Web Content Management

Revisiting the Hertz $32-million dollar website disaster

At the time this news broke, myself (and every other WCM vendor that wasn’t Adobe) were inhaling sharply, thanking our lucky stars it wasn’t our software or client. Now, to be fair, Adobe AEM is a well-regarded platform. Was it right for this client? Maybe. But far too often the technology is thought to have an outsized influence on success or failure, when this is rarely, if ever, the case. In my distant past, I was part of a great internal team that was able to extend and customize an outdated, legacy, platform to great effect for a top-notch marketing funnel – similarly, the opposite is true in that simply buying the market leader and largest system integrator does not guarantee success (clearly).

Dom Nicastro of CMS Wire wrote an article with Scott Liewehr and did a stellar job covering some excellent points, but I’d like to focus and expand on a handful, which I consider paramount:

Have your own team in place

A company the size of Hertz, which depends on direct booking for a substantial portion of revenues should not have had such a reliance on an external vendor. Period. Some red flags, (direct from the lawsuit):

  • Hertz did not have the internal expertise or resources to execute such a massive undertaking; it needed to partner with a world-class technology services firm. “
  • “Hertz relied on Accenture’s claimed expertise in implementing such a digital transformation. Accenture served as the overall project manager. Accenture gathered Hertz’s requirements and then developed a design to implement those requirements. Accenture served as the product owner, and Accenture, not Hertz, decided whether the design met Hertz’s requirements.
  • “During the course of Phase 1, Hertz provided Accenture with detailed information about Hertz’s existing IT systems’ business requirements. The work product created during Phase 1 included the Solution Blueprint, a “Delivery Plan,” and “Architecture Specifications” that were intended to structure Accenture’s subsequent development and deployment of the new technology platform, website, and suite of mobile applications. Hertz paid Accenture nearly $7 million for these services and deliverables. ” and later “Accenture’s team struggled to understand the back-end systems and apparently had difficulty programming the software used for the integration layer. “

There was a Phase 1 (planing, understanding) and a Phase 2 (implementation). Phase 1 should have never gone to an external vendor, especially where they “served as the product owner, and […] decided whether the design met Hertz’s requirements.” – the main reason is this; all the work done in Phase 1 is mission-critical, corporate knowledge, competitive differentiator stuff. These, above any visual design, mobile app, etc., are the things that you will be living with forever. This means maintenance and continual revamping as Customer Experience expectations demand new integrations and methods. And as such, you need to own it fully. This includes knowledge of the working systems and accountability and Hertz abdicated both in this case. For a fraction of $7 million dollars, Hertz could have built a very solid core team to be accountable for this work – especially in Estero, Florida (where they are headquartered). In fact, it’s easier than ever to lure frustrated millennials and gen-Xers away from frantic and overpriced tech markets for the promise of a detached house with an actual backyard. You can pay them well above average and retention will be super-high and you will still come out ahead compared to outsourcing. I know of plenty of folks who have done moves like NYC to Syracuse and are gloriously happy (in that case it was the company smart enough to “outsource” their own employees they trust to a cheaper locale).

The rule of thumb; don’t outsource anything that is mission-critical or a competitive differentiator. After the website work is done, there is still the day-to-day program operational work and endless iterations which will result from a customer-centric practice. You can easily imagine things like new payment types, rental options, tie-in to bookings systems, etc. and all of these are foundational and demanding of a core team, and not merely bits of design or consulting work that can be done as a one-off. As well, if you are outsourcing a competitive differentiator, who is to say that your system integrator isn’t going to use that experience to make a beautiful case study to shop to your competitors. In fact, I guarantee it – and the more successful the project is, the more likely that expertise gets touted and shopped around. Even if you retain rights to the code itself, the actual expertise and understanding is just as valuable, if not more so.

Running Agile

Well, let’s be honest, running Agile wouldn’t have saved this project – since key oversight roles (Product Owner, User Acceptance) were also the developer on the project – but done right, it would have accomplished two things for Hertz;

  • More firmly understood the scope. When you start getting into the weeds and putting estimates to what needs to be done, and then working back, it can sometimes be a bit of a reckoning. Often for a large project there is a feeling of time being a giant bucket and “we can make it up later” – by identifying tasks and stories, and sizing up-front the scope becomes clearer and similarly any project timeline deviation is found very quickly in the process.
  • More firmly understood the status. It seemed from the lawsuit that they were surprised when at the end of the process major elements were missing. There seemed to be this long and mysterious gap between the scope and the deliverable, typical of waterfall-type project management.

Don’t ignore the nay-sayers

This is cultural issue more than anything. Often there is a tendency to assume everything is going to work out just fine, and in many cultures there is a trait to avoid discussing future negative consequences at the risk of being seen as a naysayer or “not a team player”. I would tend to argue for the opposite – plan in advance to have contingencies in place if things go off the rails; a “pre-mortem” (HBR, “Performing a Project Premortem”). This would include understanding;

  • What does failure look like? What does it cost? What are the key critical areas which must succeed? If the cost of failure is extremely high (i.e. not just wasting $32 million on the website, but the potential cost of untold millions in lost bookings during the holiday season?) then justifying spending money on contingency planning (more oversight, ability to bring in additional teams, cancel contracts, change technologies, etc.) becomes second-nature in large projects.

This has the added advantage of being slightly more “emotion-free” as potential problems and contingencies are discussed well before peoples careers and decisions are called into question.

Be sure to get the biographies of the team members

It’s not enough to pick a large, reputable company and assume you’ll get the A-team by default. Here’s a great example; By their own marketing material, Avanade has 11 Sitecore MVPs, “900-plus Sitecore-certified developers” and “1,300 trained Sitecore specialists” – by process of elimination this means about 400 (or 30%) of their developers aren’t certified. That’s quite a spread of talent. This isn’t necessarily a show-stopper – there are perfectly good reasons to go with larger firms, including wider skillset, geographical reach, ability to spread costs across geographies (there are often many “grunt work” tasks like migration which should be cheaper and done by less skilled employees). But you want to make sure you’ve got a good mix in the team on your project, ensuring that senior folks (i.e. 2-3+ successful, referenceable, projects) are involved. Similarly, if people are changing mid-way through the project, ensure you have the same information (and potential veto/contingency) on their replacements.

Of course, there are also entire firms who I would recommend without reservation – but these tend to be smaller and niche. Also, as a rule they are usually very busy, and more than likely not in your geography. And being smaller, busy, and not in your geography means they are more than likely to be in a position to turn away work. It’s a sad truth, but they probably would have seen the lack of planning and expertise being displayed by Hertz and probably walked away (and had a good chuckle at the pub afterwards). These firms don’t look at inexperienced clients with the aim of parting a fool from their money – they simply don’t want the heartache and hassle, so you need to have your own house in order.

So you are often in a quandary with regards to sourcing external partners, balancing requirements and availability. I would suggest engaging a firm like Digital Clarity Group to objectively assist in finding a partner (full disclosure, I have worked with DCG and their VOCalis service in the past and found the results very useful).

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