Industry Trends Affecting Application Support
Since the 90s, the widespread adoption of staff outsourcing, technology to facilitate telecommuting, and software as a service, has allowed businesses to engage with trusted service partners to lower costs and release resources from tasks that either require specialist knowledge or are manually-intensive.
In parallel, enterprise software vendors’ applications having been aging in place, and private equity firms have been following an aggressive strategy of acquisition, followed by dramatic reduction in investment in the technology, service has suffered. The most common gripe enterprise software vendors have is the quality of the application support.
Aggravating Vendor Application Support
Users of the enterprise application need to reach out regularly to the vendor’s support desk anytime there is some unexpected behavior in the application. The vendor’s support desk is staffed by entry-level analysts with limited experience in financial markets, and often limited experience on the vendor’s application. Many users report feeling they were training the support desk analyst in some of the basic functionality available in the system.
Clients that implemented the enterprise application, that had to rely on considerable customization to complete the delivery, report the most aggravating support desk interactions. When there are unexpected results from the software at the boundaries of a customization, the vendor is all to quick to attribute the problem to a faulty customization, which falls outside of their mainstream support service level agreement.
The client is left with a satisfactory outcome from the support desk encounter. This is the most frequent result.
A Better Way
The result of the vendor support desk aggravation is usually twofold: reluctance to engage with the support desk entirely, and necessary development of in-house specialist staff.
Avoidance of the support desk is not a good choice. The support desk is the avenue at the vendor to address bugs in the core application, and the only way to get the bugs fixed. It is important to first identify whether the problem is the result of a customization, or the environment, or even a configuration error. Assuming the problem that arose does not originate from one of those sources, the vendor will need to address whether the problem is a bug, or perhaps unsupported functionality (an enhancement). What is required is a clean and simple demonstration, in isolation, of where exactly the core application failed to deliver the expected results. That is not always easy, and requires specialist domain knowledge of financial markets, as well as the application’s intended functionality, perhaps extending into the API.
The combination of business domain and application expertise is a slow and, for the vendor’s clients, and costly investment. It takes a long time for a member of staff familiar with markets to learn the application, or for a ‘generic’ IT administrator to learn both financial markets and the application’s functionality, including the API.
There are specialists that have these skills available: years of experience serving in operational roles at global banks, asset managers, insurers, and more. They have moved from one organization to the next and have experience on one or more vendor platforms. Some of these specialists even have experience with the vendor’s API, and will be comfortable leading a call through the vendor’s support desk escalation procedures to span a discussion with the vendor’s product manager and development leads.
The enterprise application user community should not expect to have these specialists employed full-time for just those occasions when they are needed to jump on an issue. More and more users in the community recognize now the benefits of having an outsourced support infrastructure that includes these specialists to keep their application running smoothly when unexpected events arise.
Planning a Modern Application Support Desk
There are activities that dramatically improve the outcomes when a priority issue arises with the enterprise platform. The most common improvement, that can be planned and executed in advance, is to improve the application logging. Poor logging, often implemented by the vendor themselves during the initial implementation, is the easiest, low risk enhancement to the application that will improve your outcomes when a support incident takes place. These are complex applications for complex market requirements, and performing root cause analysis on a black box closed system is difficult without the necessary preparation.
Documentation of enterprise platforms by the vendor is notoriously limited. When there are customizations, the relevance of vendor documentation diverges from the installed instance. End users benefit from wikis and other knowledge bases that contain well-documented details of expected results. Expect a service partner to deliver consistently high quality documentation of a solution that is intelligible to the end-user community.
Training is an important part of avoiding problems in the application. A trusted service partner should be capable of delivering high quality relevant training when needed.
We believe that simplification of solution design, including clean separation of concerns, relying on automated unit testing (as much as is possible in an enterprise platform) are the keys to long-lasting, low cost platform support. We have a lot to say about the prioritization of reducing the technical debt that accrues in enterprise software over the years.
Talk to us about how to plan a modern application support infrastructure.