How to get the best service for the least amount of money

Bringing in outside consultants and engineers can be risky. Read this article to find out how to get the best service for the least amount of money.

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With storage purchases apparently up this year, many of you will also be engaging professional services people. What should you expect from these individuals?

I say "individuals" because not every professional will be at the top of their game, no matter how elite their firm is. Far from it: You may get someone fresh out of training armed with a contact number to more experienced backline engineers. Do yourself a favor and look into more than just the brand name--look under the label.

Let's be honest. We all have our own psychology to deal with when buying things, whether they're storage services or ordinary consumer items. Ever buy a product simply because it was the most expensive? There's a basic assumption that the more we pay for a product or service the better it has to be, right? Wrong.

We also have to admit that buying the most expensive product or service is an ego booster. We do it with our homes, cars and our children's education. So, it's not that big a leap to think that we carry this same mindset into the decisions we make on the job.

Know thy consultant
If price is not the best indicator of success, what should you know about the individuals that you are trusting with assessing, installing or managing your storage infrastructure? You should have references from previous clients that enjoyed the experience of having that storage professional work on a related or recent project. Take a look at their resume, too. Don't just give them a free pass because they are employed by the vendor that sold you the product. Yes, it's a safe bet to assume that this person has superior knowledge of their employer's product. But it's still only a bet. Because there's more on the line than losing a poker game, you should have more concrete evidence that that person's experience or lack thereof isn't a bluff on the part of your vendor.

Inquire into what individual will be assigned to your project, what kind of experience that person has and what city they live in. Locking in individuals can sometimes be hard, but you have to try because switching engineers in the middle of a project can derail your milestones while the new engineer is catching up on your specific project. If that seems obvious, remember: You're purchasing a service, not an individual. Theoretically, a vendor can rotate three engineers into your project and still abide by the engagement contract because it is likely to mention that the product being sold is a service, which isn't necessarily delivered by the same individuals over the life of the contract.

In most cases, vendors don't want to switch an engineer in the middle of a project. Vendors want nothing more than to keep you happy. But if there is a shortage of a particular skill set in your vendor's professional service organization, and the engineer that is assisting your project has that skill set, then guess what? That engineer may be rotated off of your project and assigned to another. Of course, that isn't what you will be told. You will be told that the engineer had extenuating circumstances at home and had to return immediately, or something personal like that.

Know where the consultants you are engaging live. In business, we often overlook the human aspect of providing and receiving services, and the toll it takes on service professionals' families. Unless a professional service resource is single and childless, that person is going to have responsibilities at home. And the longer the engagement, the harder it will be to meet these responsibilities. Pressure will mount, and before you know it the storage engineer who has been working on a year-long project for you is on a flight back home after five months of being a valuable resource.

What should you provide?
The more remote the human resource is with regards to distance, the more costly it is to have them on the project when you consider providing a place for the engineer to stay, car rentals, meals and phone calls from the office. These expenses should be spelled out in the engagement contract and not be a surprise to anyone receiving the bill.

Provide reasonable office space to your professional service engineers, preferably cubicles in the same area where your storage group resides. That will send a message that they are part of the group and not outsiders. Again, addressing the human element of a professional services or any other consultative engagement will yield huge benefits in the morale of project participants.

In addition to a well-placed cubicle, computers with Internet access and access to all hardware related to the project (including a printer) should be made available to professional service engineers. The idea that an engineer can share office space or the computer of the employee that they are shadowing is nonsense, and only causes resentment from the employee and hinders the consultant's work. When you pay upwards of $2,000 a day for storage professional services, you should do everything you can to eliminate the times when this person is waiting for resources from your staff. These small details should be spelled out in the contract and satisfied in advance of the consultant arriving at your doorstep.

