Consulting in the age of IT Transformation
Consultants, now a rare breed, with more projects than they can handle, need to stay informed and relevant in this era of constant product evolution. How do you remain a SME in your field when giants such as Microsoft and Amazon are launching hundreds, sometimes thousands of new functionalities each year?
What is IT consulting? How does that work?
A consultant is a person that has acquired a specific skill set and a reputation, and that is able to help a client achieve a specific goal.
A consultant has a few responsibilities:
· He represents his company or his agency while client facing;
· He has an obligation to manage the client’s expectations and to ensure that all tasks within his projects are well communicated to the project management team so that progress, risks and attenuations are properly addressed;
· He is required to log his time dutifully, as this will define the billing for his services at the end of the month;
· As a person entrusted with sensitive information, the consultant is responsible for the confidentiality and the security of his customer’s data;
· As a side note, many consulting agencies require behaviour and dress code for their consultants, arguing that it is directly related to corporate branding;
Consultants are grouped, usually into agencies, which allows them to apply for larger-scale projects for which they can provide Swat teams to digitally transform customers’ processes and to deliver a project from start to end.
These days, more and more consultants are choosing the way of being self-employed. Although this provides some advantages, it also comes with responsibilities:
· Improved financial rewards since there is no administrative overhead between the consultant and the customer;
· More flexibility (or a sense of). Since the end customer is always King, the sense of having more control and flexibility rapidly brings the consultant back to earth, as the client will dictate his requirements.
· A necessity for a corporate structure and legal/financial counsel, which are costly;
· A necessity to hold coverage for a personal health and professional liability insurance;
· The absence of a group of peers, which comes very useful when in trouble;
· The absence of a network of partners — for example, a Microsoft partnership, which not only provides you with training material, but also with direct support when required.
But I still haven’t answered the question: What is it?
Back in 1886, Arthur D. Little incorporated what was to become the first Management Consulting firm in history.
According to the MIT Sloan School of Management Better World Campaign:
In 1886, Little cofounded a business in Boston focused on chemical analysis and testing as well as consultation on papermaking. When Little set up an R&D lab for General Motors in 1911, the high volume of work led Little to establish a dedicated consulting division. Today, his namesake company is known as the world’s first management consultancy, with a history of innovations from logistic control systems to electric cars.
When we look at the basics of consulting, not much has changed:
- A customer has a temporary need that he cannot fulfill;
- An agency has a group of professionals that can satisfy the need;
- A contract is created between the customer’s company and the agency;
- A consultant is assigned to execute the contract;
- Upon completion, the agency gets paid.
And while the consultant is at work for a customer, the agency is already looking for its next client opportunity.
The Current Scarcity
With the retirement of most baby boomers comes a great void in the workforce. IT consulting is no different.
The current IT professionals coming out of universities are believed to be providing less than 10% of all required IT practitioners when compared to opened positions and waiting projects.
Furthermore, in a closed market, like Montreal, there is more switching than actual creation.
When we look at companies such as Accenture or CGI, we can see by their financial statements that, should they stop selling tomorrow, they’d still have many years forward of contracts to keep their consultants busy.
This brings out a less interesting side effect: rate hikes. The scarcer the resource, the higher the price. Market’s implacable rule: Supply and Demand.
Difficulty #1: Constant and Never-Ending Improvement
This concept, first publicized by Anthony Robbins in the 90s, is now a requirement for consultants: You need to learn, and quickly, how the new IT world works.
If we go back 20 years, you could learn a platform (say, Windows NT 4) and then be in a position to sharpen your newly acquired skills for the next 5 years.
We come back to today, and a server’s certification lifetime is less than 2 years. SQL Servers are releasing a new version every two years. Windows Server is at an average of 2.5–3 years between versions, and that is without mentioning that Windows 10 now delivers a new set of features every 6 months.
To this must be added all back-end services, most of them now cloud-based, that release between 500 and 1,200 new features every 12 months, as well as the new ‘fail fast, fail often’ approach according to which if a service does not have rapid enough adoption, it could disappear within 2 years. In other words, if a new functionality does not have any market traction, the cloud service provider (i.e., Microsoft) is in a rapid decision model to scrap that functionality as a sunk cost rather than investing massively to gain user traction.
Agility is no longer a word reserved for software: it is a way of learning and living for most IT consultants.
Difficulty #2: The Demand for Expertise
Today, customers are very skilled in technology. If a consultant must turn to Google for an answer, they believe that they could do the work themselves, hence that the rate they are paying for expertise may be overrated.
There are two issues to this customer way of thinking:
- The fact that you would be able to search on Google does not mean you would be able to understand what you found, or what you are looking for;
- Furthermore, you may also be bringing in consultants to complement your existing team, which may very well be overworked and exhausted, hence in no position to do this by itself.
So demanding for expertise is great in principle, but in this day and age of constant evolution
Difficulty #3: The Demand for Availability
When do you need this by? Yesterday!
Typical answer. The need to react and to be agile in today’s commercial market has greatly impaired our common sense and our ability to take the time to decipher issues and figure out the proper technical answer.
