn’t do anything, right? I mean, it natters at you, but it doesn’t do anything?”
“Really?” says Jill from Procurement. “I thought it was a strong presentation.”
“Yeah, so did I,” says Jim from the business unit.
“Uh, yeah,” I say. “I agree that they put on a great presentation. But zombo.com doesn’t do anything. It’s actually completely useless.”
Usually around this point, Ann, who was in charge of putting together the RFP quips up: “Why don’t we go down the list of requirements?”
This sounds like a reasonable plan, and I nod in agreement.
“Here are the most important requirements,” Ann recites. “The users want the new system to have a new look and feel, and it must support animation. And it must be able to register users and create financial transactions.”
“The look and feel of zombo.com was really colourful,” Jill says.
“Yeah, and I definitely saw that they support animation. There was definitely animation,” says Frank.
“Um, no, uh… I think…” I say, but someone interrupts me.
“What about financial transactions and registration?”
“It definitely did that welcoming thing,” says Jim.
“But that’s not…” I start.
“Look! Look!” says Jill, reading from the RFP response. “It says, ‘you can do anything at zombo.com; the only limit is your imagination.'”
“Oh, excellent,” says Ann. “Well, BC, see? I think it’s clear that it meets the requirements.”
“Um, no. No. I mean, a system that meets these requirements needs to have a form that you can fill in to complete a registration…” I say.
“Now you’re judging it because it’s not the way you would build this,” says Frank. “They’ve got a different product vision, and that’s okay.”
And usually by about this time, I feel like I’m inchoately trying to bridge the gap between what I saw and what they saw. Many of my colleagues praise my ability to explain technical things in straight-forward language. But that never comes naturally. I work hard at it. I reflect on good analogies; I rehearse what I’m going to say; I practice, practice, practice. But in situations like this, the deck is stacked against me. I’m trying to articulate my reservations without that crucial reflection period.
“Maybe we should write up our thoughts on the solution?” I say. But I begin to suspect that the train’s already left the station; they’ve all developed a warm fuzzy feeling from their zombo.com demo. They don’t want that warm fuzzy feeling to be extinguished. And I know in my heart that my clients are going to buy zombo.com.
The idea that bad technical decisions could sometimes be good business decisions didn’t come naturally to me, but I eventually embraced it. But embracing a bad technical decision that isn’t actually a good business decision is an idea that I still resist.