Technical Due Diligence Best Practices
Technical due diligence of products is about more than the solution architecture and the technologies employed. Performing diligence correctly requires that companies evaluate the solution against the investment thesis, and evaluate the performance and relationship of the engineering and product management teams. Here we present the best practices for technology due diligence in the format of things to do, and things not to do:
1. Understand the Investment/Acquisition Thesis
One cannot perform any type of diligence without understanding the investment/acquisition thesis and equally as important, the desired outcomes. Diligence is meant to not only uncover “what is” or “what exists”, but also identify the obstacles to achieve “what may or can be”. The thesis becomes the standard by which the diligence is performed.
2. Evaluate the Team against the Desired Outcomes
The technology product landscape is littered with the carcasses of great ideas run into the ground with the wrong leadership or the wrong team. Disagree? We ask you to consider the Facebook and Friendster battle. We often joke that the robot apocalypse hasn’t happened yet, and technology isn’t building itself. Great teams are the reasons solutions succeed and substandard teams behind those solutions that fail technically. Make sure your diligence is identifying whether you are getting the right team along with the product/company you acquire.
3. Understand the Tech/Product Relationship
Product Management teams are the engines of products, and engineering teams are the transmission. Evaluating these teams in isolation is a mistake – as regardless of the PDLC (product development lifecycle) these teams must have an effective working relationship to build great products. Make sure your diligence encompasses an evaluation of how these teams work together and the lifecycle they use to maximize product value and minimize time to market.
4. Evaluate the Security Posture
Cyber-crime and fraud is going to increase at a rate higher than the adoption of online solutions pursuant to a number of secular forces that we will enumerate in a future post. As such, it is in your best interest as an investor to understand the degree to which the company is focused on increasing the perceived cost of malicious activity and decreasing the perceived value of said malicious activity. Ensure that your diligence includes evaluating the security focus, spending, approach and mindset of the target company. This need not be a separate diligence for small investments – just ensure that you are comfortable with the spend, attention and approach. Ensure that your diligence properly evaluates the risk of the target solution.
5. Prepare Yourself and the Target
Any diligence will go better if you give the acquisition/investment target an opportunity to prepare documents. Requesting materials in advance allows the investment target an opportunity to prepare for a deep discussion and ensures that you can familiarize yourself with the product architecture and product development processes ahead of time. Check out our article on due diligence checklists which includes a list of items to request in advance.
6. Be Dynamic and Probe Constantly
While a thorough list of items to discuss is important, it is equally important to abide by the “2 ears and one mouth” rule: Spend more time listening than talking. Look for subtle clues as to the target’s comfort with particular answers. Are there things with which they are uncomfortable? Are they stressing certain words for a reason? Don’t accept an answer at face value, dig into the answer to find the information that supports a claim.
7. Evaluate Debt
Part of the investment in your target could well be an ongoing premium payment against past technical debt. Ensure that you properly evaluate what debt the company has acquired, and how they are paying the interest and premium payments against that debt.
1. Don’t Waste Too Much Time (or money) on Code Reviews
The one thing I know from years of running engineering teams is that anytime an engineer reviews code for the first time she is going to say, “This code is crap and needs to be rewritten.” Code reviews are great to find potential defects and to ensure that code conforms to the standards set forth by the company. But you are unlikely to have the time or resources to review everything. The company is also unlikely to give you unfettered access to all of their code (Google “Sybase Microsoft SQLServer” for reasons why). That leaves you at the whims of the company to cherry-pick what you review, which in turn means you aren’t getting a good representative sample.
Further, your standards likely differ from those of the target company. As such, a review of the software is simply going to indicate that you have different standards.
Lastly, we’ve seen great architecture and terrible code succeed whereas terrible architecture and great code rarely is successful. You may find small code reviews enlightening, but we urge you to spend a majority of your time on the architecture, people and process of the acquisition or investment.
2. Don’t Start a Fight
Far too often technology diligence sessions start in discussion and end in a fight. The people performing the diligence start asking questions in a way that may seem judgmental to the target company. Then the investing/acquiring team shifts from questions to absolute statements that can only be taken as judgmental. There’s simply no room for this. Diligence is clinical – not personal. It’s not a place to prove who is smarter than whom. This dynamic is one of the many reasons it is often a good idea to have a third party perform your diligence: The target company is less likely to feel threatened by the acquiring product team, and the third party is oftentimes more experienced with establishing a non-threatening environment.
3. Don’t Be Religious
In a services oriented world, it really doesn’t matter what code or what data persistence platform comprises a service you may be calling. Assuming that you are acquiring a solution and its engineers, you need not worry about supporting the solution with your existing skillsets. Debates around technology implementations too often come from a place of what one knows (“I know Java, Java rocks, and everything else is substandard”) than what one can prove. There are certainly exceptions, like aging and unsupported technology – but stay focused on the architecture of a solution, not the technology that implements that architecture.
4. Don’t Do Diligence Remotely
As we’ve indicated before, diligence is as much about teams as it is the technology itself. Performing diligence remotely without face to face interaction makes it difficult to identify certain cues that might otherwise be indicators that you should dig more deeply into a certain space or set of questions. Examples are a CTO giving an authoritative answer to a certain question while members her team roll their eyes or slightly shake or bow their heads.
You may also want to read about the necessary components of technical due diligence in our article on optimizing technical diligence.
AKF Partners performs diligence on behalf of a number of venture capital and private equity firms as well as on behalf of strategic acquirers. Whether for a third party view, or because your team has too much on their plate, we can help. Read more about our technical due diligence services here.