How is consulting for a large software company different from consulting for a professional services company or as an independent? What are the challenges and advantages of being part of the largest software company in the world? What kind of projects do clients come to an in-house consulting arm to solve? These are some of the questions I asked Jeff Vilmek, a principal consultant in the Chicago branch of Microsoft Consulting Services.

The Microsoft career ladder
TechRepublic: What’s your role in Microsoft Consulting?
Vilmek: I’m a principal consultant. We have four principal consultants in the Midwest office, covering Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. The principal consultants work with our largest customer organizations in that area, and also with our partner organizations, and provide technical expertise. We also do some strategic consulting from a product development and Microsoft technology perspective.

TechRepublic: In your organization, you have principal consultants. Do you also have other roles like subject matter experts or dedicated project managers?
Vilmek: In our district, we’re structured with four levels of consultants—we have associate consultants, consultants, senior consultants, and principal consultants. Expertise is broken up informally across the consultant base. We have nearly 90 consultants in the area, and among the consultants, expertise is broken down by major technology expertise, and then informally divided into infrastructure consulting and development consulting. To a smaller degree, we have some folks who do strategic consulting. Infrastructure consulting consists of things like domain design, enterprise specifications, and deployments, while development consulting is focused on building a line of business solutions with our major customers. Strategic consulting is things like analysis of technical architectures, risk analysis for customers, project management expertise. That’s the area that I mostly play in.

TechRepublic: Did you start at one of those lower rungs, or did you come in from another organization?
Vilmek: I came in about six years ago from a Microsoft partner organization that was focused on application development, coding, and building Windows applications in an early client-server environment. I came in as a consultant and worked with many of Microsoft’s large clients on coding and integration of big projects, and then moved more to strategic consulting as I moved up the chain to a senior and principal consultant.

The skill set
TechRepublic: How did your personal skill set change as you moved up the levels of consulting? What was it about your personal development that made you ready to add value on a strategic level?
Vilmek: We have a great opportunity inside Microsoft to work with large organizations and deal with large issues. We get to interface at all levels of our client organizations. As I got the chance to not only work on development issues but to advise on them, I got a wider view of how organizations do business, and I got an opportunity to participate in more planning activities such as project management over multiple projects. Through that experience, supplemented by our internal training in analysis, risk management, and project management, I was able to shift my focus to what I thought was a better way for me to deliver value back to our customers.

TechRepublic: You mentioned internal training. What is Microsoft’s view of its responsibility to help its consultants develop their skills?
Vilmek: Microsoft is very focused on providing some pre-specified time windows for consultants to spend on development. The expectation is that consultants will spend about three weeks every year building and developing their technical skills. Also, through a program of mentorship, we help consultants determine where they should be spending time on technical and nontechnical development of their consulting skills. We’ll do assessments with all of the staff to determine what technology skills they have across all our technical categories, as well as what behavior assets they have, and we’ll help them increase their skills in areas like presentations skills, the ability to influence decision-makers, and things like that. Microsoft goes far to provide in-house training, as well as the chance to go outside and get training on any of those skill areas.

TechRepublic: If I’m a Microsoft consultant, and my assessment says that I’m really talented at sitting in front of a workstation and writing code, but I really need development in communication skills, in getting in front of senior managers and making a presentation, and those other soft skills, what would Microsoft Consulting’s development program look like for me?
Vilmek: It’s a combination of training, mentoring, and on-the-job opportunities. There are internal business skills classes that we would guide this consultant towards, as well as making sure that in their career at Microsoft they get teamed up with consultants who have those skills and that can assist them in development. Typically, we look in the hiring process for people who have exhibited those skills or the ability to develop them. A higher priority is put on those skills, and on a general technical ability, than on particular technical skills. People in the technology field obviously have the need to continuously enhance their technical skills as technology changes, so we are used to that. If they have the business skills coming into it, it’s our expectation that they can develop the technology skills easier than the business skills.

Project management
TechRepublic: What’s your approach to project management at Microsoft Consulting? Is there a detailed methodology that all Microsoft Consultants utilize, or does each consultant bring his own methodology?
Vilmek: It does vary across consultants, as each consultant may implement it differently, but Microsoft does have a project management framework that we’ve actually branded, and that we deliver to customers and partners that we work with, and give training on that. I’m deeply involved in that Microsoft Solution Framework, which includes a line of courses and information. Not all consultants use every aspect of it all the time, but it is the foundation for our project management strategy.

TechRepublic: How do you apply your methodology to ensure that, for instance, you and the customer have the same vision for the project?
Vilmek: We break down each project in a number of ways. We focus on two major models to ensure that we get that shared vision and shared understanding across all team members. One model is our team model, where we ensure that the core of the project management team is composed of six people, each of whom takes responsibility for different aspects of the project management tasks. There’s a product manager focused on the customer requirements; a program manager focused on the balance of scope, schedule, and resources; a development lead and a technical lead; a user education manager who focuses on end-user training and documentation; and logistics, which is focused on operation of the solution when it’s complete, as well as deployment aspects of the project.

TechRepublic: It sounds like a robust methodology.
Vilmek: We think it is. We call it a framework because it doesn’t go into the implementation detail of every task. It doesn’t give you a template for change management, for instance, but it does outline where change management is necessary and overall guidelines in managing change.

