Down the Chute

When vendor selections tank

I've lived in numerous locales around the country, and all have their benefits and bigots. I've turned into a Colorado bigot for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that the winters are mild, with skiing, biking and golf possible on the same day. Coming from a three-year sentence in Clearwater, FL, Colorado was a Godsend. I bought my first really good racing bicycle in Florida, but soon discovered that an abundance of elderly drivers with poor reflexes and bad eyesight, and no shoulder on many of the roads, is more dangerous than having happy hour for commercial pilots just before takeoff. The hundreds of miles of paved bike paths in the Denver area, and close proximity to spectacular mountain bike paths through red rock canyons, serve as a Mecca for athletes ranging from casual fitness seekers to criminally insane gonzos. It's nothing to be out on a very "technical" (read as "deadly") mountain bike trail and see some lunatic in a full coverage helmet, pads everywhere, come screaming down a loose rock trail with hairpin turns inviting a close encounter with cacti if the turn is taken too far inside, and a date with eternity if the rider goes over the high side and careens down the rocks. These guys barely touch terra firma as they soar 10 feet into the air, and hit with spine-crushing force on jagged surfaces, frequently ending up in one of the hundreds of orthopedic clinics in the area. These loons are the same guys you see out in the ski resorts taking on "extreme terrain."

Riding up the lift with a 20-ish snowboarder, I pointed to what is known as the East Face of Arapahoe Basin (A-Basin to locals). I remarked that one chute that ran perhaps three-fourths of a mile from top to bottom, seemed to have snowboarder tracks leading from the bottom of it.

For the non-skiers in today's audience, a chute at a ski area is no place for those without an amalgam of superior skills and a death wish. Chutes often start from the tops of mountain ridges, and exist as narrow alleys of ice and snow corralled by monstrous rock walls ready to bounce skiers down near-vertical drops like a protoplasmic pinball, to arrive at the bottom a bloody, unrecognizable, pulpy goo.

Black Diamond slopes are defined by huge moguls (bumps), a steep drop or both. But beyond Black Diamonds are the Double Diamonds, and then the Double Diamond EX (extreme terrain runs), the latter includes chutes. Theoretically, skiers who begin at a young age, like my boys who started at three and five respectively, eventually get bored with Black Diamonds, and end up hurling themselves down chutes to out-testosterone their buddies, spike their adrenaline levels, or simply flirt with the afterlife.

One particular chute that doesn't have an official name at A-Basin because no one seriously expects a human to attempt to ski or board down it, is known to locals as, let me put this politely, '(Excrement) for Brains.' It starts as a 60-degree drop between two huge rock walls, then increases to 70 degrees, so that one can get some serious velocity going, and then it turns into a real-life video game of varying 45- to 70-degree plunges and 50-foot jumps over cliffs, and all are framed by saber-toothed rocks that sometimes narrow the passage width to only 14 feet. Only mad cow disease infecting a bighorn sheep would cause these sure-footed animals to attempt the descent in the summer, and the only reason a human would ricochet down '%$#@ for Brains' would be as the victim of a particularly creative mob hit.

My companion on the lift mentioned a legendary cafeteria worker at A-Basin who probably should be held down and given a hearty injection of thorizine. Because he wants to maximize his work hours, he only skis at night. Unlike nearby Keystone, there are no lights on the slopes of A-Basin, so our cafeteria boy takes off at dusk with his boots in a backpack, and skis lashed to the outside of it, and slowly climbs up the face of the chute to its apex. By the time he has clawed his way to the top, it is pitch black. No problem; that's why he packs a sort of miner's helmet with a halogen floodlight. On go his skis and, within seconds, he is plunging through the night, jumping cliffs, dodging rocks, and accelerating to cataclysmic velocities, all while only able to see 20 yards of the deadly drop at any moment in time.

