Lawrence Liu's Report from the Inside

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Does Microsoft matter?

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   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.

  • First I took your writing serious, then you make the same mistake your customers make.

  • Google are known for innovating, Microsoft generally aren't (besides visual studio perhaps). Maybe this is where some money should be poured, rather than cloning and mass-producing already existing technologies, that are generally done better by players like google. I have in mind the msn search, msn newsbot, wmware, XP graphics (vs OS x)

  • Think of Microsoft products as a BMW or Mercedes, looks all shiney on the outside, looks brilliant on paper, spend millions on advertising, drive it for a few weeks and the novelty soon runs out, you realise its just a badge, the handling isnt as good as they said, the seats give you back ache. Plus, it gets broken into and your belongings stolen because you wanted to put it on your drive instead of the garage, so everyone can see it, and soon realised the security isnt all its cracked up to be. You know it had an alarm, but it didnt go off.

    Then you see your reliable Honda you have in your garage, still starts first time, much more economical, isnt so appealing to be stolen. It only cost you, £8,000 new, the petrol, tax and insurance is cheaper, plus you can use parts from any supplier, not just Honda.

  • interesting...

    if one could be direct I'd just ask them:

    "do you want to talk to us or not?"
    now that would tend to put the guys who you speak of on the defensive and all that....

    but I am just thinking that sometimes it would help to have folks just come out and say what they think.

    I bet they can't say what they want to say
    about microsoft due to someone telling them not to.

    which makes the whole thing just silly in a way.

    I guess thats what gets to me is the fact that this kind of thing is really very juvinle when you come right down to it.

  • No, Microsoft doesnt matter anymore, especially with the licencing and upgrades now.

    You cut off you´re own nose despite your face.

    There are now alternatives for the desktop, and on the big iron, you never even existed.

  • SaberOne: I'm not sure what you mean by "making the same mistake." Please elaborate.

    Chris: My Google comment was a bit of tongue-in-cheek. I find their innovations (GMail) and success (120% increase in stock value in just two months) somewhat humbling. They're a formidable competitor though very different from IBM in that they actually leverage their technology to compete. :-)

    Andrew: By the time you get that Honda to drive like a BMW, it may not have cost as much as buying the BMW, but it would've cost you a lot of time. These days, time is worth a lot of money to big companies.

    Denny: I take every opportunity to ask my customers direct questions, but most of them tend to give indirect answers. Part of the problem is the lack of rapport (or worse, trust) because we in the field don't have enough time to camp out with enough customers. We're asked to call on way too many customers and to chase too many different opportunities. We're getting better every year (at account management, opportunity prioritization, minimizing internal meetings, etc.), but relationships (and trust) take time to build.

  • I have to admit dragging Honda, BMW, Linux and Google into this story taints it a bit. I'll try to set this aside though.

    I've been through this very thing myself in the past, but from the other (customer) side of the table. In this case the incumbent major vendor wasn't IBM, but another mainframe vendor with some very solid business and technology connections with Microsoft too.

    Despite the Microsoft connection, there was an overwhelming pushback against Microsoft by certain members of the team on our side. This was at the level of folks involved in software infrastructure custodianship, heavy tech types rather than application development or final decision makers. At this level there was (and still is) a very heavy anybody but Microsoft bias. This came from market-politik leanings rather than experience or firsthand knowledge of any sort - the ABMers had never done any sort of development on Microsoft platforms.

    Closer to the final decision makers IBM had a heavy foot in the door - this in a non-IBM shop. The usual gilt-edged promises, wining and dining, and the carrot of offshoring a large fraction of development - if only one would move to Java and DB2. This of course was in the days before Microsoft learned to promise to help offshore the work too.

    The funny part is neither option was followed up. The economic bubble burst and funding disappeared for the types of technology upgrades that were of interest. Instead, much of the application suite is arrested at 1980s technology levels supplemented by an array of small fragmented "island" implementations in early to late 90s technologies of nearly every stripe imaginable.

    A personal post-mortem revealed that the technical folks opposing Microsoft had a hidden agenda. They assumed opposing Microsoft would force the IBM/Java option. They were convinced the upheaval and slow development process this engendered would keep them cozy in their 1980s world for at least 5 to 7 more years. In reality, by simply acting as dogs in the manger they achieved this very goal, though the economic collapse provided a major assist. Among those still working there, there is a lot of smugness.

  • I believe Google has it in them to be innovative. But ummm, they haven't done anything innovative yet. They can and they will. But they haven't yet. Or did I miss something?

