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Pitching the Linux Solution

So you've made up your mind. You are going to flee that confounded cube, cluttered with pictures and toys that desperately tried to make it seem cheery, and get out on your own to do what you love most -- Linux. You dream of meetings with Fortune 500 executives, where you'll stand at a podium delivering the sermon of your life. Casting Windows in the role of the evil giant Goliath and Linux as David, you scream for the deliverance of Corporate America from monopolistic proprietary vendors.

Trenches art

So you’ve made up your mind. You are going to flee that confounded cube, cluttered with pictures and toys that desperately tried to make it seem cheery, and get out on your own to do what you love most — Linux. You dream of meetings with Fortune 500 executives, where you’ll stand at a podium delivering the sermon of your life. Casting Windows in the role of the evil giant Goliath and Linux as David, you scream for the deliverance of Corporate America from monopolistic proprietary vendors.

The nice thing is that this comes naturally to you. You debate the virtues of Linux vs. Windows all the time — and often you win! Unfortunately, reality will show you that the interests of a hacker/geek and those of a Fortune 500 IT exec are worlds apart. As a result, if you plan on pitching Linux as a moral imperative, or from some other evangelistic place, you will almost certainly do yourself and the community a grave disservice.

The “Fortune 500 IT manager mentality” is scary and very real. While technical expertise is very important, just as important is getting to understand who your prospective client is, what they do, who they answer to, and where their real pain resides. You must be prepared to pitch Linux on his terms and talk intelligently about Open Source in the context of their existing environment. As much fun as it is to bash Microsoft on Usenet, there is no room for such frivolity in a professional sales presentation; it serves only to tarnish your image in the eyes of the client.

Getting down to the business side of things, let’s set about the task of differentiating what we in the community love about Linux from what is relevant in the corporate IT world.

For starters, there are very few IT execs who find “free” (as in free beer) to be a benefit of primary importance. In fact, when a company puts out their RFP (Request for Proposal) on a project, it’s not unheard of that one or more bidders are discounted for being “out of range” — meaning that their bid is too low to be considered! This is justified in a few different ways.

First, the mantra “you get what you pay for” is generally accepted as being largely true in the IT consulting arena. If nothing else, it provides a way for managers to play CYA. These managers, as much as they are decision-makers, have to answer to someone if something goes wrong. They don’t want the higher-ups to review their decision and find that they hired the bargain basement firm.

The second reason is that IT managers are afforded a budget to carry out projects within their department, and this budget is revised periodically (quarterly, yearly, etc.). Managers have to use all or most of their budget to justify an increase for the next period. If nothing else, they at least want to insure against a budget decrease.

In short, the only people who will be thrilled that you’re able to offer a Linux solution at such a low cost are probably the same people you’ll have to hire a lawyer to get your money from. You do not want this hassle. Come up with a plan, estimate the needed man-hours and other associated costs of doing the project, find out the market rate for your services, and bill accordingly.

Now that we’ve ruined the cost aspect of your presentation, let’s move on to what is probably the most adored attribute of Linux within the community — the availability of source code!

Gasp! How can anyone find this irrelevant? Well, unless you come up with a way to work it in as a unique benefit in his world, it usually is. What makes this a non-issue to a lot of managers is the fact that it’s rare to find one that has a crew of C developers sitting around, who also happen to be Linux gurus. This is a major separating point between what Linux enthusiasts like about Linux and what makes Linux work (or not) in the business world; the code is free, the developers are not. In addition, we live in a largely “off the shelf” world, due partly to the cost and time associated with development. While some “tweaking” is expected to work anything into a new environment, retooling the kernel and writing new programs to emulate something that “just works” in other environments is not likely to win you points.

So how the heck do you get around to talking about Linux? The riddle of an answer that I’m about to explain is “you don’t” — not really anyway. No software vendor sends in their sales team to talk to IT bigwigs specifically about their product. A customer in a larger firm will likely be insulted at the notion that all of their pain can be completely alleviated by some code on a CD in a pretty box. What needs to be delivered is a solution. Solutions, in the eyes of an IT manager, do not exist in a can or on a CD alone. A solution is a thorough plan of attack that addresses every aspect of the client’s need, in the context of his/her existing environment, with some thought given to the future of the solution as well as what happens after you leave. Explain why your solution, which happens to be open source, is “the best tool for the job.”

With the aforementioned in mind, you can, of course, pitch the cold hard facts and use the “nice to haves” listed above as just that — icing on the cake. Do your research and you will soon piece together a wonderful presentation that will tout Linux as one of the most flexible, secure, open, and scalable solutions available for a wide variety of implementations and environments. Linux can run on almost any hardware from a PDA to a mainframe and interoperates with almost any operating system (it can be made to look right at home in your Windows Network Neighborhood). It also understands almost every networking and file sharing protocol (including SMB, PPP, SLIP, DHCP, NIS, NFS,… I could go on for paragraphs here) and as an added bonus, the OS itself costs nothing. To top it all off — should you need to — you can feel free to change any part of the OS, all the way down to its very source code, which is also freely available.

With so much to talk regarding Linux and its implementation, there is really no need to discuss the shortcomings, moral or technical, of Microsoft or any other operating environment. All of the facts, statistics, benchmarks, etc. for Linux are out there, just like they are for everyone else. In addition, Linux, at worst, gives any operating system a run for its money.

Focus on the positive aspects of Linux, how it fits into the client’s existing environment, how it uniquely eases whatever pain the client has, and you will win the business. Bash the competition and you will surely come off sounding like an M$-hating zealot whose claims are only backed by the enthusiasm of the rest of the zealots. Cut through the hype; address the problem by offering a solution, and your clients will soon realize that using Linux is, contrary to the press, a no-brainer.



Brian Jones is a founder of LinuxLaboratory.org. He can be reached at brian@linuxlaboratory.org.

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