http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0545817/ "You're a tiger! Grrrr!"
That was my favourite line from Dearth of a Salesman, a programme in Steve Coogan's Coogan's Run comedy series. He played IT salesman Gareth Cheeseman, a greasy, awkward little bag of anxieties, attending a sales conference and trying to further his tin-pushing career. It was a stereotypical portrayal of IT salespeople, of course. In reality, they're a knowledgeable bunch, with good interpersonal skills, well-versed in the art of understanding what customers need. But the biggest challenge facing IT salespeople today - and the industry trend that would leave a real-life, witless Gareth Cheeseman behind - is that customer needs are changing, dramatically.
Managed services is the cause of it all. With everything being offered as a service, the patterns of IT usage are changing. In Cheeseman's time (Coogan made the programme in 1995), IT salespeople sold hardware, and the software to run on that hardware. But as managed services take off, commentators believe that hardware sales to conventional customers will decline, even as it is bought in increasing quantities by third party service provides. Instead, IT departments will eventually buy managed services that they resell to their internal customers.
There will be iterative steps along this road, of course. Private clouds will create a class of managed services designed to run inside organizations, still administered by IT departments, using their own hardware. But a trusted cadre of sysadmins and business analysts are telling me that this will effectively be replaced by public clouds over time as IT departments simply turn more of their equipment off altogether.
What happens to the IT salesperson in this scenario?
Firstly, they will be selling to different people. Expect them to deal more directly with line of business managers in customer organisations, who have wrested budget away from IT to make their own purchases.
Secondly, commissions will change, because instead of selling servers and software licenses that require significant up-front capital investment, salespeople will be hawking contracts in which customer subscribe to online services for set periods of time. Customers will often pay for these services in smaller, more regular amounts, chalking them up as operational expenditure, which means that compensation packages for salespeople may change.
Perhaps over time, though, the biggest challenge facing IT salespeople is that they may not be needed at all. Don't get me wrong - there will still be some tigers out there, roaming around, clinching large, intricate corporate contracts. But if line of business managers end up buying a lot of their functionality online by simply purchasing a number of seats for an online service from a web site, that leaves the sales force out of a job - or at least selling to a far smaller number of specialist data centre operators. Are you exploring your options?
I attended Microsoft TechEd USA last month, where the news highlight was a bunch of new features in Visual Studio. Although Microsoft is not revealing what is coming for Windows 8 development, it has shown a bunch of new features ranging from code clone detection, which aims to find code that was copied and pasted rather than being properly refactored, to new IntelliTrace agents that are designed to find bugs after deployment, rather than just in code you are developing.
They are decent features, and it seems that the new Visual Studio will further extend what is already an impressive range of capabilities. I have spent a lot of time researching Visual Studio 2010, the current version, and considering the scope of the tool, from mobile devices to multi-tier enterprise applications, I hold it in high regard.
Talk to developers about what they want to see in Visual Studio though, and you can bet that neither code clone detection nor IntelliTrace agents will be on their list. They would rather Microsoft fixed annoyances rather than adding features which they might not ever use. Performance is always high on the list: not doing new things, so much as doing the same things faster. Quick access to documentation is another. If you are like me, you often end up searching Google rather than pressing F1, since somehow Google can search the entire internet faster than Visual Studio can summon its own documentation.
Why is Windows Vista considered a flop, whereas Windows 7 has flown off the shelves? I doubt it is to do with thumbnails in the taskbar, or even the Libraries feature, presenting multiple folders as one, a neat feature but often not well understood.
My guess is that better performance is the main reason, followed by hundreds of small usability improvements which Microsoft made. Windows 7 is not perfect, but it generally runs better than its predecessor.
There is always pressure to add features. If you are a software giant like Microsoft, there are marketing reasons; you need those bullet points to win upgrades, or think you do. If you are a corporate developer, there is constant pressure to meet new requirements.
The problem: it is too easy to lose sight of what users often care about more, which is the performance and usability of the applications and features they already use most often.
Somehow, at planning meetings it is hard to justify spending time on improving features that already exist, rather than creating new ones, yet for improving the productivity and even the happiness of users it is often the right thing to do.