There exists in the tech business world a food chain of sorts, with the end-consumer appropriately on top. Below them, are the providers of consumer electronics goods and services, and below them, the business-to-business type companies that sell things to the top-level companies. This is more commonly referred to as the global supply chain — but it is in reality more of a tree, (or maybe a tree root system) than a chain.
You of course recognize the names of those top-tier tech companies you buy products and services from. They are the Apples, Googles, Samsungs of the world, along with many others.
And while you do not directly (usually) buy products from their suppliers, you also probably recognize many of those names as well. I am talking now about names like Intel, ARM, and Qualcomm. Giants themselves, with many vendors in turn selling to them.
Below that top-tier though also lives a world of more obscure companies, like the so-called fabless hardware suppliers that supply design information for specific functions but do not actually fabricate any real chips. Or, companies that create software for designing and building electronic systems. This latter group is known as Electronic Design Automation (EDA), and it is the area I have spent the last 25 years of my career working in.
EDA companies are kind of the ultimate technology vendor because they supply to just about everyone: Top-tier consumer electronics companies, low-level suppliers, and everyone in between. EDA is a multi-billion-dollar industry, with an extremely small number of companies able to supply the complex products needed today to build similarly complex electronic systems.
In spite of this, few people outside of the electronics industry have even heard of these companies. Although crucial, the work done by EDA companies is highly technical and specialized, and often fails something I call “The Cocktail Party Test”.
The Cocktail Party Test
Imagine you are at a party, and someone comes up to you and asks you what you do for a living. What they say next after you tell them is the test. Do they say something like “Oh wow, cool! What is that like?” Or do they just smile and vaguely say “Oh.” and then move on to something else?
I had a friend from school who was an aeronautical engineer, and she ended up working at McDonnell Douglas, designing jet fighters. This job is a great example of something that passes the cocktail party test. I and anyone else who started talking to her would want to know a lot more about her job, once she sprung that “Oh, I design jet fighters” line on us. By contrast, when talking about EDA in this situation, you can almost instantly see people’s eyes glaze over when you get to the software-tools-to-design-hardware part of your explanation.
EDA vendors and other companies down in the supply chain have long been relegated into the category of cocktail-party-test-failing places to work, and it causes issues not just at parties with technology outsiders, but also in business situations involving people within the industry. How critical your product is to the overall success of the companies that use it is not always reflected in terms of how much interest or even respect you will get.
Such is the life of a vendor, caught in the crux of being a necessity, but not always a really appreciated one.
You Never Get Too Far From The Money
I meet with many companies who are our customers and in the best cases, we have a team situation, where we are working together to solve a problem. But even in this best-case scenario, there frequently seems to be a sense of “necessary evil” thinking going on. A kind of asymmetric relationship that never truly approaches being an equal partnership of any sort.
The role I have in interfacing with customers is a purely technical one. I am there as an R&D representative, to help them solve problems with our product, and also sometimes to learn what our customer would like to see in future features, and so on. My counterparts that I meet with at these companies are also usually R&D people or associated technical support like product validation or IT.
As such, there is never any direct sales pitch or pressure, talk of money, or contracts at our technical meetings. That is the department of other people in our respective companies, who would have their own meetings. But the success of those sales meetings would largely depend on how well the technical side of things went — whether or not we could resolve issues the customer had, or implement features they wanted.
It seems that you can never completely get away from the natural disparities that arise, in any buyer/seller situation. There is always someone holding the money, and even in the technical settings in which I met, the people on the other end were at some level, aware of the fact it was costing their company something for the software we provided.
When this relationship creates an incentive for the seller to improve the product, it is a good thing. But it also sometimes generates a sense of superiority, entitlement, or even anger, on the part of the buyer.
The Invisible Employee
Working in EDA, we often get special inside access to our customer’s networks and company confidential information, which requires a mountain of paperwork, but is generally necessary to be able to effectively support them. Sometimes in bigger companies, this customer-supplied access even goes as far as providing space for vendors right in the buildings where the R&D design work is going on.
