Tech & Work

Questions clients and consultants need to ask before a new engagement

Chip Camden offers clients and consultants advice about questions to ask during the interview process so both parties have a good idea of what they're getting themselves into by the end of the interview.
 My good friend (and TechRepublic contributor) Chad Perrin recently wrote about how to interview security experts. A lot of what he states applies to hiring technical people in general, especially consultants.

Most of my consulting engagements are established over the phone or by e-mail, but the key part of that process still rests in the questions that are asked on both sides. Here are interview pointers for clients and consultants. These questions are designed to help both parties have a good idea of what they're getting themselves into by the end of the interview.

Questions the client should ask the consultant

When you're vetting a potential consultant, open-ended questions are the way to go. This allows you to stimulate a discussion to see how the consultant thinks.

I suggest asking questions that you haven't been able to answer. For instance, you might describe the specific problem that you need the consultant to solve (without revealing confidential information). This allows you to be more objective in evaluating the consultant's response by removing your expectations of a "right" answer. Also, the degree to which the interviewee's response enlightens your understanding of the problem can be used as a valid measure of the answer's worth.

Asking open-ended questions works much better than the "litmus test" questions for the same reasons that Chad pointed out. In summary:

  • "Right" answers weed out the horrible, but they don't validate the excellent.
  • "Right" answers aren't the real-world problems that a consultant will be asked to solve.
  • If the consultant is an expert, who are you to tell them what the "right" answers are?

You should also be aware of posing questions about hypothetical situations unless those situations are part of a real problem you're trying to solve. Contrived scenarios are likely to be laced with hidden litmus tests.

Also, a consultant is often expected to integrate knowledge from a broad range of subjects in order to provide the best solutions. A few test questions/scenarios may prove that the consultant knows a small set of subjects in detail, but it cannot prove that they're able to synthesize solutions from that knowledge or that they aren't clueless in a whole host of other important areas. The chief problem I have with relying too much on certifications is that they might establish a baseline of competency, but they tell you little about a person's ability to solve problems creatively.

For additional guidance about what to ask (and what not to ask) consultants, check out these TechRepublic resources:

Questions the consultant should ask the client

It's challenging enough to field a potential client's questions, but a smart consultant will ask the client questions in response. In my experience, it's rare that a client poses a question that doesn't require additional information.

For example, if the interviewer asks, "How would you set up a bridge between client X and server Y?" you might respond, "That depends — is this software only to be installed on your site and managed by you, or do we need to package it for redistribution, installation, and management by others?"

You should also inquire about factors that are important to your mutual success, but which your interviewer probably takes for granted, such as:

  • How does your team work? Are they forever going over the waterfall in a barrel, or do they take a more agile approach?
  • What kinds of testing and documentation procedures do you have in place?
  • How do you track changes to your software?
  • Do you use a source control management system?
  • What kind of dialogue do you have with your users?

To truly understand the problems the client faces, you should ask questions about their specific business. It may seem irrelevant to ask "How do your distribution channels work?" "How many customers do you have, and where are they located?" and "What is your typical customer like?" but I find that the better you understand their business, the better you can see the problem from the client's point of view — and the better solution you'll create for them.

Consider the questions you're asked

If you're hiring a consultant, pay attention to the questions they ask you. How interested are they in understanding your business and the specific problems you face? If they simply field your questions and don't ask any of their own, maybe the only thing on their mind is how much money they'll make off of you. Or worse yet, maybe they don't know what questions to ask.

If you're a consultant, the interview questions that a potential client asks can tell you a lot about the company with whom you're thinking of doing business. If they just run down a list and tick off correct answers, then maybe what they really want is contract labor. But if they ask you open-ended, real-world questions and thoughtfully process your responses, you can be reasonably sure that they'll use your talents in ways that will be appreciated by them and fulfilling to you.

What interview questions would you add to the list?

If there are questions that you would add to my list (either from the perspective of a client or a consultant), please post them in the discussion forum.

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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...

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