IT pros advocate swapping roles with vendors

Regularly swapping between working for a customer organisation and for an IT vendor can help both sides understand the other's needs and strengths, say IT professionals.

Regularly swapping between working for a customer organisation and for an IT vendor can help both sides understand the other’s needs and strengths, say IT professionals.

PeopleSoft Asia-Pacific product marketing manager Ray Kloss suggests professionals in the IT industry, technical and business, should “make a regular habit of switching” between vendor and customer roles.

Kloss, born in the US but based in Sydney since 1993, worked at General Motors after university, building locomotives. He then spent six years at IBM and a short time at Australian investment and construction firm Lend Lease before moving to Hewlett-Packard. He joined PeopleSoft in April.

“Both [roles] have their challenges and both have their benefits,” says Kloss. Benefits of being a customer include getting to see how scary vendors can appear, he says. After releasing a tender at Lend Lease to the big five consultancies and large software houses, he ended up choosing a small software company. “It taught me a lot about how to work with a customer,” he says, citing a small change -- when he subsequently joined HP as an implementation partner specialist he dumped his PowerPoint presentations for a whiteboard.

Alex Filkin, information chief at TVNZ unit nzoom.com - but shortly to head across to services giant EDS - agrees that changing employer horses can be extremely beneficial to IT professionals.

Vendors can be formidable and “aren’t good at listening”, says Filkin, who has also worked at ISPs Xtra and Voyager, especially when sales staff have been “pumped up” by their marketing people. Filkin has visited vendors where salespeople have persisted in trying to sell him their large flagship product when he has made it clear he wants something more suitable for his size of organisation.

One upside of being at a vendor is usually knowing more about the total marketplace than customers. “The hardest thing to do [within] a customer is actually try and figure out what the hell is really going on,” says Kloss. Within a vendor you often have access to development labs, “and you know what’s good and what’s not, what’s hype and what’s real”.

A large company might have 4700 end users, he says, but PeopleSoft, for instance, has 4700 customers around the world, consisting of perhaps millions of end users. Enterprise applications must be robust, he says. Trying to support a faulty software product with that many customers would make any vendor “dead in the water”. “The approach and the methodologies vendors take, particularly around software development, are much more rigorous in my experience than what actually takes place in a customer.”

Having dual experience can also help you figure when you are being overcharged. “There are people out there who weigh in a lot of overhead and you don’t need it. But there is a level of overhead that you should have in a project.”

Kloss says he avoids bashing other vendors; it only contributes to customer cynicism. “You stop believing everybody.”

Filkin, who is moving for the usual reasons of opportunity, money and a personal work preference – being focused on projects rather than operations – advises vendors to be “utterly straight” with clients about what they can and can’t do. “The key thing from both sides is expectation,” he says. Be clear, honest and realistic about your abilities. Reputation counts for a lot in a small country like New Zealand, he says.

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