Managed IT Services

Top 4 Technology Stack Questions to Ask Your MSP

Post by
John Snyder

In my first article on the concept of Technology Stacks, I discussed what a Technology Stack is and, in broad strokes, how a managed service provider (MSP) creates one. In this second article, I’ll delve into the difficult commitments an MSP must be willing to make for its new Technology Stack, and what happens when MSPs try to take shortcuts.

Commitment #1:
Don’t skimp on the research

The product selection should be standardized, but also ongoing. A mature Technology Stack is under continuous incremental improvement. With thousands of new technology solutions coming out every month, MSPs should allocate a serious fraction of their operations budget to reviewing and testing new products and services.

Customer Challenge: Ask your MSP, “Which element of your Technology Stack is the newest addition, and when did you add it?” If they haven’t added anything for a few years, they may be resting on their laurels.

The R&D process should anticipate the life cycle of the product within the MSP and its customers. How would the product be deployed and managed? Does the product replace an existing Technology Stack element, and if so how would this element be decommissioned smoothly? If you’ve experienced rocky transitions from one email security product to another, or one network firewall to another, your MSP may not be adequately investing in this critical part of R&D.

Commitment #2:
Get senior management involved

A key mistake many MSPs make, when planning a Technology Stack, is to handle the entire initiative at the operations level. A task force of senior technicians is assigned to do the R&D and make recommendations; their manager gets some quotes from vendors and selects the “best” products for the Stack; the marketing department is then assigned to write up some nice things about these products. At best, senior management is kept informed about progress.

This is a mistake because personnel at this level lack the information and experience to approach the Technology Stack strategically. A tech’s anecdotal experience with a platform can create significant bias in the team’s recommendations. The operations manager may not possess the skills or clout to negotiate an advantageous deal with vendors. Most importantly, the disciplined nature of a Technology Stack requires that difficult decisions be made, not just on which vendors are included, but which vendors are excluded. Stakeholders and/or customers who disagree with choices made regarding the Stack will ask for exceptions and special treatment; if the decision to exclude a vendor was made at the operations level, it’s only a matter of time before an executive overrules it. This is why final decisions regarding the Technology Stack must be made, and owned, at the Officer level.

Customer Challenge: When negotiating a contract with an MSP that touts their Technology Stack, ask to speak to the CEO. Can they speak knowledgeably about the products in the Stack and why each was chosen? Do they seem excited about the Stack as a unique sales point for their firm?

Commitment #3:
Invest in supply chain management

Many MSPs are severely under-invested in supply chain management. This is often a bit of a cultural problem – the skillset and temperament needed to solve inventory and supply chain problems don’t arise naturally out of the business of IT support. Nor is it typically very exciting to build this organizational infrastructure. Payoff for the investment will be delayed for years as new hires develop a reliable inventory system and establish trust relationships with vendors. There’s a lot of paperwork. If C-suite executives are not committed to the Stack concept, they may resist allocating sufficient resources to build out this side of the company.

However, a dedicated investment in procurement and vendor relations is absolutely critical to creating a mature Technology Stack. Without these capabilities, the MSP cannot:
1. offer same-day deployment and replacement of Stack components
2. provide in-house training that is superior to competitors
3. lock in preferred pricing for hardware and warranties

Customer Challenge: Ask your MSP how they train their employees on the products that make up their Technology Stack. Do they have an in-house lab where techs can simulate real-world use of the products? Can they show you the products they propose to deploy actually working together?

Commitment #4:
Create “full-stack” employees

With many separate products making up the Technology Stack, and operations staff having varying levels of prior expertise with each product, MSPs may be tempted to have techs specialize in just a few products that are a more natural fit for that employee. This tends to lead to worse customer outcomes as support tickets bounce around between different teams, like the proverbial blind men assessing the elephant.

A mature MSP will leverage its vendor relations infrastructure to provide comprehensive training on all Stack elements to all operations staff. Strong management work will be required to elevate technical staff to “full-stack” support experts, since few will want to undertake the training needed to acquire that proficiency across the board. A commitment to creating broad expertise across operations staff on the entire Stack will pay dividends in the long term by fostering a sense of collective ownership and improving support performance.

Customer Challenge: Ask your MSP whether support tickets related to network infrastructure are handled by a different team than tickets related to workstations. In a mature Technology Stack MSP, a single team should be able to handle at least initial troubleshooting for the entire Stack.

Final Thoughts

In my first article on Technology Stacks, I mentioned that it can take over a year to deliver on the promise of a Technology Stack. I hope it’s clear where all that time is going – building out new organizational infrastructure, working closely with a variety of third parties, and establishing a new level of discipline when it comes to product selection.

If I’ve convinced you that a Technology Stack is a critical requirement for a quality MSP, I hope you’ll ask your MSP to show how they’re implementing the concept and what they think the benefit will be for you. Use the questions I listed above or come up with your own. If you have more questions about how Technology Stacks work, feel free to reach out to Net Friends with topic suggestions for more blog posts. We love to share the knowledge!

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