CXO

IT Consultant journal: Working contracts and contacts

When you're an independent IT consultant, you have to work with your current clients while keeping an eye out for your next job. This second entry in the journal of IT consultant Mike Sisco finds him taking care of current and future business.


This week, IT Consultant Republic features a daily journal of Mike Sisco, an IT consultant, author, and former CIO. Today, Sisco describes his work on Tuesday with his main client as well as with a business he and four other consultants are starting. There are descriptions of each task next to the time they were begun. See the tipbox below for a link to Mike's Monday journal entry.

8:00 A.M. Contract work
Checking e-mail shows several late messages that were received last night concerning my U.S. HealthWorks (USHW) assimilation projects. (We’re migrating a total of 10 clinics in two states to USHW’s proprietary AS/400 system.) The first message is a response from the Florida Regional Operations Manager that provides the physical location of where the company wants to place the training workstation and printer for each clinic.

In our implementation plans, we set up training connectivity to the IBM AS/400 in each of the clinics at least two weeks before “go-live” to support the training of the clinic employees. Because space is tight in a few of the clinics, I asked the regional manager to identify where we should provide training in order to minimize disruption to the clinic’s daily business operation.

The training setup must be in place by Nov. 9, 2001. Project management has a lot to do with defining critical-path tasks, anticipating needs, and focusing resources before it’s too late.

Other e-mails indicate that the needed conversations are taking place to resolve the data issue (use of a doctor PIN number unique to Florida for billing purposes) that had been identified in last Thursday’s conference call. No need to get involved based upon what is taking place. Since I added this issue to the Assimilation Project Plan after last Thursday’s meeting, it will be a normal discussion point in our weekly status meetings until it is resolved.

Several phone calls are made to various resources within USHW to clarify or to resolve issues in the project plan. Much of the project management role is to ensure the appropriate people are talking to each other vs. sending e-mail messages.

Since I’m copied on most e-mail messages from participants of the project, it’s fairly easy for me to determine when phone discussions are needed to resolve an issue. I can also pick up on issues that others may not be thinking about. A good project manager has to look for and anticipate issues that might affect the project. When you see what looks like “smoke,” focus on it quickly to avoid problems later.

A Microsoft Excel copy of the Project Plan we are using for the USHW Florida Assimilation Project is available on the MDE Web site. I use Microsoft Excel 97 rather than Microsoft Project because most of these projects last three to six months, and I’ve found that Excel gives me all the aspects that I need to manage a project effectively within that time frame.

When you break project management down to its simplest parts, you basically need to identify the following:
  • What needs to be done (the tasks)?
  • Who will do it (responsibility)?
  • When will it be done (time frame)?

It’s also vital to communicate often.

In the spreadsheet, I use columns representing weekly (Friday) end dates. When the project is set up, I indicate the week a task should be completed by adding a slash mark (/) in the appropriate cell.

Once the task is completed, I change the slash to an “X”. This system makes it very easy to go through a project plan quickly and to focus the group on the relevant tasks for this week and next. Our weekly conference calls include participants from six different locations, so it is imperative that we use a tool that keeps everyone on the same page. Each task also includes the initials of the person responsible for completing the task.

Monitoring and communicating your project's status every week gives you ample opportunity to discover and resolve issues with the project participants. The key is to develop a comprehensive definition of the plan early on.

I have managed many technology assimilation projects in my career, so I begin each new assimilation project with a standard template that covers 80 percent of the tasks that will be required. Adding the last 20 percent that is unique to a new project is a matter of conducting a bit of due diligence or assessment with the appropriate company resources.

Did you miss Monday’s journal?
“IT Consultant journal: Managing multiple tasks” covered Mike Sisco’s work with a client and his efforts to land new work for his business, MDE Enterprises.

10:30 A.M. Business development
I have to prepare for tonight’s meeting with the Cash Flow Innovations (CFI) group. CFI is a small company created by four consultants and myself that offers billing and collections monitoring, analysis, and consulting services to help healthcare providers maintain high levels of cash collections.

