Idea in brief
This post will cover the 3 key challenges that integration practice leads come across while managing day-to-day affairs of their practice. We have also included solution-pointers, a thoughtful and practical use of these recommendations can help address these challenges. The challenges are:
- Acquiring Biz Talk projects
- Delivering projects profitably
- Partner management
Each challenge has its own subset of challenges. Some of these are generic practice related challenges, whether it is connected systems, connected workforce, or BI practice.
However, others are specifically related to BizTalk as a maturing middleware technology. As BizTalk has matured, several issues have surfaced such as new project acquisition, managing bench cost of BizTalk developers & solution architects and successfully hiring & retaining the BizTalk resources.
1. Acquiring Biz Talk projects
Acquiring integration projects is essentially related to the strength of a consulting firm’s sales & marketing (S&M) function . The challenge can be divided into 4 things:
- User-group engagement
- Trade shows & conferences
Practice leads are always in need of a decent volume of presentable and share-worthy content that includes:
- Customer success stories
- Whitepapers & guides
- Solutions for the targeted industry verticals
- A mix of technical & vertical-focused articles
- Blog posts, videos, & pictures that demonstrate a consulting firm’s participation in industry events (Microsoft Ignite, Annual Partner Conference, Product launch events)
- Publishing-worthy interviews of SMEs (subject matter experts)
This content helps practice leads to start conversations with potential clients and acts as a door-opener. Having fewer door-openers mean that few doors will be opened for a consultant to have meaningful conversations. You don’t go to the party empty-handed.
The way forward
Team contribution: Experience informs that generally, the practice lead is solely burdened with producing quality content. Generating quality content should be a responsibility of the whole team and not the practice lead alone. Integration practice leads’ role can be of a supervisory nature, ensuring that each team member contributes something daily, weekly or monthly depending upon the size of the integration team. The contribution can be in the form of:
- Project summaries 
- Blog articles 
- Hands-on tips
Embedded writers: Technology firms can gradually start acting like publishing houses. The concept of embedded journalism really helps to ease out the burden of regular content production. Leading technology firms have embedded content writers & producers in technical teams.
Microsoft is a leading example of content marketing. The story titled “88 Acres: How Microsoft Quietly Built the City of the Future” is a prime example of how the company has become as much a content production house as it is a technology firm . Embedding content team within your practice eases the process-related burden of producing the content.
Few staff members of the marketing function are well-versed in the integration technologies. This often fails the marketing staff in finding the right people/firms that need the integration solutions . It is here that embedded content teams help producing content for practice leads & sales team.
Thought leadership: Thought leaders tend to connect the present to the future. Becoming one requires time, effort & content that demonstrates a practice lead’s thought leadership. The 5Ps that contribute to an SME’s thought leadership are:
Publishing: Compelling articles, books & reports
Profile: Taking your ideas “beyond noise” and gaining visibility for your professional cause
Partnerships: Forming long-term relationships with people who can make things happen faster
Productising: Turning valuable insights into “productized service offerings”
Pitching: Clearly and compellingly communicating your message to enroll & influence people
Practice leads need technical people who can dedicatedly help in pre-sales activities. The usual cycle involves a customer agreeing with the commercial terms of an integration project, but needs satisfying answers to the problem at hand. Practice leads need support in:
- Solution preparation
- Marketing documents
- Initial proposals
- Developing prospect specific content (presentation, pitch decks, designing the marketing docs.)
60-70% of new work for a practice lead comes from referrals and existing clients. This is a handsome ratio of the total work. Customer loyalty, net-promoter score, and other customer engagement metrics are necessary but insufficient for maintaining a successful practice.
The way forward
Make it convenient: An important question is how to make it convenient for practice leads to acquire new projects through sales and marketing efforts?
The need for close coordination between sales and practice leads is even more important in the integration practice since customers can’t touch and feel BizTalk, unlike an ERP software. Smartly investing in the sales efforts and finding someone who is also technical generates compounding ROI.
Engaging user-groups become difficult since there is little organizational recognition for this activity, and the hours spent in engaging user-groups are not billable. It can become a time killer but if done with corporate support, careful selection of a small group of respected clients, and a narrow focus on one practice area, the effort can serve well for acquiring new engagements.
