Getting the big IT purchase approved

IT organizations are faced with a tantalizing array of options when it comes to hardware and software solutions. But long before anything can ever be deployed, it has to be purchased, which means at some point it had to be approved. Sometimes deploying a solution is easy compared to getting it approved. But how does one go about getting the big ticket item through? Well, here is my attempt at demystifying the process.

First, lets just say that "big purchase" is without a doubt a relative term. For an SMB, $10,000 might be a show stopper, while seven figures for a large enterprise may be part of the routine. Both offer unique challenges, but share similar tactics. Getting a big IT purchase approved typically consists of a unique set of skills and experience. A mix of preparation, clarity, delivery, timing, and attitude make up the chaotic formula that when done well, will improve the odds of success. It is a skill that can be equally important to anything you bring in your technical arsenal.

Preparation
You will serve yourself well if you think and deliver like a consultant. Life in Ops can get muddied down by internal strife, whack-a-mole fire fighting, and the occasional "look at this new feature" deployment even though nobody asked for it. Take notice of how a good consultant does things. Step back to understand the desired result, then build out your own statement defining the typical design inputs like requirements, constraints, assumptions and risks.

At some point, you will need to prioritize your own wants, and pick your battles. You typically can’t have everything, so start from the ground up of what IT’s mission statement is, and work from there. Start with bet-the-business elements like high availability, and data/system protection that won’t be spoken up for by anyone but IT. Then, if there are other needs, they may in fact be a departmental need that impacts productivity and revenue. While IT may be the enabler of the request, make sure the identity of the requester is clear.

It’s not uncommon for an SMB to have very little money allocated to IT, but this isn’t an excuse for lack of diligence in preparation. Large organizations have more money, but proportionally much more complex problems to solve, SLAs to adhere to, and regulations to comply with. If you have no idea how your organization’s IT spending compares to peers in your industry, it is time to learn, and communicate that as a part of your presentation if your funds are abnormally low.

This is also an opportunity for you to project yourself as the "solution provider" in your organization. Embrace this. Help them understand why technology costs have increased over the past 10 years. If someone says, "Why don’t we just use the cloud for this?" Rather than let smoke pour out of your ears, respond with "That is a great question Joe. IT is constantly looking for the best ways to deliver services that meets the requirements of the organization." And then go into an appropriate level of detail on why it may or may not be a good fit. (If it is a good fit, then say so!). The point here is to embrace the solution provider role for the organization.

Your biggest competitor to your proposal will be, you guessed it, doing nothing. But there is a cost of doing nothing. The key stakeholders might look at this proposed expenditure and compare it to $0. In most cases, this is completely wrong, and it is up to you to help them understand what the real cost comparison is.

One opportunity sometimes overlooked is the power of a cost deferral. Does the unbudgeted solution you are proposing delay a much larger budgeted purchase until perhaps next year? Showcase this. Good proposals typically show a TCO of 3 to 5 years. But do not underestimate the allure an immediate cost deferral has to your friendly CFO.

Get input on defining the "what" of a problem, and it’s impacts. The "how" is usually reserved for the Subject Matter Expert (e.g. you). This will minimize silly ideas from others suggesting your storage capacity issues can be solved by the Friday flier for Best Buy.

Learn to prime the pump. Do a little one-on-one campaigning. This is a common method suggested in many books on successful leadership. It is your chance to win over your constituents before any formal proposal. Trying holding an internal "Lunch and Learn" about trends in technology. Share a little about how amazing virtualization is, and help them understand some basic challenges of IT. These techniques will engage key personnel, and help in establishing a trusting relationship with IT.

The presentation – IT Shark Tank
I’m a big fan of the show, ‘Shark Tank.’ If you aren’t familiar with it, four very successful investors hear pitches by would-be entrepreneurs who are looking for investment funds in exchange for a stake in equity. The investors bring their own wealth, smarts and competitive nature to the table, and can be quite tough on prospective entrepreneurs. A few things can be gleaned from this, and applied directly to your ability to deliver a successful proposal.

  • Come prepared. Nothing kills a proposal like lack of preparation, and not knowing your facts. Lets say you are requesting more storage: You’d better believe some of the simplest questions will be asked. Many that you may overlook when entering a room. "How much storage do we have?" "How much do we have left?" "How much do we need?" "Why does it cost so much?" "what are the alternatives?"
  • Clearly state the problem, the impacts to the business, the options, and your recommendations.
  • Learn to answer the simplest of questions in the simplest of ways. "Does this proposal save us money?" "Is there a less expensive way to do this?"
  • Craft your message to your audience and appeal to their sensibilities. Flog yourself upside the head if you use any IT acronyms, or assume that technical gymnastics is going to impress them. It won’t. What will is being concise. Every word has a purpose.
  • Provide a little (but not too much) context to the problem that you are trying to solve. Leverage an analogy if you need to.
  • Know the counterpoints, and how to respond. Know how you are going to answer a question you don’t know the answer to.
  • Seek to understand their position. What might they dislike (e.g. unpredictable expenses, obligated debt, investments they don’t understand, etc.)
  • Respect everyone’s time. Make it quick, make it concise, and if they would like more detail, you can certainly do that, but don’t make it a part of the pitch.

