Pitching SOA: Know Your Audience

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Having attended somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 presentations in the last year plus on the topic of SOA, I’m still mystified by one almost universal aspect of the messaging: it’s all technical. Sure, you’ll see the dutiful inclusion of a use case that shows a before and after, before being some hideously complicated physical diagram, after being a beautiful, easily comprehended logical diagram. But for the most part, each and every vendor that I speak with is pitching the deck as if to a CIO/CIO/Chief Architect. My question is simple: are these really the guys that need to be persuaded?

My own experience has been quite different. Most of the folks I speak with or track – like Brenda Michelson (formerly an enterprise architect for LL Bean, now with the Seybold Group) or James McGovern (enterprise architect with The Hartford) – could probably give the SOA presentations I’ve seen at least as well as the vendors themselves. They know the benefits, they see the vision, and they in many cases have been employing SOA principles for years, minus the SOA label [1]. For that matter, many developers I work with could at least take a good stab at explaining most of the lower level benefits. But this, by and large, is the audience that vendors are courting.

When we released our Compliance Oriented Architecture (PDF warning) piece a little less than a year ago, I half suspected that it would be the first of a wave of SOA related offerings and architectures that explicitly tied notions of service orientation to specific business problems and requirements. Instead, we’ve seen little if any of that. No tailored SOA flavors, no Identity Oriented Architectures to go along with our COA. Most vendor pitches still focus on SOA as a generalized technical approach to highly genericized (and thus, often less than relevant) business problems.

In the vendors’ defense, however, I should note that determining specific opportunities for verticals can be challenging – both from the marketing/messaging and field sales resource perspectives. Having been a consultant for years, I know just how difficult it is to tailor a pitch to an industry that you’ve never worked in previously and only know from a research perspective. If you don’t see that, just ask my Dad – who’s been running options businesses on the New York Exchanges for years – what he thinks of “consultants” coming in and telling him after being there for two days how he should change his business.

But that’s why we chose to focus on a problem like compliance, which despite a myriad of differences in low-level implementation details, is characterized by a high degree of commonality in the base requirements. Put another way, horizontal is a lot easier to learn than vertical, as everyone this side of IBM/IGS/BCS is coming to realize.

At the end of the day, however, I think a major reason that SOA hasn’t taken off to the extent that many predicted comes down to a simple misapplication of focus. Rather than explaining to James McGovern how SOA can benefit The Hartford, vendors and systems integrators alike should be educating my Dad on how it can help Kellogg Capital’s. Too often we hear about SOA pitches to CIOs that are shunted off to the IT department with a “Yes, that’s terrific, go talk to my technical guys…” only to die a lingering death while in search of budget.

Without question focusing on the business is harder, slower and more resource intensive – particularly for organizations that are used to pitching to the technical side of the house – but I promise you’ll get a lot further if you do. Many if not most major technical wins these days require buy-in from both technical and business representatives (that was actually a must-have requirement in the CTP-derived Blue Hammock methodology I implemented once upon a time) and if you haven’t explained to the business why they should care, they won’t.

[1] In this vein, Brenda gave some excellent examples of what I would consider SOA type projects at LL Bean during last year’s MESDA conference.

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