Corporate support & careful selection of participants: Gathering a bunch of customers who have installed Biz Talk or are looking to solve an integration problem has two benefits. First, practice leads can directly interact with these customers and gather information on their current needs and challenges and one gets to engage the right community. During the community session, the intention is always to get yourself recognized as an approachable SME (subject matter expert). Ideally this should make people talk about their problems which is equal to a project.
Secondly, Microsoft won’t be sending leads to an integration shop if it does not regularly hold user-group engagements.
Trade-shows & regional workshops
Practice leads have to attend regional workshops and trade shows. This becomes important when your partner (Microsoft in the case of BizTalk) also needs the help of solution architects or business analysts in selling their platforms to end clients (more on this is the Partner mgmt. section).
Microsoft holds the following events periodically and attending the right ones can lead to new opportunities and generate marketing material for the sales team.
- Microsoft Ignite
- Annual Biz Talk summit
- Integration Monday
- Biz Talk boot-camps
- Azure Hybrid Integration Day
- Globally attended webinars (EDI transactions of Azure Micro-services)
The way forward
Become a presenter & attend clients’ industry events: Again, it can be a time killer if not done right. Background discussions with senior practice leads indicate that merely attending tradeshows and workshops is not a good investment of non-billable time (and consequently has a low ROI). However, when attended as a presenter, rather than as an attendee, these events provide good business opportunities and recognition.
Such events have questionable returns. Maybe, too many people have started attending these events for the same purpose and this has restricted the chance to have genuine engagement.
One exception: Attending clients’ industry events yields a better ROI of time. Attending such events with a respected client can provide immediate feedback of the customer about the material or ideas being presented .
2. Practice profitability
Practice leads who have their salaries tied to the profitability of their practice can get overwhelmed by the competing demands of their role. Attending industry events, managing integration teams, tending to the delivery-related challenges, keeping the team leads motivated, and participating in sales meetings; the activities can blur a practice lead’s main goal that is to keep the practice profitable.
This is not easy given the project-related dips and spikes that practice leads have to manage. Consider the following illustration, a typical practice year for a Biz Talk practice.
There is a lot of difference between non-billable hours of both practices, BizTalk and SharePoint respectively. In Biz Talk’s case, retaining four FTEs throughout the year reduces the overall profitability of the practice since 1-2 Biz Talk resources remain idle due to inconsistency in the number of engagements. Same is not true for a rather buoyant SharePoint practice.
Once project enters the production stage, profitably delivering on these projects becomes a major challenge. Integration practice leads (especially the shops whose main expertise is in Biz Talk) would agree that the acquisition of new projects has become challenging owing to two reasons.
First, BizTalk has become 15 years old & mature product and much hype around SOA (service oriented architecture) has dwindled. Second, the total number of Biz Talk licences number around only 11k and the Biz Talk competitors are competing aggressively.
The way forward
Multi-pronged approach: Practice leads usually adopt one or two of the following approaches to maintain both the hygiene (short-term profitability) and health (long-term potential of profitability) of their integration practice. It helps them to reduce the overall bench cost without compromising the delivery part of their practice.
- Cross training (training integration teams for SharePoint/Information worker/BI platforms)
- Hire independent contractors when work is beyond the capacity of FTEs
- Blended practice model (maintaining close relationships with supplementary partners, this comes in all flavors such as on-shore working partnerships, nearshore and offshore relationships)
- Outreach into complementary or emerging practice areas (integration practice can be naturally extended to the emerging Internet of Things [IoT] practice)
Maintaining a blended approach allows the practice leads to retaining the talent even if a dip in the number projects becomes four times longer. The idea is to periodically realign the practice with broader market forces and become responsive to customer/demand in the market.
This is one of the major on-going challenges that practice leads have to tackle. It is difficult task to maintain a healthy profitability of an integration practice. Especially, in the case of BizTalk, there are longer dips and shorter spikes.
