Over the last two posts, we’ve discussed the challenges of integrating engineers with customers and of integrating new products into an existing IT infrastructure. Compared to those, refreshing new technology must be easy, right? After all, the customer is already using the product, which means there should be no confusion about the functionality and user expectations, right? Sadly, many popular products fall out of favor because they fail the tech refresh cycle. Some never evolve. Others make changes that disrupt as much as a new product. Technology refresh is the most challenging integration of all.
The first trap is that some products assume that the customers will never change their environment. Change is certainly difficult, especially in the storage and data protection world. There is so much data, infrastructure, and history that moving is painful. The additional cost in hardware procurement, manual labor for IT and now separate maintenance costs… you see the challenge. Even in the face of years of unfulfilled product promises, customers will still license and use those tools. They’ll desperately want them to succeed and continue because it is so difficult to switch to a competitive vendor. With any relationship, however, when it ends, it ends ugly. For any company, there is always a real risk of losing their customers. Playing it safe in technology is just a way to ensure that you lose without a fight.
The second trap is assuming that customers love a product so much that they’ll re-architect their environment just to keep using it. Many product “upgrades” are so disruptive to a company’s people and processes that it’s as if they’re installing a new product. Somehow, the team is shocked that the customer is unwilling to redesign their tools, scripts and retrain their people; after all, their product is the center of the universe, right?
How then, can a product deliver “disruptive” innovation without disrupting its customers’ environment? The VMAX3 is a great case study. The product is a big hit. Customers love the VMAX3 and its innovative software features (SLO provisioning, SnapVX, and ProtectPoint to name a few), but the launch was not without tension. While the new functionality was exciting, we worried about how the initial release would integrate with our customers.
For many of our customers, security is a non-negotiable requirement. One of the great features of VMAX is Data at Rest Encryption (D@RE). We live in a world of CyberSpace wars, where it seems like a daily occurrence that a corporation that loses millions of credit card numbers or customer account info. While at EMCWorld, we had a customer dealing with a ransomware attack. It is software that will shut you down until you pay to free yourself! Why bring this up? To bring the other innovation to market more quickly, VMAX3 initially launched in 2014 without D@RE. At launch, EMC promised that D@RE was coming, and we have fulfilled that promise (D@RE has been shipping with VMAX3 since March 2015).
We had spirited debates about whether we should ship the VMAX3 without complete feature parity with VMAX2. On the one hand, we did not want to make the customer refresh more complex. On the other, the new data management flows would be so transformative that we wanted our customers to be able to test them in labs and begin to map out their future data center workflows. Ultimately, we decided that the innovation justified shipping without all of the ecosystem integration points. We felt that the value of the innovation and the trusted partner relationship with our customers would enable us to successfully navigate the complexities of the technical refresh.
Technology refresh is probably the most difficult integration any company has to do. Too cautious and the customer abandons the product as “legacy”. Too aggressive and the customer re-evaluates their entire environment. How do you make the balancing act work? First, you need to connect the product team to the customer to understand both their core dependencies and where the innovation is most desired. Second, you need to develop a partnership between the two companies, so that the refresh path is well understood. Finally, a history of trust is the only way to bridge across the challenges that will arise. For tech refresh to succeed, you need to master all types of integration. That’s why so few technical companies survive across multiple refresh cycles.
If you have thoughts on how companies like EMC can better integrate with our customers, what is working well, what is not working so well, please share them here. We don’t always get it right, but we haven’t stopped trying to do better.
Steven Weller @