What Is A Tech Partner? Choosing The Best Dev Shop For Your Business

April 1, 2019 | By Firefield CEO and Founder, Adam McGowan

How To Know If You Need More Than A Dev Shop With A Golden Hammer

Do you need to hire a tech partner or a software development firm?

Many businesses or franchises reach a stage when they need to implement new software. They want to harness tech to grow, protect, or spark a change in their business.

But if you’ve made that first decision to explore options for upgrading technology, knowing what kind of outside expertise to bring in could mean the success or failure of your entire technology investment. For non-technical management teams, finding the right tech partner becomes absolutely critical.

You’re likely familiar with software development companies — these are common and easy to find. Also called “dev shops,” these are teams who design and build technology products, like web applications or mobile apps.

Though sometimes “dev shop” and “tech partner” are used interchangeably, I think any executive should be clear about the difference and why it matters. Especially once you start talking with vendors who start throwing around acronyms and buzzwords like AI, VR, IoT, and of course, blockchain. It’s easy to get discouraged if you’re only hearing big proposals about magical tech solutions that will revolutionize your entire business… without hearing from anyone who understands you and your business goals.

What is a tech partner?

A tech partner’s goal is to ensure that the technology you invest in will deliver outcomes that matter.  In contrast, a dev shop’s primary goal is delivering the specific product and features that you commission or solving a particular problem you’ve defined for them.  The question a tech partner asks is “SHOULD this be solved with technology at all?”

Tech partners may offer much more than a traditional dev shop. Partners don’t just build software — they help you build and implement a successful tech strategy for your entire business. Tech strategy starts by assessing where your business is, answering critical questions, and then delivering meaningful results.

Your company’s tech strategy should lay out both your aspirational goals and practical constraints. A tech partner can help you find the balance and lay out a roadmap to move toward those goals.

While building tools may be part of what a tech partner does, their advisory or consulting services target your business goals and anticipated results. The “building software” phase is only a small part of the value a tech partner brings to the table.

In some cases, a tech partner may also serve a role as a fractional, or sometimes “virtual,” CTO or CIO. Many established executive teams have never needed technical expertise in their C-suite before. But tapping into resources that can contribute to high-level business strategy with specialized knowledge is becoming more necessary for businesses across all industries.

4 Potential drawbacks in hiring a software development company

When is it important to look for a partner rather than just a vendor? To get a clear picture, you’ll want some background on how dev shops work and the economic incentives in their business model. I think there are some situations when a small business should go straight to a dev shop for their software needs. But you should be on the lookout for these four potential disadvantages.

  1. The Golden Hammer. When you’re carrying a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This is a common cognitive bias is known as the “law of the golden hammer.” When software developers are used to solving problems with particular software solutions, they tend to apply the same tools in new projects even if the customer has different goals or constraints. Why reach for and learn how to use a new tool? The hammer is comfortable, even if it isn’t the best fit. You’ll see this “golden hammer” if a dev shop is quick to offer a solution for your challenges, without first understanding your business and the big picture.
  2. Big Incentives for Proposing Big Projects. Dev shops’ primary incentives are to design a solution, code it up, and then deploy it to an audience. The larger a project, the better for them. The economics of a tech agency could pressure them to propose larger projects with more features than you actually need. This leads to over-engineering. These solutions could work, but they aren’t always necessary. Over-engineering also means your investment in software will take longer to pay for itself.
  3. Light on Tech Strategy. Software development teams may be heavy on design and coding, but light on advising and tech strategy. These kind of dev shops are best utilized by businesses that have internal technical leadership. Dev shops don’t typically charge for their advice, which means they have few reasons to spend time analyzing your situation and offering different options.

In short, a pure “vendor” relationship (not a partner) could potentially work if you already have internal technical talent.

You know exactly what you need? Have a dev shop you trust? You have a technical team member who can manage planning, deployment, and training? Great, get started.

Yet most non-technical businesses usually don’t have the capability to develop a tech strategy, which puts any software projects at a high risk of failure. When technology isn’t your core business, a tech project will be outside your comfort zone. For many execs, who are highly skilled on the business side but not technical areas, a dev shop may be a non-starter. Be aware of technology vendors who lose their objectivity and propose solutions that are not in your best interest.

4 Key traits to look for in any tech partner

Choosing a technical partner (or a dev shop) is not a choice you should take lightly. You’ll rarely find the right partner immediately, which means you should seek out conversations with several companies to assess your options.

  1. Objectivity: This is a key difference between a tech partner and a dev shop. Tech partners, like trusted advisors, are paid for opinions and recommendations first. Any software development comes later, possibly from a separate vendor. A tech partner will try to keep your business’ best interests up front, even if that means recommending smaller projects or fewer features. Or suggesting an off-the-shelf solution with minimal custom coding.  
  2. Trust: The right partner will respect your opinions and expertise, looking to understand the unique challenges and constraints in your business. That means they will listen, communicate clearly, and follow through on what they said they would do.
  3. Flexibility: Various paths can lead to the same result. The best path isn’t always the newest, shiniest one built on the blockchain. There may be a more effective, dead-simple solution. We have to keep an open mind, while challenging our assumptions and looking for evidence to determine the right strategy.
  4. Empathy: A good tech partner can understand what you and whoever is using your software needs. They can get a sense for when to leave out the jargon, while still being transparent with your management team. If you have a non-technical workforce that will need to work quickly from a mobile app, a tech partner will prioritize designs that take into account not just what they need, but also who they are.

These aren’t all traits that you can usually pick out from a website or marketing brochure.

That opportunity comes once you initiate conversations with potential tech partners or dev shops. These four qualities are part of our own principles at Firefield. But I’d argue that they are crucial for any tech partner you consider.

I don’t mean to completely bash all dev shops here either. You can find great dev shops that act as a tech partner, digging down into the problems their clients want solved. But you have to know what to look for and be especially cautious if tech isn’t already a core part of your business.

Tech partners should ultimately probe deeper into your strategy, before launching into designing new features. I’d expect an excellent tech partner to push you, asking, “Okay, you want to build your own software platform — why? Do you need each of these features? How do you know the product we’d build for you will provide the results you want?”

So push to find a partner you trust, who understands you, who doesn’t just hear, but listens. Pass on any vendors who quickly propose the flashiest solution. It’s up to you to determine if they’re acting like a tech partner or a dev shop with a golden hammer.

Learn more about how Firefield served as a “critical business partner” for a growing bookkeeping franchise in our case study about Supporting Strategies.

Talk with us to see if we could be the right tech partner for your business.