The way forward
Hire & retain motivated & trustworthy team leads: A smart and trustworthy project lead also helps in account management as the customer starts trusting practice lead’s team as well. Now, the customer does not require that the practice lead is tagged in all operational communication of the project that helps the practice lead focus on business development tasks.
Coaching and supervision time invested in achieving successful delegation of account management activities can free-up significant time for practice leads to be invest in high-value tasks.
A lot depends on timely project kick-off, execution of all customer requirements, performance control and closure of the project, and a proactive customer engagement if an on-going support is part of the contract.
Staffing efficiency is also something that keeps popping on a BizTalk practice lead’s worry plate. Since, BizTalk projects generally tend to last longer than their counterparts in SharePoint and BI space, it is essential that practice leads strike the right balance of senior vs. junior hours.
The way forward
A responsible team that helps in sales & marketing: A project lead that takes responsibility of these tasks eases the delivery related burden from the practice lead. Hence, it is worth investing time & money to hire and train a skilled and trustworthy team lead for integration projects.
Hiring & training
As the number of Biz Talk licences sold to end client is low (hovers around 11k globally), so is the number of developers who actively seek a Biz Talk career. Further, there are other integration platforms catching-up (Mule-Soft). It is important to hire, train and motivate the new BizTalkers.
The way forward
Putting time & money into training: Practice leads can get junior Biz Talkers trained and organized to handle client assignments with quality. A good hiring and training routine also helps eliminate the problem of “under-delegation”, the act of having high-value people getting busy with low-value tasks (except where the client specifically wants part of the project to be accomplished by a senior resource). A rapid and consistent skill building program can help cure this problem.
Practice leads have to ensure that best practices are followed by the development team. Strong documentation of repeatable processes, templates and checklists are important to ensure profitable delivery. Some of the BizTalk best practices can be accessed on the following three blog posts.
3. Partner management
Successfully managing the relationship with Microsoft is also one of the core challenges of BizTalk practice leads. This involves:
Microsoft salespeople also need the help of solution architects and business analysts of their partners (the doers of BizTalk), same as BizTalk practice leads need help from their own team. The sales staff of Microsoft is not as technically savvy as the partner consultants. Thus, successful practice leads patiently manage an on-going positive relationship with Microsoft’s regional sales teams.
Representing Microsoft in conferences & evangelism events
Microsoft also requires tech and business savvy partners who can participate in annual conferences, hackathons, and evangelism events to demonstrate real-life technology application and presenting PoCs. Since, these events count as non-billable hours, one should carefully select between which one to attend and which one to pass on.
Developing solution architecture
Clients who directly approach Microsoft for their integration workloads are referred to the most noteworthy (trustable) partners within the locality. Thus, managing partner relationship becomes even more important for winning new projects. Helping the team leads to grow and become independent-minded helps a practice lead focus on client & partner relationships, and acquiring new projects.
All this has to be juggled while the integration technologies become pervasive and as observed in a Microsoft blog that “the software integration market is heating up with many new-entry cloud-based vendors and a sea-change in customer expectations”.
 Ideally, both marketing & sales should work in a closed-loop feedback system. Sales people should share customer queries, frustrations, and potential opportunities of clients with the marketing staff. Further, both sales & marketing personnel can coordinate with practice/team lead to develop customer-centric content and proposals.
 Getting integration team leads to succinctly write down the project summary helps the technical/content writer to convert it into case studies (with some additional work such as a brief follow-up interview with the team lead, getting case study proof-read by the SME and obtaining technical drawings if necessary). In a typical scenario, the technical writer can access the shared cloud-drive and start working on the recent cases).
 A good start is to produce content around.
- Lessons learned in a project & technology platform tips (An example is Tips for System Integration)
- Comparison of technology platforms (See an example of BizTalk vs. Sterling Commerce)
- Major challenges (along with solutions that the practitioner used)
- Similar applications of a solution that the integration lead implemented recently
 Channel 9 and other blogs show that Microsoft is heavily investing in content production & its distribution
 Sales & marketing staff may not know who is driving the adoption of integration technologies within an industry, for instance, Petroleum industry. For this, they need to coordinate with practice leads and pitch the existing solutions to new prospects.
 Managing professional services firms by David Maister