By Chris McManaman

One of the many benefits of being an IT consultant is the opportunity to get free software as you evaluate it for your client. In this role, consultants have a chance to sort the wheat from the chaff and request a free personal license for use. You can often add a new, cutting-edge product to your toolkit.

Vendors want to align their selling process with the clients’ buying processes. By allowing you to have a personal copy, the vendor has an instant advocate for its product, and you have another tool to use for future engagements. Furthermore, you can significantly increase your value to the client and your firm. This is the process I follow in achieving my client’s objectives.

Evaluating software
Recognize the client’s problem thoroughly
When you select software, you want to make sure that it will allow you to deliver the project. You don’t want software that will continuously force you to go back to the client and backpedal on your promises.

Find out who the key players are in the software solution field
Comb through Web sites like to find out which vendors you feel might solve your client’s problem.

Get three-month evaluations of the software and as much marketing material and support as you can handle
Always get three-month licenses, so that you have enough of a grace period to relinquish the product before the client needs to purchase it. Ask for more time if you think you need it. If the vendor won’t give you a three-month license, it’s probably an indication that it isn’t too confident about its product.

Get the marketing material to find out what they claim they can do. Test those claims. You don’t want to build an architecture that depends on a feature that turns out to work only in the French version.

Remember, the level of support that you will receive is greatest before the client purchases the software—take advantage of it.

Select the product that accomplishes the most goals with the least effort
Project plans are always optimistic. People inevitably end up spending late nights and weekends at work. Find the product that will shave the most time off the project plan and has the most working features that will allow you to exceed the client’s goals.

Test those timesaving features and make sure they work. I cannot stress this enough. Perform functional, integration, and load testing on the product’s features. The more testing you do, the fewer surprises you’ll have during implementation.

Try to find a product that can be used on multiple projects. This will help the client improve ROI.

Create an architecture that will enable you to extract the product, if necessary, and replace it with another one
Place clients in the position where they are the most flexible in their product selection.

Implement the product as fast as you can
This will be an important selling point to the client. They want to see ROI and payback as soon as possible.

The faster you implement, the faster you will find any defects that could be showstoppers with the product.

Give your seal of approval and point out other projects that the product would benefit
You are now in the position to put yourself on the line for the software. Be sure to keep your client informed of the benefits and limits of the software, and why you think the limits can be overcome. Point out all the time savings that this product will provide, including other projects that will benefit from the product.

As the company is getting ready to buy the software, ask the vendor for a personal copy for your laptop
You bring the third-party credibility to the vendor’s product at the client site. If you did good research on all the products in the field, you will probably be committed to one of the products, and want to make it part of your own personal tool kit. If you don’t, ask yourself—why not?

Begin working toward an alliance between your company and the vendor
You’ve invested a significant portion of your time and probably have become an expert in this software. Why not capitalize on your newfound knowledge? Get your company involved with this software. This will create more opportunity for you. If the software takes off, it will raise your credibility within the company. If it doesn’t, it’s no big deal. I have yet to be fired for recommending software that I thought was really good.

To get the best software package, evaluate the following factors

  • Defects: Too many defects can hinder your implementation progress.
  • Technical support: Measure the quality of the vendor’s answers and how fast they get them to you.
  • How much time it will save the client: Clients favor people who save them time and money, and increase revenue.
  • The cost of the software: Is it worth it? If the product will save you a week of work, but costs $150,000, ask yourself, wouldn’t you rather keep that $150,000?

Case in point
Ken Newman, a technical architect, was required to find the best solution for a client’s application integration problems. Web services became the obvious solution, but something was missing that would enable this solution to become an incredible success. Ken needed a product that would:

  • Create a process and allow him to plug in the Web services, Java APIs, COM objects, UDDI, and error notification system.
  • Validate and parse the XML to make sure the XML would be delivered to the correct target(s) and be ready for consumption.

Ken went through six software solutions until he found the one that fit the scenario perfectly. He used the above process until he found the software, Fuego, that met his criteria. He predicted that Fuego would be the enabler of the Web services revolution. Fuego will make all the Web services development tools work together.

  • He included all of the above components into the business process that he designed in Fuego.
  • He implemented 27 integration points in two months using Fuego to include the above components into a business process and allow them to interact in a harmonious environment.
  • He received the best technical support he’d ever received from a vendor.
  • Fuego gave him a personal license because it knew he could make its product sing.

The major lesson learned is that it is imperative to obtain the right software. Software that is good for the client will be good for your career. Clients view consultants as the experts. Vendors are drowning them with marketing hype, and clients have no idea which products will actually solve their problem. Clients feel insulated and overwhelmed at the same time. They need a fireman to jump through the burning window, grab them by the hand, and say, “Let me take you through this door to safety.” You, the professional IT consultant, can be that fireman by showing your clients which products will ensure their success and secure that ROI they desperately seek.

Chris McManaman is an integration architect for RCG Information Technology, Inc., a three-decade leader in IT professional services. He is a Java certified programmer, an Oracle Certified DBA, and an expert in Web services, UDDI, ebXML, and data and application integration solutions and is constantly searching for the next great tool to reduce implementation time to less than four months. Chris is presently engaged as an IT consultant on a Web services project at an energy company in Houston, Texas.