As a leader of a Engineering Team, you may have had your fair share of experience with “Free kittens”. Free kittens are one off products, partner integrations, new platform support, or customizations that really only apply to one customer or are focused in a market that is outside your wheelhouse. These will be presented frequently to you as a fuzzy small requirement in a SOW, contract, or just as likely an email you’re copied on – fuzzy, cute, and often not described in much detail.

Of course, free kittens need some one to take car of them, buy them food, expensive trips to the vet when they are sick, and no matter how cute, theres a lot of crap to clean up. Same is true for the kittens that show up at your office door / inbox, usually delivered by Sales. (To be fair though, they can come from Product Management, Support, and directly from Customers themselves.)

As leaders, it is not usually effective or productive to say, “no thanks, your kitten is kinda ugly”. We are in the business to build and deliver software and services that delight customers which requires us to be adaptable and aggressive in meeting their needs. What is often more productive is to ask questions and educate the kitten custodian about what it will take to live with this kitten for the next 5-10 years (software kittens sometimes, but not always, have a shorter lifespan that real kittens).  In so doing, hopefully a business decision can emerge.

I’ve had more kittens than I can count show up at my door over the years. The latest one that came in very recently was run a one-off instance of our SaaS solution in one of the newer cloud hosted IaaS platform that I won’t name here. Of course we can do it (all things are possible with software) is the answer. However, there is this small matter that no one in this company has ever worked with that particular IaaS cloud provider.

I often find people miss the point on how to provide a service – its not a one time effort. Clearly training is needed for everyone who would touch this new platform: Dev, QA, Support, Services, etc. You need need a smooth repeatable process to dev, build, QA, deploy, secure, monitor, troubleshoot, update, backup, and recover from disasters. Turns out those cute little free kittens are somewhat pricey! Is it worth it for this one customer, or can we amortize this effort over a whole set of customers that we would move to this new platform? Can this large investment strategic? Good questions…

Of course, Sales people are not comp’ed on taking care of the kitten, just on its adoption. Sometimes this is called “happy ears” – they just want to hear yes, whether from you or the prospect. The sales person or product manager won’t have to feed it or clean the litter box, so it doesn’t hurt to inform them of the smells that can occasionally accompany these cute little guys. With the right business conversation that considers both the true value and cost of the kitten, you can drive a decision that works for your SaaS platform.