What's bugging you?

What's bugging you?

Has whingeing taken over from footy and cricket as Australia's national pastime, as one newspaper columnist recently claimed. Not in reseller land, found Tamara Plakalo.

Whingeing, it seems, is not among the channel's favourite pastimes. Even at the pinnacle of their griping, resellers fit the description of whingers as well as a square peg in a round hole. At their worst, they admit to holding a grudge against the people who aren't ready to acknowledge that, if anything, the Australian IT channel is a place to come, learn from and maybe even smuggle a spare positive vibe out of on the way back to the "outer" world.

This is not to say that the channel is a land of milk and honey, let alone a business paradise regained. There are any number of issues that resellers could rightfully complain about just for the sheer pleasure of it, given that, despite having a pivotal role in facilitating the growth of the most vigorous industry in the country, they are still forced to play second fiddle to those with more pulling power both in government and public consciousness.

For instance, while bureaucrats are likely to fight lengthy (not to mention costly) battles for Telstra's right to become more slovenly and arrogant than it already is, easing the pain of IT skill shortages or a capital gains tax overhaul have only recently made guest appearances on the national political agenda.

Yet far from taking part in the "blame-game", resellers remain an ascetic and introspective bunch, willing to engage in self-flagellation - not out of any kinkiness, but as a form of insurance that everything they can do to make the channel worth stealing positive vibes from is not just done, but done well.

It is not surprising, then, that so many resellers, including Tony Blackie, MD of Sydney Web devel-oper Guava Interactive, "protest their innocence" when asked to engage in a legitimate "what's bugging you?" session, even if they feel there are several issues the channel needs to address in a public forum.

"So many great things are happening in the channel and we should really focus on them," Blackie said, indicating that drawing attention to problems seems almost sacrilegious when one sees the Australian IT channel as the place where creativity and innovation reign.

Blackie nevertheless admits to being bothered by some general problems affecting this otherwise vibrant space and points the finger at a chronic IT skills shortage, identifying it as the issue that could make or break the prospect of Australia remaining at the helm of global IT development.

"Australia is a leader in terms of intellectual property in the development of IT, but we are at risk of losing more and more of our skilled people to countries such as the US, where they are going to pay them more money and provide them with the sort of concessions that they can't get here," Blackie said.

A global problem

Some figures suggest that approximately 300,000 IT positions remain constantly unfilled in North America and, according to Blackie, the US Government has taken several steps, including easing up visa restrictions, in an effort to deal with what is essentially a global problem rooted in the IT industry's meteoric growth and the need to produce skilled professionals at the same rate as the new technologies they need to service.

Given the circumstances and its reputation as one of the best-skilled IT countries in the world, Australia is in constant danger of having its best brains poached by cashed-up foreign companies, the issue Blackie says the Australian Government needs to address urgently.

"This is really a cumulative problem that the Government has to start dealing with, for while we might have a shortage of say 10,000 people today, the problem will get worse as new skill demands start to emerge. So we need to stop the brain-drain now."

As reluctant as resellers are to insinuate that fellow channel-folk are to blame for any of numerous channel perils, several believe that at least part of the skill shortage problem relates to the fact that IT professionals might not be as devoted to self-development as everyone takes them to be.

When Craig Hutchinson, executive manager for enterprise solutions at Lotus developer and professional service provider FishTech, reveals that one of the Sydney-based company's most persistent internal problems is "finding people with the right personality, good technical and people skills", it becomes apparent that skill shortage is about more than just lack of action in attracting and retaining badly needed IT professionals within our shores.

"The market is still light for the sorts of skills we need in developing e-commerce, object oriented, Notes and Java-based applications," Hutchinson said.

"The scary thing that I find to be prevalent at the moment is that people are almost overselling themselves. For example, there are a number of Notes developers out there, but a lot of them are average and finding people with an in-depth understanding of their technology of choice seems to indicate that there are not a lot of them around."

