The Gift That Keeps On Taking

It’s the the gift giving season, which naturally has me thinking a lot about what makes a great gift. There’s the ubiquitous gift card, which is almost always a safe bet, but can seem a bit impersonal in my opinion. Then there are gifts that aren’t really gifts at all. Gifts like this seem like a great gift idea from the giver’s perspective, but frequently end up having some real long term cost to the receiver. It’s usually the big ticket items that fall under this category: cars, recreational vehicles, or anything with a lot of moving parts. Giving a gift like this to someone who doesn’t have the means to easily keep up the maintenance is really not much of a gift. I’ve often wondered how people who are featured on reality and/or game shows end up once the cameras leave and they are left with their brand new $50,000 car or completely remodeled house. These things have real costs over their usable lifetime, and those costs can add up.

It’s a bit like a company offering a very popular product for $20 and then charging $60 every time you need a new battery/refill/tune up. I’ve seen this same pattern in the IT world. A large vendor offers their products and/or services at a deep discount (up to and including 100%) but then eventually leaves the client high and dry with a bunch of hardware and/or software to maintain. It’s easy for management to get wide-eyed at the slick demos, marketing propaganda and salespeople-speak and lose track of the really real cost of maintaining IT infrastructure and applications.

I think in most cases the vendor is hoping this investment will pay dividends in the form of creating case studies or selling support contracts, and the client sees it as a great opporitunity to upgrade. Let me tell you, though, the hangover from a venture like this isn’t a pleasant one. I’ve been in the unfortunate situation of trying to maintain a massive collection of servers and applications that were built by outside vendors and ultimately abandoned. The client resources are too scarce to effectively maintain everything (which is why the initial pitch was so inviting), and things slowly begin to deteriorate. Servers need support contracts, they crash, hard drives fail, things go bad. Software rots, outlives its usefulness, and needs to be refactored and updated. These things cost real money and take real people hours and hours to keep going.

I’ve sat in too many meetings where a 4 year plan for the construction of a massive project is being laid out and hear the one or two people who ask, "What about year 5? Year 6? 7?" get quieted down. The gift is so enticing it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement I suppose, but you really do need to ask yourself, "How can we maintain this?"