Budgeting for techies
How to Get Money for a New Security Tool
We all know the common answer when asking for a new software tool: “sorry, no budget”. But why is that? Often because we, as technical oriented people, simply don’t know how budgeting works. Not surprising, as no one taught us. The downside is that it limits us seriously, to obtain the right tools for the job. Time to combine tech, money, and skills, to get finally that new tool you wanted!
Most bigger companies have a formal budgeting process in place. It is actually a security measure, to ensure that financial risks are kept under control. And guess what, this is also why there are “controllers”, people who manage the budgets. Besides them, a big company may also have a Chief Financial Officer, or CFO, responsible for the financials of the company.
On the operational level, the budgets are usually managed by IT managers. They have actually a difficult challenge. Their job is to ensure that the IT environment is running stable, while avoiding money draining too quickly. This brings us to the next point, forecasting.
Let’s say you are a manager and responsible for a team of engineers, hundreds of servers, software licenses, and a data center. You will need a fair amount of money every year to keep it running, right? So after a few years, you did some calculations and know exactly what is needed. Unfortunately, it is not that easy.
Another bad surprise
Even with rigorous budgeting effort, unwelcome surprises may show up in the mailbox of the manager. One of the best engineers might be leaving, or an internal department suddenly needs 10 systems to host their new application. Of course, something they didn’t share a month ago while talking with them. Whatever the surprise might be, it usually costs money. Money which was not part of the initial budget.
When you ask for a new tool, you might be actually part of this problem of surprises. If you want to make your manager happy and get more things arranged, be part of the solution, not the (budget) problem.
Budget cycles are usually defined for a fixed period. This period mainly depends on how the company is structured. Some do it every quarter, others twice a year, or just once a year.It is common to see that the budget round finishes a few months before the
It is common to see that the budget round finishes a few months before the end of the year or the end of the financial year. Again, it depends on the company and how the financials are arranged. The budget cycle simple is adjusted. While this may be a simple fact, it is crucial for obtaining budget, as we will see later.
Buffers in budgets
To counter unexpected events, usually budgets are stretched beyond what is really needed. Also items which higher risk, like that unstable database cluster, might be included as a replacement cost. Besides the unexpected events, the manager may also include expected growth. If your server farm grows each year with 5%, you know that this won’t be equally divided over the year. So depending on the budget cycle, it may be better to ask more, than asking too little. This is especially true if the manager needs to explain for the 5th time why he has a budget overrun.
So you want to have a new tool in your daily activities, or as an extension of your toolkit. From previous experiences you get the “no budget” answer, or others tell you it won’t happen.
For the sake of providing an example, let’s use our tool Lynis. You discovered the free open source version, and totally got in love with it. After using it for a few months, you learn about the enterprise version and want to have that in your toolkit. To avoid the budget issue, you might ask yourself how to get around this. Let’s craft a budget plan!
Crafting the plan
Good plans are executed in steps. So let’s divide our master plan into 3 big steps:
Step 1: Budget equals value
Budget is about money. Money is about trading. Trading is about exchanging value. So in other words, budget is about value. This also applies to software tools, open source, closed source, or the mix. In all cases, tools provide some level of value, but it may differ per user of the software.
Determine Personal Value
First step is to know what the value of the tool is for your organization. Don’t see it as another great toy, but really think about how it helps you in your daily work. Does it save you time? Does it remove tedious repeating steps?
Example: Lynis saves you time by automation. Checklists can be more often checked, and at the same time quicker and more reliable.
Determine Team Value
Then make it broader and see how the tool value relates to your manager and the team. Does it save money in the short or long term? Does it improve the quality of the IT environment? Does it make your team look more experienced?
Example: By using an auditing tool, we can reduce inconsistencies in our environment, which otherwise may lead to disruptions. We can find vulnerabilities which normally would stay undetected and may result in data disclosure.
Sell the Value
Keep in mind that you will have to “sell” the solution to your manager. This way he/she is able to reserve some budget for it. At the same time, the manager of the manager needs to be convinced as well. So if you write a proposal, don’t write it just in terms for your manager, but make it easy to forward. If you want a new tool, it is time to start selling!
Show by Example
One strong characteristic when selling your value proposition to your manager is providing examples. Show that you have done your diligence when searching for a solution. Explain how this solution can help. Don’t be afraid to show your weaknesses. We like to cover up things we discovered, in the hope that your manager never finds out. But it is better to show him you are doing a great job, but want to ensure there is an additional set of (cheap) eyes, testing it on a daily basis. From auditing tools up to vulnerability scanners, they help us to discover the things we simply couldn’t find ourselves, due to knowledge or time constraints.
