RESEARCH & RESOURCES

6 Insider Tips for Choosing Tech Solutions

Attention, tech shoppers: here's what technology salespeople think you should know before you enter an exhibit hall.

By Ted Cuzzillo

A salesman was unwinding from a day in the booth at a decision support trade exhibition, where he represented a large vendor. "Ninety-nine percent of what I said today was true," he said between sips of red wine, "with the caveat that you know what you're doing."

In that exhibit hall, most people would assume he meant just technical competence -- but there's actually much more to it. Knowing what you're doing includes knowing how to have the right machine crunch the right data the right way, of course, but also includes understanding the business itself.

That salesman and others I know offered these six blunt pieces of advice to keep in mind when you go searching for a technology solution.

Tip #1: Focus on what you really need

"A Lamborghini and a taxi will both get you to the airport," said the salesman. He and others can sound like they're reading from Consumer Reports. They make sense, but sometimes it's a lot less fun to do it that way. As for those who don't know the difference between need and want, he added, "I have no mercy."

I witnessed an analogy as a child. My mother continually hoped that one glorious purchase at the Macy's kitchen department would unfold new and bountiful efficiencies and "gourmet" dining. There was the electric skillet, the convection oven, and the microwave. Each one disappointed her.

Who could blame her for trying? Cooking was tangible and more tractable than most problems. It made no difference that, as I discovered later, the same results could be had with a single cast iron pan if you knew what you were doing.

Tip #2: Get over "ease of use" and ask about maintenance

"Everything has ease of use," said the exhibit-hall salesman. That's what most shoppers look for. It's better to ask about ease of maintenance and setup. That's more often where trouble arises.

"Many times, they don't even ask those questions," he said. Find out how many people the solution requires to run. When you watch a demo, ask how many steps went into setting it up. How long does it take to re-index after an update? One popular database server he sees actually requires more -- not fewer -- people to run it as it grows.

Tip #3: Make vendors prove their claims

An even harder edge comes from one widely respected figure in the industry who asked for anonymity. First, require -- "Require!," he repeats adamantly -- an on-site installation on your hardware as you watch. Second, watch as the vendor delivers something you already have but improved in meaningful ways. That should include all system and data integrations, report designs, publications or whatever they're selling. Third, scale it up to test at five times the concurrent user load and five times the data volume or size you think you need -- all on your hardware as you watch. This is a good time to add users from various departments for direct feedback on ease of use.

"Too lazy for that?" he wrote me. "Hire a consultant on a success-based fee contract and cross your fingers."

Beyond this point, however, "knowing what you're doing" means knowing how the business works and what it needs to work better.

Tip #4: Know how the business really works and embrace the indicators

Many executives don't seem to know what they don't know, observes research analyst and former CIO Mark Madsen. He has routinely seen executives "completely disconnected from the reality of their organization." They think things work the way they're supposed to work, and no one will tell them the truth. Instead, they see the tips of icebergs. "When presented with data," he wrote me, "the worst of them are not skeptical or questioning of method, but dismissive."

In one of the worst cases, he recalls a retail CEO whose industry was under pressure from new big-box category killers. Shoppers dwindled, and the executive blamed unusual weather patterns.

The best cases, on the other hand, are executives who embrace data. Shopping trends may really be influenced by strange weather, but they consider that data along with other key indicators. They know what they're doing.

Tip #5: Don't try to solve big organization issues with technology

One consultant I talked to once put it this way: "Show me a well-run business and I'll show you a well-run decision support program." Too often, though, those who run the company don't know what they're doing.

They're barely able to judge the new technology that steadily rolls out, yet they're also tasked with a much bigger job: making sense of data produced by an organization running on delusion.

Tip #6: If you don't know what you're doing, ask for help

Most big-corporation IT people at conferences, observes Madsen, are in over their heads. "Somehow, they have convinced themselves that it's OK to forge ahead into even more advanced or unknown topical terrain," he writes. "If you tried to pull this sort of nonsense in the accounting department, everyone in the room would notice."

This might explain the other behavior observed by the exhibit-hall salesman: "They issue RFPs, they watch demos, they talk to lots of people, they read literature, and ultimately they choose the product with the nice color."

Ted Cuzzillo is an industry analyst and journalist with more than 20 years' experience explaining, analyzing, and researching how people use technology. He'd appreciate your responses in a study on "insurgent BI" that he's conducting with Wise Analytics. He can be reached at analysts@datadoodle.com.

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