Mediocrity Rules or “Why does enterprise software suck?”

green screenAs our society becomes more and more digital, more connected, and all of us become more comfortable with technology, the stark contrast that we see between our digital personal lives and the wasteland that we encounter at work is growing.  We social network on Facebook and Twitter, we share pictures with family and friends on Flickr, and through email we all write to one another far more often than we wrote letters to one another twenty years ago. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the software we use in our personal lives is easier and more pleasant to use than anything we have to interact with at the office.

Why is enterprise software so shitty?

The short answer is that enterprise software is, and has always been, bought and sold by people who never have to actually use it.  Years ago when I was working for a major vendor of enterprise systems and applications software, I was tasked with providing a version of our massive ERP system that would run on the notebook computers of the time so that our company’s sales force could more easily demonstrate the software for customers. The commercial internet was in its infancy at the time, most companies did not have high speed connectivity if they had connectivity at all, and the only way to demo our products was for potential customers to travel to the “Solution Centers” that we had set up in a few locations around the world.

Porting the application was a significant challenge, given the size of the application and the notebook technology of the time.  Once accomplished, I was struck with how crappy this product looked running in a window next to the native Windows 95 applications on that 386 notebook.  Unfortunately, my technological feat which combined brute-force kludginess with a touch of clever elegance, never saw the light of day.  A corporate reorganization brought in a new Vice President of Sales, who would have none of this demo stuff.  In a memorable Glengarry Glen Ross-like address to the whiny sales force, he laid down the law and put them in their place.  “A salesman doesn’t do demos.”  “If they won’t spend the money to travel to London, or Tokyo, or New York to see our software, then they’re not qualified to buy it.”  I was waiting for him to tell them all they needed was a smile, a shoeshine, and a set of brass balls, but he didn’t go quite that far.

That was a long time ago and hopefully that fellow is now enjoying the comfortable retirement he earned, but we are still left with the software environment that he created.  The goal of every software company that hopes to be successful in the enterprise market it to penetrate the c-level: CTO’s, CIO’s, COO’s, CFO’s, the level of management in a company that can authorize purchases in the millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars.  The cost of sales at this level is high because the sales cycle can go on for months.  RFP’s are generated with detailed requirements, vendors respond with guaranties that their software meets all the requirements, or in areas where their software doesn’t match requirements, contracts are drawn up to committing to future enhancements, implementation services companies come in and pitch their expertise in the software package’s “best practices,” service level agreements are drawn up and reviewed, red-lined and revised, and everybody gets the D&B rating of everyone else.  Nowhere in any of this activity churning at the executive levels and the the legal departments of all the companies involved, is any consideration give to what it’s actually like for the people who are most affected by the decisions being made.  What’s it like for the IT department to actually install this software and keep it running and most of all, what it’s like for poor Doris in the AP department to use the unnecessarily  complex purchase order system with the user interface from hell.  Legally, however, everyone’s protected so Doris is just going to have to deal with it.

Interestingly, Apple has never shown much interest in the enterprise market, especially since the return of Steve Jobs in 1996.  Apple’s focus and its biggest triumphs have been in the consumer market.  Indeed, CIO’s routinely complain about how Apple continues to snub the enterprise.  Sure, concessions are made, like providing exchange server support on iPhones, but Apple has never courted to corporate America the way Ballmer and Gates have.

It’s almost as if Jobs doesn’t give a shit.

Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t, but that question isn’t relevant.  Apple has, more than any other vendor, made end-user experience its primary focus. In doing so it has raised the expectations of all users of all software.  There’s no doubt that Microsoft’s success with Windows 7 (for all you Apple fan-boys out there, it really is very good), is much better because of the expectations raised by Apple.

So what can those of us who actually work in this environment as developers do? More than we think.  The lawyers and executives making the purchasing decisions don’t have Doris in AP on their collective radar.  Therefore anything we do for her, or for that matter, for Dan, the system administrator in IT who gets the honor of installing and managing our software, will go largely unnoticed.

Think about what it’s like for them.  Design for them.  Make their lives easier.  Make them smile. Make them say, “Wow!”  At the very least, give them one less reason to hate going to work in the morning.

Just for fun, here’s the mother of all sales-force motivational speeches.  Take this, Zig Ziglar:


© 2010 – 2013, Bob Baldwin. All rights reserved.

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