Example: Currently we have to use custom built scripts to check if security patches are needed. This solution covers that. It goes much further, including checking other areas which are not part of our monitoring tooling. The free version already discovered 5 systems which had an outdated time server, something which is normally set during installation and not tested later on. With this tool we can more easily detect these and fix them, before they result in service disruption.
Use the Vendor
The vendor of a software solution knows the difficulties with budgets. As a founder, I’ve seen it myself. So tell in an early stage how your company deals with budgets. Also, ask if they can help with getting the value more clear to your company. Most of us techies are too careful to share details, thinking that the evil sales person may abuse this information.
While it is good to avoid sharing confidential data, giving insights on how your business operates, is valuable for both. It helps the vendor to understand your needs better and in some cases adjust the solution, to provide a better value for the money. Remember, it is all about the value and selling it internal.
Step 2: Choose the Right Moment
Even if have the best proposal ever, timing can be a nasty dealbreaker. So to counter this, you have to learn a little bit about the budgeting cycle of your company. This understanding may also help your manager. Tell him/her that you understand that budgeting can be challenging. Then ask what the soft and hard deadline is of the next cycle. The hard deadline is when everything has to be approved. However, it is the soft deadline which is interesting for you. That is the moment when your manager needs to submit his budget forecast.
Step 3: Show Proof That it Works
Knowing and selling the value of a solution is great. Perfect timing makes it even better. But the real winner is to lock the budget for the years to come. After all, you might need to pay a yearly fee. Other examples include upgrading the support contract to the next level, or simply the need for more licenses with a continuous growing server fleet.
Proof, Proof, and Proof
We all know that happy feeling when purchasing something new. But how often do we look back and consider the purchase to be a great investment? Even if you feel great with a particular software solution, you manager might think otherwise. To be sure your tool gets through another budget round, we need those gentle reminders that the solution is good. For that our first two steps come into play, again.
Repeat the Value
One method to show proof that a solution is working, is by using dashboard functionality. Show on a screen that everything is “green”, because you are using this tool. Optionally, use reports to show the discoveries your tool made. Even better is when it can show how it helped improving the quality of your environment. Maybe the amount of IT incidents dropped hugely, because of otherwise repeating issues.
Like the initial budget request, timing remains important. Your next budget requests will depend on them. Also when showing proof in the form of value to the company, timing can make a big difference. Ensure that it is done on a regular basis, so there is no doubt when another round of budget savings is announced.
Open source, Security and Money
Those who deal a lot with security in their job, are usually a lot of open source components. While free tools are great, we might perceive that security can be cheap by limiting ourselves to open source only. Even as an open source developer myself, I like to warn you about the bad consequences it may have for your company. For example when we look at the GNU/Linux kernel itself. Great that we can use it for free, but that is because of many commercial companies providing support, doing marketing and more importantly, submit patches. Most of the development and commits are nowadays done by big companies like Intel and Red Hat.
No Budget = Limited Growth
If you simply focus on cheap solutions, you will end up with limited resources. Open source, and especially free software, is great. But if you don’t have any budget to get a proper toolkit in place, you won’t get the maximum benefit out of your team.
People are Expensive, Tools are Not
Consider the cost of your company to hire you, every single month. Now multiply that by 12 and compare it with license of 1 single tool. Now is that 1200 euro/dollar really that much? Don’t think so!
Security is a Hard Sell
Security is a strange thing. Some people compare it with insurance. It is ok when you don’t have it. When something happens, then you wished you did have it. The biggest problem is explaining the value of a solution.
When looking at security products, have a look at how it helps reducing risks. Try to make it as tangible as possible. If you express something in a number, then do so. A great example is when you are using a CMDB and change/incident management tool. Have a quick look at the tickets in the last year and determine what happens often. It may provide a number on what kind of issues may be reduced, after implementing the new solution.
Example: by using an auditing tool we can measure how effective our policies are. We can then calculate the amount of systems being non-compliant and focus our time on the machines with missing security measures. Additionally, we can create reports for our customers, to help them deploying their applications more securely. In the last 6 months, we had at least 12 machines with a security breach, due to weak configurations, which otherwise would be detected up-front.
If you made it till the end of this blog post, it is time to receive an additional bonus. After all, speaking about value and timing, this is the spot to make it even better. Here are some practical tips which help to understand budgets and achieve your goals.
- Learn from your manager about budgeting
- Set a reminder in your agenda in advance of the budget cycle
- Discuss with your team what tools are needed and make a top 3 sorted by value
- Search or create an internal budget request template, to know what information is needed for approval
- Involve your manager, and get easier buy-in for the new purchase
- Make use of the vendor to supply enough information, and reduce purchasing risks
Got more tips for others who struggle to get budget? Go for it in the comments.
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