Time Capsule: The First Lesson I Learned Working for a Vendor: Products Don’t Need to Be Great, Just Good Enough
I wrote weekly editorials for a boutique industry newsletter for several years, anxious for both audience and income. I learned a lot about coming up with ideas for the weekly grind, trying to be simultaneously opinionated and entertaining in a few hundred words, and not sleeping much because I was working all the time. They’re fun to read as a look back at what was important then (and often still important now).
I wrote this piece in May 2008.
The First Lesson I Learned Working for a Vendor: Products Don’t Need to Be Great, Just Good Enough
By Mr. HIStalk
I took my first vendor job many years ago, moving over to the dark side after a short career in hospitals. It was a common vocational change then and still is today: learn an application as a hospital user, then hire on with the vendor who sells it. Ca-ching!
I was anxious to use my hard-won experience to address the application’s many shortcomings. I figured it would be a slam dunk since none of the vendor’s people seemed all that sharp. My dazzling insight, I reasoned, would not only make the vendor’s application the best on the market, it would sweep me to my inevitable destiny as a software genius.
In other words, I was delusional enough to think that the only thing standing between the vendor and greatness was bringing me on board to share my vast frontline knowledge. I expected awe-struck respect, endless gratitude, and … OK, I’ll say it … maybe an outpouring of publicly proclaimed vendor love from my new best friends that I’d have to smilingly shrug off in amused embarrassment.
Stop your snickering. I admit it – I was naïve (I lost most of that naiveté when the vendor eliminated my job just a few months later with no visible sign of reluctance or regret. I was, as it turned out, highly expendable).
Instead of teaching the vendor some lessons, I had learned a few myself.
Vendors don’t necessarily want their applications to be the best; they only want them to be good enough. In the secret vendor playbook, some applications are simply placeholders to keep them from losing profitable package deals. Anything more is a waste of resources better spent on something more strategic.
Knowing how hospitals work is useful to a vendor, but not essential. In my company, decisions were made by humorless corporate wannabes who were short on brilliance and hospital experience, but long on ambition and political skills. It was like high school, where jocks and bullies ran roughshod over the smart and sensitive kids, except that these particular jocks had MBAs didn’t mind lying to the faces of employees and customers alike and were constantly plotting their upward mobility and the people whose backs they’d happily climb to get it.
Vendors enhance software applications to make new sales, not necessarily to keep current users happy. Leverage drops enormously once a hospital progresses from prospect to signed customer.
It’s not a shortage of good ideas that makes a product mediocre, it’s the decisions executives make about allocating resources to it. Execution is the rate-limiting step, not brilliant planning and design.
Perhaps the most eye-opening lesson for me was to appreciate how disillusionment breeds contempt among product insiders nearly everywhere. They’re like hot dog factory workers – they’ve seen the unsavory manufacturing process and wouldn’t eat one on a dare. “Held together by spit and baling wire,” they’ll snort, “old code cobbled together to form a house of cards on a shaky foundation. It’s junk and needs to be rewritten.”
As a new hire fresh off the hospital front lines, I was uncomfortable hearing my beloved application sneered at by those who developed and supported it. Surely they realized how well it really worked.
Most companies don’t have a place for product lovers. There’s too much compromise and indifference required to work for vendors who sell a broad range of applications. A software application is the end result of years of compromise and mediocrity-seeking, the perfect tension between intentional underinvestment and outright customer revolt.
It’s no wonder that few customers really love their software applications. They were designed to be tolerated, not adored.