Tuesday, November 13, 2012

How to be a Consultant, Part 1: The Difference Between a Developer and a Consultant

So, you’re now a computer consultant. Congratulations! You’re going to work on some great projects, solve interesting problems, and write a lot of code.

But first, we need to get some things straight.

Did you know there’s a big difference between being a developer vs. being a consultant who develops? There are similarities of course: both need technical ability and experience, and need to keep up with the fast rate of change in the technology space. Both need to write good code, care about quality and craftsmanship, and work well with others. But for the consultant, there are additional parts to the job and they’re equally important. Perhaps more important.

A consultant works with clients and needs to be all about the client. That means understanding the client’s industry and their role in it; understanding the client’s culture and expectations; and understanding the client’s business objectives. No work item, no matter how technical or seemingly minor, should be undertaken without firmly understanding how it contributes to the client’s business objectives.
Consultants also need to understand something about business in general. It helps if you’ve had some experience in this area (say, having run your own company or gotten an MBA) but actually all you need to do is pay attention. If you’re at a client working on an insurance project, don’t just think about your coding assignments. Learn something about that industry and business too. Whether your team is using a requirements document or keeping a backlog of user stories, you likely have something available to you that is full of business-specific terminology about the types of users and tasks they need to perform. As you work and interact with your client, ask them questions about how their business works—they won’t mind, and your final product will be a better one. So, the next time you’re assigned to a project in an industry new to you—such as insurance perhaps—you should emerge from that project knowing what quotes, binders, policies, and premiums are. This knowledge will help you recognize patterns for solutions more readily each time you take on a new project.

A consultant also needs good communication skills. Which kind do you think are the most important? Verbal communication? Written communication? Presentation skills? Nope. It’s listening. Those other skills just mentioned are certainly important too--and we’ll delve into them at another time--but listening is by far the most vital. As a consultant you need to always be listening to your client—and that includes not only paying attention to what they say to you directly, but also sensing less direct communication such as body language and tone. A failure to listen might happen because you’re too engrossed in your technical work, but believe me it is openly clear to a client when you aren’t listening to them and respecting their wishes. Don’t be that guy.
There’s another thing: as a consultant, you’re being billed out to a client at a high hourly rate. That means your client expects an hour’s work for an hour’s pay—regardless of your mood or whether you’re having a good day. Worse yet, you have to track every little thing you do and enter it in a tracking system, in order to justify the billing to the client. If this sounds like a lot of overhead, it is—but it’s simply part of the job in the consulting world. I might also mention, your company’s reputation rests on the daily conduct of you and your colleagues. You need to be civil and professional every day on the job, regardless of how you’re feeling.

How will you dress? Where will you work? It depends on the client's wishes. At one time, nearly all consulting work was done on-site at the client. Today, it's often possible for much of the team to work remotely from the office or at home--but some projects will  require you to work with your team and client in the same location. You most likely won't have to wear a suit and tie, but business casual is a good minimum quality of dress for a consultant, even if the client's own standard of dress is more casual.

If you’re happy spending 100% of your time developing and have just moved into consulting, the above may give you pause: perhaps you won’t like having to do all of these other things that will take time away from technical work. Let me give you a few reasons not to shirk away from consulting:
  1. You are making a difference. You are helping an organization further their business objectives and making a real difference to their users (customers or employees); and, you will get to see that firsthand.
  2. Your knowledge domain will soar. You are learning a great deal more than mere technology; you’re learning important things about specific industries and business in general.
  3. There’s variety. I can’t guarantee every project you work on will be fun, but you’ll certainly get to do work on many different kinds of projects.
  4. You’ll become a trusted advisor. As you become more senior, you will become a Consultant with a capital “C”. Meaning, stakeholders will genuinely value your experience and trust your advice. Successful consultants and consulting companies are viewed as valued partners by their clients.
At the company I work for, Neudesic, we understand that last point very well. Our tagline is, “Neudesic – The Trusted Technology Partner in Business Innovation”. By the way, we're hiring.

For much of my career, I was in the software product space—I fell into consulting when I had to between product work opportunities, and at first I didn’t value it as highly as product work. But that was many years ago, and I’ve come to realize that consulting plays a vital role and it is deeply satisfying to be part of the action “out in the field” where you can see the software you create being put to use.
Once again, congratulations on becoming a consultant! I understand you’re also a developer?

Next: Part 2: Travel - One if By Land...


Shekhar said...

Good to know that listing plays a role and yes I sometime feel boring when tracking all efforts I put for billing purposes.

Pramod said...

Nice Article. Thanks for sharing.

IFCSONG said...

Great sharing!