Selecting And Working With IT Consulting FirmsWhat Every CIO Should Know
by Tom Salonek
The global information technology industry is on pace to reach $5 trillion in 2019, according to the research consultancy IDC. The U.S. share of this enormous pie: $1.6 trillion in 2019, which represents 31% of the world’s tech market. —CompTIA
Don’t expect things to slow down anytime soon. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects in the United States alone: ““Employment of computer and information technology occupations is projected to grow 13 percent from 2016 to 2026, faster than the average for all occupations. These occupations are projected to add about 557,100 new jobs. Demand for these workers will stem from greater emphasis on cloud computing, the collection and storage of big data, and information security.”—Bureau of Labor Statistics
It’s exciting to participate in the biggest and most vital economic segment in the world. But it also means intense competition for skilled IT professionals who realize the market value of their highly in-demand expertise. No wonder many organizations engage IT consulting firms who can bring highly experienced consultants who put your interests first.
Some CIOs shudder when they hear the term “consultants” because they associate them with high fees or low value. Certainly such consultants, like unethical professionals in any industry, do exist and have contributed to perceived negativity toward their respective professions. Yet, IT consultants exist because their services are vitally necessary and in demand.
This Intertech Executive Brief provides insight into how to select an excellent consulting firm that fits your particular needs and to leverage that consulting relationship for maximum value.
Benefitting from IT Consultants
Companies of all sizes, government agencies and non-profit organizations all work with IT consulting firms. Experienced IT consultants provide in-house developers with instant access to a broad range of skills and expertise.
Consultants bring deep experience from working with multiple technologies across a variety of industries. They’ve “been there, done that” and, if they’re worth their salt, they continually learn new technologies and how best to apply them.
Consultants bring fresh perspective and often can identify problems and solutions that are difficult to see internally. (However, they should seek to understand your business needs before they propose solutions.) And since consultants are not bound up in your organization’s internal politics, they can help you break through roadblocks and provide a necessary catalyst for change.
Don’t engage a consulting firm until you are convinced they have a genuine concern for your business issues and success. Seek evidence that they have the drive and expertise to solve problems and offer best solutions (look at their track record with other clients). Technical expertise and experience are not enough: ensure the consultants who will be working with your team possess strong communications skills. They should be able to communicate, clearly and easily, with technical professionals and business stakeholders alike. Finally, make sure the consulting firm you choose is guided by an unfailing moral compass and integrity that puts your needs ahead of their self-interest.
“A great band is more than just some people working together. It’s like a highly specialized army unit, or a winning sports team: a unique combination of elements that becomes stronger together than apart.”—Steven Van Zandt
Making the Best Choice
Finding the best consulting firm for your needs requires doing homework. The only way to get the right fit is to ask questions – a lot of questions.
Q1 – How long have you been in business?
A1 – Clearly, a longer track record is better. It’s also a good idea to see if you know any of the firm’s employees, which LinkedIn makes easy to do.
Q2 – How large is your firm?
A2 – Unless you’re looking for an IT army, bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. Proven track records matter most, along with the assurance that the people you talk with will actually be working on your project.
Q3 – How will you partner with us?
A3 – Good consulting firms seek to leave clients stronger than they were before the engagement.
Q4 – Who, specifically, will be assigned to work with my team?
A4 – On the front end of a sale, it’s expected that you’ll be talking with people who’ll not be actually involved in your project (e.g. salespeople, delivery managers, pre-sales technical support, etc.). As you get closer to selecting your firm, talk to the individuals who’ll actually be leading your project.
Q5 – Are your consultants employees or sub-contractors?
A5 – Given today’s IT market, a mix of employees and vetted sub-contractors is a typical response. Insist that the firm’s employees are in lead roles for stability and project-over-project results and accountability.
Q6 – How do you ensure the technical expertise of your consultants?
A6 – Look for a vigorous hiring process. Top consulting firms only hire one out of every 20-to-100 candidates according to Harvard’s Leading Professional Services program.
Q7 – How do you gain perspective on our business?
A7 – Few consultants immediately will know the ins-and-outs of your business, but they should clearly explain how they’ll gain the understanding, knowledge, and insights into your business and how long that will take.
Q8 – How quickly can you get up to speed with our domain and language(s)?
A8 – Expect a consulting firm to bring the expertise on where you’re headed from day one. For integration with other platforms and systems, look for experience in integrating with third parties and legacy systems (experience with your specific legacy systems and third-party platforms is not that important).
In many cases, an experienced consulting firm will provide skills beyond what a customer initially requests. Some companies focus narrowly on the “bits and bytes” of their technical needs to their detriment. While those are important, a good consultant or consulting team should ask deeper questions and be able to recommend solutions in areas such as developing a strategy for moving to the cloud, improving agile and scrum practices, and DevOps.
Look for comparable skills and technology experience when evaluating a potential consulting firm, but keep flexibility in mind. Even if a consultant or team lacks experience with something like a framework, but meets all your other criteria, they could still be a smart choice. Consultants live in a world of change and bring experience working across multiple companies and industries.
In short, think more broadly than a simple checklist of buzzwords. You’re looking for experience, a record of delivering success, solid communication skills, integrity and the combination of being flexible while guiding you and your organization in the right direction.
Compatibility and shared expectations are key to an effective relationship, although with consulting firms the onus is on them to make sure you start strong.
Your Consulting Firm Should Ask You Questions
Just as you needed to ask smart questions before deciding to engage, your consulting firm should ask key questions too:
Q1 – What is the project time-frame and expected duration?
