I used to think enterprise grade meant "rock-solid & scalable."

It actually means "bloated with 100s of random, buggy, sales-led features."

☁ David Ulevitch ☁ (@davidu) — March 24, 2016

It goes without saying that it is important for businesses to know who their customer is. But in schools, as in business, the people who buy a product are often different from the people who use a product. This isn’t a novel idea. In fact, it is exactly how John Siracusa defined Enterprise Software several years ago on episode 28 of the Accidental Tech podcast… “Enterprise Software is when the person buying your software is not the one who has to use it.”

It’s worth pondering though because this dichotomy can cause some perverse incentives when the needs of the purchasing group differ from, or are even opposed to, the needs of the user group. Business respond to the needs of the people buying their product and that is what leads to complaints like the one quoted above by David Ulevitch (which resonated with a lot of people).

A good example of this phenomenon in action is to consider Microsoft and Apple. In a nutshell, the (relatively) small number of people who buy Microsoft products (CTOs and IT managers) have traditionally been somewhat removed from the huge number of people who end up using the products they buy. Technology people tend to focus on things that can be shown on a checklist or spreadsheet and value things like interoperability, backwards compatibility, ease of administration, tangible costs and the ability to lock things down to reduce support costs1.

As a result, Microsoft has been incentivised to develop extremely flexible software that ticks all the possible boxes the tech person might ask for, even though it results in software that is WAY too complex for the majority of workers to use well. (To tame this beast they then deploy “user friendly” “solutions” such as wizards, annoying animated paperclips, too many tabs, too many toolbars and the like).

By way of contrast, the people who buy Apple products are very often the same ones who use the products. Most of them still care about things like price and interoperability but they tend to place a much higher premium on other things that are harder to quantify such as ease of use, reliability, creativity, long life and how it makes them feel.

As a result, Apple is incentivised to develop more narrowly targeted software that aims to surprise and delight users, even though that often means leaving out software features that tech people consider essential such as file system access, low level customisations and multi-user support.2

That’s all good and well for big companies but how does this apply to people like you and I? Well for a start it’s helpful to be aware of the danger and question your motives. When making purchasing decisions at the school I used to work at, a colleague and I would regularly ask each other “Is this what’s best for the students and teachers or is this what’s best for us?”. This often helped us make the right decision for the school, even if it meant more work for us.

Another tactic is to avoid checklists and comparison tables. Comparing 3-5 different products or vendors by preparing a long matrix of specs and requirements is a sure fire way of losing sight of what you’re actually trying to achieve. Instead of coming up with a list of 20 different comparison points try and boil it down to the one thing (or at most two or three things) you are trying to achieve. If the one thing you are trying to achieve is providing technology that is reliable and available then you may well choose a laptop with rock solid support, even though the matrix says it is 7.2% more expensive, 6.4% slower and only has one USB 3 port instead of four.

Lastly, don’t just follow the crowd. No one ever got fired for buying IBM Microsoft Cisco SMART Boards iPads insert big name or latest fad here but just because 6 of the 8 schools you spoke to have chosen a product doesn’t mean it’s even the right product for them, let alone for you!

  1. Question for another day, did the chicken come first or the egg? Are people who focus on specs and speeds attracted to working with technology or does working with technology cause otherwise normal people to focus on specs and speeds. 

  2. I realise a direct comparison isn’t strictly fair given Microsoft mostly sells software and Apple mostly sells hardware so I deliberately tried to compare software with software. I think a similar comparison of Microsoft hardware (e.g. the “no-compromise” Surface) with Apple hardware (e.g. the iPad) would show a similar result though.