How to deal with everyone else in the food chain
Be honest with your vendors. They have a job to do, and are trying to help you. If you show interest in a solution that is 10x more than what you can afford, it isn’t going to do anyone good to bring them in for an onsite demonstration. They will appreciate your honesty so they can perhaps focus on more cost appropriate solutions. Believe it or not, most want the right solution for you in the first place, as repeat business is the most important value they can bring back to their own organization.

If you are someone who doesn’t have deep-dive knowledge on the solution you are proposing, take advantage of the SE for the VAR or channel partner as a resource. Many of my friends in the industry are SEs and are some of the best and the brightest folks I know, and they all came from the Ops side at some point. Use them as a resource to learn about the solutions they are proposing, and ask them challenging questions.

Be honest with your organization. This isn’t about what you want. Your value will increase when you can demonstrate repeatedly that you have their best interests in mind.

After the decision
If the proposal was approved, focus on delivering at least some results fast. Then showcase the win and how IT can help solve organizational challenges. This may sound like self promotion, but it is not if done right. The wins are for the organization, not you. This establishes trust, and lays the groundwork for the future. Use company newsletters, or establish a monthly IT Review to share updates.

If it was denied, don’t take it personal. It is great to show passion, but don’t confuse passion for what you are really trying to do; helping your organization make the best strategic and financial decision for them. Would it be gratifying to get a new Datacenter revamp through only to realize it was the financial tipping point of the organization just a few months later? Keep it all in perspective. Besides, some of the best purchasing decisions I’ve been involved with were the ones that were ultimately rejected, which gave solutions a chance to mature, and me an opportunity to find a different way to solve a problem.

Try doing your own proposal or presentation retrospective. What went well and what didn’t. Ask for feedback on how it went. You might be surprised at the responses you get.

Conclusion
You have the unique opportunity to be the technology advocate for the organization rather than simply a burden to the budget.  Do I get everything approved?  Of course I don’t, but a well prepared proposal will allow you, and your organization to make the smartest decisions possible, and help IT deliver great results.

Software that helps make life in IT a little easier

 

In IT, rarely is one truly developing something from the ground up.  In many ways, IT is about making solutions work – disjointed as they may be.  Large enterprise class solutions such as Email and messaging platforms, Content Management Systems, CRM’s, Directory Services, and Security Solutions all are massively complex -  even if they are well designed.  Those of us who are faced with the responsibility to “make it work” must possess the knack to be a deep-dive expert on any number of subjects, while having the big picture perspective of the IT Generalist.  It can be a complex mix of factors that determine how well solutions end up working out.  It’s usually an assorted mix of experience, technical and organizational skillsets, ingenuity, a lot of hard work, and a little bit of luck.  This is how the seasoned IT veteran separates themselves from those less experienced. 

Then, every once in a while a piece of software comes along to make your life in IT easier.  Software that helps bridge the much needed gaps that may exist in cross platform integration, connectivity, management, monitoring, or procedural tasks.  These are applications that don’t make deploying or managing complex systems easy.  They just make it a little easier.  Sometimes you stumble upon helpful applications like these almost by accident, as I have.  Others you knew of, but just never got around to trying out.  So I thought I’d take a brief time-out from my recent focus on all things related to Virtualization, and take a moment to share a few of those applications that are currently making my life in IT a little easier.  Some of these listed below are worthy of their own posts, which I hope to get around to.  It is a list that is neither complete, nor appropriate for every environment, and their importance really depends on how much you need it.  Only time will tell on which solutions become obsolete, and which one’s stand up over time.

Scribe Insight
This may be the best product you’ve never heard of.  If you ever need to transform, manipulate, or convert data from disparate systems, this is the product for you.  No, it’s not a “utility” but an enterprise class solution that demands a commitment in time to learn.  The results are stunning.  Data sources that had no earthly intention of being able to talk to another system can share the same data.   Example:  Your Sales Department uses a CRM running on SQL, but an ERP or Finance system runs on Oracle, and you need those records to interact on a transaction by transaction basis.  Scribe can do that, and much more.  Are those systems running on separate networks?  No problem.  Scribe simplifies the communication channels between autonomous systems.  It can insulate the complexity of convoluted database tables, and in some cases will completely eliminate the need for you to use an application’s SDK for data integration.  Database Administrators would love this tool, but it’s power extends well beyond just database integration.  It’s a true gem.