I was pointed toward him when I went in for lunch. A slim, fairly ordinary-looking generation Xer, he admitted, somewhat modestly, that he made a habit of the '%$#@ for Brains' free fall. I warily eyed him for obvious scars, evidence of broken bones protruding through his tee shirt, or the telltale outline of a metal plate in his head, but I found none.

"Doesn't that just scare the living hell out of you?" I asked.

He thought for a second as he cleared lunch trays from a table. "Actually, I think the mountain is scared of people like me."

With that, he turned back to his work.

There's a bit of wisdom to be gleaned from that stance. One person's arrogance is another's quiet confidence, a common trait shared by many elite athletes.

I met Mark Spitz when Indiana swam at Michigan State prior to the '72 Olympics. While his teammates were wildly cheering the Hoosier swimmers in every race, Spitz lay 30 yards away, under the diving platforms in his warm-ups, listening to music. When he was called for his only event of the day, the 200 Fly, Michigan State threw three world class swimmers up against him. As the PA announcer rattled off their nationalities and accomplishments, Spitz yawned. He was the only swimmer for Indiana in the event, and he slapped the faces of the Spartan swimmers by leaving an empty lane between himself and State's star, Ken Winfield, who was no soup can; he was seeded ahead of Spitz a few months later at the Olympic Trials.

The gun went off, and Spitz casually established an American record, tugged on his warm-ups, and headed back to the diving well.

Elite athletes exude confidence, whether they're astonishing swimmers or half-mad extreme skiers. Every single one is confident they will win every time out, but some are less vociferous than others.

One of the core services of my business is helping customers to select the right LIMS for their environment. Contrary to popular belief, one size does not fit all, and it is the customer's requirements that should drive the selections. For large projects, only a few vendors are left standing that have the breadth of functionality in their products and the corporate momentum to be able to service complex projects. At this stratum, competition is bloody, and disrespect and outright disdain for competitors is the rule. For these mammoth projects, millions of dollars in software and services are at stake, and losses can be injurious to the careers of salespeople.

I recently read online an opinion by a LIMS salesperson who lamented that some consultants "…only recommend(s) (vendor A or vendor B) because those are the systems they know and can support." That's a drive-by kneecapping of legitimate consultants in general, and reflects a specific ignorance for the consulting business.

Let's take the last part first, that consultants would steer selections toward systems they can support. This statement implies under-the-table collusion, and wafts the fragrant odor of sour grapes towards LIMS vendor section losses. It seems to miss the point that consultants rely on references to propagate their businesses, and accusations of collusion and/or corruption spell a swift and certain doom. Reputable consultants utilize a process that is fair and honest, and distill selections down to the empirical essence of the vendor's ability to address a specific set of business problems. Done properly, there is an ironclad trail of justification and logic.

The industry is too small for consultants who cheat to last long. It's like the PGA Tour, where Masters champion Vijay Singh is still haunted for shaving a single stroke off his scorecard 17 years ago in Jakarta.

The former point regarding consultants recommending products they know. Well, okay, if a consultant doesn't know about a vendor's product, there's more than enough blame to go around. Savvy vendors regularly include top consultants in product and strategy briefings for just that reason. Some vendors offer elite consultants access to user group meetings, and maintain a healthy level of communication with them, whether the selection processes the consultant has been involved in eventuates in business or not.

One executive at a top LIMS vendor once said to me that he enjoyed responding to tough, meticulous and exacting requirements documents because he thought that the strong vendors would shine and the struggling ones would fall. As a consultant who has sat though hundreds of vendor demos, there is yet another point that is often ignored. I have seen poor sales presentations whereby I know the salesperson giving the demo is not articulating the benefits of his/her own product. For whatever reason, they didn't come to the fight with their "A" game. I often get asked by high-level management in some of the major LIMS vendor companies how a particular sales person performed, and I am brutally honest.

Some will sail down the deadly couloirs on their feet, while others will be picked off the rocks when defeat has been snatched from the jaws of victory. It's important to know the elements that comprise either scenario, and the sane always prevail.

Randy Hice is president of the Laboratory Expertise Center. He can be reached at