Finance / The American View: Old Man’s Chores

The American View: Old Man’s Chores

Salespeople: if you must gush about your product, please don’t use misleading phrases to do it. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger Keil Hubert begs you all to stop using the phrase ‘military grade’ to make your widget sound impressive.

I cringe when sales weasels brag that their products have ‘military grade’ features. That’s an improvement; I used to argue with weasels about their awful choice of hype. My feedback tended to hurt the weasels’ feelings, though, so now I usually tune them out and browse my Twitter feed until their sales call or product demo is finished. There’s no profit to be made in making sales weasels cry.

This phrase is a trigger for me because I’ve lived the squaddie life. I know from first-hand experience that ‘military grade’ doesn’t mean what most people think it means. Veterans understand this, having gambled their lives on the reliability and effectiveness of so-called ‘military grade’ equipment. Contrary to how the phrase is commonly used by sales and marketing types, ‘military grade’ doesn't mean ‘extremely rugged,’ heavily armoured,’ or ‘impervious to harm.’ Most of the time, it just means ‘cheaply made’ and ‘horribly overpriced.’ Not exactly a selling point.

Science fiction author John Scalzi expressed the idea exceptionally well in his debut novel Old Man’s War in a scene between a drill instructor and a batch of new trainees:

‘There has never been a military in the entire history of the human race that has gone to war equipped with more than the least that it needs to fight its enemy. War is expensive. It costs money and it costs lives and no civilization has an infinite amount of either. So when you fight, you conserve. You use and equip only as much as you have to, never more.

He stared at us grimly. ‘Is any of this getting through? … You don’t have these … pretty new weapons because we want to give you an unfair advantage. You have these … weapons because they are the absolute minimum that will allow you to fight and survive out there.’ [1]

When you say ‘military grade,’ consider the humble portable toilet. It’s engineered to be cheap, portable, minimally functional, and disposable. Not sexy, armoured, or built to last. 

To Mr Scalzi’s credit, he nailed the idea. Military kit is astoundingly expensive because of its specificity, its rarity, and/or its design requirements. Militaries buy the most horribly overpriced gear because that gear either (a) serves a specific need that can’t be met with off-the-shelf commercial kit, or (b) enriches a corrupt politician. [2] The days of a Minuteman marching off to battle with his personal musket are long gone.

Back on track: I recently had a sales weasel throw that irritating phrase at me during a webinar, and it soured the entire discussion (as expected). Later that day, I read about the collision of the guided missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald and the commercial cargo carrier ACX Crystal off the coast of Japan. One of the people that I overheard discussing the event at my local diner expressed shock and incredulity that a Navy warship could be so easily disabled from a simple collision. ‘I mean,’ he said, ‘aren’t warships armoured to withstand barrages of cannon fire?’

It would have been rude to scream like a rabid howler monkey at a stranger in a restaurant. More importantly, I’m confident that I wouldn’t have been able to covey my point while shaking the fellow like a terrier with a rag doll. Much as I wanted to. Instead, I took a deep breath and tried to concentrate on my own horribly unhealthy lunch.

I get where the guy’s confusion came from. Yes, we used to make warships with really heavy and thick belts of armour as their primary means of protection. Ships-of-the-line still met at sea for thundering gun battles as late as the Battle of Surigao Strait in 1944. A World War II era capital ship with 300mm of steel armour on its flanks might well have shrugged off a collision with a smaller ship. Heck, a 57,000 ton Iowa-class battleship might well have sunk the smaller 39,500 ton ACX Crystal in the exchange without taking meaningful damage in return. Battleships were awesome.

Container ships are bloody impressive too, in their way. Especially if you happen to live on an island where 95 per cent of your trade by volume and 90 per cent by value is carried by sea. 

