The SaaSy Project: From One Cloud to Another

 

The SaaSy Project – Part One:  Choosing a SaaSy Replacement

For the next several months you will accompany me on a project I’m managing.  The time has come to replace a cloud-based software suite that’s been in use for the last seven years.  It’s old, and its dated.  It’s time for a replacement.  Since the company pays an annual subscription to use the software that is hosted externally, it is better known as Software as a Service, or SaaS for short.  You may know it as “The Cloud”. I will be calling this project The SaaSy Project.  This means I have to evaluate new products in the market, and also manage the implementation of the selected product, which includes data migration, testing, and rolling it out throughout the company.  I have about six months to complete the project with a budget of $60,000.  Will I be able to fulfil the holy trinity of project management?  To deliver the product on-time, on-scope, and on budget?  Only time will tell.

This will be a deep dive into not just the project tasks themselves, but my thoughts, successes, and of course, complications that are sure to arise.

A Little Bit of History

Last year, I felt the urge to change employers.  There was a job position that looked interesting and I applied.  The position required the knowledge of a very specific type of software that’s well known in the risk management industry.  I thought I met every requirement the position asked for, except for that particular piece of software.  Surprisingly, I was offered the position.

Not What I Expected

At the new job it was finally my chance to get some experience with the risk management software and I knew it would be beneficial to have it on my resume.  After a week of learning to use it, I had concluded it would be less painful if I was repeatedly kicked in the nuts.  It took about three months just to learn the basic functions.  Unable to just sit back and accept the system for what it is, I made it a mission to get it replaced the following year.  I had been hinting to my manager that it had to go.  When you spend more time administering a tool and retraining users than using it to execute business operations, you know there’s a major problem at hand.

I can imagine the users crying tears of sadness over their keyboards as they struggle to navigate through the system.  Having your business clients tell you that the system sucks and asked why we were still using it makes excellent tinder to get some conversations going.  From this point on, I’ll call the system, “Bad Application Design,” or BAD for short.

If you’re thinking, “If this system is so terrible, why didn’t the company replace it sooner?”  That’s a good question, and one that I asked myself constantly when I started to use it.  I surmise that the person who implemented it seven or eight years ago, was the only person in the entire company who really knew the ins and outs of it.  In a sense, it was a security blanket and when that person left, the expert knowledge went out the door as well.

Building a Case

First, my manager asked me to build a case to replace BAD.  I thought I had a pretty good one to begin with, but then the stars aligned earlier this year and was sure that  BAD’s days were numbered due to:

  1. The company was finally upgrading to the latest version of Internet Explorer and also giving users the option to use Google Chrome.  BAD only runs on Internet Explorer 8 and 9.
  2. The vendor that supports BAD mentioned that a critical component had reached end of life and would be supported until the end of the year.  Which means, if the company was still using it in 2016 and the component breaks, we would be SOL (Shit Out of Luck).
  3. The implementer of the system had left the company for another employer.  This meant I was the only person in the company that had knowledge of how to use BAD and every person I interviewed to find a replacement basically knew nothing about BAD, even though they listed it on their resume.  I knew just enough of the system to get by.  A company should never have just one person be an expert in managing a particular system.  While I had unexpectedly inherited a security blanket, it was one ridden with holes and mystery stains, and I wanted to get rid of it as quick as possible.

This was perfect fuel to feed the fire and in no time, I had secured the project to replace the system before the BAD contract ends in the middle of summer.  However, since the funds for renewing the contract were already allocated for the fiscal year, I had to make sure the replacement system would cost the company the same amount or less, and less cost is always better in the eyes of management.

The Search for a New SaaS Product

Back in the day, BAD was the uncontested market leader, there was nothing else like it.  However, it was so dated that the vendor of the system had recently developed a replacement product.  Let’s call the new system “Good User Design” or GUD for short.  There was no doubt that the vendor was going to push hard for us to replace BAD with GUD when it came down subscription renewals.  They’ll get to keep us as a customer and we get a much newer and better product.  However, I don’t believe in being married to a particular vendor.  So what if the vendor has a new product for us to transition to?  The risk management SaaS marketplace has grown substantially over the years and there are many service providers hungry to steal market share from companies that are looking to transition away from BAD.

