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Oh No, the Software Consultants Are Coming!

David Eastman outlines what IT consultants do, and why their presence in your software development team isn't necessarily to be feared.
Oct 14th, 2023 4:00am by
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IT Consultants have historically played the ugly sisters of the industry. Many people’s knowledge about what consultancy involves was based on Dilbert cartoons (i.e. Dogbert). Consultants are still thought of as expensive, insulting and threatening to staff who fear change. They are accused of making recommendations, but not staying to implement them or deal with the consequences. The scope of their engagements creep. Oh no, they are still here.

The term “consultants” usually brings to mind management consultants from the big firms like McKinsey. The full title of Mariana Mazzucato’s recent popular book “The Big Con” is “How the Consulting Industry Weakens our Businesses, Infantilises our Governments and Warps our Economies”. Somewhat unfortunate.

Within the software industry, consultants get a slightly easier time because almost all of them have been senior developers — or still are. People reading this site should be more sanguine, possibly because (like me) you may have done some consulting yourself. This post looks to defuse some of the negative tropes that still hang around.

COVID has forced a number of changes onto the office world. A bunch of new people coming onto poorly ventilated premises can still make you wince, but in any case the staff themselves may not be at the office much anymore. On the other hand, the number of people working as consultants seems to have increased, perhaps driven by long periods of quiet reflection. Or short periods of noisy redundancy.

But consultants come in all shapes and sizes. The invading force of well-paid suits is probably still a thing in the IT world, but there are likely to be plenty of people who come in just to manage one area — like Agile, QA, etc. Some organizations welcome consultants and contractors because they don’t want to have too many “FTEs” (Full-Time Equivalents) on their books. Sometimes the consultant pushes the work to separate contractors, but this is just a semantic game. If you get paid to answer “how”, you are consulting.

Many modern workforces are blends of all types of workers: full-time staff, part-time staff, contractors and consultants across all functions. That is why I don’t think the old attitudes are anywhere near as prevalent. Nevertheless, below are the negative statements I have heard from both sides of the fence.

‘They Are a Waste of Money’

Technically, when I go to the dentist and he/she tells me my teeth are fine, yet charges me for that advice, I have wasted money. Or they tell me they aren’t fine when I know this. But that expert reassurance is still valuable.

Certainly paying a set of consultants for years at a time seems odd, but that often reflects the different CapEx/OpEx spending allowances that teams or departments have. It is fair to say consultants tied to vendors may not always be quick to say their tool isn’t the most appropriate.

The actual work of a consultant is to suggest alternative ways of doing tasks or organizing work, and then how to implement that suggestion in order to objectively improve on what already exists, or to create a new system. This may involve writing bespoke software, that can be handed off after the engagement. The value from the company’s perspective is that “they have done something like this successfully somewhere else”. A sudden injection of know-how and experience is not easy to value. The cost of starting a project in-house and not completing it can be estimated, however. Staff may have the skills to implement a project but not the experience to convince management that the risk is worth taking.

‘It Is in Their Interest to Find Problems’

Trust me, the problems find the consultant. Imagine someone walking down a street and asking if anyone needs any small handyman jobs done. Initially, people will hesitate — then they will remember all the things that need doing, but they’ve never got around to it.

When problems are just symptomatic, the real job is to work out at what level an effective change can take place. This needs a little immersion into the culture, the history, and the all important “why things are done this way”. The original late delivery problem was nearly always cultural. A product owner asks for something, adds the mandated delivery date to the calendar, and a day before this occurs they’ll ask for a demo. After the agile revolution, this anti-pattern abated. Now when the problem is late delivery, there are several routes to explore. But the symptoms may be various — abandoned retrospectives, no product owner at sprint planning, a lack of check-in notes, etc. This leads to the need for the consultant to deliver a quick interim report to separate symptoms from underlying problems, and why a change of approach might be necessary. That is the most efficient way to avoid appearing to just be outlining issues — or apparently finding problems.

‘They Are Here to Fire Me’

Sadly, consultants are still used to back up a decision that has already been made by management. So a sudden presence of consultants is often viewed as positively as the arrival of sharks around a stalled boat. But in most cases, consultants are just hired to see why an area is not performing in some way. It is perfectly common for them to tell management that they are the problem. That might shorten the engagement, but you can do that sort of thing when you are not an employee.

More realistically, consultants might need to explain to staff why systematic changes will improve the company’s prospects, which still leaves the unspoken threat about what happens if things don’t change. And yet, many developers do fall into ruts and moving on may truly be the best thing to do. And of course, escaping a death march project is not always the worst thing that can happen.

By the way, if you are staff, always ask consultants for career advice. Not only is it free, but it won’t be biased by your background or colored by employer motives.

‘They Spend All Day Talking to Me’

This is an odd one. People spend a lot of money talking to therapists, yet can find talking about their jobs — which they spend all day doing — irritating. Most consultants have the common sense to talk to staff to get a full perspective of how work is working. This is especially necessary when staff are fighting corporate restrictions to resources while just doing their job.

If you start out as a referee, you might be in a better place to design a superior system. Yes, consultants do have to imbibe some of the client’s culture (almost archaeology sometimes), and that can mean the conversation goes further than an employee is comfortable with. But explaining what you do to someone else can underline problems that you long ago stopped seeing.

‘They Will Force Me to Use Agile’

A consultancy that regularly promotes agile to the few remaining places that are not using it, or misusing it, will of course always do that. But don’t forget that agile was a developer-led revolution, even if it was blamed on consultants over a decade ago:

There are plenty of organizations that adopt alterations to the grand agile model — a good set of experienced people from outside can check whether this is justified or just mindless tradition. In the end, everyone does something slightly unique.

If you yourself are drifting into consultancy, take comfort in a world that no longer despises you quite so much. And I hope that the next time you see consultants at your workplace you treat them nicely, and have a coffee with them. You can let them pay, however.

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