Q2 – Describe your in-house resources (i.e., skills and experience of your team)
Q3 – Tell us about any past experience you have with consulting firms.
Q4 – How do you feel about doing things in a new way?
Q5 – How will you decide if the project is successful?
Q6 – Will the project be full-time, part-time or simply on call as needed?
Q7 – What is the project location and when will the consultants need to be onsite?
Q8 – What role(s) is the consultant expected to play?
Q9 – What other solutions have you tried or considered?
Q10 – What is the current project status?
After discussing these questions and others that may arise, it may become apparent that the consulting firm you’ve chosen may not be the best fit. Size, range of experience or expertise may simply not match your project. A solid consulting firm will speak up, admit there’s a poor match and even refer you to another firm they know and respect.
Take time very early in the relationship (or, ideally, before you sign an engagement contract) to make sure it’s a good fit. This may seem like the opposite of our earlier recommendation to think broadly when evaluating technical talent: but it’s more like advice for someone considering marriage. Make sure the fundamentals are strong and be willing to overlook minor surface irritations. If key fundamentals are missing, you probably should look for a different partner.
Leveraging the Power of Agile
“The Project Management Institute’s 2017 Pulse of the Profession report found that 28 percent of strategic initiatives overseen by survey respondents were deemed outright failures. Some 37 percent of the more than 3,000 project management professionals who responded cited a lack of clearly deﬁned and/or achievable milestones and objectives to measure progress as the cause of failure, followed by poor communication (19%), lack of communication by senior management (18%), employee resistance (14%) and insufficient funding (9%).” —PMI
These are serious problems and they must be addressed upfront to ensure they do not plague – or possibly kill – your project.
While no panacea, many consultants (including Intertech) use agile and scrum methodology. Why? The built-in processes, checkpoints and reviews keep most projects humming along productively.
Agile allows companies to better respond and adapt to changing market conditions and business priorities. A series of smaller successes results in tangible deliverables even as further business developments continue. It also encourages better user input, frequent deliverables, more accurate forecasting and significant cost savings.
Whether you’re eager to try agile for the first time or wish to increase your team’s agile proficiency, you must be willing to accept change. Your development team also must be empowered to change the way things have been done in the past.
Doing Your Part
What makes a good customer? This might strike you as an odd question. After all, isn’t it the consultant’s responsibility to make the relationship work?
The Customer Has Obligations Too
While a consultant must go the extra mile, the customer also has obligations in making a consulting relationship effective. The same qualities apply to a good customer as to a good employee, a good friend, even a good spouse: trust, mutual respect, and sharing that shows that each is committed to the success of the partnership.
Good customer-vendor relationships require both parties to participate, communicate and share responsibility for a successful outcome.
Below is the checklist for a good customer:
Clearly communicate expectations (assumptions typically backfire).
Provide clear direction and feedback to the project team.
Take initiative in quickly removing road blocks for those doing the work.
Share responsibility for success of delivery.
Work to diminish the political boundaries that can emerge between consultants and full-time employees.
Actively engage in the process all along the way.
Do not overreact to minor setbacks.
Communicate on a daily basis.
Pay invoices promptly.
Getting More Than You Expected
“Among hiring employers, more than half indicate (having job openings) due to expansion, while a similar percentage indicate the need for new skills. . . These two hiring drivers are clearly intertwined. Firms expanding into new, emerging areas require the requisite skills to proceed with their rollout.”—World Economic Forum
As was noted at the beginning of this Intertech Executive Brief, IT is hot. The industry is growing fast and technology is changing even faster.
Tune Up Your Team with Consultants
Finding and keeping skilled IT professionals can be your biggest challenges. Working with a good consulting firm can help in this regard. Consultants not only help train employees in specific technologies, they can make a lasting improvement in how employees create software.
A good consulting team works hard to accelerate the expertise of existing employees so they can successfully maintain what they’re responsible for when the contract ends—leaving your team stronger than before the engagement began. And if employees leave and you need help fast, your consulting firm likely will be available when you need it.
Ask potential consultants about their experience mentoring clients. Transferring critical knowledge and mentoring as consultants work shoulder-to-shoulder with inhouse team members is the best on-the-job training available.
Building great software begins with building a great team. Experienced IT consultants bring a fresh perspective, deep experience and good advice on redirects. While your team is filled with smart people, consultants bring experience with many organizations and multiple organizations in your industry.
Good consultants are well versed in adapting to change and the challenges change implies. They understand the pros and cons of existing frameworks and the implications for capabilities and deliverables. And many have deep agile and scrum experience, allowing them to further improve it on your behalf.
Take your time to find a consulting firm that truly meets your needs and cares about your business as much as you do. Effectively working with a consulting organization includes your involvement in the process. If you choose and engage right, your odds of a successful outcome are greatly improved!
Author: Tom Salonek, Founder and CEO, Intertech, Inc.
Tom Salonek is the founder and CEO of Intertech, a technology consulting and training ﬁrm. Intertech has won more than 50 awards for growth, innovation, including being named one of the Top 30 Places to Work in Tech by Fortune magazine. He has an undergraduate degree in Quantitative Methods from the University of St. Thomas where he was also an instructor at the Graduate School of Business Management Center and has completed executive education at the Harvard School of Business and MIT.
About Intertech Executive Brief
Intertech publishes original articles, reports and periodicals that provide insights for business leaders. Our goal is to draw upon research and experience from throughout our professional services organization, to include consulting and training, as well as coauthors in academia and business throughout the world, to advance the understanding of important principles of interest to executives throughout the IT world.
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