The shift from on-premise to cloud-based, SaaS solutions has brought more freedom and less oversight to the system-building process. Here’s how to get your technology stack under control.
Startups and growth companies are filled with brilliant people. They’re entrepreneurial, motivated and good at what they do, so when they’re given free rein to do it, it’s usually a good thing for the company. But it can be a bad thing for the company’s technology stack unless there’s a plan in place to keep things on track.
I’ve helped early stage and high-growth companies build technology systems and processes for over two decades and today serve as VP of Sales Operations at SparkPost. In that time, I’ve seen how the shift from on-premise solutions to cloud-based, SaaS options has brought more freedom and less oversight to the system-building process. In the cloud, every department has the freedom to choose and implement their own technology.
While the SaaS model has many benefits (including faster implementation and lower initial costs), it has a definite downside. Over time, as the company grows, there comes a point when senior staff look around and realizes they have no control over the technology stack they have in place, and quite often, no idea why it’s costing them so much money.
When the systems get out of control, the solution is to take a step back, re-evaluate and regroup. It takes time to dig in and identify areas of overlap, incompatibility and unnecessary costs, but going through a thorough system review will help you regain control, support greater visibility and integration, save money and create a system that’s integrated, scalable and supportive of your overarching business objectives. (For more on the requirements of a healthy technology stack, read Mike Zarzeka’s article on the holistic ecosystem.)
Until the company has a clear view of their technologies, how they fit together and the value they deliver, it is at a serious competitive disadvantage. If you don’t have a process in place for reviewing technology and ensuring the integrity of your ecosystem, consider this template to get back on track.
Gather a cross-functional team
The group that evaluates your ecosystem will be cross functional, including members of several business units. It doesn’t have to be a big group, but it needs to reflect both the people who administer the system and those who need it to support specific business functions. Together, this team will have a more comprehensive understanding of the company’s objectives and the underlying technology stack that supports them.
Hiring a consultant to lead or participate in the process is not essential, but it can be invaluable, especially for organizations with systems that are in crisis or business units that are in conflict. A neutral, outside perspective with specialized expertise can help to smooth over any internal politics and ensure the process follows best practices.
Catalog the current technology stack
Start the evaluation process by cataloging the technologies being used across the organization and identifying how well they’re performing. Do they meet the organization’s needs in terms of functionality, cost and integration? Do they replicate or overlap with the function of other solutions? How essential are they to operations?
At the end of the process, you should have documented the entire technology stack so that you can clearly see how it all fits together. That might include a system map or other visual representation.
With this information in hand, the group can start to make decisions about what is essential, where there is overlap in functionality and how to cut costs.
Gather executive input for vision and influence
Getting the C-suite involved in the process is essential for two reasons. First, they hold the big-picture vision, and their insights can help the evaluation team make decisions based on long-term business requirements as well as immediate needs. And second, you’ll need to leverage their influence and authority when it comes to handing down the decision to the system users (who aren’t always happy when their favorite tech toys are taken away). When the decisions are framed as directives from the leadership, those conversations are much easier to have.
Talk to users of your technology stack
Getting bottom-up input is equally important. Interviewing department heads and talking to the people who use these technologies on a regular basis is an integral part of the evaluation process. Before you can make a decision, you need to know why they chose that particular solution, what they use it for and how it has lived up to the expectation.
Not only does this provide critical insight, but it also helps smooth the way when it’s time to make changes. If you decide to eliminate a trusted and valuable solution, the reaction will be less negative if you’ve taken the time to listen to the users and incorporate their input.
You’ll do a better job of rationalizing the elimination or replacement of that solution if you understand the function it performs and the value it brings to those who use it.
Implement changes based on a long-term vision
Once the evaluation team has developed a plan for change, it’s time to implement. Depending on the extent of the changes required, this is likely to be a multi-phase undertaking. At this point, it’s important to keep in mind that progress beats perfection every time. Don’t wait for the perfect moment to get started. Just create a plan that acknowledges the priorities and move forward with it incrementally.
Communication is critical at this stage, so make sure you have a plan in place to let people know what’s coming and how it will affect them.
Here’s the bottom line.
The evaluation process helps you bring an unruly technology stack to heel, but unless you implement an ongoing process, those gains will evaporate quickly. Ensure that your ecosystem stays healthy as it evolves by creating process for evaluating all new technology prior to purchase.
If the company has executives who communicate regularly with one another, it doesn’t need to be a formal process. It can be a simple agreement to discuss any proposed acquisitions before the fact and evaluate them according to an agreed-upon list of priorities or requirements.
Your system is fundamental to company performance, so get the right people involved. Listen to users. Look at the bigger picture. And take the time to do the job right.
More technology stack best practices:
- Be realistic about time. Companies tend to want to set a deadline for overhauling their technology before they fully understand what they’re trying to do or how long it will take. You have to go through the evaluation process before you can identify the extent of the changes required and be realistic about the timeline, or you’re likely to set yourself up for blown deadlines or a rushed implementation.
- See through the sales pitch. Making a software purchase is much easier today. Technology has become much more consumer-friendly, which means business units can rush to purchase solutions that sound great but aren’t a fit for the underlying systems. Even with cloud solutions, system administrators need to be involved in the decision-making process. Many organizations skip this step because they’re afraid of pushback, but it will prevent decisions that cost money and create costly dysfunction.
- Choose “best for us,” not “best in class.” It’s tempting to go with the best-in-class solutions such as Salesforce, Marketo, and Netsuite. But one size doesn’t fit all, and while they’re industry leaders for a reason, these solutions are not always right for a specific industry or a specific company. Do your research and evaluate solutions with an open mind and clear criteria. Don’t be afraid to buck the trends if you find that a less well-known solution delivers what you need.
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