The myth of cheap tech experts. aka. technical debt.

network spagetti

network spagetti (Photo credit: versageek)

A common issue I’ve seen time and again around computers is the myth of cheap tech experts. You may have heard these lines before:

“Why would I need a professional programmer for my website, my cousin just graduated from *insert design college here* and can do it for us.”

“My friend, Jennifer, knows how to wire up a network, we can use her for cheap IT.”

“We can just outsource (IT, programming, etc.) to these really cheap group (and their salesperson has totally convinced me that their employees will care about us), they will totally know our unique needs and we’ll save tons.”

or the worst to me,

“Security (or insert other specialty here) is easy, we don’t need an expert for that.”

These statements above are all correct. You can do those tasks, in the short term, for cheap. You can build a quick website, you can set up a quick network, you can cheaply outsource to overworked people who don’t care about your organization, or you can patch up a few security holes and pray no one finds the ones you don’t know about. However, doing this is similar to patching the hole in your roof by covering it with plastic, it keeps the water out, but also can cause much worse and more expensive problems in the long run.

Credit Card

Credit Card (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

To use a common term, you are now taking on technical debt.

Note, this doesn’t mean hiring people you know is a bad idea. Because you know your cousin, you know your nephew, and you know your friend, you are more knowledgeable of their skillset and, in general, know that they would be less likely to betray your trust. However, getting suckered by a good outsourcing firm who invested properly in marketing that looks really sharp, snazzy and capable (note, the more they spend in marketing, the less they are spending on their customers) is more common than you’d think.

The issue here isn’t that they are related or known to you. The issue is that you are using them to save money, not to do the job correctly. You get technical debt when you try to save without consideration of the actual time and costs of doing a project correctly. Technical debt you will have to pay off later if the project continues.

The sad part is many young and very qualified firms make this mistake as well by severely undercharging for their labour and then overworking themselves to the point of producing a lower quality product within the timeline and budget.

And the worst part is that everyone suffers in the field because prices are artificially surpressed to the point that qualified people don’t bother working in the field because they can’t make what they are worth without spending all of their time cleaning up other organizations technical debt, an incredibly frustrating and unsatisfying job.

“There is time to do it right.”

I worked for a very old consulting firm for many many years where that was their long-discarded slogan. However, it always stuck with me. It implies to relax, calm down, take a deep breath and let the experts do their job. You hired them to make things work correctly.

You wouldn’t go to a surgeon or a dentist and demand that they get it done in less time than they are spending to do it correctly. Heck, even in jobs where you don’t spend 15 years training for it – you shouldn’t tell a bricklayer or a carpenter to cut corners and get those walls up in half the time at a quarter of the price (or if you did, you would be asking for trouble in the future and likely a visit by Mike Holmes.)

Why should you not do the same with an expert job in a technical field? You hired them to do a job for you and commonly it’s a job that’s central to your organization. If the network goes down, even for a day, that’s almost one full day of lost productivity. In an organization of 100 people, that’s ~ 100 work-days lost. In perspective, that’s nearly a third of a year.

“But it improves my efficiencies at half the cost!”

Yes, IT and computers are great at improving efficiencies in corporations – even with systems that have technical debt. However, we all need to realize that the myth of cheap tech experts is costing us all in likely billions of person-hours of work every day throughout the world. This is where those security breaches come from. This is where the badly documented networks that are difficult to upgrade come from. This is where the locked-in outsourcing firms come from. This is where we are losing money. It’s the credit card of the technical world. You may save $10k a month with these guys, and end up having to pay $4k a month later, but if we all accept that “there is time to do it right”, you’ll save $25k a month in efficiencies and not have to worry about eventually paying off that technical debt.

Yes, it cost more upfront, but it saves you money in the long run. Like buying a house with a big down payment.

Good skills are very rarely cheap (theologians and philosophers excepted). If you want it done correctly, pay the right price, and remember there is always time to do it right.

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