Notes from the back of a napkin


Last night I had a good night out with some former colleagues in Canberra.  It was thoroughly enjoyable to talk on a technical level whilst also engaging in the usual developer-consuming-alcohol banter (surely you know what I mean, yes?).

It brought to mind some thoughts I had been contemplating some two years ago, relating to being a technical consultant.  So, I thought I might write down some of these thoughts and share with the community.

One of the most difficult aspects of being an IT consultant is the business support you get on an engagement from your own company. 

There is often little to no technical oversight on an engagement, and if something negative occurs between client and consultant then the consultant is placed in a very difficult position indeed.  Sales people typically are non-technical and therefore in many situations would not be ideal in backing up the consultant in the field.

So what is the answer? 

The most obvious course of action is to promote senior IT Consultants and have them monitor various engagements including the handover/wind up of an engagement.  This gives the consultant in the field some backing if the engagement fails or if the client becomes unreasonable (or consistently changes the scope or goals of the engagement).

However, this rarely happens as the consulting company usually doesn’t want to pay for such resource allocation – especially as senior IT consultants tend to be expensive and rare resources.

Is there another option? 

Yes, the second potential consideration is to clearly define each engagement.  Although this might be too much work form some sales people, it would really give technical consultants a chance to complete an engagement to the satisfaction of all parties concerned.  Unfortunately, the nature of the beast is that a technical project can not be easily defined in such terms up front without significant cost to either the client or the consulting firm, and so rarely happens.

Why do people/companies refuse to pay for detailed technical estimations?

Well, the answer to this is most likely what you’d expect – no matter how detailed the “envisioning” phase of a new IT project, there is still no sure fire way to estimate the absolute cost of a project.  Whether you choose top down or bottom up estimation, at the end of the day it is still only an estimate.  Businesses are hesitant to spend even a few hundred dollars on this kind of technical due diligence.

Why don’t companies provide quotes?

Well, for much the same reason that companies prefer not to pay for technical estimations, most consulting companies would prefer not to invest their consultant’s time (and thus, the consulting company’s own money) at a project that they many not land.   Under estimation is rife in the IT industry as many competing companies try to produce the lowest quote.

So, can you summarise the above for me?

In essence, we have a situation where consultants are often deployed onto engagements with limited technical oversight, coupled with a limited definition of the work involved and probably without the due diligence required to ensure a successful outcome.

In order to secure more positive outcomes for IT projects a number of changes need to occur. 

The most obvious is that companies need to get smarter and better prepared when considering a technical project.  Simply opting for the cheapest quote without doing some investigation and comparison between vendors would force vendors to produce more detailed estimations/quotations.  At the end of the day, the Latin term “caveat emptor” applies, and typically companies get what they pay for.

Consulting companies need to come to terms with the fact that they need to cover the cost of properly supporting their experts in the field.  A burnt engagement is typically the product of more than one factor, but blaming a sole consultant in the field is at best ill sighted and at worst professionally negligent.  Relying on IT consultants to “set customer expectations” in isolation are not being fair to either the consultant or the client.

It would also help if IT consulting companies would stop selling their consultants as ‘experts in any field’.  It places an unfair amount of pressure on an IT consultant to “read a book about technology X” the night before starting a new engagement.  This happens more than you might think.

Lastly, a consensus needs to be brought forward during each project that ensures all stakeholders are receiving the detail and frequency of status updates which keeps everyone in synch.  Good channels of communication and trust needs to exist from the highest level to the lowest.  Businesses at war with each other rarely thrive.

Anyway, I hope this provides food for thought.


About Rob Sanders

IT Professional and TOGAF 9 certified architect with nearly two decades of industry experience, 18 years in commercial software development and 11 years in IT consulting. Check out the "About Rob" page for more information.

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