In a past job role, I spent a week in one of these “Vendor Rooms” at a big silicon-valley company R&D site, and it is one of the most soul-crushing experiences you can imagine. This was a windowless, small room, where EDA vendors from multiple companies would end up working, side by side. In our case, we were there to test and debug some new software we had just developed and that was being considered for use by the customer.
I was at first shocked at the lack of security here, because we would be forced to have conversations regarding our unannounced products, right in front of our competitors. I soon learned though that this was accepted and commonplace, even though security between the vendors and customers was very tight. You could not leave the room except to go out of the building and had to be buzzed in to even get to the bathroom, and everything done in this room was closely monitored by cameras and logging of activity on the special network connections that were supplied.
The next thing I learned here was how vendors were basically made to be as invisible as possible. There would be people at the company who were assigned to help us get access to what we needed and to manage logistics like scheduling meetings with internal R&D so they could see demos or get training on new products or features. But these people were only around if we summoned them, and even when a group of engineers was told to stop by to see some new thing, few ever did. The rest of the time we just worked, all day, in this windowless room with only our theoretical enemies for company.
We would sometimes be chaperoned deeper into the building to go to meetings with key R&D people. Even at the meetings which we considered to be very important, the customer attendees often considered them to be optional. People would not always show up, and in at least one discussion I was leading, the key guy just randomly got up and left, without saying anything.
I thought at the time, wow this is a really bad sign. This engagement isn’t going well. But in the end, they liked and bought the new product feature, and the lack of enthusiasm here had more to do with people being asked to take time out of their busy day to deal with us than it was an indication of some bad situation with what we were trying to sell.
I sat with my product engineer associate one evening at the end of that week, in a small courtyard off of the main lobby, finishing some prioritization work. I was tired and hungry, but my coworker was an unrelenting sort, and we slogged through spreadsheets as I watched our customer’s employees in the lobby beyond come down and pick up their free dinner deliveries.
I came to the conclusion then that all the marketing-esque talk about our company being an ‘indispensable business partner’ was at best only partially correct. Indispensable, perhaps. At least we hoped so. But business partner, well it seemed like a stretch. It felt more like we were customer employees, that through some process no one actually intended, had become invisible.
It was getting dark, and the lobby was largely now devoid of food-bringers and food-getters. My coworker finally finished with the spreadsheet grooming, and we left, without saying goodbye to anyone there.
The Other Side Of The Hot Dog Cart
It all sounds a bit bleak, in the telling of it. But you know, I get it. Vendors are vendors, and can’t expect any kind of equal status as compared to their customers.
I imagine if there were a hot dog cart in the lobby where I worked, maybe I would buy one from time to time. If the hot dog vendor was friendly, they might be good to talk to. But only for a while, when I was getting my hot dog, and I probably wouldn’t go to visit them unless I wanted one. If they showed up randomly in the building and started talking to me about hot dogs, I would be annoyed. And if I was told by my management that I was invited to a meeting to discuss new hot dogs with the hot dog vendor, I would probably find ways to skip it. Even though I have to eat out of necessity, and even though sometimes it is hot dogs. (Yeah I know… Don’t judge me!)
It turns out I don’t have to imagine being on the customer side of the EDA hot dog cart though, because I have spent a good amount of time there in the past. In the first part of my career, I worked for Digital Equipment Corporation, something I can’t seem to stop writing articles about. One of my later job roles there in the 1990’s was to manage the system-level design process for workstation development, which involved integrating Digital's internal tools with external vendor products.
At some point, management made the unilateral decision to switch vendors for our PCB design tools, after some pretty clever EDA vendor sales team managed to lure our top-level management to sign on the dotted line. When I say unilateral, I mean that R&D and the people who would use this software were never consulted, and it actually upended a general evaluation I had going on across several vendors.
The concept of management making decisions about vendors that are unpopular with the rank-and-file is not a novel one. In my current job working for a vendor company, I sometimes interact with users who clearly would rather be using other products, but have been mandated by their management for one reason or another to use ours. It is not a pleasant experience for them to be in this position, and these customers frequently find ways to express it to us.
We are just as much captives to these upper-level business decisions as our customers are, but it is rare that the engineers we interact with in these cases take that into consideration.
