How to Choose an Information Technology (IT) Consultant

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There are many reasons why Information Technology Consultants are brought into projects, but the main ones are:

>  A lack of expertise or resources.
>  Being so close to the problem that you can’t see the solution.

Perhaps you’ve lost your objective opinion. Perhaps you’re trapped in analysis paralysis. Perhaps there are so many options you need help to choose the best one. Perhaps you need help to see the options. Perhaps you just don’t want to go it alone.

For whatever reason, you’ve decided to bring in an Information Technology Consultant or Software Consultant to help you.

How do you choose the right one for your business and your project?

What Do They Do?

A good consultant will help you better understand the problem or opportunity before you. He or she will listen closely and ask a lot of questions – sometimes very difficult or uncomfortable questions. Questions like “Why does this matter?” and, “For whom is this being done?”

Answering the questions brings clarity, and clarity leads to solutions.

Where to Find Them?

There are thousands of qualified consultants, all over the world. But don’t just look locally; information services are rarely constrained by geography.

You can follow some of the same steps outlined in “How to Choose a Software Development Company” to find qualified candidates, and then talk to them.

How to Talk to Them

Talk to several candidates and cross any off of the list that you don’t like, aren’t comfortable with, who don’t clearly communicate or answer your questions, or just rub you the wrong way.

You must like and trust your consultant in order to have the open and honest conversations necessary for success.

How to Qualify Them

Start by giving the consultant a brief, high-level description of the domain of the problem, opportunity, or application. Outline your ambitions, opportunities, risks, and fears; there’s no need for details yet.

Most consultants are bright, honest people who will readily tell you if they can or cannot help you within a few minutes of conversation.

Due Diligence

Look at the background and track record of the remaining candidates. Google them and read their profiles, experience, testimonials, and endorsements on LinkedIn. Talk to some of their past clients. Make sure you are confident in their abilities, that you like them, and that you are excited about working with them.

Credentials are great, but personality and work ethic matter more – for team interaction and especially for long-term engagements. If you don’t look forward to working with them, choose someone else. Friction in the process will drag everyone down and reduce the quality of the results.

Trust, but Verify

Do a “feasibility analysis” with your shiny new consultant – limit the time/cost up front, and specifically convey your expectations. This will produce a preliminary design and establish the working dynamic between the consultant and the team. Agree on structures for production, payout milestones, team dynamics, authority, system access, and anything else that will make it easy and enjoyable to work together. But keep this first engagement short, and limited in scope.

Evaluate Often

If at any point you become uncomfortable with the consultant’s performance, communicate your concerns immediately. A mutual effort to reach common ground is vital to getting the project back on track and in the comfort zone. If no consensus is possible, fire them early and quickly. It’s a difficult decision to make with time and money already invested, but sticking with a consultant who isn’t working out could bring down the entire project.

Be Cautious

Do not make a long-term up-front commitment. Be extremely leery of consulting firms that offer to do ‘free’ analysis and proposals, because the backside of this is generally a long-term contract commitment.

Know exactly who you will be working with, what they can really do, and if you like them before making any longer-term commitments.

Good consultants (and contractors) understand that every day is an interview.

If your consultant offers drastic recommendations without first observing your operations, be afraid. It may be the case that the consultant’s advice is based on years of experience and is delivered with great confidence – but that experience is not with your business, and your business is different. Sometimes very different. It is critical that your consultant observe your business in operation to fully understand your unique operational needs and environment.

Think First

Prepare a high-level overview of your business needs for yourself. Include any special considerations, such as:

  • Legacy systems that must work in conjunction with the new system.
  • Specific customer interoperation and/or data interchange formats.
  • In-house tools and systems that must remain undisturbed and/or be supported by the new system.
  • And most importantly, exactly what you expect the consultant to provide.

Expectations govern the consulting relationship; make yours known up front.

Start Small, Grow Big

Start with a small project. Define the outcomes in advance, and agree on how the results will be presented. Consider the first small step as a pilot project for both you and the consultant. Pay close attention to how the consultant operates in their interaction with your team, the level and quality of communication, and how suitable the results are for the agreed upon outcome.

Build Upon Success – Or Bail Out Early

Once the pilot project is successfully completed, you and your consultant should have enough information to plan the next steps. If the pilot project is not completed successfully, or the working relationship is not working, do not hesitate to pull the plug on working with that IT or Software Consultant in the future.

Set the Rules Together

Agree in advance on:

  • How the consultant will work with your team.
  • What materials and personnel will be made available.
  • What authority, if any, the consultant will have to request more information.
  • What response times and communication channels are reasonable for both sides.
  • Who will be assigned as liaison for the consultant.

Establish criteria for when the consultant must be on-site, and provide adequate workspace for both on and off-site work. Don’t be surprised if the consultant does not spend a lot of time on-site; it is quite common for a few days of observation to be followed by several days of research, analysis, design, planning, and proposal preparation. You should expect to see your consultant at the beginning and end of a project, but not so much in the middle.

You Get What You Pay For

Expect to pay for the consultant’s time. Some larger firms will offer “free” evaluations, but beware. These “free evaluations” are likely to be superficial, boilerplate proposals based on the needs and systems of other businesses, not yours.

Make sure to meet the team that will be working on your project, even if it is just virtually. Some consulting firms are notorious for sending in the principals and stars to do the front-end work. Once a contract is signed, the firm hands off the rest of the project to interns, B-team developers, and new consultants fresh out of college – while still billing at the top-dog rates. Even when this is not the case, it helps communication immensely to meet the team before the serious work starts.

Ask and Clarify Everything

Once the proposal is in your hands, do not hesitate to ask questions, seek clarification, and request justifications and explanations for the reasoning behind each point in the proposal. You must both understand exactly what is proposed, why it is recommended, how it will work, how it will inter-operate with existing systems, and how it will change your business once it is in place.

Planning for the latter is critical: the ultimate success of the project comes from achieving the desired change, not just from delivering software systems.

Wrapping it all up

  • Be picky! – Choose someone qualified, personable, and with whom you’ll be excited to work.
  • Make the first step a small step. – Do not hesitate to fire the IT Consultant or Software Consultant if they’re not working out. Sunk costs are irrelevant; future success is crucial.
  • Maintain your independence. – Work with the consultant to transfer the knowledge and skills to your staff, so you can retain your independence.
  • Evaluate often. – Good consultants know that every day is an interview and every step in the project is a test.
  • Consistent communication. – Maintain clear and frequent communication with the consultant at all times. Frustrated or confused consultants are less effective than is optimal, and invisible consultants can become the seeds of staff resentment.

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