The Fitzgerald, however, is not a World War 2 era battleship; it’s a 22-year old Arleigh Burke class destroyer. Yes, it does have some armour; the ship’s vital spaces sport double-spaced steel layers and Kevlar spall liners … but that’s for protection against rockets, not against cannon shells or ramming. The days of gigantic armoured beasts slugging each other to death within visual range ended with the advent of aircraft-delivered torpedoes. Any doubt of that fact was laid to rest with the loss of the HMS Sheffield to a missile in 1982 – six years before the first Arleigh Burke destroyer was launched.

Would you call the USS Fitzgerald ‘military grade’? Darned right you would! It’s near-as-makes-no-difference a billion-dollar investment in high-tech naval warfighting. The Burkes are crammed full of guided missiles, torpedoes, a classic turreted naval gun, autocannons, rockets, and (starting in two fiscal years) a bloody 60 kW laser gun. It doesn’t get more ‘military grade’ than that. What it isn’t is engineered to bounce back unscathed from being rammed by a much larger ship. Why? Because Navies don’t design their warships for that tactic any more. They could, sure, but doing so would make the ship much more expensive to build, operate, and repair than it needs to be to perform its primary mission … and as Mr Scalzi said, nations purchase weapons that are the absolute minimum required to fight and survive.

So, sales weasels: enough with the ‘military grade’ claims already. When you say the phrase, it doesn't impress me. If anything, claiming that your product is ‘military grade’ makes me think that you skimped on build quality, painted the entire thing beige, and then jacked the price up 500%. It’s not enticing, it’s not impressive, and it’s not working.

Gather close, my darling weasels. Here’s what you need to do instead: tell me how your product is going to solve my problems under arduous conditions. That’s what I really want to hear. I get that your shiny box performs a cool function. Maybe it correlates data about security incidents. Maybe it captures and processes log data from all the servers in my data centre to speed up anomaly detection. Maybe it detects and counters attempts to suborn my fleet PCs. I’ll take for granted that you guys wrote your box’s software to perform its intended task. What I need to know is how reliable it is, how resistant it is, and how difficult it is to maintain.

Even the stuff that works correctly is maddeningly frustrating to maintain. The average IT job consists of two parts Googling ‘why did X stop working?’ to one part screaming profanity at an inanimate object.

‘Reliable,’ in this case, usually means ‘can it continue to function when it’s being absolutely slammed with work?’ What happens when its doing its thing at maximum speed? When all of its drives are spinning, it’s network ports are choked with incoming, and its processors have more critical work queued up than a Brexit negotiator? How long can it go at max capacity before it either chokes or fails?

You’d think that this isn’t much of a consideration, now that we’re shifting to ‘cloud-[everything].’ In reality, a lot of the products and services that I listen to pitches for are either sold as plug-in appliances [3] or else out-sourced ‘[Whatever]-as-a-Service’ offerings. If you’re not giving me an application that I can run on my own servers, storage, and network, then tell me when your widget is going to choke so that I can plan accordingly. I need to know up-front if I need to buy two or more of these shiny boxes instead of just one, or if I need to buy the super-duper-deluxe model instead of the starter version. Don't’ waste my time trying to ‘get a foot in the door’ to guarantee future sales.

‘Resistant’ is just as easy to understand. How robust and secure is your widget or service? I’ve seen way too many appliances that simply pretty shells over an embedded, non-upgradable, and non-manageable server. Once placed in operation, it was only a matter of time before a vulnerability in their underlying platform or application turned the shiny box into a cosy guest cottage for hackers. Same goes for services: yeah, I’ve seen companies build great tools, then skimp on capacity management. When a bunch of customers tried to use it simultaneously, the platforms locked up.

Tell me how your product is designed to stay running. How does it gat patched? How often, and by whom? How often is the product itself upgrade with new features? How do those features get tested out before I’m stuck having to use them? How do I get my affected users trained on changes in the service delivery? Who’s responsible for fixing the kit when it crashes? How long does it take to get back into operation after a major crash? Give me a practical understanding of how much support and redundancy I need to buy in order to meet my organisation’s operational requirements.

