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By Micah Brandenburg
in Development Cornerstones

Hiring a software consultant may seem like a hit-or-miss proposition. Plenty of superstars out there—but some lousy consultants are too. And if you hire one of the lousy ones, you’ll experience ramifications through every corner of your project—from functionality to quality of work to communication.

So what can you do to avoid hiring a clunker? Is it worth the risk? Should you just try to manage the project yourself internally?

Let’s start with that last question first.

What a Software Consultant Can Offer You

There are two main reasons you hire a software consultant:
1. You don’t have the expertise to handle the project internally.
2. You need an outside perspective.

The consultant can give you an objective opinion about what technology solutions will help your company get better results in terms of productivity, cost, user experience, customer service, and function. His or her job is to turn your pain points into software requirements. The consultant should also have plenty of experience working on similar projects, which means he or she will give you the know-how and strategy insight you need to get to the finish line without having to hire (and pay) a full-time team member.

In addition to these two big advantages, you’ll also get some additional perks when you work with an outside consultant:

Access to innovative technology and ideas

Chances are you don’t have time to stay up to date on the latest and greatest technological advances while also running your business. Your consultant does, and he or she will give you access to those ideas as you create a technology solution for your company.

An advocate for your best interests

Most companies have several competing interests trying to sway the direction of the project. A consultant will help you pinpoint the most relevant needs while also creating a timeline and budget that keeps everybody happy.

Help walking the tightrope between IT strategy and operations

Having the right IT strategy means taking a long-term view to create competitive advantage. Operational effectiveness means following best practices to improve performance. Both are essential, but it’s important to understand the difference so that you can assess your project from both perspectives. An experienced consultant will help you find the right balance between the two.

How To Hire the Right Software Consultant

So we’ve established that hiring a software consultant is a good move if you need expertise and/or objectivity. But how can you make sure you’re hiring a star player and not someone who’s going to strike out in the bottom of the ninth?

Ask these 12 questions before you sign a contract:

1. Does the consultant listen before making suggestions?

Find a software consultant who “gets” you. This person will be responsible for helping you create and implement the technology that keeps your business running, so it’s vital that he or she can catch your vision, grasp your pain points, and translate business needs into specific requirements.

2. Does the consultant ask lots of questions?

As you describe your project needs and business objectives, the consultant should clarify with plenty of questions. A skilled consultant will know how to draw out hidden requirements and help you narrow down your scope and your end goals with a series of well-considered, targeted questions. The consultant should also ask questions of people at multiple roles and levels of authority in an organization, to eliminate blind spots. At the end of the conversation, you should feel confident that he or she has a good grasp of what you want to do and can deliver a successful product.

3. Does the consultant have a proven track record with happy clients?

Get a list of references and call two or three of the consultant’s previous clients. Even if you know someone who worked successfully with the consultant, it doesn’t hurt to check with a couple additional people about their experience.

4. Does the consultant have previous experience with companies like yours?

Checking references is even more helpful if those clients are similar to you in terms of company size, industry, or project needs. Look for a consultant that understands your technology stack and can create a custom solution for your industry and your business. Hiring someone with experience in your coding language, hardware, knowledge base, or specific technology reduces your risk.

5. Can the consultant provide relevant work samples?

This is the next step after checking references. Verbal (or written) recommendations are great, but it’s tough to assess quality without a visual. Look at samples of the previous work they have done to get a feel for strengths and weaknesses and to verify that the projects they have worked on line up with yours in terms of complexity and sophistication.

6. Does the consultant follow clear quality control protocols?

Continual testing throughout the project sets you up for success on launch day. Testing should include both functionality and user experience, and your consultant should keep close tabs on those results.

7. Does the consultant have relevant certifications or accreditations?

These represent a commitment to increasing education in the field as well as genuine expertise. Anyone can hang out a shingle, but do they really have the professional training and experience to do the job right? However, while this is a factor, don’t get dazzled. Sometimes, certifications reveal exclusive expertise on Microsoft technology—which means you won’t be getting the full range of solution options from that consultant.

8. Does the consultant follow a robust development methodology?

Make sure you are comfortable with the methodology the consultant uses. Some companies prefer a fast-paced, extremely flexible development process while others want extensive requirements gathering, a lengthy modeling process, and formal waterfall development methodology. Every consultant will have a preferred process, so listen carefully to see if that style works with your expectations.

9. Is the price significantly higher or lower than competitors?

If the consultant charges more than others in the market, find out why. Do they bring extra value to the table? Is the solution better quality than others you’ve considered? Or is the consultant trying to sell you on something you don’t need? Sometimes it’s difficult to compare apples to apples, so take the time to dig into the solution itself as well as the consultant’s level of expertise.

10. Does the consultant communicate well?

Communication is key to a well-run project. Look for someone who answers your questions clearly and completely, and who provides timely responses to emails or phone calls. He or she should be equally comfortable speaking to your stakeholders and your end-users. If the consultant doesn’t communicate well before you hire them, things will only get worse down the road.

11. Does the consultant understand and follow project management best practices?

The consultant may or may not serve as the project manager; either way, he or she should understand and work within accepted project management protocols. Don’t get stuck with someone who can’t stick to scope and budget.

12. Do you like this person?

Sometimes you have to go with your gut. Is this someone you feel comfortable working with? Do they communicate excitement about working on your project? Do they inspire confidence?

Conclusion: How Do You Find Someone Like That?

If a software consultant with all the right qualifications sounds too good to be true, don’t worry. They’re out there. The best advice I can give you on finding the right person is this: Be picky! Don’t settle for someone that raises red flags. Talk specifics, get references, consider track record, and when you’ve put all that information together, choose the consultant who shares your vision for the project and who makes you feel excited about getting started. Look both at individuals and at development companies that offer a consultative relationship.

That’s the kind of consultant who can knock it out of the park.

Micah Brandenburg
Micah ensures that our team listens to our clients' and contacts' needs and expectations so we can make the right recommendation on scope and process, and oversees the no-regrets customer experience we provide.
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