Project Management

Herding tigers: How to manage subcontractors for your consultancy

Chip Camden tells a reader who is starting an IT consultancy that she has to coordinate efforts between clients and her genius subcontractors. Post your advice on managing subcontractors.

I received an email from a reader who identified herself only as "L," which read in part:

My husband and I are starting our IT consultancy firm.

My question is how do we manage ours consultants knowing that they are not employees, but subcontractors?

This question is very important to me as our IT consultancy is very much into agile development and most of our subcontractors are brilliant and very well known people. But brilliant does not always mean reliable and therefore processes are needed.

Stand up meeting every morning to check and what has been accomplished the previous day? What else?

From L's message, we can gather that she and her husband are creating a consultancy that subcontracts most of its work out to independents. She didn't say anything about any expectation of exclusivity. By the nature of the agreement (unless explicitly otherwise specified), independent contractors may feel free to work for other clients, as long as they don't directly compete with your business. They're more like vendors than they are like employees from that perspective. For that reason, as well as because they are "brilliant and well known people," they may also insist on more independence in how they get their job done.

On the other hand, the subcontractor relationship does bear some similarities to the employee relationship. The primary responsibility for fulfilling your client's contract lies with your firm. Your subcontractors are primarily responsible to you, and secondarily to the client. That means it's up to you to coordinate efforts, especially when more than one contractor is working on the same job. You can't just turn the geniuses loose on your clients and expect it all to come together. How much coordination you require will depend on the complexity of each project. You may find yourself in need of one or more project managers, but make sure they don't become too heavy-handed.

Personally, I favor a management style -- even for employees -- that leaves as much initiative in the hands of those doing the work as is practical. Your contractors should feel empowered to exercise their own judgment, except where they must consult the interests of the client or your firm. Even then, you can give them permission to drive those conversations, rather than just posing a question and waiting for a response.

Agile methods tend to work better in situations where individuals feel responsible for the entire chain of delivery. So, yes to stand-ups. But also, yes to regular client conversations involving your subcontractors. Review meetings at the end of cycle are also important, so you don't lose what you learned from your mistakes. Most of all, keep the communication lines open all the time. It's amazing how much time you can lose merely waiting to hear back from people. Text-based communications (email, chat, etc.) work well for that, because they balance immediacy and interruption -- you can ignore them when you're in the zone, but they typically get a faster response than a missed phone call.

We have a lot of readers who specialize in project management. They can probably provide even better advice in the discussion below.

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About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

4 comments
realvarezm
realvarezm

At the end of the road, trust and a good pay is all a subcontractor need and a contract, makes more serious the deal. The way you handle the details and the way you take care of the customer via your subcontractors. Will ensure success. Plus make sure you have picked the right tiger, the profiles are everyday more equal, some show skills that are repeated in 3 or more tigers. But of those just 1 will get the job done effectively and unfortunately only experience will give that picky eye. Avoid greedy and arrogant tigers cause they will always will ruin your face in front of the customer have a plan B and know when to cut or replace a tiger to save face. Good luck with the dream, is hard but its worth it.

yolanda.gerber
yolanda.gerber

For these types of engagements, a Statement of Work with a well defined Scope, Completion Criteria and Deliverables are required. Project Plans are also a good start. How anyone can engage with sub-contractors without a SOW defies logic...

CACASEY
CACASEY

As painful as it is for me to recommend, L needs a lawyer. While Chip's advice is very practical, a new consultancy L's description of "... very much into agile development and most of our subcontractors are brilliant and very well known people. But brilliant does not always mean reliable and therefore processes are needed." has liability issues written all over it. Beyond herding the brilliant cats, L needs to make sure she has her non-compete and IP ownership houses in order, as well as Error and Omissions insurance to protect her and her husband should one of the subs do damage to the client. Lastly, I would suggest strongly tying pay to performance, including things you normally wouldn't think about, like just showing up. A simple, but clear structure linking compensation to expected behavior is the best method I've used over the years to make sure sub contractors deliver what is expected.