What to expect
So, what should you get for $2,000 a day? Anything you want. In the course of my day, I might be speaking to a high-ranking officer of the company about the status of a multimillion dollar project in which I am engaged, troubleshooting a fabric problem, doing documentation or even loading a new tape library with tapes. Nothing should be too big or too small for contracted resources. Pride and ego should be virtually non-existent. Of course you wouldn't want this person doing what you hired a $30,000 a year tape operator to do. But if that operator isn't available, you would like to know that your hired gun wouldn't sit around and wait for that person to come back from lunch before continuing with their own tasks.

The best storage professional service engineers that I've met are polished, intelligent and have good communication and writing skills. A professional appearance is important because this person could at any time be called into a high-level meeting to explain the intricacies of the project. The appearance of a person providing information to this kind of audience can either enhance or destroy the perception of the audience that this person has command of the subject.

Intelligence, and not just knowledge of the technology supporting your storage infrastructure, is needed because engineers will likely be called on to take abstract business models and turn them into technical solutions. That requires more than just being able to roll out a storage area network (SAN). They'll need sound business sense, relevant experience and a commanding knowledge of the technology.

Excellent communication and writing skills are paramount for a storage professional services employee.

Being able to communicate technical jargon to non-technical business people can sometimes be difficult. Some may believe that the ability of non-technical folks to understand a project is a reflection on their knowledge, but I've found that my patience and delivery are equally essential ingredients to bridging the gap between technical and non-technical workers.

Good communication also implies good people skills. Professional services people should be easily engaged and of good temperament. They should understand what is expected of them and be willing to supply information on an ad hoc basis to any number of people with a range of different personalities. I remember working with a consultant in the brutal New York City financial district. On this particular day, the brokerage firm was extraordinarily busy completing projects, all of which seemed to involve him. He must have fielded 75 phone requests and almost as many in-person requests at his cubicle. At the close of the market, a change in an application was demanded from "on high," which meant he had to stay behind and support the request. Needless to say, he lost his composure and along with it, his job.

Good writing skills are also essential. The task that most engineers or administrators hate most is documentation. It can be a mundane task, but it takes patience and attention to detail, and requires above-average writing skills. For all or some of these reasons, system engineers and administrators usually shy away from this task. They would much rather be actively engaged in solving a problem that will give them instant status in the company than engaging in an activity that yields only future benefits. However, this is one task that should not be forsaken during the professional service engagement, no matter how mundane it appears to be.

Documentation
Actually, two sets of documentation should be maintained in parallel during the project. The first is the documentation of the whys and what-have-yous. This document should come out of the minutes from technical meetings concerning the project or normal change management meetings. But often technical decisions are based on technical issues external to the project or business dependencies that are uncovered during testing or technical conversations. If nobody documents these dependencies, someone unfamiliar with the decision to do or not do something may inadvertently do harm once your storage project has been deployed.

For example, your backup and recovery team sees an opening in the schedule and decides to start the backup of a particularly long client to get it out of the way. The problem is that there is a stored procedure due to execute at the completion of another event outside of that backup client and hasn't run yet. As a result, your backup does not include the records that were updated by the stored procedure.

The second set of documentation should be the how-to manual. From the installation and configuration of the hardware and software to the ongoing management of the same, the how-to manual should be all-inclusive in its scope, and not dependent on any outside resources (i.e., Web sites, additional manuals) primarily because it can and should be used in a disaster recovery (DR) scenario. For example, documentation used for DR should not have embedded links pointing to a particular vendor's Web site for more information because there's no guarantee that you will have Internet connectivity at your recovery site. However, adding the hard copy of a manual for a particular piece of hardware will increase the usability of the document.

As much as a technical document can be, making it an easy read should be the goal of the hired storage professional. I am all for learning new words, but not so many that it takes away from quick comprehension.

Storage professional service engagements can be a rewarding experience for both the service provider and their clients if the promised services and expectations are spelled out in advance and delivered by professionals who are knowledgeable in the storage solution space, have keen business sense, patience and a healthy dose of humor. All of which contribute to forging good relationships for future projects.

This was first published in February 2004

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