Experienced system integrators know the questions that prospective clients should be asking them during the interview process. Two are often overlooked. For more, see the March, May and July 2008 installments of this column.
What can you do for me, and what am I going to have to do myself?
The scope of work that an integrator agrees to undertake figures into the end user's risk. The more responsibilities the integrator assumes, the lower the end user's risk. Unfortunately, not all integrators are equally capable of assuming the risks and responsibilities of a project. Most integrators can provide some technical skills and domain knowledge, but in terms of the overall scope of work that a particular integrator can undertake, end users get what they pay for.
To illustrate that point, Bob Zeigenfuse, president of System Integrator Hall of Famer Avanceon (formerly Advanced Automation), describes an “integration-value totem pole” that represents the various levels of involvement a client can expect from various kinds of integrators.
“On the lower end of the totem pole are small engineering independents who just provide bodies with technical skills and domain knowledge,” says Zeigenfuse. “Hiring individual contributors may cost less than other options, but all the risks of success fall back on the client. Still, if you are committed to managing the risk yourself, then you probably should go for staff augmentation.”
If not, Zeigenfuse recommends moving up the totem pole when selecting an integrator. At the next level are service providers who offer not only staff augmentation, but the processes and practices for organizing the technical aspects of the project.
Next, are integrators who offer methods for managing the human element. At the top of the totem pole are integrators who can help their clients produce sustainable results. There are fewer integrators available at higher levels of the totem pole, and they tend to cost more, but they also provide greater value.
What technologies are you proposing to use for the integration project?
The technologies required for a successful automation project must be considered when selecting the integrator who will be entrusted with it.
It's also worthwhile to ask why an integrator is proposing a particular solution. Is it the best solution for the success of the project or for the convenience of the integrator? Some integrators select technologies because they have special pricing or they just like using a particular platform.
End users should favor integrators who use leading-edge, but not proprietary technology.
A modular, open architecture is easier to implement, and it gives the end user multiple support channels. Proprietary systems typically lock an end user into a single source of support, either directly from the vendor or the vendor's representatives.
Not all automation technology is mutually interoperable, so some integration will always be necessary. The trick is to find an integrator who can pick a technological solution that meets the project's business needs with the least possible customization.