All around the world, many of today's integrators evolved from PC reselling. So-called desktop integrators that are dependent on PC revenues face fierce competition, ranging from the new $US399 PCs to the low-cost, high-powered servers offered by Dell Computer.
These erstwhile resellers aren't long for this world.
My brother and I co-founded our company in 1987 by selling IBM clones out of our bedroom. (We had to work our way up to the garage.) I don't normally like to boast, but I was a hard-core paranoid long before Intel's Andrew Grove popularised the trait in his book Only the Paranoid Survive. Even as our PC sales boomed, I became increasingly worried about the emergence of lower-cost competition. Although we transitioned into a networking company years ago, our PC legacy still haunts the business. Until very recently we never thought to change our old operating procedures. We still used technicians to configure clones for resale.
We also continued to staff a drop-in service centre. Our technicians fixed Compaq PCs, clones, printers - and just about anything customers brought through the door. Our new operations director, Edward, quickly realised the foolishness of configuring clones ourselves rather than relying on the manufacturers. He also pointed out that the $2000 worth of Compaq warranty work and break/fix revenue we received each month didn't begin to justify the cost of operating a service centre.
I'm thrilled that Edward's changes have helped streamline our operations, but I mourn the lost profits of the past several years - lost profits I was unaware of. We didn't detect the obvious inefficiencies earlier because we lacked the systems to accurately track productivity. Our business-process inadequacies are another legacy of the PC. If we had been in business 20 years ago, we would doubtless have purchased a minicomputer. This would have forced the discipline upon us to design and implement a host-based system that, though green-screen ugly, would have enabled us to obtain the numbers we needed to make better decisions. Instead we've been saddled with a mixture of inexpensive, off-the-shelf PC applications and in-house-designed software. Our resulting mishmash of isolated systems requires wasteful duplicate entry work.
Even worse, we cannot easily generate a proposal, determine billable hours by engineer, see if a specific printer is covered under a support contract, determine if a field technician was late for an appointment, or even whether a past-due payment has been received. I know we're not alone.
During the last few VAR/integrator conferences I've attended, I've made a point of asking other integrators about their internal systems. Almost 50 per cent said that they were unhappy with but tolerating their current systems. Most of the rest said that they were in the process of changing at least one major application, such as accounting. Low-priced PC applications have seduced many integrators, but few seem to cohesively implement them. We preach computer productivity to our clients but must embarrassingly cite the "cobbler's kids not having shoes" syndrome to explain our own lack of efficient systems. Don't get me wrong; our company does great work.
I'm now on a mission to put good systems into place that will enable us to do it more efficiently. If you've licked the PC-based system enigma, drop me an e-mail. I am willing to trek to the farthest reaches of the continent to view a successful integration operation in action.
Steve Kaplan is president of RYNO Technology, a US-based integration company. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.