Finding a Systems Integrator

Services and software

When designing and building a complex information system under NEXTSTEP, you can either plan and run the job yourself, using a combination of in-house programmers and outside consultants, or hire a systems integrator (SI) to assume responsibility for the whole project.

But if you do decide to go with a systems integrator, proceed with caution: The choice of an SI will probably be the single most important decision you'll make in your NEXTSTEP strategy as well as one of the most expensive.

"The cost of going to NEXTSTEP is not the $795 for the software, or even $2495," says Roger Coates, coordinator of technical management for PanCanadian Petroleum of Calgary, Alberta. "The real cost of going to NEXTSTEP is the cost of skills."

Contracts with systems integrators vary, but under the typical agreement, an SI commits to the delivery of a specified level of system functionality, by a specified date, for a specified price. Other elements of training and support are often part of the overall contract as well.

You pay SIs not only for their experience and expertise but to assume the risk that the job will come in successfully and on time. It's up to the SI to find and manage all of the systems-development and programming talent.

So how do you choose a systems integrator?

"The most important thing is that the systems integrator has a base of experience in the specific kinds of projects you want done," says Mark Potenzone, NeXT's East Coast Object Channel representative. NeXT recently assembled the Object Channel to identify and aid systems integrators working in the NEXTSTEP environment through training, joint sales calls, and other avenues (see charts).

In a perfect world, you would always be able to find a systems integrator who has experience in your industry. But in real life, it may still be necessary to use a systems integrator who has experience in your field but is relatively new to NEXTSTEP programming. Customers caution that the people who will work on your project should possess strong object-oriented programming experience.

"If you can find an integrator who has done some Smalltalk, C, and C++ code, then you can get some pretty good work out of them in NEXTSTEP," says Ingvar Petursson, vice-president and chief information officer at McCaw Cellular. "The NEXTSTEP world is pretty easy to pick up."

The more time you spend defining your needs and the project as a whole, the better off you will be and that includes writing a clear, complete, and precise project outline. The better you define your goals, the more likely an SI will be able to make an accurate bid with a complete solution, according to NeXT's Potenzone.

It's also important to allow for the unexpected. Once you've selected an SI, make sure your contract includes clear procedures for adjusting prices and schedules to accommodate changes. Customers explain that everybody in this business is still learning as they go along and that includes systems integrators.

Make sure your SIs are realistic in judging their own capabilities and in estimating what sort of time and effort the project will require, suggests McCaw's Petursson. Then for good measure, he says, expect it to take a little longer.

"The basic sales pitch of the systems integrator is that they've solved every problem ten times before and have already made all the mistakes," says PanCanadian's Coates. "But the truth of the matter is, nobody has done this ten times before with object programming to have made all the mistakes it's all too new."

Like any other emerging technology, real knowledge in object development and NEXTSTEP programming is scarce and valuable. "That's one of the costs of being on the leading edge," Coates says.

Those in the business of hiring systems integrators have found ample cause for caution. "Many [SI] companies will tell you they do objects, they do client-server, and so on," says McCaw's Petursson. "But what you find out is they've only scratched the surface of object programming, and they haven't done mission-critical applications either."

Although by no means the only SIs worth looking at, those on NeXT's Object Channel list are probably all good bets, assuming they mesh with your project needs. "The companies in NeXT's Object Channel are all, as Garrison Keillor would say, above average," says Petursson.

In selecting a systems integrator, safety does not necessarily come in numbers. It may be human nature to view the larger SI firms as more secure, but since true NEXTSTEP expertise is still relatively rare, it is just as likely that smaller, specialized SIs, with fewer but more highly skilled developers, will prove to be the superior choice for your job. Finally, keep in mind that you're not just hiring a systems integrator you're hiring a team of programmers and developers. For this reason, you should insist on knowing the backgrounds and experience of the specific individuals who will be working on your job. If a company wants to load up the project with lots of junior programmers, you may not be getting your money's worth.

"You can't get around the fact that the big guys will be able to manage the risk for you," says Petursson. "But you've got to make sure they don't treat it like another [traditional-system] method one where they say they can just throw all the people in the world at the project until it's done."

No one SI firm is perfect for every job, and any firm that portrays itself as such should probably be eyed very closely, according to the Information Technology Association of America, an Arlington, Virginia-based trade association of computer software and service companies.

There are a million sorts of agreements you can enter into with a systems integrator. But for the marriage to work out, make sure you and your SI are in exact agreement regarding what is expected, when, and for how much.

by Paul Karon

Real World is a continuing series that looks at the nuts-and-bolts issues of implementing NEXTSTEP solutions in large organizations.