The road to cloud purgatory
It’s said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Well, in my opinion, the road to purgatory is paved with empty principles.
It’s certainly common enough in cloud adoption. Day after day, clients show up with cloud strategies that say things like, “We will use the cloud to be more innovative” and “We will be vigilant about costs and use the lowest-cost solutions” and “We will maximize our availability and resilience” and “We will be safe and secure in the cloud” and “We’re not going to get locked into our vendors”.
Some of these things are platitudes. Obviously, no one ever shows up with, “We will be careless and irresponsible in the cloud” or “Our implementations will be the shoddiest we can get away with” or “We’ll cheerfully waste money”. Principles that don’t help you make decisions aren’t very useful.
Principles like this are only interesting in the context that they represent a ranked set of priorities. When it comes down to “higher availability” versus “higher cost”, which are you going to choose? When you have to choose between a portable solution and a solution that is more innovative, how are you going to make that decision? (And if you think you’ve discovered a miraculous solution for cloud portability, some vendor has suckered you. Badly.)
My cocktail-napkin cloud strategy (Gartner paywall) research note asks you to make just a handful of decisions:
- Your stance on what to do with new business solutions (i.e. new apps)
- Your stance on cloud migration
- Your stack-ranked priority for business agility, short-term costs and long-term TCO
- Your appetites for risk, transformation, and business independence from central IT
It’s not unusual for us to see 20-page, 50-page, even 100-page cloud strategies that contain no clear decisions about any of those elements, because they are the things that are controversial — so they’ve simply been left out. So the strategy contains worthless platitudes, thoughtful governance is impossible, and actual cloud adoption stalls out on endless arguments that constantly relitigate the same conflicts.
If you’re constantly arguing about cloud-related decisions, or your lovely declaration of “cloud first!” seems to not actually result in any successful cloud adoption, take a hard look at your principles and the organization alignment around those principles and priorities. And make sure your principles can actually be pragmatically implemented.
Beware of vendors bearing transformation Turkish Delight
“It is a lovely place, my house,” said the Queen. “I am sure you would like it. There are whole rooms full of Turkish Delight, and what’s more, I have no children of my own. I want a nice boy whom I could bring up as a Prince and who would be King of Narnia when I am gone. While he was Prince he would wear a gold crown and eat Turkish Delight all day long; and you are much the cleverest and handsomest young man I’ve ever met. I think I would like to make you the Prince—some day, when you bring the others to visit me.” — The White Witch (C.S. Lewis; The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe)
When most people read the Narnia novels as children, they have no idea what Turkish Delight is. Its obscurity in recent decades has allowed everyone to imagine it as an entirely wonderful substance, carrying all their hopes and dreams of the perfect candy.
So, too, do people pour all of their business hopes and dreams into a nebulously-defined future of “digital transformation”.
Because the cloud is such a key enabling technology for digital business, I have plenty of discussions with clients who have been promised grand “digital transformation” outcomes by cloud providers and cloud MSPs. But it certainly not a phenomenon limited to the cloud. Hardware vendors and ISVs, outsourcers, consultancies, etc. are all selling this dream. While I can think of vendors who are more guilty of this than others, it’s a cross-IT-industry phenomenon.
Beware all digital transformation promises. Especially the ones where the vendor promises to partner with you to change the future of your industry or reinvent/revolutionize/disrupt X (where X is what your industry does).
I’ve quietly watched a string of broken transformation promises over the last few years, gently privately warning clients in inquiry conversations that you generally can’t trust these sorts of vendor promises. These behaviors have become much more prominent recently, though. And a colleague recently told me about a conversation that seemed like just a bridge too far: a large tech vendor promising to partner with a small Midwestern industrial manufacturer (tech laggards not doing anything exciting) to create transformative products, as part of a sales negotiation. (This vendor had not previously exhibited such behavior, so it was doubly startling.)
Clients come to us with tales of vendors who, in the course of sales discussions, promises to partner with them — possibly even dangling the possibility of a joint venture — to launch a transformational digital business, revolutionize the future of their industry, or the like. (Note that this is distinct from companies that sell transformation consulting. They promise to help you figure out the future, not form a business partnership to create that future — i.e. McKinsey, Deloitte, etc.)
Usually, neither the customer nor the vendor have a concrete idea of what that looks like. Usually, the vendor refuses to put this partnership notion in writing as a formal contract. On the rare occasion that there is a contract, it is pretty vague, does not oblige the vendor to put forth any business ideas, and allows the vendor to refuse any business idea and investment. In other words, it has zero teeth. Because it’s so open-ended, the customer can fill the void with all their Turkish Delight dreams.
Moreover, the vendor may sometimes dangle samples of transformation-oriented services and consulting during the sales process. The customer gobbles down these sweet nuggets, and then stares mournfully at the empty box of transformation candy. For the promise of more, they’ll cheerfully betray their enterprise procurement standards, while the sourcing managers stand on the sidelines frantically waving contract-related warnings.
Listen to your sourcing managers when they warn you that the proposed “partnership” is a fiction. The White Witch probably doesn’t have your best interests at heart. Good digital transformation promises — ones that are likely to actually be kept — have concrete outcomes. They specify what the partnership will be developing, together with timelines, budgets, and the legal entity (such as a JV) that will be used to deliver the products/services. Or they specify the specific consulting services that will be provided — workshops, deliverables from those workshops, work-for-hire agreements with specific costs (and discounts, if applicable), and so forth.
Without concrete contractual outcomes, the vendor can vanish the candy into thin air with no repercussions. Sure, in a concrete transformation proposal, the end result will probably not be your Turkish Delight dreams. It might resemble a bowl of ordinary M&Ms. Or maybe a tasty grab-bag of Lindt truffles. (You’d have to get particularly lucky for it get much beyond the realm of grocery-store candy, though.) But you’re much more likely to actually get a good outcome.
Off-hand, I can think of one public example where a prominent “change the industry” vendor partnership with an enterprise, seems to have resulted in a credible product: Microsoft’s Connected Vehicle Platform. There, Microsoft signed a deal with a collection of automakers, each of whom had specific outcomes they wished to achieve — outcomes which could be realistically achieved in a reasonable amount of time, and representing industry advancement but not anything truly revolutionary. Microsoft built upon those individual projects to deliver a platform which would move the industry forward, which was announced with a clear mission and a timeframe for launch. Sure, it didn’t “change the future of cars”, but it brought tangible benefits to the customers.
Vendors often try to sell to who you hope to be, rather than who you are now. Your aspirations aren’t bad. Just make sure that your aspirations are well-defined and there’s a realistic roadmap to achieve them. Hope is not a strategy. The vendor may have little incentive not to promise everything you could dream of, in order to get you to sign a large purchase agreement.