Today, I had a 2 hour meeting with a customer to review the agenda for a 3 day onsite briefing with their "technology evaluation team" next week. We're competing against IBM and another vendor for the privilege of being chosen as the company's technology standard for extranet portal infrastructure. This customer, very much like my other customers, has had a long standing relationship with IBM. Most of their major projects have been won by IBM, and most of their current mission critical systems and applications are based on IBM technology. So, any time there's an opportunity for a technology standard to be established, Microsoft is usually the overwhelming underdog. This can be really frustrating, but I try to look at it as a worthwhile challenge, which makes winning all the more satisfying.
Halfway through the meeting, someone blurts out, "We need something that can integrate with all of our existing applications [which are mostly J2EE-based]. We just can't change or get rid of any of them." Then, another person asserts, "Support for WSRP is very important because we want our remote portlets to run anywhere, especially in the B2B scenario." This is when I realize that this group of people is already setting us up to lose. Moreover, they are just a roadblock, not the decision makers. They don't want to hear "Why Microsoft"; rather, they are only interested in "Why not Microsoft" -- that is, they are trying to pigeonhole us into a corner of disadvantage from where we cannot effectively provide a compelling value proposition. I run into this all the time, so I take it in stride and calmly respond to each of their points by highlighting the application integration capabilities of BizTalk Server and Host Integration Server and explaining our support (as well as a 3rd party ISV's Visual Studio add-on) for WSRP. Still, I remain very troubled by their approach of comparing us against IBM instead of focusing on how we can solve their problem.
We go through the rest of the meeting with a few more similar verbal flare ups, but we manage to accomplish our objective of finalizing the agenda for next week's briefing. On the way out of the building, the Account Team and I debrief in an empty conference room (hint: it's always good to know where the spare conference rooms are in your customer's building). The 3 of us agree that we need to escalate to the Project Sponsor by setting up a meeting with him ASAP. But what would we say? Obviously, we don't want to get into a feature comparison against IBM. We decide that what we need to have with this executive is the "Why Microsoft" discussion.
Which brings me to the question, "Does Microsoft matter?" that I kept asking myself on my long drive home after the debriefing. The context is similar to the controversial question, "Does IT matter?" that Nicholas Carr asked last May to which a ComputerWorld Q&A Panel so effectively answered. To answer my own question, which would be the basis for our meeting with the Project Sponsor, I will use some analogies. First, a company is like a vehicle - it contains many interconnected parts, it needs periodic maintenance to keep the parts moving well, and it needs a smart driver who can steer it down the right path without getting into any major accidents. The answer to the question of "Does IT matter?" depends on whether the driver (a.k.a. the C-level execs of the company) sees IT as the engine or just one of the tires (or even more simply, the gas). Fortunately, all of my customers, including this one, strongly believe that IT is the engine. Actually, to be more precise, IT software is the engine while IT hardware is more like the wheels and tires (a.k.a. commodity). However, many of my customers still see Microsoft as the engine of a Hyundai (a.k.a. cheap but somewhat unreliable) and IBM as that of a Mercedes (a.k.a. pricey but very reliable). In order for Microsoft to matter, we need drivers to believe that we are the engine of the BMW that is their company. Compared to the Mercedes, which some drivers inadvertently turn into a Bentley or Rolls Royce (thanks to IBM Global Services), the BMW is just as reliable but arguably more agile. We have many customer case studies that show how Microsoft has indeed become the engine for many BMW-esque companies, but I need to convince this particular customer to take us for a test drive. How I do that will be the topic of another blog entry in the near future.
In case you're curious, I liken Linux to be the engine of a Honda, which is analogous to a company that prefers to buy upgrades for the vehicle and manually installs, configures, and constantly tweaks them (or just pays someone else to do it). Ultimately, the tweaked vehicle ends up costing not much less than the BMW, but it looks like crap, gets broken into more often, and doesn't drive as well. :-)
Google? Well, with them you no longer even need an engine because they'll just provide you with a magic carpet. Of course, the more you depend on Google (a.k.a. the Genie), the higher the risk of being stuck somewhere someday when you are no longer able to communicate with the Genie to request or to receive the magic carpet.
Disclaimer: This posting is provided "AS IS" with no warranties, and confers no rights.