Tip #1  Before starting the search for a replacement system, first list down what you like about the old system and what you don’t like about it.  As for the replacement system, list down what you would like to have and what you must have.  It will make things easier down the line.  I also made a few acquaintances at local conferences and got a feel of the products they were using.

At first, my method of searching for a replacement system was something of a savage ape .  I was just typing keywords into the Google search bar and the results were more than enough to make my head spin. Clearly, there had to be a better way than just mindlessly digging through search results.  I remembered Gartner conducts product research and reports them through its Magic Quadrant publications.  Fortunately, my manager had a Gartner account.  Check to see if your company has a contact that can provide you with Gartner access or documents.

Tip #2  Utilize Gartner Magic Quadrant Reports.

What a breath of fresh air the Magic Quadrant report was.  It listed about twenty products in the market from absolute crap to the best (Which in my eyes is a blend of objectivity and subjectivity at best), but still very useful, none-the-less.

If you’ve never seen one before, this is what it looks like:

GartnerMagicQuadrant

For any software product provider, the goal is to be placed in the upper right quadrant of the grid, also known as the Leaders quadrant.  Companies tend to brag about their product making it to the Leaders quadrant and use it as a selling point.  “Hey look at us! We are a market leader!  Buy our product!”

Naturally, it’s easy to just focus on the Leaders quadrant and choose a software provider from there.  However, what you see isn’t always what you get.  You may have particular requirements that the market leaders don’t have in place, but those in the Challengers and Visionaries quadrants do.  I recognized a product listed in the Leaders quadrant that I had used at a prior job.  Despite being a market leader, I thought it was absolute crap.

During my research, I had a very particular requirement for the new system.  It had to have smartphone browsing capabilities and a native application for Apple’s iOS.  An Android app would have been a nice to have, but not required.  Right then and there, I had eliminated half of the service providers because they did not offer mobile solutions.  The ones that were left were either in the Challengers or Leaders quadrants.

Tip #3  Don’t just focus on the upper right Leader quadrant, read through the report from beginning to end.  If the best product on the market does not meet your requirements, then it’s useless to you.

The next step was to gather more information on the products themselves.  I visited the service provider websites that had made the first cut and placed phone and email inquiries to learn more about the products.  In no time, the regional sales reps reached out to me hungry for my business.

Demos and More Demos

Gartner’s Magic Quadrant report only provides a high level view of products and service providers, however, it contains enough information to help get the ball rolling.  Anyone with an ounce of common sense is not just going to pick a product from the Leader quadrant and call it a day.  Most likely, the product or service is going to be used for an extended period of time.  Service subscriptions are usually  annual or multi-year, with the latter often containing some sort of discount.

Tip #4  Multi-Year subscriptions have less annual cost, but you are locked in and there may be a penalty to terminate contract ahead of time.

Product Demonstrations

I was extremely excited for the product demonstration phase, but towards the end, I was over it.  Even though I had narrowed down the list to eight products, it was still a bit too much.  It’s easy to fall in love with a particular product in the beginning or during the middle of the evaluation process, but take the time to evaluate every product on your short list.

The product demonstration process was almost the same for all vendors.  First was the product overview in a Webinar format  These are pre-scheduled live online presentations for anyone that had interest in the product.  If I liked what I saw, I would schedule an one-on-one demonstration for a deeper dive of the product.  Finally, if I was really interested, I would get the paperwork started to try out the product for a limited time.

With webinars and demos of different products scheduled so close together, I started to mix them up.  Even though I had my matrix in front of me, the look and feel of each product were so similar that I had trouble visualizing which one was which.  I should have printed out each product’s fact sheet or white paper and made my notes directly on them.

I even lost lost track of the sales reps and the products they represented.  John would call me and I would forget which product he was associated with.   Later, I wrote down on the whiteboard the name of each sales rep and product.

Tip #5  Create a matrix or spreadsheet to keep tabs of the salespeople and products you are in contact with.  Some products look and function so alike, that it may be easy to lose track.