Sometimes it is not an entire group that is unhappy, but just a single engineer within a company. Whatever the case though, we have a title we use to warn others in our company who may have to deal with them. We call them “Hostile Customers”.
The Hostile Customer
Back in 1996, I was a hostile customer. The vendor chosen by our management in their big EDA business deal was widely regarded to have PCB design tools of lower quality than what we were currently using, and it became my job to somehow make our design process continue to function even with this huge disruption. And I was less than pleased about it.
The first thing I did was write an awk script for translating PCB libraries that eliminated a big secondary contract for consulting services this company was trying to push on us, which I think may have cost them a couple of million dollars. (See my KISS of Death story on that one)
I wasn’t operating out of spite though, because the problem I had was it was going to take way too long for the consultants to do what my script did in a week, and if this tool transition had foundered, I would take a lot of the blame even if it was not my idea. I honestly don’t think “hostile” customers, in general, are out for vengeance or pure antagonism, as much as they are trying to make up for something they feel was lost, or else trying to make an unfair situation fairer.
In my case, the decision from management had made my job a lot harder, and I felt the new vendor needed to step up and do their share of fixing all the problems that ensued. Part of the deal Digital signed involved having an Application Engineer on-site one day a week, and when he showed up, I would require him to meet with me so we could go over the list of bugs I and others in my product group had him file for us in their defect system.
I would want to get a status update from him for each one, every week, like clockwork. If things had missed promised dates, I wanted to know why. And if there were things that had not been responded to, I would make it clear it wasn’t acceptable. I did almost nothing to shield the application engineer or his company from anything that went wrong with their product, and reported any problems and the impact they were having on our development schedules right up our management chain. This would bring even more pressure from above down on the company, and the engineer.
Looking back it is pretty clear I tortured this poor guy. Not in an angry way, but in a cool, unrelenting, logical way, the net effect of which was this guy was super stressed and would do anything in his power to get out of having to come into our office.
In the end, everything worked out, for us at least. We kept our product line on schedule through this vendor transition and ended up switching horses yet again a year later, back to our original vendor.
I’m pretty sure though that I could have handled things in a less “hostile” way, and would probably use different tactics if I found myself in this situation again today. But I’m now on the other side of the hot dog cart, serving up red-hots to sometimes happy, sometimes captive customers.
The upside of it all now is, if from time to time I see a customer make a less-than-tactful comment about our company or product, or I have a seemingly arrogant engineer walk out on an important presentation or something, it doesn’t rattle me. Because I see me, of twenty-five years earlier, and I just get it. Maybe it is karma or fate or what have you giving me my comeuppance, but it feels more like a lesson that somehow needed to be learned.
People sometimes lose sight of the idea that we’re all just trying to get through the day, whether you are working for a top-tier computer company, an EDA vendor, or are running the hot dog cart. Strangely, it seems like the people in our sales organization have a better grasp on this sometimes than the engineering staff. Maybe the fact that the whole money thing is right out in front actually helps things, or maybe salespeople are just better people-people than engineers. But whatever the reason, I often find the working relationship that someone on a sales team has with their purchasing counterpart seems to be on a more equal and mutually respected footing.
Could also just be the grass appearing greener over in sales. But I’ll stick with the engineering side of things, and offer advice that can be applied at either end of the supply chain: Find the common purpose. Money is going to be exchanged, and the vendor/customer relationship can never get away from that. It is never going to really be an equal partnership, but it can still have mutual benefit. People involved in the business side of things understand that there can be a win-win in any deal, and that the seller/buyer relationship is not adversarial by nature. We on the technical side can stand to think along the same lines a bit more often.
So if you are a vendor, remember that customers really do want you to succeed, even if they aren’t always good at showing it. (You are being counted on though, and you do actually have to deliver on your promises.)
And if you are a customer, try to remember to be nice to that guy on the other side of the cart, next time you buy a hot dog!
Next Time: A fond look back at Tandy Corporation’s pinnacle decade, the TRS-80, and all those overpriced 555 timers I melted down because I had the wrong soldering iron. Making meets the Mall coming up in: Trash Eighties: Radio Shack’s Golden Years.
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