TechRepublic: If I’m a new consultant at Microsoft, how do I get up to speed on the framework? How do I ensure that I’m applying the framework appropriately?
Vilmek: The recommended approach for getting indoctrination in MSF is one of our three-day courses, either the application development discipline or the infrastructure deployment discipline. They’re very similar in their core models—the team model and the process model—but focused on two different types of projects. For the outside world, that’s the recommended method of learning it as well. There is courseware and a resource kit that you get as you go through the course with a very experienced instructor who can also give you real-world examples of how the model works.

TechRepublic: If I’m an independent consultant who knows that it’s a benefit to have a structured project methodology, do I have access to the Microsoft Solution Framework methodology?
Vilmek: Absolutely. Classes are delivered all over the world by certified consultants out of our offices, and our certified outside training partners now have the ability to deliver this as well. Our partner organizations do this often. The training is technology agnostic, not focused purely on Microsoft technology. We do about 60 percent of our training to partners and other IT professionals.

Delivering results for clients
TechRepublic: How does the client engagement process work? How do you get assigned to a project, build a team, and engage with the client to reach a business objective?
Vilmek: Since we’re a software organization, the primary interface begins with an account manager. That account manager has a partner within the consulting organization—a managing consultant—and those two people will be the center of the relationship with the client. As opportunities to help the client with technology implementations or deployments come up, the managing consultant will assess the resources they might need, and will involve the consultants that are necessary. We’re a pretty slim organization, so typically engagements are staffed with only one or two Microsoft consultants, and then we build a team made up of the client’s resources and possibly partner resources. When we actually engage, we walk through four phases of our development model. The first phase is to make sure that the six roles I described before are assembled, and then we go through the description of the business problem we’re approaching, what the vision is for the project, what kind of solution needs to be created. We put real-world scope around what can actually be delivered, and what business and technical objectives need to be addressed in the design of the solution.

TechRepublic: What are the deliverables out of the opening phase? How do you document what you’re about to undertake?
Vilmek: The main document that comes out of the first phase is the vision scope document. That delivers a consolidated, agreed-upon vision that’s been signed off by the customer, the project team, and the end users. It outlines the initial objectives, the vision, the problem, and provides the foundation for the design phase. Things like schedule and design aren’t worked on until the vision foundation is in place. The second phase is the design phase, and as the design solidifies, you get an idea of how long it’s going to take.

TechRepublic: Walk me through the design process. How do you create an environment where people can be creative and bring their best and most innovative ideas to the table?
Vilmek: The key to the motivation of the team is the idea of joint buy-in. That’s really the core of why everyone’s together working on the project. The purpose of the vision part of the project is to make sure that everyone’s ideas and interests are included in the initial vision, and as you move into the design phase, to make sure that everyone’s interest is represented there. The real key is to get the whole team excited and bought into the vision you’re trying to achieve. We take a product focus to whatever project we’re trying to do, and we get everyone energized and focused around delivering the objectives and pushing that product out the door. Our design process proceeds along two paths, one is the technical and the implementation, and one is the feature and business track. The feature analysis is driven by the customer’s business needs and requirements.

TechRepublic: So it’s not a technical effort, it’s a business results effort.
Vilmek: That’s the foundation for all of our efforts. When we move on to the technical part of our process, that’s divided into three parts: The conceptual, the logical, and the physical design. The conceptual design is focused on the customer’s business rules and process workflow, the logical design is the mapping of that by the technical developers to how the business design can be mapped to a technical reality, and the physical design is left to the development team exclusively to decide how to best implement that technical vision.

Dealing with risk
TechRepublic: How do you deal with the cultural issues like resistance, or unrealistic expectations, or other cultural issues that may not be covered in a formal methodology?
Vilmek: I’ll typically, on a project, try to map out any risks in the cultural or political environment of a project. If there are any divergences or cross-purposes, I’ll try to identify that in the risk analysis process. I give everyone an opportunity to participate in that risk analysis process. We’ll go over every major risk for every deliverable of the project, and if we find any showstoppers, we cull them out and look at them, and we try to mitigate those risks. We can sometimes halt the project and go back to the beginning or approach the problem from a different perspective.

TechRepublic: So it sounds like you’re saying that even the cultural and political issues can be handled within the methodology by honestly assessing them as part of the risk analysis process.
Vilmek: Those types of things are definitely within the scope of risk management. If you work with the customer and identify those risks, and let them help you decide how to mitigate those risks, it gets them very involved in helping to solve those problems and communicating the recognition of those problems to the team, so you reduce the chance that there will be any surprises during implementation.

Rick Freedman is the author of The IT Consultant: A Commonsense Framework for Managing the Client Relationship and the upcoming The Internet Consultant, both by Jossey Bass Publishers. He is the founder of Consulting Strategies Inc., a training firm that advises and mentors IT professional services firms in fundamental IT project management and consulting skills.

As a supplement to his ‘Consultant Master Class’ column, Rick Freedman periodically interviews a leading executive, practice manager, or consultant from the top IT professional service firms. According to Freedman, the practicing consultants out there every day, selling, planning, and delivering projects for clients are the real masters. By giving them a chance to share their concepts, techniques, and lessons-learned, he hopes to build consensus among consultants on the industry’s best practices and methodologies. If you have a question for Rick, e-mail us.