October 24, 2001

Open Source community could learn something from Microsoft's services

Author: JT Smith

- by Jack Bryar -
Open Source Business -

Based on all the negative press coming out of places like Computer
Reseller's News, independent software developers and system integrators are
ready to declare war on Microsoft. The reason? System integrators are nervous that
Microsoft, along with HP, IBM and a host of other vendors are trying to
take over the service business.

A recent article
by CRN's Steve Burke is among a
blizzard of similar pieces threatening that system integrators will begin to walk away
from proprietary developers and begin to popularize Linux if Microsoft and
the other vendors don't stop muscling in on the service business.

I don't think so.

Unfortunately, I've had the opportunity to watch some of these vendor-based professional services teams in action over the last few months. I
have watched Microsoft Consulting Service (MCS) in particular. And -- I
have a warning for any independent system integrators who think they could take on
these vendor-based professional services teams: A lot of these guys
know more about servicing customers than you do
. What they have done,
and what Microsoft Consulting Services has done particularly well, is
pick off yet another good idea from the broader IT community and made it
their own. What makes it all the more galling is the fact that the idea
of building a service business came right out of the business plans of
several leading Linux developers.

You may remember when Linux companies were going to take on the
world, and they were going to do it by providing service. Without a laundry
list of proprietary products to flog, they were going to depend on
satisfying the customer in order to generate revenues. Without the
distraction of a line card, they were going to provide the best solution
possible for their corporate customer.

A great idea. It never happened.

The reason it didn't happen, and why so many Linux solutions providers
got nowhere in the marketplace, is because they refused to get past the
technology and listen to what the customer really needed. By contrast,
the professional services units of the proprietary vendors, most
notably MCS, did what the Linux guys said they were going to do. They
listened. They discovered a set of problems that the average IT integrator
doesn't want to know about. The solutions they generated are the result.

I know because I have spent the last few months interviewing IT
managers on behalf of an independent corporate publisher in the Boston area.
The assignment: track the decisions made by senior IT executives about
their enterprise architecture with respect to the design of their
systems and the partners they brought in to help them. As part of that
assignment I have sat in discussions with senior banking execs, salty
characters from the mining and manufacturing sector, government bureaucrats
and hyper-slick management consultants.

What I watched amazed me. I saw Microsoft Consulting Services
consistently run circles around the competition. The reason for their success
was pretty obvious to me. They, unlike guys I met from half a dozen other
vendors and system integrators did real consulting. They listened to their customers,
and, frequently, they helped the customers listen to themselves. Rather
than flog software like a used car salesman, MCS reps helped clients
try to identify and articulate their business requirements. They helped
clients identify costs of ownership and support, and identify who was
really paying those costs inside the organization.

Even more amazing was the fact that a lot of these MCS reps were
genuinely trying to position Microsoft products as "good citizens" in their
client's infrastructure. I saw a couple of instances where the MCS rep
bit his tongue and let the client adopt a piece of technology from
another vendor -- going some lengths to re-configure some Microsoft code-
even though there was a superior, made-in-Redmond alternative. Recently
Bob McDowell, the Microsoft v.p. in charge of MCS, was charged with using
his organization to force all Microsoft solutions onto clients. Whatever
they may or may not be saying in Redmond, at the ground level MCS reps
are trying to make sure that their clients see Microsoft as a trusted

These MCS staffers earned that trust because they understood that
corporate solutions involved a lot more than technology -- a fact that most
independent system integrators (especially Linux guys) refuse to acknowledge. Changing
a corporation's architecture by adopting a directory services model, or
by centralizing support operations, involves a lot more than software
or equipment. It can represent a fundamental change in a company's
business methods. Things like reporting lines and managerial autonomy are
deeply affected by these changes in the technical environment, and a
"solutions" provider who does not understand or respond to these issues is
providing no solution at all.

A successful solution for a government agency or a major bank involves
the ability to manage corporate politics as fully as any issue
associated with the enterprise network architecture. Frequently MCS reps did
this far better than the client-side IT personnel they worked with.

In the case of one global business association, I saw the MCS rep
orchestrate a networking solution that involved structuring more than 50
"national" domains, not because they were required technically, but because it
was the only way to deal with the never-articulated concerns that
remote offices had about losing their autonomy. At another site, I watched a
different set of MCS reps use a relatively obscure feature of
Microsoft's Active Directory in a way that you will never find in a technical
manual. But -- their solution immediately soothed the feathers of touchy
regional prima donnas within a global manufacturing organization, and
still made certain the headquarters tech personnel got the functionality
they required. These solutions may have been inelegant by traditional
geek standards. They aren't the sort usually proposed by the average
systems integrator. However, they were the only kind of solution that
could have met the client's real needs.

Nothing earns respect (and fear) among a customer's IT grunts faster
than a vendor who can manage "the suits" back at headquarters.

Recently, a few Microsoft senior managers have tried to downplay the
role that MCS has played in key company wins. In one case involving a
professional and financial services organization, a senior Microsoft
executive called me personally to request that we scale back the degree of
praise given to MCS by a Fortune 100 customer. Whether that was because
he feared that the praise undercut the official marketing spin out of
Redmond, which focuses entirely too much on the software, or because of
the growing fear of a backlash among independent VARs and systems
integrators, I cannot say.

But whether it is highlighted or hidden, professional services vended
by Microsoft is one of the secrets behind their string of successes in
the enterprise. And the irony is that the Open Source community had the
chance to do it first.


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