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A nice little earner

It’s a long time since I was a technical support technician and even longer since I was a database and applications programmer, but that rusty practical knowledge can come in very handy from time to time – especially when there is a recalcitrant technology provider that needs to be kept on their toes.

One of our clients at meaning is implementing a business intelligence system – it’s database driven and it’s web-based. My client is relatively small and working to a tight budget, but the supplier is big and multinational. The firm’s size and the number of other companies using the package was reassuring to my client’s project team when I was helping them to choose the software. The sales presentations were slick, the implementation methodology was impeccable. And as far as I can tell, the software is good. There was a bit of an argy-bargy over the contract – my client wanted a fixed cost for delivery, the supplier wouldn’t consider anything less than time-and-materials, but gave a convincing defence of the policy in terms of only charging for actual work. The contract was, in practice, as negotiable as a mortgage from the bank.

Now, well into the delivery, the velvet gloves are off, and the organisation, sadly, has gone the way of many large firms that supply technology, and developed a kind of corporate dislocation from reasonableness that my client now perceives only as arrogance. Is it arrogance, I wonder, or the result of lawyers determining not only the contract but the parameters by which services are delivered?

A new part of the system isn’t working. It should be, but it isn’t. Tech support doesn’t respond and refers it to the consultants from the same firm who set it up. The consultants say they will happily investigate it. It is clearly (to them) an issue unique to the client and they will have more time to work on it than tech support. They omit to mention that they will charge for this time, but they will, I know. It’s an almost cynically convenient model for the supplier – and one that many a car-owner or attendant of the emergency plumber will be familiar with, when in despair, you are likely to say, with resignation, “just fix it, whatever it takes” as the hours continue to mount before wheels will roll again  or water will flow once more.

Which is why I found myself obtaining all of the privileged passwords and access routes, sitting in the server room and logging in to servers, wading through a vast lagoon of files and spending hours on the phone to technicians in exotic places. It has taken a while to get to the bottom of it – but at least I am not under any departmental performance target and we will be billing our client only what they think is reasonable for our time.

I think all this effort is about to pay off. Very late on Friday, at the end of another long call with tech support, the technicians finally identify several irregularities and point to some errors in the basic configuration. And I have seen with mine own eyes the unsatisfactory work done in setting up the system, and the needlessly convoluted installation model followed which has resulted in long periods when the local database server and the remote web server are shuttling things between themselves making up their mind which should respond. I laughed when I realised the technical situation I was confronted with was a close analogue of the firm’s own business model, with tech support and consultants rapidly but ineffectively passing bucks up and down the line, while the client waited a very long time for a meaningful response.

There are a few other useful things I have learned by getting stuck in – enough to give my client plenty of leverage to extract some more courteous behavour from the supplier, and even reduce their dependency on this particular supplier by providing some other options. Nobody likes a bully, and the ones that wear suits and speak jargon are often the hardest to spot.