In most companies, all of its computing power and technical expertise was purchased to help deliver real work. Any expense or effort that doesn’t deliver for the company’s bottom line is an unwelcome drain on productivity and profit. 

Finally, the ‘difficult to maintain’ factor isn’t about how cute and friendly the user interface is. I’ve seen too many kawaii front-ends to care. Yeah, you have a graphic artist. Whoopee. ‘Pretty’ isn’t the same as ‘usable.’ I want to see the actual operation of the device or service exactly as it would be used in the real world. Walk me though the core process steps so that I can where the illogical bits are; where am I going to need to publish user manuals that mitigate the designer’s requirement to have an operator remember esoteric steps, inputs, or terms? Forget the lab demo version; let me talk to a real sysadmin who relies on your thingy so that I can hear from her how effective it is.

Tell me how I can trace and troubleshoot the workflow when users or administrators can’t make the product function. Show me examples of the training that you provide to new customers. Send me the user manuals. Introduce me to the Service Desk crew that I’ll be dependent on. Let me know when that customer support lines closes for the evening and what it costs per-call to get help. Help me calculate whether it’s cost-effective to just buy my own full-time dedicated support engineer.

I get it, sales weasels. I do. You only make your pay packet by convincing me to buy your whatsit. You have a strong incentive to dazzle me so that I can’t help but purchase your whatsit as soon as possible (preferably before your quarter closes). That’s why you lot try to end every discussion with a request to ‘close a deal.’ It’s also why you’re willing to laugh at my jokes and pretend that I’m your best pal; sales is a game of economic seduction.

The thing is, you’re far more likely to secure a sale if you make the effort to understand my side of our exchange the way that I understand your side. I’m not a ‘professional customer;’ I didn’t take your call because I have spare cash in the budget that I have to get rid of. I’m an IT pro with one or more vexing problems that need to be solved, usually in an unrealistic hurry, that I can’t (for whatever reason) handle on my own. I would not be talking to you at all if I didn’t have an aching unmet need that’s ticking me the heck off.

Usually in the form of an older, angrier, much-better-paid executive on the phone demanding to know why IT hasn’t fixed the company’s newest problem yet.  

Moreover, these are rarely ever exciting problems; the really cool stuff has almost always been handled early on. By the time a mature enterprise customer comes ’round your shop looking for a widget, it’s because of something annoying. Satisfying a new legal requirement, for example. The un-sexy stuff. Wearying chores, not thrilling initiatives. Keep that firmly in mind.

From my perspective, you’re either arming me with the tools that I need to solve my problem or else you’re being a bloody nuisance. If you want to convince me that you’re a trustworthy (metaphorical) armourer, then show me the ordnance. Don’t tell me that it’s impressive (or that it’s *£&$ing ‘military grade’); show me how it’s effectively deployed, sustained, and leveraged. Don’t show me a picture of a warship and tell me that it’s awesome; let me walk her decks while she sails so that I can see for myself how well she performs those tasks that she was engineered to accomplish.

If that makes me and other senior IT leaders like me sound cussed grumpy, well … Yeah. We are! We got this way from surviving a bunch of political, operational, legal, and logistical fights in our effort to keep our organisations afloat and underway. We’re old and seasoned enough to not be impressed with blinky lights and artsy plastic enclosures. We don’t agree that adding “-as-a-Service” to your product name makes it sexier. Your enthusiasm is amusing, but not compelling in and of itself. Either help us solve our problems, or else get out of the way. We’ve got too much stuff to do.


[1] Edited to remove plot spoilers.

[2] Often both factors are in-play.

[3] That is, self-contained modules that has an application running on a basic server chassis inside a custom case.

Excerpt From: John Scalzi, Old Man's War (2005 Book).

Photographs under licence from thinkstockphotos.co.uk, copyright:  Naval Vessel Sunset, HiddenHillsArtsPhotography, portable toilets, mikdam, container ship, EvrenKalinbacak, technician, Thinkstock Images, ship building, CreativeNature_nl, stressed businessman, MangoStar_Studio


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger.

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