Modern businesses use technology on a daily basis to function, compete, operate and grow. From payroll to purchasing and lead gen to logistics, companies leverage technology to get through the day and reach new heights.
Inevitably that growth leads to challenges. Somewhere along the line, companies hit technological bumps on the road to success. They outgrow the tech that worked yesterday and struggle to manage or enhance those tools to reach their goals. Companies end up staring down challenges that seem too big to handle on their own. There’s too much to handle for the resources you have available, you’re out of your element, and the time allotted is fading away. You get the feeling that you’re experiencing a problem somebody must have encountered millions of times in the past and you’re probably right.
You decide you need help. It’s time to find a partner.
The good news is you're not alone. Everyday, companies of all sizes in various industries partner with third-party technology vendors to solve the tough problems. They embark on complex projects to overcome challenges. But it's not as simple as searching Google for the right partner. There's a lot more involved. Finding the right third-party technology partner can be a challenge all on its own.
We should know. We’ve been there.
We’ve partnered with many companies all across the country of all sizes to create right-sized solutions to technology challenges, both simple and complex. We’ve been on the other side of the conversation plenty of times and learned a lot. Here’s some of the biggest lessons we’ve learned at NextLink Labs from being on the other side of the table.
Find a Technology Company You Can Trust
First, do your homework and build a list of potential third-party clients you can see yourself partnering with. Scour the search engines, check LinkedIn, and ask your friends. Find a list of three or four companies that come highlighly recommended and then find someone completely on your own.
Interview the potential partners thoroughly and get to know them. Ask for references and specifically find out what kind of projects the company has done in the past that are similar to yours.
Learn to ask a lot of questions that address not only the solution but also the challenge. Find out if the potential client understands not just how to complete a project like yours but also has the experience of seeing all sides of your challenge.
Completing a project in and of itself is an accomplishment. But having the experience to listen when necessary, ask the right questions when appropriate, assess the situation fully, and offer a right-sized solution is a different skill altogether. In short, make sure your partner understands the challenge so you're fixing the right problem. There will also be a life after the project ends too, so learn to ask questions about what happens after the initial engagement comes to a close.
There’s a lot that goes into vetting your third-party technology companies because you’re not just selecting someone to do a job -- you’re building trust in a partner for your success. It’s no small matter. You’re linking up with someone to solve a challenge that will enable your next level of growth. It’s a big deal to pick the right partner for your success so give it the time it deserves.
Then comes the really hard part.
After You Find a Technology Partner You Can Trust, Trust Them
Congratulations, all the work you put into vetting partners has paid off. You’ve selected a company you can trust and have high expectations of a successful partnership and project. The NDA has been signed, the agreement is in place, and the celebratory Happy Hour has cemented the deal.
Now comes the hard part.
You’re going to have to relinquish some control. You’ve done the research and spent the time to build trust in the outside company, now rely on that trust. You're going to do a lot of things going forward but one of the biggest things you'll do is trusting your partner. To some extent, the best way to make the project successful is to help in letting the project happen.
If you’ve hired a third-party company to accomplish a goal, it’s now your job to put in the work of letting that actually occur. That means providing resources, documentation, and making yourself available for meeting and interview. It also is about not getting in the way or imposing your will unnecessarily.
Oftentimes, when companies hire outside vendors to accomplish a task or complete a project, the successful outcome of the endeavor can be hindered by unnecessary oversight, needless micromanagement, and a struggle to maintain control. Sometimes outside vendors are hired and then almost immediately obstructed by the entities that brought them on.
And it makes a lot of sense because there’s so much riding on this project. There’s a lot at stake when it comes to partnering with a third-party vendor to complete a project. When you hire a tech company, you’re inevitably going to pay a good bit of money in the balance, so you’re going to want to watch closely how things are done.
Here’s what you want to remember though. You hired another company to complete the project because there was a deficiency in your skill set. Technology is inheriting difficult so if you think you need help, you're probably right. The might've been a time-crunch involved and the window for reaching the goal was too short to get the job done with resources you have at hand. For whatever reason, the project wasn’t something you could pull off on your own so you needed a partner to make your dreams a reality.
So let them do their job.
Give your partner the room to operate and the space to be successful. Fully expect regular updates on the progress and demand check-ins to know the direction of the endeavor. You should know exactly how each dollar committed to the project is being spent and how the project is tracking to be completed. As the hiring company, your view into what’s happening in the project needs to be wide open and your feedback included, considered, and valued. And since it's a partnership, you'll end up doing some work too.
But let your third-party technology company do the project for which they were hired. If you do trust them and let them work in the way they are most productive, you will benefit the most from the project.
Expect Surprises in a Technology Project
Technology is complicated. You hired a third-party company in large part because of this very reason. There’s a knowledge gap; things you didn’t know. Unexpected things will inevitably come up and these things will almost certainly impact scope -- the work involved and time to complete it -- and cost. Digging into a technology project can uncover all sorts of unknowns involving legacy code, unsupported platforms, and more that can add unintended levels of complexity to a project. No plan for a technology project, regardless of how exhaustive or researched, is perfect. It’s all subject to change.
