Liar, liar: When a good manager meets a bad vendor

Even veteran IT pros can be taken in by slippery vendors and deals that are too good to be true

Liar, liar: When a good manager meets a bad vendor

There are managers you remember because of their bad traits. Less common are the ones you recall for their expertise. “George” was in the latter category, and I worked with him when we were on the IT staff at a university.

For all his knowledge, George could not fully avoid shady dealings with vendors, despite everyone's best efforts to ward off nasty surprises. However, as a group, we were able to learn from the episode and come out better prepared for the next round.

George took our floundering group of IT generalists and divided us into network administrators and systems administrators, based on our primary talents and abilities. George was able to work with the deans, department heads, faculty, other staff, and students to get a pulse on how IT was performing at this institution in a way that fostered trust and respect for one another. Thanks in large part to him, our department was a great place to work and the staff highly respected him.

Promises and persuasion

But misleading and deceptive vendors are a force to be reckoned with, and even George was taken in by a shrewd one. Moving to a new email system is always a challenge, especially when there are more than 20,000 email accounts. “Vendor A” was particularly aggressive and wanted the email contract at all costs. The offer was incredible and included all of the server hardware, software, support, and licensing, as opposed to the other vendors who were only providing software and licensing. George was intrigued, but the committee was skeptical, though the vendor was already on the university's recommended partner list.

But the vendor representative seemed to win George over when he told him, "We are the only vendor that gives you ‘one throat to choke’ for sales or service on hardware and software. No one else can offer you what we are offering at this price for the complete package." George was sold on this "one throat" concept. The other committee members had concerns, but George was so impressed that he influenced them to favor this vendor.

Fast-forward two months. I had already grown sick of hearing "one throat to choke" almost on a daily basis and was ready for it to be over and done with. Thankfully it moved along: The server and storage hardware arrived and was installed in the data center, the email system software landed a few weeks later, and everyone was excited about our new email system. However, the plan soon started going awry.

Too good to be true

The five experienced administrators were having major difficulties installing the software properly, and the vendor support staff was not helpful. As a matter of fact, it seemed like the administrators were training the vendor's technical support on their own email system. Our administrators eventually found out that when Vendor A had purchased the email software division from another company, almost all of the developers and technical support staff had stayed with the original company.

George jumped in and talked to the vendor about the lack of good technical support, but they only promised that technical support would be available when we called in -- like it said in the contract.

About six months after the purchase, the installation was still limping along. I was tasked with linking our current directory services to the email system. The rest of the administrators and I were on a conference call with the email vendor technical support when we were informed there was no way to import users from our other directory services into the email system. Our other directory was standalone, which meant we would have to manually create 20,000-plus accounts.

As would be expected, the email administrators became very angry at the idea of adding this task to all the other duties and issues they’d been continually dealing with.

The new email system left us feeling simmering frustration. Then we got unexpected clarification.

Vendor shenanigans revealed

While perusing some IT trade magazines, I happened to read an article about Vendor A. Apparently, the server hardware the university purchased as part of the email package has been listed as end-of-life. The vendor had a newer line, less than two years old, it was promoting and could be upgraded to new processors. The end-of-life hardware could not be upgraded.

I passed along the article to George and the email team, and everyone was in a state of shock. The vendor had knowingly sold us hardware it had planned on putting on end-of-life and could not be upgraded.

When George talked to the vendor, they basically said tough beans and pointed out the minute details of the contract where they would support the hardware for three years. No one was happy about this, especially George.

Almost a year and a half after the email system was purchased, it was finally ready to go into production. But it had taken a heavy toll on the email administrators: One administrator had quit in frustration, and no one was happy. Not long afterward, yet another administrator left.

Live and learn

The IT director decided that when the contract was up with Vendor A, the university would immediately switch to a different email solution. We would be ready. Another email committee was formed, and this time I was on it.

During our initial meeting, George asked to talk for a few minutes. He told us, "I am only going to say this once. I learned a valuable lesson from the last email Request-For-Proposal. I apologize for what happened, and I promise not to interfere in the selection process this time." With that, George left the meeting.

We took the lesson to heart, and the second time around the email committee reviewed all of the RFPs very carefully and went into each review with a healthy dose of skepticism, demanding to fully understand every last detail and to make sure it was the best solution for the university.

It worked. The new email system that was selected was supported by everyone, the vendor had a consultant that was able to migrate all of the users from the old email system to the new one, and the project took less than 60 days from start to finish when we switched. We all moved on, wiser from the experience.