How to Spot a Cowboy?

IT cowboys, IT issues, IT hard
Can you spot a cowboy?

Hey Everyone,

The last few weeks have flown by really quickly. It has been crazy busy, as usual, but a couple of things have stood out as noteworthy.

As many of you know I have worked in the IT industry for over 25 years.  Over that time I have carved a niche for myself by acquiring some very particular and unique skills, including:

  1. I understand software both at a programming and user level.
  2. I leave no stone unturned to find solutions to solve my client’s IT issues.
  3. I can speak high-tech with the geekiest of programmers and convert that to layman’s terms for my clients.
  4. I can read people really well.
  5. If you are one of my clients – I make it my mission to know how you and how your business “ticks”. I will also do my best (if you will let me) to protect you from the “Cowboys of IT”.

Before I go much further, I want to be clear that the term “Cowboy” is not gender-specific… but I wrote “Cowperson” and it just didn’t feel right. I’ve definitely met and seen the work of just as many “Cowgirls” as I have Cowboys, so just take the term at face value!

But what is an IT Cowboy?

I know there are “Cowboys” in every industry, however, I think it is easier for them to “hide” in the IT industry. Most people think IT is complicated and are baffled by it – so they will believe anything the Cowboy says. Even when the pain and frustration is so great, they think that is the way it has to be.  (SO WRONG!).

No matter which gender, Cowboys all have some common characteristics:

  • They overpromise and underdeliver.
  • They are either inordinately expensive or inordinately cheap.
  • They hide behind over-complicated explanations, industry buzz words or elaborate “dog ate my homework” excuses.
  • Their work is regularly sub-standard.
  • They NEVER accept blame, take responsibility or will be held accountable when things go wrong – it’s always someone else’s fault.

I would love to say that over the years I have never had a failed IT solution or an upset client… but I am human after all. However, I make it a point to never mislead a client and, when things go wrong, I take responsibility to fix the issue. In my mind, there is just no other way to operate.

IT Cowboys, however, prove me wrong. Take Jenny for example…

Jenny’s Case

I was recently contacted by a potential new client (she was referred by one of my existing clients). Let’s call her Jenny (not her real name). Jenny had a number of IT issues in her business and she had been using the same IT providers for about 5 years.  The systems were regularly crashing and her staff were not happy with the lack of support from the IT group.  Yet, Jenny pays a handsome monthly retainer to have these guys maintain her server and network.  This IT group had been around for a while, but I had heard “whispers” on the playground and I was intrigued to see for myself if those whispers were true.

We settled into the meeting after the obligatory introductions. They were presenting a new network and infrastructure some of which would be cloud based. Jenny is a savvy business person but she always felt out of her depth when dealing with these guys and her gut was telling her that she needed a second opinion.  I could see why…

30 minutes into the meeting, not even I could guess the direction they were going. They had impressive colourful diagrams which seemed to indicate a hybrid system (both local servers and cloud-based storage) but what they were saying really said nothing at all. Poor Jenny was lost after the first 10 minutes and I could see her frustration starting to surface.

Their dialogue was full of buzz words like “Business Continuity”, “Risk Acceptance”, “Risk Mitigation” and my favourite – “Stakeholder Management”. Scattered amongst those buzz words were tech acronyms for server software, data storage, data backup and recovery. Punctuated with “Are you following me?” “I’ve got you, right”, “You see my point, right?” and “We want to help you succeed”.

It really reminded me of an old western snake oil salesman, telling the townsfolk he had the cure for everything in this tiny bottle.

I then asked the Cowboy leader to explain all of that in layman’s terms without all the tech buzz words as I felt he had lost Jenny some way back. I also asked him if the solution needed to be that complex, given the circumstances.

Honestly, you would have thought I punched him. He immediately became defensive, explaining that he and his team had lots of experience in these areas so this rollout would be easy. He then started speed talking and said the same things he said before but faster.

After he finished I asked if his Tech Manager could explain things differently, to which she answered I think Brad (not his real name) covered it well and promptly stuck her head in her laptop as if looking for something.

Years of corporate training has taught me if you can’t explain a technical solution simply in non-tech language to someone outside of your industry – you don’t know your topic well enough or someone else should be making the presentation. The meeting pretty much finished there, with Jenny resolving to look for new IT providers.

If any of this sounds familiar, here are…

My Tips for Dealing with IT Cowboys

  1. Ask them to explain their solution in everyday language.
  2. Ask for their contingency if their solution doesn’t work as expected.
  3. Don’t believe that IT needs to be over-complicated or painful to use. There is always another option.
  4. If it sounds too good to be true – it is!
  5. Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion. (Even the best IT providers admit they don’t know everything.)

However, as part of my ‘spot the silver lining’ new years resolution program, I do have one reason to thank all of those IT Cowboys out there… They’ve created a whole revenue stream for me: Post-Cowboy “Clean up” Services. Better yet, many of the clients who come to us that way love what we do and how we look after them so much, they haven’t left!

Till next time!

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