When, if ever, does it make sense to pit vendors against one another in a technology bakeoff?

Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data

September 9, 2022

4 Min Read
assorted baked bread, cheese pastry and rolls
Zoonar GmbH via Alamy Stock

Think of a technology bakeoff comparison process in which two or more competing technologies from multiple vendors are compared and tested by an enterprise to help them choose the right product or service.

At first blush, bakeoffs sound much like proofs of concept and pilot trials, yet bakeoffs are distinctly different.

They’re different in that competing technologies actually are placed into a customized and simulated production environment that includes direct participation by the buyer's own employees and their IT group. The bakeoff environment uses the enterprise's own business processes and systems. The goal is to put each vendor system through rigorous simulation in company's own environment, and to determine which solution fits and performs the best.

Technology vendors like to steer away from bakeoffs if they can. One reason is that bakeoffs require sizable commitments of time and vendor staff to support them.

Because each solution is actually being road tested in a simulated production environment and pitted against at least one other solution, being awarded a contract by a buyer goes far beyond just having the highest RFP ranking. It's even better than succeeding in a small proof of concept.

Due to the time and personnel that vendors must commit to bakeoffs, not every buyer company can command one. Typically, those companies favored with bakeoffs are very large enterprises that are looking to sign large and lucrative deals, or smaller companies that a vendor is trying to attract as it begins to build and establish its client base.

How Buyers Benefit from Bakeoffs

Bakeoffs enable enterprises to road-test a new product in their actual work environment, with their users and IT kicking the tires and putting the product through the paces. It's a chance to learn the product’s pros and cons in their own environment. This gives the company valuable experience should they choose to purchase and implement the product. The bakeoff also gives them a head start on which systems and business processes they might want to revise when a pre-production product finally is introduced.

During the bakeoff process, buyers get to know the vendor and understand what type of vendor support they are likely to receive if they sign on to the product. By getting to know both the vendor and the product at close range and in advance of a final decision, the buyer lower the risk of a wrong choice.

The downside, of course, is that it takes a resource commitment from business users and from IT to facilitate the bakeoff.

Testing Time

Depending on the product that being tested, a bakeoff can take from several days to two weeks. Occasionally, bakeoffs have run longer, but this should be avoided whenever possible. Bakeoffs should also be limited to mission critical systems.

Once the bakeoffs conclude, IT and end users then get together to evaluate and to come up with a final vendor selection.

Best Bakeoff Ingredients

Bakeoffs can be highly effective in that they can minimize the risk of choosing the wrong solution or underestimating an implementation. However, they only work if they are carefully planned, if products under review are thoroughly assessed against business and IT goals, and if everyone (users, IT and the vendors) are fully enlisted in the process.

Here are four top ingredients for optimal bakeoff success:

  1. Fully articulate your business case the results you want to achieve. Companies requesting prospective vendors to participate in a bakeoff should have a clearly defined business case or reason for wanting the product being evaluated, along with a list of desired performance metrics that each tested solution is expected to meet or exceed. These metrics should be measurable and objective. Upfront, participating vendors and internal staff should fully understand the business goals and the performance levels that must be achieved.

  2. Dedicate a full-time bakeoff team to the project. Bakeoffs take time and require an investment of personnel. When bakeoffs are conducted, the bakeoff team, a mix of both vendor and company personnel, should be dedicated full-time to the bakeoff until it's concluded.

  3. Train and prepare your bakeoff team. Many participants, especially from within companies, will be new to the concept of a bakeoff. When initiating a bakeoff, project members should be thoroughly briefed on what to expect in a bakeoff, details such as who the project manager is. Communication lines with participating vendors should be clear and open, and interactions between the vendors and company own personnel should occur daily throughout the bakeoff.

  4. Limit your vendors. Bakeoffs should only be conducted after you have gone through a request for proposals (RFP) and other preliminary evaluative processes to narrow your choice of vendors. Typically, a bakeoff involves only two products or vendors, which are then compared to each other under actual operating conditions. The company should be serious about both products but want a last substantive test before making the final choice.

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About the Author(s)

Mary E. Shacklett

President of Transworld Data

Mary E. Shacklett is an internationally recognized technology commentator and President of Transworld Data, a marketing and technology services firm. Prior to founding her own company, she was Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturer in the semiconductor industry.

Mary has business experience in Europe, Japan, and the Pacific Rim. She has a BS degree from the University of Wisconsin and an MA from the University of Southern California, where she taught for several years. She is listed in Who's Who Worldwide and in Who's Who in the Computer Industry.

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