  • I run into this situation as well, and the root cause is difficult to nail down. Sometimes, they just want to compare “to the other guy” just to make sure that what they have is not too crappy … and they will, like humans do, ignore some % of what could be better to keep their peace of mind and not have to change. In this regard, its not MS, but any competitor. Sometimes, however, you have some genuine anti-MS undercurrent going on. This also is what humans do … they need to polarize; and currently, polarizing against MS is “safe”. In other words, “nobody ever got fired for NOT buying MS”. Does not matter that in large solutions MS is cheaper; no kidding, the numbers (especially future forecasts numbers) can be massaged to look like anything.

  • "This is when I realize that this group of people is already setting us up to lose."

    To me, it sounds like a group of people with a bunch of energy invested in J2EE and a fear that .Net (or whatever you're selling) will render them or their projects obsolete.

    With regards to the broader question, unless you're in the software or IT consulting business, IT isn't likely to be the primary focus of your company. IT exists in your organization to support whatever it is you do (make widgets, trade commodities, sell CD's) that does pay the bills. I think that right there will relegate IT to being the "over complex, expensive, pile of stuff we have to do to run our business". Unless, that it, IT is capable of consistently producing and demonstrating increased efficiency to the rest of the company.

    "do you want to talk to us or not?"

    My guess is they have a process that requires looking at multiple vendors, and they're just paying lip service to that process. In an honest, direct world, the answer to your question might be something like "No, not really, we like J2EE but we have to pretend to talk to you to make our bosses happy."

  • With "making the same mistake", I'm refering to you picturing Linux as being a Honda. Cheap and ugly. Linux AND Microsoft have the same challenge ahead, they NEED to be innovative to survive. Microsoft needs it to enter the enterprise market, en Linux to enter the desktop and/or enterprise market.

  • Andrew,

    This is pretty far off topic, but here's a statistic for ya:
    Top 3 Most Stolen Cars in the US
    1. Toyota Camry
    2. Honda Accord
    3. Honda Civic

    Of course, the reason is they are the most common, which doesn't really help the MS argument. :)

  • Never mind selling a BWM or Merecedes. What the customer needs needs is a tractor to get the work done.

    The industry (of which I am a member) keeps trying to sell fashion items when we should be supplying heavy lifting equipment!

  • You know I can understand how you feel, Microsoft is considered the bad big boy, comparable sometimes to the Mongol Hoard and well you guys are the big kids on the block. However, I kind of view MS as a friend I had when growing up. Was the biggest kid in school a foot taller than every kid in school, he wore size 16 shoes in the 7th grade, but then again he was also probably the nicest kid in school as well. People would put him down instantly because he was different, they never got to know him as well as some people, but he was always true to himself he never changed his attitude. Our senior year in high school he was valedictorian, and of course captain of the basketball team.

    Well in the old days MS was difficult to work with, it was difficult with things like com and so on. But I have stuck as a friends of MS for years, I don’t always understand everything about them, I don’t know everything about them but they have been a good friend for years. Now with the advent of like you said BizTalk 2004, .Net, Web services and so on. MS has become a better friend than I could ever imagine. These new technologies allow me to interact with everything.

    Now also back in the old days I have a friend here at work who I have worked with for about 10 years, he has been Pro Unix, Pro Oracle ever since I knew him, but he is a friend despite those minor flaws. We would go to lunch all the time have many discussions on who is better and so on, more along the lines of friendly ribbing. Well of course when I started down the .net path the first day it came out, yeah I got ribbing, I got put down. Now I am and crawling in and out of Unix, Windows, Other Applications in Multiple languages, exposing interfaces to applications that other applications and languages can now hook into. Heck I even have Unix Application running on VT Terminals Authenticating against Active Directory without buying anything extra.

    Well just yesterday my Unix friend came to me and asked me, "Can you explain this .net to me and how it compiles and what you need to build it in." He Beamed when I told him he could do it all in Notepad and had a command line compiler, now I guess I am spoiled using Visual studio but to each his own. I burned him a CD of the .net 1.1 SDK, discussed some of the basics, answered his questions about what is, the IL and so on and sent him on his way. Today he came in asked a bunch more how to questions. I ribbed him about before long I would have him attending the .net user group here. But anyway it was a monumental leap for me to see our Unix Admin actually want to do .net. He did it all on his own, after he seen some of the things I was doing.

    So my point to all this, Yes Microsoft matters to quite a lot of us. Some people may still be in the mindset not to change, some may view you as the big kid and are scared of you and some people are still very untrusting. Sometimes you can persuade them to change and try to be your friend, sometimes you can't, and sometimes they just need time to open up. All you can do is be happy with yourself, if you feel you need to change then change, if you feel you don't need to change then just be happy with who you are. There are those of us out here that see.

    Funny how a lot of things you may have seen as a little kid still transfers through to the adult life of business.

  • LL - Preach it brother!

    I was sad when i got to the of the better soliloquies i've read in a while.