Tree Size Pro
You have a choice. Spend weeks and weeks trying to get PowerShell or vb scripts to analyze and manipulate your large flat-file storage contents, or spend a few bucks for Tree Size Pro.  This product delivers.  I’ve used it to generate reports on storage usage, and to automate flat file storage cleanup tasks.  When I think about what it would have taken to do it programmatically, I’d still be working on it.

OneNote
I’ve written about OneNote before, and how it can be utilized in IT.  Since that time, I’ve learned how to exploit it even more, and it goes with me everywhere.  It could be 10 times the price it is, and I’d still pay for it myself if needed.  It’s the pocket knife that should be in every Administrator’s tool chest.  The larger your team, the better it works.  Design documentation, troubleshooting active issues, project planning, research, etc.  It will help you become a better Administrator. 

Likewise 
This software allows for Unix, Linux, and Mac systems to authenticate against Active Directory.  It will allow for centralized management of these systems using Group Policy Objects in the same way you manage your windows machines.  I was one of their first customers, and have been thrilled to see it mature over the years.  Their Open Source edition is OEM integrated into Linux Distributions such as Ubuntu, Suse, and other products like VMware vSphere.  The free/Open source edition allows for you to join these systems to AD, while the commercial edition allows for centralized management.

Putty
If you need a solid windows based SSH client to connect to your Linux clients, this is it.  One version (.56b) also supports the “Generic Security Services API” or GSSAPI.  This means that if your Linux machines are domain joined using Likewise, you can leverage Active Directory to log in to that Linux system, inheriting your credentials so that it is all passwordless.  Included with it is “plink” which gives you the ability to run a *nix command remotely from the windows system.  Great for routines initiated from a windows workstation.  “Pscp” is the putty SCP client for getting files to and from that connected *nix system.

CionSystems AD Change Notifier
One of the interesting aspects of Active Directory is that there are object changes all the time, but as an Administrator, you have no way of knowing it. AD Change Notifier helps with that.  Simple, yet effective.  It sends you an email notification of object changes in AD.  You can select whether you want all types of changes (modifies, creates, deletes), as well as particular object types (users, machines, OUs, GPOs, etc.). You learn a little about how objects change in AD, and if you delegate AD responsibility, how and what is being changed in AD.

Wyse Pocket Cloud for the iPhone and iPad
Not unique in its purpose, but this RDP (and optionally PCoIP) client for the iPhone and iPad does what its supposed to do flawlessly.  Any app that can let you reboot a critical server from the golf course is good in my book.  Any app that lets you do that on the golf course, in front of the VP of the company is even better. (True story)

Acronis
Long before the wonders of virtualization, there were byte-level disk imaging solutions to help you with your system protection and recovery needs.  This was like magic at the time, especially as it was becoming obvious file based backups of system partitions were never any good in the first place.  While it may not be needed in the Enterprise like it once was, there are still a few good use cases for it.  It’s also pretty handy to have on your home system, and every one of your neighbors home systems.  …Or the ones that know you’re in IT, and think you are their personalized technical support. 

CionSystems AD Self Service
Yet another tool from CionSystems.  It takes the burden off of IT for user account related activities.  Does the user need to change their cell phone number or their home address?  Does a Department Manager need to change the Title of someone’s position?  AD Self Service can do this, without ever giving these end users privileges.  Updating AD related attributes is especially important if you use other solutions that leverage AD information (Exchange, SharePoint, CRM, etc.).  AD Self Service also allows for a secure way for the user to unlock their locked out account.  The more users you manage, the more this product will help take the burden off of IT.

SolarWinds Subnet Calculator
Some networking purists would flog me on the side of the head for recommending such a cheater app.  But the fact is, I need quick and easy way to review subnetting options in order to make the right decision.  I can subnet manually much like I can do arithmetic manually.  I just choose not to.  I have other projects to allocate my time to, and I need the speed of a calculator to help me visit those options more quickly.  Subnet calculators like SolarWinds offer one other ability often overlooked; the ability to visualize the sizing of your subnetting.  You can create problems by making subnets too small, or too large.  Tools like this give a great visual representation of how you want to split networks.  It doesn’t excuse the requirement that every Administrator should fully understand how subnetting works.  (I still marvel at how brilliant IP subnetting is).  It’s that once they do, an Administrator should be able to use a tool to make it easier and faster for them to make the correct decision.

FileZilla
For as long as FTP has been around, and ubiquitous as it may seem, one might conclude that it all works the same.  Not true.  FTP Servers will have their own unique behaviors, just as FTP clients will have their own quirks.  The firewalls that the FTP traffic pass through add another variable that can frustrate end users and Administrators alike.  FileZilla seems to offer the most flexibility when working with remote FTP servers, and is what I use to handle a variety of different FTP needs.  FileZilla won’t eliminate inherent complexities with the FTP protocol as it traverses multiple networks, it just makes it easier to negotiate.

Enjoy!