For whatever reason, this fact is often deemed as unreasonable or even unrealistically surprising when it comes to technology projects. Any project in any space has the possibility to uncover unknowns that impact scope and cost. When it comes to tech projects, companies often find themselves in uncomfortable situation and experience some level of shock and surprise when scope and cost is negatively impacted. In reality, it’s really no different than embarking on any other major project. Embarking on a home improvement project like waterproofing a basement can result in all sorts of surprises when you dig in. The initial cost estimate for the project can be one thing, but once you dig into the ground or open up the walls, you can be surprised about what lies underneath. Tech projects should be seen the same way.
Instead of letting this fact negatively impact the project -- and your relationship with the client -- expect it. Make sure your partner budgets for surprises. If your third-party technology vendor is only giving you the best-case scenario -- a rosy view of things -- make sure you budget on your side for unexpected expenses.
Things always come up in technology projects that companies didn’t expect. Be ready for it.
Clearly Define Who is Responsible for What Tasks
Building software involves many, many tasks. Sometimes, one person can wear multiple hats and it’s good to know that going in. Other times, there will be a dedicated resource for one part of the project based on it’s agreed upon importance endeavor’s success.
Here’s a quick punch list of stuff you want to make sure has at least some consideration in a project, if not a resource that is handling it directly. This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive -- its purpose is to highlight some of the areas that are often overlooked and cause headaches in projects.
Think about areas that might be important to you that you can add to the list. Learn to ask about the competencies for which your third-party technology may be lacking because that may lead to a necessary conversation. It’s important to know if your partner in the project would feel good, bad, or indifferent if you need to bring on yet another third-party to do some heavy lifting in an area that comes up. Partnerships are complicated but that shouldn’t be a reason for not having a conversation about what happens if you need more help to get the job done.
Who is responsible for building the look and feel for the project. Depending on the audience, this could be as simple as making it look clean and usable or as complex as having rich design elements and deep artistic value. Not everyone is concerned with colors and shapes but to others, it’s important. It’s worth understanding how look and feel will impact someone’s take on the project.
At the end of the day, human beings will be interacting with the technology being created so it’s helpful to have an understanding of what strategies and methods go into the user experience. A quick Google search can show big name software projects that have yielded poor user experiences enough to warrant some time spent making sure things go smoothly for your users. Dedicating some time to UX, or at least making sure someone is considering it, can be wise.
Who is actually going to be doing the hands-on-keyboard work on the project? What help do they need from your current team to make sense of the existing code base? Digging into legacy code can be troublesome so you need to know if your existing team is going to need to spend time with your technology partner to make sense of what’s hanging around. If you’re having your existing team jump into the fray with the third-party technology company, make sure there’s boundaries set and everyone understands their role in the success of the project.
A little planning in advance of the project can save a lot of headaches down the road.
Testing and Quality Assurance
This is a big one. All too often, when partnering with a third-party technology company, we can often overlook or ignore the testing phase.
Delivery of any big project happens in waves, with big chunks of the project getting completed in phases. As the project progresses, milestones can come and go. Boxes get checked and your partnering company will perform their own testing to comply with their own definition of “complete.” But does that level of quality assurance match your own? Said another way, if your partner considers something to be completed and done, do you agree?
Sometimes, through no fault of their own or yours either, a differing opinion on what goes into quality assurance can result in a sudden and volatile reaction. This often happens quickly and can cause unnecessary stress on the relationship.
It’s far better to understand how quality assurance will be conducted over the course of the project and come up with a strategy for how you’d like certain things to be measured. Define and gain agreement on what should be considered a “successful” measure of testing for each milestone. Get on the same page early in the project with respect to testing.
SRE / DevOps
DevOps and Site/Service Reliability Engineering can involve many people in different parts of the company so it’s vital to know who is handling what responsibilities and the resources available for all that’s involved. Oftentimes, wrapping your arms around the DevOps aspects alone can involve a lot of coordination and getting to know each other.
What impact will the new project have on security? What compliance considerations and regulations will have to be taken into account as the project unfolds. Thinking about how security will be handled goes far beyond sharing credentials with an outside vendor so they can do work. It takes a shared understanding of how data will be secured and what the new project needs to keep personal information safe.
Make Sure You Understand How Things will be Communicated
Communication differs from organization to organization. Your style may not match what the way your partner is used to handling internal communications. Regardless, it’s important to communicate with your third-party technology partner what’s expected as far as communication.
- Reports: What format, with what detail and how often will updates be given? To whom? Update Cadence: Do reports need to be logged without exception on regular intervals?
- Response Times: Get on the same page about working hours. Will you need to be ready and available to respond within normal business hours for your timezone? What constitutes normal business hours?
- Afterhours Responses Times and Turnaround: What’s a reasonable expectation for a response?
There’s a lot to consider when searching for the partner to reach your goals. Picking a partner you can trust is important. It’s also vital to trust in your partner and let them do the job for which they were hired. Expect the unexpected when embarking on a technology project and make sure you plan accordingly. Define roles and responsibilities and make sure you communicate properly what’s important and what’s not.