It happens to the best of us: You get into a project and realize you’re in over your head. Usually, your clients have no idea you’re in over your head, or they wouldn’t want you in the first place.

What defines you as either a professional or a hack is what you do when you realize you’re in over your head. The professional seeks out guidance and assistance from another IT professional. The hack commits consulting malpractice by misleading and misinforming the client.

This week, I’d like to share the story of how I was called in to clean up the mess left behind after a particularly scary case of consulting malpractice. Here’s the scoop.

You paid $400 for this?
Consultants love to prey on not-for-profit organizations. Those companies typically don’t have the funds to hire full-time IT people, so they rely on volunteers or consultants who offer a discounted rate for nonprofits.
Recently, I got a call from a friend who works for a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide support services to “seasoned citizens.” “The government is auditing us in two weeks,” he said. “I have a board meeting in one week, and we can’t get any of the reports we need out of our [Access] database. Can you help?” Here’s what happened:

  • The company used a Web-based application to “book” donations from individuals and corporations.
  • The data from the Web application was dumped to a comma-delimited file so the company could analyze it and generate financial reports.
  • The first “consultant” took the comma-delimited file back to his office, where it took him approximately two weeks to figure out how to get the data into an Access table.
  • The consultant called the company’s administrative assistant and asked, “What do you want me to do with the donation amounts?” The administrative assistant told me, “I didn’t know what to tell him!”
  • So the consultant decided to put the donation amounts in a Note (text) field.
  • Furthermore, in cases where the same person or organization made more than one donation, the consultant concatenated the multiple donation records (date, amount, fund) into the same Note field, with the records separated by pipe characters. He told the client he was eliminating duplicate entries.
  • The consultant billed the client $400 and hasn’t been heard from since.
  • The administrative assistant was asked to generate reports that showed total donations by month, by quarter, by fund, and so on. Obviously, there’s no way she could run any of those reports as long as the donation dates and amounts were jammed into a text field.

The consultant’s three mistakes
The way I see it, the malpracticing consultant made at least three big mistakes:

  • Bad database design: Shouldn’t it be obvious to any IT professional that, when you’re creating a database named Donations, you should store the amount of the donation in a numeric field? (And he characterized himself as an Access developer!)
  • The wrong call for help: The consultant’s second mistake was to call the administrative assistant and ask for help. Some of you will say that’s exactly what he should have done, but I say he should have called and asked the opinion of one of his IT friends. (Surely one of his IT friends would have said, “Put the donation in a numeric field!”) I think it’s better to humble yourself in front of a peer who can help you than it is to embarrass yourself in front of the client by asking stupid questions.
  • Failure to lead: Some of you may be thinking that the client is at least partially to blame for what happened, but I disagree. Good consultants know when their clients are drowning in ignorance or indecision. Good consultants lead their clients toward the smart, correct path.

Enter the database dragon
You can guess how the story turns out. I got my hands on the original comma-delimited file, imported the data, and cranked out all of the reports they needed for the audit. It took almost no time, and I billed them a whole lot less than the $400 they had already invested.

The moral of the story? If you bill yourself as a consultant, make friends with at least one other IT professional—someone you can call when you get in over your head.

Share your story

If you’ve had to clean up a mess left behind by an IT consultant, we want to hear about your experience. Please post a note below or follow this link to write to Jeff.