The five partners, including myself, all have individual assignments. As an independent consultant for the past year, there are two very important lessons that I have learned that stand out among all the rest:
  1. There are aspects of running your own company that require strengths that I do not have. One of those is external sales expertise. While I have always been comfortable and effective in selling within a corporation, it’s a different matter to go out and drum up new business. Associating with others that have those skills is invaluable.
  2. Everyone needs positive reinforcement. Working independently is great, but it can also be lonely. It’s more fun when you can work with others that you respect and can run ideas by. The camaraderie of networking with strong individuals that complement your skill set is a motivational boost that increases productivity and energizes your efforts.

In creating a start-up business venture with others, you need a mechanism through which to organize key activities and keep the group focused and moving forward. One means of accomplishing this is to have regularly scheduled weekly meetings with specific objectives.

My roles in the group are to be the organizer and catalyst because those are two of my strengths. One of the partners is a strong technical resource, two are great business networking and sales types, and the fifth has excellent product knowledge in the services we are developing. Together, we have a much stronger focus and ability to develop something special.

I spend two hours refining a marketing brochure, researching a list of possible domain names for our Web site, reviewing the pricing matrix provided by one of the partners, developing sample letterhead, and creating a list of issues that I want to address for tonight’s meeting.

In a start-up and as an independent consultant, you have to wear many hats.

2:00 P.M. Marketing
I deliver the MRI (the 3-D imaging process company) proposals to USHW and meet informally with the COO to discuss key merits of the business opportunity between the two with myself possibly acting as the product director. We discuss some of the options the company has to develop a business model that complements their business. We schedule a meeting for this Friday to discuss this and other topics with the CEO.

(The events of Sept. 11 are far reaching. USHW feels the impact of the declining economy just like other companies, and the conversations suggest that starting a new project right now will be more difficult than before.)

3:00 P.M. Contract
After meeting with the COO, I drop by the IT department to visit two of the Assimilation Project members to discuss open items and to determine if my assistance is needed to move any of our issues forward. After a brief discussion with the programmer and the business analyst, all appears to be moving as planned, so I leave their office and return to my home office for last-minute preparation for tonight’s CFI meeting.

On the drive home, I analyze the risk of being independent in a slow economy vs. being the CIO of an established company. I also take a moment to appreciate the flexibility and being able to miss rush-hour traffic. There are always challenges and risks with any venture.

4:00 P.M. Business development
I make a final review of my materials and notes for the meeting, and I’m ready to go. The Braves play Arizona tonight; hope there is a TV in the bar and grill.

6:00 P.M. Business development
The dinner meeting with our CFI start-up group is spent discussing several key steps that help us move the business model closer to reality:
  • We make subtle changes to the marketing brochure.
  • We walk through the pricing matrix and simplify our approach.
  • We select a domain name, cashdrivers.com.
  • We walk through the data requirements that are needed in order to provide the cash-flow monitoring and improvement services.
  • We discuss specific prospect situations and finalize requirements to make the first prospect visit.

We spot an old friend with whom several of us previously worked. After renewing a few “war stories,” we talk a bit about business situations and determine that his company’s client base is a potential prospect list for our services.

We don’t pursue it now, but all of us mark it down as a future follow-up. One of my mental to-dos has to be to start keeping a list of prospects and pull it in when we sit down to actually develop our marketing strategy in a week or so.

10:45 P.M. Administrative
One last e-mail check for Dallas and Florida project issues before hitting the sack. Tomorrow is a busy day, with two meetings planned and more work on all fronts to move things forward. All is quiet on the e-mail front.

Happiness is no new e-mail and no new voice mail messages.

Summary
Today was a productive day. The contract projects moved forward, and the new CFI venture is coming together. I need to do more writing for my IT Manager Development Series, but I can’t do it tonight. The uncertainty of the economy is a bit unsettling, especially as my long-term contract starts coming to an end. In the next week or so, I have to block out some time to focus on marketing my services.

Have you started a business with other consultants?
Does some of the groundwork that Mike Sisco is covering sound familiar? If you’ve gone into business with other consultants, tell us about the challenges you faced. We’ll compile your experiences in an upcoming article.

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