Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Art and Science of Proposal Writing

I spend most of weekends working from a nearby Starbucks cafe. It is here that I grapple with my multitude of programming problems and hack out my technical proposals and presentation slides.

One thing I've found out being an IT professional all these years: writing code is a lot easier than writing proposals. Coding can even be fun sometimes but technical proposal-writing is always a chore. In programming, most of the time, you know what needs to be done. The challenge is executing it in the simplest, cleanest and most elegant way. Writing code that works is a no-brainer, it's writing good code that's the real challenge.

A proposal is essentially a sales pitch. You are basically putting forth your value proposition--bringing the potential customer's attention to your strong points(and taking the opportunity to indirectly highlight your competitor's weakness), reemphasizing your expertise and commitment and justifying your pricing.

In any IT project, pricing is important. But what's more important is being able to give the customer the confidence that you or your product can do the job. The decision-maker's job could be at stake here. Put yourself in his shoes: can you trust this vendor to help you look good in front of your bosses?

Confidence is an intangible thing which you subtly project through your approach and professionalism. A professionally-written proposal goes a long way towards achieving this goal.

It's easy to hire programmers but finding a good proposal writer in the IT industry is like looking for a needle in the haystack. Writing is a lot of hardwork, especially technical writing. It requires someone who appreciates technology and enjoy stringing words together to illuminate difficult concepts.

Besides being able to understand technology and being able to sell them using words, there's a third skill that's required of a good proposal writer: the ability to illustrate technical architecture and concepts using diagrams. Most engineering diagrams that I see are very badly drawn. Engineers are usually obsessed with getting the interconnections between different components right but they don't have a sense of proportion, balance, contrast and colour coordination.

You see, a good diagram is also like a good proposal. It organizes things systematically for the eyes and the mind of the reader. What does the reader see at first glance? It must work like a good advertisement billboard: the main message must be immediately evident. Example: it's a star topology, or there are 3 major components in the overall architecture or client components are grouped on the left-hand-side, server components on the right. A good technical illustrator must be aware of all these things.

My personal philosophy on good proposal writing is this: it must read like a comic book. The first thing a person does when he receives a proposal is to flip through the pages. In the process of flipping, it's usually the diagrams that catch the eye. If you have a sufficient number of well-captioned diagrams scattered all across the proposal, they alone should be able to convey the gist of the story.

Does that mean that a good IT proposal writer must be a salesman, an engineer, an artist and a writer all in one? Yes and no. Yes, because all these different elements must be present to produce a good proposal. No, because these skills need not necessarily come from a single individual. If a team of people with different skillsets can combine them together effectively, then they can come up with a good proposal.

And one more thing: if you have a team of people working on a proposal, you also need a good proposal manager. He is the person who carries that big picture in his mind, understands what needs to be achieved, sets timelines, ensures that everyone delivers their portion on schedule and integrates them together into a coherent whole. This is a very challenging task, especially when a proposal involves components from multiple vendors and partners. In other words, the proposal manager must be someone with good project management skills.

Does such an ideal proposal-writing team exist in most IT organizations? Very rarely. Usually the task of coming up with the proposal is dumped onto the pre-sales engineer. He's expected to be the salesman, the engineer, the writer, the artist and the project manager. Good luck to him!