In today’s IT world, a customer has a lot of choices. Just a few decades ago, you had just a single vendor that provided the hardware, software, and all associated services. As late as the turn of the century, there were religious camps that praised some specific technology, and all other technologies were strictly forbidden.
Today, the situation is completely different. There are a ton of technologies to choose from. With the hardware, you can choose any vendor based on your business requirements. You can choose whether you want to host your servers in-house, at a partner’s data center as IaaS, or elsewhere. When you need a software solution for a specific purpose, you can choose from an on-premise installation or SaaS solution, based on how you have built your infrastructure.
This has drastically changed the way we software vendors operate. Because smaller software companies can outperform their larger competitors in specific segments, they are all in the same playing field. As customers no longer need to acquire all the IT from one vendor, they have a chance to quickly place bids with a lot of different vendors with the help of a simple Google search.
And this leads to bad habits.
It is way too easy to create RFP’s today. From my experiences, the quality of software RFP’s has sunk lower than ever. In the past, customers needed to think before pressing the “send” button. They needed to understand how the technology would fit into existing infrastructure. They needed to understand how the proposed solution would fit into their business processes, etc. Today, the customer may give just a brief glimpse of what they want, and basically no information about the overall business or technical infrastructure – because it is all constantly changing. You cannot know what you want to base solutions on because everything is open for discussion, right? Today, any business idea – whether good or bad – can be attained, because there are so many vendors out there. Someone has specialized in the specific segment you’re looking for.
So, you send out a bunch of RFP’s. How do you evaluate what is right for your business, if you haven’t spent the time to think it through? The answer is clear – the vendor should do a proof-of-concept for you.
So, what is a proof-of-concept anyway? According to Wikipedia, a proof-of-concept (PoC) is a “realization of a certain method or idea in order to demonstrate its feasibility or a demonstration in principle with the aim of verifying that some concept or theory has practical potential.” Furthermore, Wikipedia states that “A proof of concept is usually small and may or may not be complete.” Nowadays way too many businesses base their decisions on PoC’s that “verify that some concept of theory has practical potential” and that “are usually small and may or may not be complete.”
If I were buying a car, would I be willing to buy a car that has “some potential?” I would love to get a car that would ease my travel over traffic jams, but I am still not convinced on ordering an Airbus Pop.Up. However, when it comes to software, companies are prepared for this. If a vendor can show that it has an idea how to create a solution, it is a candidate for my business-critical solution.
When it comes to creating new business ideas, they are often high-flying. And because they are high-flying, they require some new technologies as well. So, it’s good to ask a vendor if they think how this could be achieved – they are the experts, right? And if they say “yes, we can create this” and even convince us by showing a “small and complete-or-maybe-not principle”, we are sure that “yes, cool, we can now base our whole new business model based on this.” It’s software, after all, just zeros and ones, they sure can put it in the right order.
I hate the idea of PoC. For a vendor, proof-of-concepts become a competition who can lie the best. Based on an RFP, someone gets a good idea of how a solution could potentially be created, and then the vendor uses some time to grasp some feasible parts of the idea and presents it to the customer. Sales is trained to talk some bull**it about the overall concept and convince the customer that “yes, we have invested heavily in this development over the last few years” even though no one had even heard about the idea two weeks ago.
If you are willing to build your business, forget about proof-of-concept. Go for pilots instead.
According to Wikipedia, pilot experiments are “frequently carried out before large-scale quantitative research, in an attempt to avoid time and money being wasted on an inadequately designed project”, and “a pilot experiment/study is often used to test the design of the full-scale experiment which then can be adjusted.”
There’s a big difference between PoC and pilots. Where a PoC is a theoretical proof that something can be done, the goal of a pilot is to see whether the idea can be practical. Which approach would you prefer?
Going forward, you might know that some industries – including e.g. military and automotive – have for a long time used a concept of “competitive prototyping” where multiple teams – or vendors – are assigned a task to create the best possible solution for the customer’s needs. In such cases, the customer typically has strict quality requirements and they are willing to pay extra for a few completely independent – and competing – vendors to try and come out with the best possible solution. In these industries, the requirement for a working solution is a true one.
Coming back to the software industry. We still rely on PoC’s. For the customer, it is easy to buy something based on a PoC, because it is nice to believe in something that a vendor can offer – even if it is just a nice idea without any concrete proof. And as I’m just working here, I can always blame the complexity of IT if the vendor can’t fulfill its promise.
At the end of the day, I told my bosses that the new business idea wasn’t possible because the vendor that we selected, based on a PoC, couldn’t deliver what they promised. But you know, it’s just IT and you can never be sure about these things. Then I packed my gear and went home. On the way, I spent my monthly wage to the lottery because there’s a theoretical possibility to win millions, ordered in advance an Airbus Pop.Up and when crossing the street near home I didn’t look right because my friend told that no-one ever comes from that direction.