Furthermore, what happens when this particular resource is not available? Suddenly there are 10 other agencies that are willing to offer another consultant for the same contract.
There are companies in the current market that have prequalified vendors. This means that, for example, rather than calling upon any smaller company, they have preselected large IT consulting agencies to fill in their IT services needs, and hence, only accept candidates through them.
Difficulty #4: The Dual-Pull. Your Client Vs. Your Employer
This kind of position can feel like being pulled away in opposite directions. What if, for example, you can finish the work in 5 days, but your agency has positioned you for 3 months?
What do you choose: The interest of your client or that of the firm that has hired you, and, might I add, signs your paycheck?
Separating the interests of your client and that of your employer is one of the thorniest positions in IT consulting.
Difficulty #5: Servicing Remote Clients
Providing quality services to companies that are located remotely is becoming more and more complex for consulting agencies. When considering the costs related to sending someone in a remote area while there are local customers waiting, the position gets more uncomfortable as time goes by.
Unfortunately, they get pushed down the waiting list.
What does that mean for remote clients? It means that their digital transformation project will have to wait, and that they will become less competitive over time. This could result in remote companies’ closure due to their lack of productivity compared to their competitors.
Reward #1: The Constant Challenge Means You Have to Grow Faster
After 10 years of apprenticeship, you can become a master. Such is the ancient way of learning a new way of life. When you are an acting member of a given community (i.e., VMware or .Net), you get to know people within this community, you get interested in the roadmap of this new product family, and eventually, you get recognized as knowing more than the average consultant in that particular field. At this point, vertical specialists will start challenging you, as they will want to test your metal prior to paying a premium for your services.
All customers have unknowns, new ways of doing things. As it was once the title of a famous movie, you’ll see it all: “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”!
This will also develop a great characteristic of consultants: Adaptability. You always need to adapt, change… grow. There is always a new challenge: Understand the new client’s business model, understand why this technology was deployed that way, and so on.
Then, there is the human challenge. In order to be successful as a consultant, you have to master human psychology. And no, I am not saying that I did. But this will be a constant challenge, which will make you think and reflect on your actions and your interactions, more than your fair share.
Reward #2: Sharpening The Saw is No Longer an Option, It Has to Be Planned
in order to keep your place and be positioned on key projects. If you don’t, you will end up doing whatever the next contract requires, which may be way outside your expertise.
The only way out: Sharpen the saw.
Then comes the speed at which new technologies are thrown at you. You need to be sharp.
Here is a great example: Microsoft Azure.
- Within weeks you went from having to manually migrate and synchronize databases to having a Microsoft free tool that could do the migration from SQL Server to SQL Azure in an assisted manner.
- You went from having to upload all of your data to being able to order Azure encrypted drives that you could ship back for data loading.
- You went from having to manually configure your clusters to being able to auto-scale them, on demand, as the workloads came in.
Suddenly, if you’re an IT consultant, and this used to be what you did for a living, it now has been commoditized.
Also, for IT consulting agencies, the need to adapt goes all the way to the sales force. You cannot plan for two weeks of work to set up an SQL infrastructure when a Microsoft VP creates a new SQL Server on stage within two PowerShell statements and 17 seconds of execution.
Reward #3:The Sharper Your Skills, The Better The Money… and Projects
If you are appreciated by your client and bring value to both the agency and the client, you’re in the right spot.
As your skills are sharpened, you will be asked to participate in elaborating new offers for customers, to size projects and then, to take part in their deployment. That is where it gets really exciting. You get to conceptualize answers to client issues. Resolving real business problems.
And as your employers rely more and more on your skills, usually, it is when the financial rewards are also coming. Your market reputation will make you a valuable asset to your agency. Just be careful, if you look elsewhere for another job, you already have one foot out the door, and the person who found you will find a way to get you to leave.
Reward #4: You Get to Meet Amazing People
When you get to a certain level, you get to meet amazingly smart people. And I don’t mean just IT smart, but real jewels of human beings.
Want it or not, when you get to be sitting with the people that are entrusted with your customer’s company operations, they have been fire-tested. Their employers know that they will do whatever it takes to keep the business going and that they understand what is at stake.
And I am not saying that all of them are amazing.
But when you hit a gem, together you can achieve incredible things.
A Look on The Bright Side
The current new norm for IT consulting tends to go towards shorter mandates with verifiable business value. As discussed on a panel with my friend Don Bauer, CTO of Itergy, companies that don’t create visible value will get push aside, while the emphasis is put on the people who can make a real difference.
SMART objectives (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely) should become the norm in IT consulting projects, where you will need to demonstrate in order for a project to be considered a success.
Furthermore, there is plenty of work to be done out there. Every company wants to reinvent the way it does business to access the digital transformation gold standard. When you look at upcoming technologies such as AI, Machine Learning and Deep Learning, the road to transformation will need to go through a few iterations, but each time, the results should drastically improve productivity and bottom lines for our customers.
Plenty of exciting challenges ahead for IT consultants.