Although I’ve spent most of my career working in traditional IT departments, I’ve spent a bit of time in other roles, too. I worked about a year in the engineering department as a systems engineer for a financial services company (and, as a result, a client of the internal IT department rather than a member), and I’ve also accomplished a number of independent consulting gigs.
I’ve seen a lot of bad IT consultants in my time in the industry — from people who couldn’t deliver what they said they could deliver to people who just didn’t have a clue about the environment. These interactions damage the credibility of both the CIO and the consultant. The CIO gets a bad rap for not getting a particular job done, and the consultant gets a bad reference.
Consultants come in all forms, from the IT operations consultant who reviews the department as a whole to the technical subject matter expert lending a hand on a particular task. Regardless of the level of engagement, there are some things that should be common for all consulting engagements.
Here are five things that every CIO should demand from any consultant or consulting firm that walks through the door:
1. Verifiable references that include both technical and personal recommendations. Obviously, consultants are generally brought to bear because of their technical ability, but this shouldn’t count for everything. While organizations need to make sure that the consultants brought on board to handle a particular task have the knowledge, skills, and experience to accomplish that task, make sure that the consultant has at least a loose fit with the people with whom he’ll be working. After all, if a consultant comes in and doesn’t talk to anyone or only half listens to the internal folks, it increases the likelihood that something will be missed or that there will be miscommunication. While a consultant’s “fit” isn’t nearly as critical as it is for full-time hires, it needs to take at least a minimal role in the selection of the consultant. Make sure that the consultant — or the consulting firm — can provide references that support your technical requirements and ensure that the consultant at least has the ability to interact with internal staff in a way that results in a positive engagement.
2. Full transparency and follow up documentation. A consultant shouldn’t walk out the door without providing you or your staff with full and complete documentation regarding the engagement, or at least an expected time frame for such. During the consultant’s time on-site, there should be at least semi-regular communications flow… in both directions. Make sure you and your staff know what’s going on and are involved in any technical decisions that are being made. After all, it’s you and your staff who will have to clean up the mess if the consultant leaves and something isn’t working the way you like. Worse, if the consultant leaves without providing a report and there hasn’t been complete transparency during the engagement, critical information might be lost.
3. Time to outline the organizational priorities that the engagement is supporting. From a simple Exchange server implementation to an engagement reviewing the entirety of the operations of the IT department, the CIO or her delegate should have at least a short opportunity to help the consultant understand the bigger scope of the engagement. This is particularly important for those higher level engagements. An operational consultant who doesn’t understand the organization’s priorities is a consultant who can’t provide an assessment that aligns with business goals.
4. Respect for both the CIO and the IT staff. I’ve seen some seriously condescending consultants who walk in the door with an air of superiority and supposed knowledge of, well, everything IT. In almost every case, these people were debunked as frauds when it came time to show results. On the other hand, I’ve also seen a consultant brought it at the behest of the CIO who was treated pretty horribly by the incumbent IT staff. In both directions, the people involved need to lose the attitudes and get the job done. The consultant needs to drop the condescension and the IT staff needs to get over the territorial issues and make sure that the consultant has an environment that is conducive to success. Of course, not all consultants have holier-than-thou attitudes, but those who do need to check it at the door and bring an attitude that will help the organization move to a successful position with regard to the engagement.
5. Push back when we’re on the wrong path. All of this said, the ultimate job of a consultant is to complete the task at hand. In many cases, consultants are brought in to augment skill shortages in the IT department. As such, consultants often have deeper knowledge in their specialties than the internal folks. In other cases, consultants are brought in to augment a people shortage and have knowledge that’s equal to existing IT staffers who simply don’t have time to complete a particular project. In either case, the consultant does deserve some deferential treatment, particularly when there is an internal skills deficit. In fact, CIOs who engage consultants should demand that these subject matter experts push back if local IT makes demands that are contrary to goals. As you might expect, if the client insists on — in the opinion of the consultant — going down the wrong path, there should be written notation just in case it all goes to heck.
These are five basic courtesy items that should form the basis for every consulting engagement. In my next article, I’ll talk about five things that every consultant should demand from the CIO.