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TLDR: We love AWS as a platform and will happily continue to use it, but they changed up their partner program this year and put in changes that alter what the program is incentivizing. We are already wary of partner programs; they are often a conflict of interest for consulting companies. Previously we felt like AWS’ partner program prioritized education and expertise over constantly pushing new products. I hope that if you’re reading this that you consider the partner programs that you’re involved in, and whether they are influencing any decisions you’re making to the detriment of your customers.
A Solution In Search of a Problem
Let me start off by saying that we love AWS as a platform. I’m an AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional (wow, what a mouthful) and we have several other team members that are AWS Certified developers. We have been an AWS “Standard” Partner for a few years (which has since been renamed to “Select”) and will continue to use AWS as a platform.
However, we have always been wary of partner programs. We love partnerships, but partner programs with a vendor often lead to a conflict of interest with our customers. The programs are usually designed very aggressively to incentivize consulting companies to push that particular vendor’s products in every possible situation.
This leads to consulting companies prioritizing that vendor’s solutions, sometimes shoehorning them in irresponsibly or in ways that don’t align with their customer’s true needs. Partner programs often reverse the normal discovery process and instead feel like a solution in search of a problem.
Partner programs often reverse the normal discovery process and instead feel like a solution in search of a problem.
While some consulting companies balance this well, I personally believe that these programs represent an impediment to consulting companies delivering solutions that use the best tools for a particular situation. To be fair though, this is easy for us to say, because our focus is on digital product development, and the tools we work with are usually open source tools and tool-sets that don’t have large vendors, with vendor programs, behind them.
If You Use the Cloud, You Have a Vendor
When it comes to using a public cloud, that all changes though. Every cloud has to have a huge company behind it, and clearly they aggressively push their own services.
We have been working with AWS since Simple Thread started in 2010, and when we started looking at AWS’ partner program, we were actually surprised that it wasn’t designed in an aggressive manner. Overall it seemed to really encourage companies to learn more about AWS’ products and services. Sure, some of that content was quite biased, but the program as a whole was pushing learning and certification.
The program had a single financial requirement, which was that you needed a minimum monthly “influenced” spend across all of your customers. Amazon didn’t aggressively try to get contact information for our customers. Amazon didn’t try to inject themselves into the relationship or push us to change our client services.
AWS’s original partner program felt like they were saying “learn about our products and services, prove to us that your customers use our tools, tell us a bit about the types of tools you use, pay us a fee, and in return we will give you a bunch of credits to play with, and a badge to show people that you know what you’re talking about.”
AWS’s original partner program felt like they were saying “learn about our products and services, prove to us that your customers use our tools, tell us a bit about the types of tools you use, pay us a fee, and in return we will give you a bunch of credits to play with, and a badge to show people that you know what you’re talking about.” While I know that there are many folks out there that don’t take these programs seriously (trust me, I don’t blame you), there are a huge number of people that do, and we felt like the tradeoff was worth it for us. We enjoy doing DevOps work, and we really enjoy working with AWS, and if this program allowed us to help a few more customers with that work, then great!
You have to remember though, our experience is at the “Select” tier of partnership, which is only one level up in their partner program. It is the first level of partnership where you have to prove some level of expertise. I would imagine that as the partnership levels go up, the relationship changes a good bit, but looking at their published program requirements, it seemed like the higher levels were very similar to ours… only increased requirements. More technical certifications required, more business certifications required, a higher level of declared spend on a monthly basis, etc…
Here Come The “Enhancements”
Then earlier this year I received an email that AWS was “enhancing” the partner program. As part of these enhancements, the partner program was instituting a few new rules around how revenue was counted. One of the changes they made, which seemed somewhat innocuous at first, was that instead of having a minimum monthly spend on AWS (which was across all customers and all services) they now wanted us to launch three new “opportunities” per year, with a monthly run-rate across those new opportunities. All of this is public information, I’m not revealing any secrets here, and honestly this is still fairly relaxed compared to how most partner programs are run.
So instead of rewarding us for using AWS, and having our customers continue to use and increase the usage of their existing services, they want to now push us to convince our customers to use more services and to make sure that we are consistently launching “new” opportunities.
We are now being incentivized to push our customers deeper into the AWS ecosystem, by convincing them to spend money on a wider variety of services.
In order to keep our current partnership, we would have to launch three new opportunities by the end of the year (we were given plenty of warning though), which our partnership representative kept reminding us could be getting our existing clients to use more AWS services. The fact that our customers are spending money with AWS, and are increasing use of their existing services, doesn’t matter anymore. We are now being incentivized to push our customers deeper into the AWS ecosystem, by convincing them to spend money on a wider variety of services.
You Say Po-tay-to, I Say Po-tah-to
You might see this as splitting hairs, and that is fine, but we think this is an important shift in how the program works. Launching three new opportunities per year wouldn’t be a big deal for us, but we are pretty small, and not all of our customers use AWS. We have some that use Google Cloud, a bunch that use AWS, a number that self-host, and a bunch that use Azure. While we love AWS, and it is our preferred choice, we also realize that different customers have different requirements, and our highest priority is always our customers’ long-term health.
We aren’t going to push our customers towards AWS when it isn’t the best fit for them. We aren’t going to push our customers to use new services when there isn’t a solid reason to do so. We also aren’t going to push our customers to increase the complexity of their software when a simpler architecture suffices.
And most importantly, we don’t feel comfortable being part of a program that pushes us to continually use new products with existing customers. We actually have a fairly small set of AWS services that we use regularly with our customers, and they are usually services backed by open tools or with cloud-standard functionality and therefore make them somewhat more portable between providers (VPC, EC2, S3, ECS, RDS, Elasticache, etc…). Vendor lock-in is always a concern with any cloud provider, but the deeper you integrate with proprietary tooling in an ecosystem, the more trapped you become.
Vendor lock-in is always a concern with any cloud provider, but the deeper you integrate with proprietary tooling in an ecosystem, the more trapped you become.
I get why AWS made these changes. I know they are a huge corporation whose goal is to push their services as hard as they can, but for us their partner program has crossed a threshold which we no longer feel comfortable participating. We will continue to work with AWS, and they will continue to be our preferred cloud provider. But that decision was always based on technical evaluation and had nothing to do with being allowed to display their logo on our website.
At this point, if they decided to change their partner program back, I’m not sure we would renew our membership. This change was just a reminder that we were always walking a fine line with how we represent ourselves, and how we choose to operate as a company. Leaving the AWS partner network isn’t going to change anything for AWS. We are a rounding error on a rounding error for them, but I hope that if you’re reading this that you consider the partner programs that you’re involved in, and whether they are influencing any decisions you’re making to the detriment of your customers.
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