“An expert is someone who lives more than 50 miles out of town
and wears a tie to work.”
– Bryce’s Law
The need for outside contract services is nothing new. IT-related
consultants have been around since the computer was first introduced for
commercial purposes. Today, all of the Fortune 1000 companies have consultants
playing different roles in IT, either on-site or offshore. Many companies are
satisfied with the work produced by their consultants, others are not. Some
consultants are considered a necessary evil who tackle assignments
in an unbridled manner and charge exorbitant rates. For this type of
consultant, it is not uncommon for the customer to be left in the dark
in terms of what the consultant has done, where they are going, and if
and when they will ever complete their assignment. Understand this, the
chaos brought on by such consultants are your own doing.
IT consultants offer three types of services:
- Special expertise – representing skills and proficiencies your company is currently without, be it the knowledge of a particular product, industry, software, management techniques, special programming techniques and languages, computer hardware, etc.
- Extra resources – for those assignments where in-house resource allocations are either unavailable or in short supply, it is often better to tap outside resources to perform the work.
- Offer advice – to get a fresh perspective on a problem, it is sometimes beneficial to bring in an outsider to give an objective opinion on how to proceed. A different set of eyes can often see something we may have overlooked.
Whatever purpose we wish to use a consultant for, it is important
to manage them even before they are hired. This means a company
should know precisely what it wants before hiring a consultant.
Before we contact a consultant, let’s begin by defining the
assignment as concisely and accurately as possible; frankly,
it shouldn’t be much different than writing a job description
for in-house employees. It should include:
- Scope – specifying the boundaries of the work assignment and detailing what is to be produced. This should also include where the work is to be performed (on-site, off-site, both) and time frame for performing the work.
- Duties and Responsibilities – specifying the types of work to be performed.
- Required Skills and Proficiencies – specifying the knowledge or experience required to perform the work.
- Administrative Relationships – specifying who the consultant is to report to and who they will work with (internal employees and other external consultants).
- Methodology considerations – specifying the methodology, techniques and tools to be used, along with the deliverables to be produced and review points. This is a critical consideration in managing the consultant. However, if the consultant is to use his/her own methodology, the customer should understand how it works and the deliverables produced.
- Miscellaneous in-house standards – depending on the company, it may be necessary to review applicable corporate policies, e.g., travel expenses, dress code, attendance, behavior, drug test, etc.
Many would say such an Assignment Definition is overkill. Far from
it. How can we manage anyone if we do not establish the rules of the
game first? Doing your homework now will pay dividends later when
trying to manage the consultant. Assignment clarity benefits both
the customer and the consultant alike. Such specificity eliminates
vague areas and materially assists the consultant in quoting a price.
SELECTING A CONSULTANT
Armed with an Assignment Definition, we can now begin the
process of selecting a consultant in essentially the same manner
as selecting an in-house employee. Choosing the right consultant is
as important a task as the work to be performed. As such, candidates
must be able to demonstrate their expertise for the assignment. Certification
and/or in-house testing are good ways for checking required skills
and proficiencies. Also, reviewing prior consulting assignments (and
checking references) is very helpful. Examining credentials is
imperative in an industry lacking standards. For example, many
consultants may have a fancy title and profess to be noted experts in
their field but, in reality, may be nothing more than contract
programmers. In other words, beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Ideally, a consultant should have both a business and technical
background. True, technical expertise is needed to perform IT
assignments, but a basic understanding of business (particularly your
business) is also important for the consultant to adapt to your
environment. This is needed even if you are using nothing more than
contract programmers. help desk
In terms of remuneration, you normally have two options: an hourly
rate or a fixed price. For the former, be sure the work hours are
specified, including on-site and off-site. Many clients are
uncomfortable paying an hourly wage for an off-site consultant. Under
this scenario, routine status reports should be required to itemize
the work performed and the time spent. However, the lion’s share of
consulting services are based on a fixed price contract. Here, the
role of the methodology becomes rather important. Whether you are
using “PRIDE” or another Brand X methodology, it is important the consultant
and client both have a clear understanding of the project’s work
breakdown structure, the deliverables to be produced, and the review
points. From this, an effective dialog can be communicated in terms
of managing the project. Further, the methodology becomes the basis
for the preparation of estimates and schedules.