Why being non Vendor focused is important

I am reminded of a story from my youth that helped me to learn the importance of not being vendor focused. Sadly this lesson was learnt while working as a technician in an environment where I was expected to peddle the companies wares…….

It was the mid to late 80’s, and I was working for a large PC sales and repair shop.  We sold mostly high end NEC gear to Government Agencies all across town, and as an aside, we peddled a bit of AST and Toshiba, and some nameless junk that I don’t remember.  The 286 was in the process of being displaced as the king of the heap by the amazing 386. The future, with memory management, looked amazing.  It was my third job, my first in the private sector, and I could even take one of the demo NEC 386 tower workstations (running the new fangled Xenix from Microsoft), home on the weekend to play with … Life was sweet.

To understand this story, we have to go all the way back to my first job, as a Trainee Technical Officer at a large university learning my trade in the electronics department.  We made everything that the academics couldn’t purchase.  Our work was literally at the bleeding edge of physics, so the VAX computers were big, and the mechanical workshop was bigger – it had all the required gear to help manufacture the latest 11 meter diameter Tokamak device for the boffins who were playing with plasma… Something, Something, Nuclear Fusion…. We even got to play with Microcontrollers made by Motorola.   Again – Life was cool, but sadly short lived, as I was just a trainee in a 4 year traineeship..

So, after my traineeship was completed, I wound up working at the aforementioned PC sales and repairs place, repairing fax machines, printers, monitors and PC’s. We were the official sales centre for Autodesk (The head of sales did the training course in fault finding Autocad products, so he would flick us the tricky Autocad problems.. go figure). We had no training in the product, but were expected to miraculously repair everything. … Sigh… I digress.

Anyhow, I was still mates with the crew at the university and we would have monthly technical lunches.  At one of these lunches, I was asked my opinion on a tricky problem.  Harry (Name changed to protect the innocent) asked “Hey Doug, we are having problems with our Autocad drawings – A hidden line removal is taking a couple of days on our 286 machines, and we were wondering if we should go with one of the new 386 machines, or transition to a Sun Workstation?”  It was really hurting them.

“Easy” – I answer with all of the confidence you would expect of somebody who had transitioned into the private sector,  “I would be careful – a 386 would only give you a stepwise speed improvement – if you go for Sun, and spec it right, you will drop that time down to hours.”   I answered authoritatively.  People paid attention.  Lunch continued, and I had no idea what I had done………

A couple of months later, I got called into the Managing Directors office.  He is fuming.  In the meeting was the head of Sales (who was Autocad trained), as well as the head of the service department.   He thrust me this letter…….  “WHAT IS THIS!!!!!!!” – I had no idea, so I started reading….  “Dear <Insert name here>, I am writing to you to thank Doug for his sterling recommendation. We had this problem, etc, etc, etc.”  It went on to identify how much time and effort I saved the university based on my recommendation, and suggested that I be appropriately rewarded…  

Woot – I think – This is AWESOME, How cool is it that he sent a letter – To my MD!!!!!!!
My joy was instantly turned to fear as he slowly and carefully formed words that seemed to be spitting out hot lava, saying “WE DON’T SELL SUN WORKSTATIONS, WE SELL 386 COMPUTERS”…
It dawned on me that this may be my last day there… As fast as I could, I spun some story about how disappointed that the customer would have been if we sold a product that did not meet their requirements, and that given the complexity of the task that the only answer was something that we wouldn’t sell.  Anyway, they were likely to come to us for toner cartridges in the future, or maybe even a new fangled HP large format Inkjet plotter….

It was a miracle that I dodged being fired that day, but every day after that was harder and harder, as I realised that I was tainted by the stench of Ven-duh…..  I ended up leaving there a couple of weeks later, and used the lesson to remind me that I should always work in a field where I could provide unbiased advice.

And to this day, people pay me for my considered thoughts, not for my product recommendations.

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