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Steering Clear of Shoddy

Although home renovation projects and IT projects may not appear to have much in common, there is one regard in which they are striking similar, both suffer from undesirably high failure rates. In Canada, TV personality and master contractor Mike Holmes draws attention to failed home renovations projects in his show “Holmes on Homes”. Each week Mike visits a home owner who has been the victim of a shoddy contractor and exposes the poor workmanship they left behind.

The problems in the home renovation industry are largely structural in nature. Unlike professionally regulated industries such as Engineering and Accounting, in the home renovation industry there are no barriers to entry, no independent oversight and many practitioners have little or no formal training. In addition buyers of home renovation services often lack the skills to be able to differentiate good contractors from bad ones, so there is little to stop poor contractors securing work.

Mike reports that of all the contractors in the market only about 20% have the knowledge and skills needed to do a good job. The remaining 80% are somewhere on a continuum from poor to downright dangerous and the cost to an unwary home owner can be catastrophic.

Structurally the IT industry has a number of parallels with the home renovation industry. Barriers to entry are low, there is no independent oversight and many practitioners have little more than elementary levels of training. Buyers of IT services are also flying blind in the same way as home owners are. The actual quality of the software produced is largely hidden in the source code and buyers often lack the skills to tell the level of workmanship being delivered. While bugs are defects may show up in testing, there can often be many deeper seated issues (such as poor architectures) that don’t show through on the surface. In addition, by the time the bugs do show up, the damage is already done.

Mike Holmes offers home owners some useful pointers for how to find a good contractor. As you might expects, it’s a case of educating yourself as a buyer, asking the right questions and checking references properly. Given the structural parallels between the home renovation business and the IT industry the same principles apply. The problem is that in the IT industry it can still be hard to tell if you have a good contractor. Asking for resumes is a start, but as everyone knows a resume can be dressed up and no one openly declares that they produce poor quality work. So that leaves buyers needing another mechanism to help them determine if they are dealing with a good contractor or a bad one.

One of the steps I saw a manager use a few years ago seems like a good alternative. He focused on asking the vendors questions about their training practices, their hiring practices and how they provide technical and management oversight to the team. Some vendors squirm immediately which runs a giant red flag up the flagpole. Others (including many of the big names) tried to cover the questions, but collapsed when the questions drilled below the surface. Others had good solid answers. Needless to say a vendor who can answer the questions effectively (and has back up evidence to support their answers) is likely to be the stronger performer.

The sad truth is that shoddy work is a part of the IT industry and buyers need to be aware. Educate yourself, ask the right questions and don’t be intimidated by vendors who get agitated when you ask them the difficult questions.

1 Comment on “Steering Clear of Shoddy”

  1. #1 Ricardo Ramirez
    on Feb 17th, 2011 at 10:00 am

    You are absolutely right. The job of sales people is to sell and ours is to be a smart buyer. Whenever we make a vendor part of our key stakeholders, we must be aware of the risk we might be facing if he was not screened properly. I have seen so many times that whenever a Manager does not want to be accountable for a deliverable, he might just ask that some vendor does the job; in his belief that by transferring the whole task to an outsider things will be better for him. As a result, delayed projects, cost overruns and projects heading to chaos are problems that could be prevented if vendors were assessed using an effective methodology instead of leaving it all to the hope that he will do things right just because he’s being paid for that.