This is in response to Ben’s note on Faecbook.

No money, no honey.

Businesses have limited budget for technology as it is a usually a cost center (regardless if it is classified as CapEx or OpEx) unless the business is like Uber where technology drives the business profits. The quality of a technology is often intangible and difficult to measure, and so the pressure is on the price. This is a sad fact.

If you can’t beat them, join them?

It is a battle day-in and day-out on my job to either convince customers (very difficult) or to beat cheaper vendors by price (easy) simply because, like it or not, I am running a business and not a charity and I need to pay salaries. As an unfortunate result of price competition, I may not be able to deliver the quality of work that I desire. I cannot afford to spend all my time trying to deal with customers who do not appreciate the value of good technology and that is also the reason why I tend to be selective with my customers.

What’s (not) cheap and free?

What needs to be fixed is the notion that technology is cheap and consulting is free. This bullsh*t idea started with the Singapore Government and has trickled down to several MNCs and Government-linked organisations. I’ve stopped attending long meetings and helping write tender specs only for jobs to be given to the lowest bidder with an outsourced team. Not forgetting it usually takes forever to get a bid out, then when the bid is awarded, they are behind time and want it done now.

Even if a tender comes in with a spec, it is often terribly written and participating in a bid is a hell lot of paperwork with not much money to be made, and on top of that — many unknowns and liquidated damages to bear.

Tenders only make sense for off-the-shelf and boxed products and should go away for bespoke products and consulting work. Nobody walks into LV or Prada to pick the lowest bidder.

The fever medicine dilemma.

Try going to a pharmacy and say: “I want a drug that reduces my fever.” There are easily 3-4 different types of medicine with different applications, strengths, safety and side effects. Most of us only know Panadol, but is that really what we need?

You see, even with well written specs (not usually the case), no two bids will ever be exactly the same (except maybe for boxed software licenses, like Microsoft Office.) How can price be a major selection criteria? Such a notion is simply flawed. If you have ever done a home renovation and gotten quotes from contractors you will know how incredibly difficult it is to have apples-to-apples comparison because every contractor will have their own ideas, style, materials and workmanship. There’s no telling until the actual work is being done.

IT projects are many times more complicated, and more often than not there will be changes to specifications as the project progresses (which brings me to a different discussion about not billing by project and scope but instead by time.)

I can say with confidence and years of experience that technical specifications do not and can not normally prescribe software quality.

Free legal advise.

Ask a lawyer: “I want to sue this guy; tell me how much it costs.” You will almost always get a range, and it can be a huge range.

There’s a reason why lawyers charge by time and do not limit themselves to a scope. Software developers and technology consultants are no different: We take into consideration a situation or requirement and analyse them, then we act upon them and then also react on the results. The latter part is often missed.

Good advisory can save your ass and a whole lot of time and money, but it is very common that businesses expect free consultancy prior to work being done. Working on a software project is not just software alone; there are many moving pieces including the choice of technology (frameworks, databases, etc.), infrastructure design and operational expertise.

Expecting free consulting is no different than asking a building architect to work for free, and then paying only for the building construction costs. And no, we can not and should not “build in” the costs of consulting into development. They are two different things.

The graduate stagnation syndrome.

Let me make this clear that the ones who suffer are going to be the employees of businesses, not the business itself or the bosses. Businesses can and will always find ways to create profits, and if the profits can’t be had from sales, it will come from expenses (i.e. benefits) and salaries. We graduate some 4-5 thousand technology students from Polytechnics and Universities each year. The good firms can not hire everyone. It is not the fault of these young graduates that their skills stagnate over the years — they simply have been put in an environment that does not cultivate their growth.

As a technologist myself, I understand how good work gives growth and satisfaction to passionate people, and this is also something difficult to measure but will significantly improve corporate culture.

Which is cheaper: iPad software or waiter?

With regards to the Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC): PIC has made a lot of people (aheem, fly-by-night vendors) rich, but it has also made it difficult for people like us who are trying to do real business and deliver good services because we do not actively sell PIC. In our experience, the real customers will never ask: “how much can we claim from PIC?” PIC is a bonus to them — their priority is to get stuff done.

I’ve seen countless people burnt by PIC and what’s worse is that it gives people an impression that technology acquisition is cheap. We can not use cheap technology (as is the case of a sushi joint with a sub-standard iPad software) to replace a trained employee (waiter). This causes job and salary issues because employees are now measured against “cheap” technology.

The ABC food market story.

I met this old man at the ABC food center: He was with his classmates and I got to know him from a car club. I have to make a point here that these old folks aren’t your normal uncles or aunties; their classmates were Goh Chok Tong and Tan Cheng Bok, so they are pretty well off.

One of his classmates married a wife — I can not remember, but is either Thai or Viet — and he has migrated there to live with her family and has a farm and rice field. He says he hires the locals in the village to work in his farm and he gives away the crops because people are poor. I asked why he did not use technology to help with his farm (agriculture is a very technologically advanced business), and he said something that really struck me — why replace the jobs when there are many poor people there who need the jobs.

With that, I leave you something to think about.