Part of the key to success for any manager is being able to say “no” when the situation requires it. Of course, you also need to be able to determine when to say no. This process can be tricky for IT managers when it comes to evaluating new technology.

Most nontechnical people routinely assume that IT managers are always pining to adopt the latest technology for their organizations. In fact, since technical managers are the ones ultimately responsible for making sure the IT trains run on time, so to speak, they tend to be cautious. After all, if the latest and greatest device or platform doesn’t work, the IT manager in charge of implementation is likely to be held accountable, even if he or she opposed the deployment decision in the first place. Unfortunately, here at TechRepublic we hear from members every day who were forced to implement software or hardware that they knew was wrong for their organization—yet couldn’t get anyone to listen to their concerns.

In this column, I want to discuss some of the pressures IT managers face when evaluating new technologies. After that, I’ll suggest some strategies you can use to help resist technology solutions that aren’t right for your organization.

IT managers face squeeze from above and below
One of the dirty little secrets about being an IT manager is that, when it comes to new technology, you often have to resist the inclinations of both your subordinates and your superiors.

Your staff‘s wishes are easy to understand. After all, IT professionals keep themselves marketable by staying current on the latest technology. Further, they tend to get bored working with the same hardware and software. Therefore, they have both professional and personal reasons to push “bleeding edge” technologies for your organization. Finally, since they are focused on their particular function, they don’t have to look at the entire scope of the deployment decision in the same way you do. For example, most of your employees don’t have specific responsibility for an operating budget.

The situation is a little different when it comes to company executives. On the one hand, one would think they’d be supportive of an IT manager’s efforts to resist new deployments, if only on cost grounds. Interestingly, for a couple of reasons, that’s not always true. First, some business leaders are just as interested in new technology as your employees. Second and more importantly, vendor reps always spin new technology spending as ultimately paying for itself in reduced operating costs or increased efficiencies.

I worked in the telecom industry, and I remember going to a trade show and ending up having a drink with an account rep for a big equipment maker. He was buying, having closed a decent-size deal earlier in the day. The key, he told me, was that the vice president for MIS had missed the meeting, leaving him to deal with the prospect company’s president. “Piece of cake,” the rep said. “He was the guy who always wanted to buy in the first place.”

Now before I get blasted in the Discussion Center, let me be the first to say that many technology company executives are extremely knowledgeable. I’m painting with a broad brush here. Further, I completely understand that new hardware and software products usually do provide productivity gains that eventually allow them to pay for themselves.

The point I’m trying to make is that IT managers are in a unique situation, often squeezed by both sides when it comes to the decision to adopt new technology. It’s not unusual for a technical manager to sit in a conference room and be the only one opposed to deploying a technology solution that isn’t right for your organization. Let’s look at some strategies that can help you in these situations.

Argue on substance
The first thing to remember when you find yourself in the position of playing “Dr. No” is that you need to confine yourself to substantive arguments. In other words, arguments that appeal to your authority to make this kind of decision or, conversely, dwelling on someone else’s technological illiteracy aren’t likely to be effective. For example, you have to do more than simply say, “This is a bad decision. Trust me.” Even worse would be something along the lines of, “Look, I know what I’m talking about. You don’t. Let’s not do this.”

That said, there are some approaches you can take. While none of these is a silver bullet for your problem, they will help you uncover the real implications of a new technology.

  • Use the vendor references: Surprisingly, some IT managers I talk to disparage the usefulness of vendor-supplied references, making the point that the references obviously like the vendor, or else the vendor wouldn’t give them to you in the first place. While that’s true, you can still learn a lot from talking to them. Ask questions such as What was the biggest problem you encountered during implementation? Put yourself in my shoes—what questions should I be asking the vendor? Who actually supports the product in your organization? Can I talk to him or her? This last question is particularly useful—often vendor references only include the person who wrote the check, and not the IT manager who had to make the product work.
  • Find your own references: While you’d be foolish to write off the vendor-supplied references, for a big purchase you’d be equally foolish to rely solely on those sources. Go online and try to find other companies that have deployed this technology. There is an e-mail list or newsgroup for just about every technology on the planet. Try to find organizations using the technology that is similar to yours in size and type of business. Concentrate on surprises: What kinds of unanticipated problems did they run into? What support issues did they face? How much downtime (if any) have they encountered? How do the line employees in the IT department feel about the technology?
  • Find the “budget-breaker” scalability points: Everyone asks about scalability when talking to prospective vendors. However, for most technologies, the costs of scalability aren’t usually a straight line. There are points along the scalability curve where the next additional unit of growth is prohibitively expensive. To take a minor example, with rack-mounted servers, the cost of adding more capacity is limited to the cost of the next pizza box server you slide into the rack. However, when the rack is full, then the next bit of capacity you want to add will cost you not only the price of another server but also another rack to hold it, plus whatever connectivity costs for adding the new server rack to your network. Almost all new hardware platforms have these kinds of issues. The trick is to identify them in advance.
  • Estimate training costs: Most vendors, when pressed, will offer a free or discounted training package for the IT professionals who have to support a new technology. Unfortunately, whatever they include in the purchase price is almost always grossly inadequate. Find out what it will cost to truly train your people—and then insist that that expense be budgeted.

As I said earlier, there is no magic bullet to these kinds of evaluations. The point I’m trying to make is that you need facts to evaluate any kind of technology, especially when you’re the only person who seems skeptical of the vendor’s promises.

Horror stories?

Do you have horror stories about technologies you were forced to implement against your better judgment. Share your story by posting below or e-mailing us.