Let’s Talk Money, Because I Have A Budget to Stick To

During the product evaluation phase, I asked about how much the subscription costs were and if there were any extra implementation/setup fees.  Some gave me a ballpark number over the phone, others over email, and some even sent me a Request For Proposal (RFP) breaking down all the costs.

Tip #6  Cost will always be a factor in purchasing a product, better to get it up front than go through the evaluation process and to find out it’s way over your budget.

There was no doubt that our current vendor would push really hard to keep the account.   We invited them onsite to demonstrate GUD.  I was promising, but when we talked about the price, the cost of the annual subscription cost would be increased by 9.3%.  Granted, the product was different and better than the old, but that’s not a way to keep your customers, especially one that’s been with them for so long.  I mean, do me a solid here.  They could have said, “We have a new product, but we won’t increase your subscription costs.”   When I told the vendor that it was over budget and would take them out of the running, they came back with a 9.3% discount instead.  I knew there was a bit of wiggle room, but instead they tried to squeeze a bit more from the company.  Based on that alone, I did not want to renew the contract with them.

Testing the Crap out of the Product

Are the products as good as they were shown during the demonstrations?  The people who conducted the demonstrations are professionals and know every piece of the product by heart.  Don’t be fooled and make sure to do a trial run.

Eventually, it had come down to two finalists.  Product A was from the Challenger Quadrant, and Product B was from the Leader Quadrant.  Both had similar features and cost. I notified the two vendors that I would like to try out their product.  The only way I was going to make a decision was to get hands on with the systems.  I thought it was going to be easy to get a trial going, but my schedule was a little delayed due to one thing I did not anticipate, the signing of Non-Disclosure and software trial agreements.

Before I could even begin trying out the products, formal paperwork in the form of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA) had to be reviewed by legal and signed by senior management on both sides.  My company had an NDA for the vendors and one vendor had a trial agreement for us to sign.  Basically, the mumble jumble of it all is that all information will be kept confidential to protect each other’s data and assets.  It took about a week to get the reviews and signatures in place.  It didn’t set me back too much, but I knew, once my team picked a product, the contract review process will take longer than a week.

Tip #7  Before starting any trials, speak with your manager or the legal department to make sure the paperwork is signed by the right folks.  You don’t want to go ahead and sign your name and start the trial without notifying management.  Take this as a lesson to CYA (Cover your ass).

Once the paperwork was completed and the vendors set up trial accounts, I spent a good amount of time with the product after initial overview sessions.  I wasn’t just going to login, click around, and then make a decision.  I tried to mimic my daily workflow with the new product and see what it excelled at, and where it was lacking.  Remember, the demonstrators put on a great dog and pony show, but I really wanted to see if I could reproduce it on my own with minimal training.

Tip #8  Use the trial products as you would in a typical work setting, only then will you know if it is good enough.

As I was getting to know the products, the following came to mind:

  • How good is the tech support?  I called the tech support line a couple of times for some help, and took notice of the response times, the demeanor of the tech, and knowledge base.
  • Would my business users find this product easy to use?  I showed the product to my power users and gathered their feedback.
  • What happens if the system crashes?  I asked the vendors about their backup and data restoration strategy.
  • Can I continue to test out the system beyond the dates set in the trial agreement?  I called the salesperson and he told me it would be no problem at all.  Remember, his job is to make sure I become a customer.
  • Per the Chief Information Officer’s discussion with me, what happens to the data after trial period ends?  Both vendors would destroy the data and send a confirmation or certificate of destruction.
  • How long would it take to migrate the data over from the old system to the new system?  I migrated some data manually from the old system and figured it would be fairly quick.
  • How long would it take to setup the system for use after purchase?  This can only be answered after we purchase the subscription and discuss the requirements.
  • How often are new features added and what’s going on with the mobile app?  The demonstrator gave me a high-level overview of what’s coming down the pipeline.  It’s always a good sign to see new features and that many new features are from customer recommendations.
  • How much information from the old system is to be archived?  Better call internal audit and find out.

After about 3 weeks of trying out the products, I had made up my mind.  I realized that no product out there was able to fulfill 100% of my requirements, but one came close, about 90%.  The Senior VP of my group also took a liking to the product and in about a week, we had the green light from the CIO to start the procurement process.

Stay tuned for The SaaSy Project Part 2!

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