Features from Meantime IT

Skip the spec, blow the budget

Fenner Pearson, managing director of Meantime IT, explains why it's essential to know exactly what you're getting for your money when it comes to IT.

When it comes to IT, you can have what you want - but only if you ask for it. Yet a surprising number of businesses are still more than happy to hand over a huge IT budget to a company they’ve never worked with before, without knowing exactly what they’ll get in return.

As someone who’s been involved in IT since the dawn of the internet, I’ve been instrumental in getting the business systems of clients ranging from high street banks to independent traders to global corporations online and trading smoothly. And, two decades since I started out in IT, the vast majority of businesses, large and small, now have an online presence, whether that’s a one-page brochure site or an international e-commerce trading system.

So it never fails to surprise me when I hear stories about IT budgets being blown and systems failing. These stories come from anyone from new clients who have come to us in despair at their failing systems, or from the frequent reports of massive public sector IT fails in the national newspapers.

Ask and you shall receive

To me, it’s simple. Approach a company who you would like to provide you with an IT system. Tell them what you want. Listen to them explain why you can, or can’t, have it. Agree what will be delivered. Agree a cost. Sign a contract. Simple? It should be.

But let me give you a real example of how the commissioning of IT systems works in the world of global corporations.

In this particular case, I was talking to an acquaintance who has a friend - let's call her Alison - who works for an international IT provider. Alison's job is to sort out what this provider is going to deliver after a contract has been signed. In this particular case, the company for which she works has just signed a huge contract with a well known mobile phone company. A project has been determined, a cost agreed and a contract signed. Now, what Alison has to do is work out what actually will be delivered as part of that deal.

Putting this into a household context highlights the absurdity of the situation. Let's say you decide to have your kitchen refurbished and engage a large, nationally known company to come and measure up with a view to doing the work. A representative turns up at your house, and you say to him, "I'd like a new kitchen, please". You'd certainly expect him to take a look at your kitchen and have a conversation with you about what you’re expecting.

At that point, would you sign a contract and agree to hand over your money upon completion? Of course not. You'd want to see some designs, talk about materials and colour schemes, and look at whether the final price included cooker, fridge and washing machine. You certainly wouldn’t hand over your hard-earned cash, then come back three months later to see what it had paid for to find out you have a very attractive kitchen, but one that didn’t actually have any appliances in it.

Get what you pay for

So why is business so very different? Well, to be fair, it isn't always. We do find that with a lot of SMEs, particularly those owned by one person or a small group of people, a great deal of care is taken to understand where the money will be spent. But as a simple rule of thumb, we find the larger the business, the less detail we are asked to provide. And with the less detail that’s provided at specification stage, the weaker your case when you call up your provider to complain that your new IT systems don’t work.

Whilst a relaxed attitude such as this might seem like an opportunity to get away with being a little less diligent, we like to be absolutely sure what it is that we are being asked to deliver. There must be a specification of some sort. Without one, how do you know what your budget is paying for?

You’ve allowed a large budget for a new e-commerce website because you want it to be the best. You’ve had a pitch from a provider that shows you just how amazing it can look and the huge amount of functionality it can have, and you sign on the dotted line. But then when your website is delivered, and it comes to adding your products onto it, you find that you’re suddenly being charged the budget twice over again because adding content wasn’t in the spec.

Even for a small job such as a text change on a website, where the request might take the form of a phone call, we will still follow up with an email to confirm what we are proposing to do. But for a job that is going to cost from tens of thousands of pounds up to multi-millions, surely it makes absolute sense for both sides to have a clear specification?

Excuse me, do you speak code?

There are a couple of principle reasons, in my experience, why this doesn't happen. (Three, if you count sheer negligence.)

Firstly, the client doesn't understand what they are buying. This is a very legitimate problem. People are usually pretty good at buying something they can understand - business cards or brochures, for example. Or, to use our earlier analogy, the cooker comes with the cupboards.

Buying a website and, particularly, software is very different. It is, literally, a language many people don’t understand, with lines of code and indecipherable databases. Commissioning software that has the ability to bolt on a complicated business management system is very different to commissioning software that has the business management system you desire built in and ready to run.

It’s essential that if you don’t understand what your provider is saying, you ask questions. A good provider will explain their logic in layman’s terms, and will go no further until they’re certain you understand.

The other problem is when the client doesn't have the time or inclination to get into the detail of the work. A very good example of this is when a client wants a bespoke e-commerce site. During initial conversations, they’ll say something along the lines of, "We both know what we're talking about: just a basic e-commerce site". However, when the site is delivered and suddenly it does get some attention, you discover that the client wanted Amazon.

Finally, there’s sheer negligence. There’s a saying that, "No one ever got sacked for buying IBM," the implication being that if you hire a big 'name' company, no one can blame you if the deliverable isn't up to scratch. The project manager hires the big name, hands over the budget, then leaves the people who are actually using the system to struggle along with something that isn’t suitable. But he hired the experts, right? So the company muddles along, throwing more money at a system that was never built to do what it actually needed to in the first place.

Spend the time to get the spend

So, the bottom line here is that a decent specification protects both sides in the business relationship. As a provider, we know exactly what we're committed to delivering and the client knows exactly what they are buying. This enables us to quote price and time-scales accurately: in fact, I don't know how we would stick to our promise to deliver on time and on budget if we didn't do this.

For larger jobs, we may even charge for the preparation of the specification. This is not always an easy sell but in addition to protecting both parties once it comes to development, it also means we have the time to do really detailed design and analysis. As an added incentive, the client can use the specification as a tender document to get the best price for development. This is a big risk for us, but I'm very pleased to say that, so far, the development work has always come back to us, and no-one has ever been fired for hiring Meantime.

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