The recipe for Secret Sauce

secret sauces

The world of technology is dominated by a relatively small number of very large and influential players. We don’t need to name them, we all know who they are.

One thing many of them have in common is the belief that they know what’s best for our businesses when it comes to adopting their technologies. This wisdom comes in many forms; white papers, best practice guides and reference architectures to name a few.

While it’s all very persuasive, it struck me that I’ve never been asked a single question about my business, nor have the overwhelming majority of our clients, in the production of said materials. So, the question is begged; what are all these prescriptive recommendations based on? I know the official answer will be extensive research, endless hours of experience in the field over many thousands of deployments, etc. I find it remarkable that any such analysis could yield such conveniently consistent recommendations.

The reality, it seems, is that vendors have a need to simplify, productise and commoditise complex solutions to make them easier to market and to maximise their share of the customer’s budget. Packaged solutions and prescriptive advice presented as the recipe for success.

I have what I consider to be a healthy scepticism where recipes are concerned. In my experience, the promise is rarely realised and it’s never as easy as it’s presented to be. A few years ago, my wife bought me a copy of Jamie Oliver’s 30 Minute Meals: A Revolutionary Approach to Cooking Good Food Fast. The promise in this case is to enable culinary amateurs to produce great tasting family meals in half an hour. Right up my street; the food looked fantastic and the processes seemed reasonably straightforward, even for me. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, let’s start with all the equipment, utensils and ingredients I didn’t already possess. Then consider the relatively small kitchen and working space I had. Not to mention my lack of basic cooking skills. My early attempts ranged from disastrous to comical but eventually, with practice, I was able to produce something edible that was vaguely recognisable as the picture in the book but never in 30 minutes and not without causing significant devastation to the kitchen with each and every attempt.

Why wasn’t I able to easily replicate the beautiful creations in the book in the advertised timescale? Was Jamie conning me?

Over time, I finally realised that every single recipe had an ingredient that wasn’t listed. The Secret Sauce.

In this case, the Secret Sauce is Jamie’s skill, experience and knowledge. His palate, technique, understanding of ingredients and flavour combinations, not mention thousands of hours of practice, is impossible for me to reproduce. While this seems pretty obvious, it didn’t diminish my disappointment in being unable to create a reasonable approximation of the glorious dishes teasing me from the book.

Further, all the recipes are designed to feed an even number of people; usually 2, 4 or 6. There are 3 in my family and I’m not the greatest at sums so getting the right volume of food was another challenge. Always too much or not enough. I hate waste but I hate being hungry more!

Clearly, Jamie hadn’t considered my complete lack of cooking skill, limited facilities, uneducated palate or size of my family when producing that (and many other) recipe books (all of which I own, I must add). Does that make him a fraud? Absolutely not. He’s merely attempting to capitalise on his skill, success and popularity using the most viable means at his disposal – a simple, attractive document specifying standard ingredients and basic instructions for assembly. He has no way of accommodating the context each consumer is working in and no way to provide the Secret Sauce to everyone (nor would he want to, it’s his competitive advantage).

Regardless of the range of outcomes for each of his customers, the business result for him is the same – everybody pays the same amount for the book. The variable return on investment is the customer’s challenge.

If you’ve read this far wondering what any of this has to do with technology, thanks for sticking with it. My Jamie Oliver experience is a metaphor for how I see the “Best Practice” and “Reference Architecture” culture that generally pervades the technology industry these days. Essentially Recipes and Instructions for deploying and configuring “Standard” or “Supported” solutions as prescribed by the vendor.

It alarms me that this “one size fits all” concept is so widely promoted and accepted by customers and channel partners. The underlying assumption being that the contextual parameters – organisational size and shape, industry sector, operational maturity, skills & experience, budget, timescale, resources and priorities, to name a few – are consistent across all deployments seems ludicrous to me. Also, the implicit criticism that, if you don’t follow the recipe, you’ve got it wrong also seems somewhat offensive to me.

Why? Because, like Jamie’s recipes, The Secret Sauce is not included.

I recently worked on a substantial technology project that was designed to support critical business operations for a finite and relatively short period of time. The client, with the admirable intent of ensuring the best outcome for the project, engaged a major vendor to design and implement a range of technologies to support the business objectives.

The vendor, applying their standard best practices and reference architectures proceeded to create an environment that was massively over-engineered, highly complex and resource and skills intensive to maintain and support. Of more concern was that the majority of the most complex elements did not directly serve the mission critical operations but were “nice to have”.

How did that happen? The relative lack of expertise on the client side led them to entrust the vendor, naturally assuming they were engaging a safe pair of hands. The vendor approached the project like all other projects involving the same technology sets. They did not sufficiently consider, adapt or respond to the context the client was operating in.

The result was a technology environment that was hugely expensive to bring to production, unnecessarily complex to support and maintain and did not proportionately support the key business requirements. Return on Investment was low. Very low.
But it was built entirely on Best Practice.

Don’t get me wrong, the solution worked and didn’t compromise the project in any way but sledgehammer and nut spring to mind.
The Secret Sauce in this case should have been the understanding of the specific conditions to which the technology is being applied and the commercial, technical and operational priorities of the business. This key ingredient should have been added to guarantee that that technology investment was aligned to the client’s business objectives rather than to delivering the vendor’s identikit specification.

As demands on IT continue to grow and scrutiny on investment becomes increasingly rigorous, it’s more imperative than ever to question and challenge the recommendations from suppliers and the industry as a whole. In the era of virtualisation, cloud, hyper-converged infrastructure and software defined everything, it should be possible, indeed desirable, for any business to take standard products and build solutions and services that are genuinely optimised for your business, in terms of scale, cost and features while remaining open to future development.

Buy the ingredients and add your own Secret Sauce. I’ve spent a lot of time practicing recipes so if you need a hand to get started, get in touch!

Tommy Mitchell, Group Technical Director, NVT Group
Call NVT Group on 08453 893 300