When it comes to managing a company's growth or preparing the market for the adoption of new technologies, the problem of finding suitable people for the job can, as Perth-based e-commerce specialist OpenSearch found out, have serious ramifications, especially at the lower end of the market. Although OpenSearch's virtual mall solution won an award at the IT&T Asia Pacific Awards, winning consumers' confidence, which is largely dependent on having a reseller infantry with the go-getter attitude, seems to be an enduring problem.

Chee Wong, the company's technical marketing executive, has no doubts that lack of education is to be blamed for a large part of the problem.

"Our biggest concern is that consumers are not well educated about e-commerce," he said.

"Obviously, the better the consumer's confidence in online business, the more business we get. Yet, to educate customers, you need to have educated resellers first. But the problem with computer shops in general is that while they want to be resellers, they are ignorant about technology and won't devote money or time to educate themselves," Wong lamented in a statement echoing Hutchinson's concerns relating to the higher end of the market.

Of course, the duty of educating the public about the virtues of technology is far from being entirely the responsibility of the reseller. Vendors, governments and consumers themselves should all accept their share of accountability for the educational process that is by anyone's standards much too complex to be considered a single group's task. For, as Greg Woollett, managing director of Red Rock Consulting asserts, "this is an educational process for all of us".

Based on his own experiences as an Oracle reseller, Woollett can both relate to and sympathise with Wong's concerns. "Some of the clients that we're getting don't really understand the ramifications of taking on a new complex software that needs to be administered properly," he explains.

Most valuable partner

However, almost as often as resellers experience frustration with ignorant customers, their clients can counterclaim the accusation based on the fact that resellers sometimes tend to forget that it is the customer who is their most valuable partner and the one the channel should learn from.

"What we've learnt is that we have to try not to overcomplicate the sale by positioning our product as very complex, because it can definitely do some simple things and that might be enough for the customer," Woollett said.

In fact, according to Brian Sinclair, managing director of KBM Consultants in Melbourne, "exploring customer objectives" is a paramount task for anyone involved in developing and selling technology and resellers should definitely brush up on their listening skills in order to be able to accomplish their ultimate goal - a successful sell.

"People's inability to give the client what they want should be of great concern to the channel," he suggested. "We are not here to give the client what we want to give them, but what the client wants to buy." Observing that there are enough "sharks" in the channel to give the rest of the hard-working, honest resellers a bad name, Sinclair said the ability to deliver what the customer wants when the customer wants it is the only way to nurture the partnership with your clients, hence protecting the reseller community's generally good reputation.

Channel partnerships

But client relationships are not the only ones in need of attention. Channel partnerships have to be taken care of with equal dedication to produce the sort of satisfaction Red Rock's Woollett finds in his company's reseller arrangement with Oracle and encourage the sort of praise Walken Technology's managing director, Gil Thew, has for the way IBM and Sun Microsystems are dealing with their partners.

"Channel partnerships are sometimes like bad marriages in which vendors and channels still think of each other as predators," cautions Thew. "It is true that vendors often fail to demonstrate a high degree of respect for the channel, but in some cases the channel treats vendors like dirt too." While it often appears that there is not a lot of trust among them, Thew believes "economic forces are pressuring vendors and resellers to work together". And to make the best of it, their interdependence should be reinforced, rather than taken apart by mistrust. "The fact is that vendors and channels have to work together and the channel will need to become more win-win orientated in order to make the relationship work," Thew said.

Skill shortages, problems with education and customer and vendor relationships are far from being the only problems the channel has to confront on a regular basis. Topical issues such as the hidden cost of Y2K compliance, the GST introduction and pricey, unreliable Internet service providers all earned a brief mention in the search for common channel bugs.

Yet, despite the long-term problems that resellers opted to "confess" about, the message that all is well in the channel world was the overwhelming choice of the selected group of people who represented you in this reseller forum. Staying true to their intentions, let us conclude the session by answering the question we asked on your behalf:

ARN: "What's bugging you, then?"

THE CHANNEL: "Oh, nothing much really!"

ARN: "Yeah, right, you just don't want to be a bunch of whingers."

THE CHANNEL: "Well, no, but who in their right mind would put whingeing ahead of footy and cricket?" Well, we can't argue with that one.

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