11 Dos and Don’ts of Working with a Software Consultant

Are you considering finding a software consultant to bring alongside your business?

If so, you’re not alone.

Consulting has been prevalent for a while in the IT world, but we’re talking to more and more companies who have determined that software consulting (consulting about Python – the fastest-growing software language – or Django or even software development processes) can unlock ROI for their business.

This decision is step one. Step two is finding the right consultant.

But even after you’ve completed these two steps, the work is only beginning. You need good processes and safeguards in place in order to have a productive relationship.

Step three is building a strong partnership with your consultant.

That begs the question: How do you do that?

Good news: There are some clear dos and don’ts.

Whether you’re at the starting line of new software consulting engagement, or deep in a partnership that you’re starting to question…

And whether you’re working with a software development firm or a single software engineer…

These 11 tips can help you get a clear view of whether your relationship is on firm footing.

DO: Have a Concrete Goal in Mind

Your business needs to have a reason to hire a software consultant, and that reason needs to be crystal clear to everyone on both sides. You might even want to put this reason in the contract.

This reason should be so clear that anyone can repeat it in just a few words:
* We want to train our team in Python
* We want to improve our internal software development processes
* We want an external review of our codebase
* We want to improve our data structure
* We want to automate better reports

Of course, there will be more detail that comes from these big ideas. But if you don’t have a big idea, you won’t know where the finish line is, and therefore you won’t be able to have a clear point where you can measure ROI and evaluate success.

Keeping this goal in front of your team and your consultant gives you the best chance for that ROI calculation to be as promising you hoped.

DON’T: Bite off More Than You Can Chew

Now that we’ve talked about having a concrete goal in mind, we need to emphasize that this should be a singular goal. If your consultant tries to do multiple things at once, it will split their attention – and yours as you analyze the work.

It’s better to have multiple engagements with multiple goals than to try to cram all of the goals into one engagement.

Even when you do have a specific goal, you need to make sure you don’t overload scope with an overwhelming amount of detail. Work with your consultant to develop the core of the product or process, and then refine and optimize from there.

Doing too much at once – or too much too soon – is a recipe for delays and sloppiness. So work in morsels, not entrees.

DO: Give Enough Time to Make Real Progress

Software development is not a silver bullet. That means it usually takes some time to see ROI-producing results. So you need to craft an agreement that gives your consultant enough runway to make a real difference for your business.

This doesn’t mean there should be a defined time period (a week, a month, a quarter, or a year). We have done very short engagement – even a one-day Python training session. We have done two-week sprint engagements, six-week concept-to-clarity sessions, and much longer consultations. The key is to right-size the time period to your goal.

DON’T: Lock Yourself or Your Partner in

While you want to leave enough runway, it’s just as important for your business to place limits on time frame so you don’t spend money unnecessarily.

So you will want to either:
a) Set a defined time period, or
b) Set a regular review process

As long as a defined time period is long enough, it provides valuable accountability for your consultant and a level of certainty for your business. Likewise, a regular review process ensures that deliverables are happening on schedule, and that problems aren’t being swept under the rug just to keep the meter running.

DO: Make the Right Adjustments

It’s important to have a concrete goal and a time period that you and your consultants agree is long enough. These things create the broad strokes of the plan of what you hope to accomplish during the duration of the consulting agreement.

But don’t stick to that plan no matter what. The beauty of a consulting arrangement is that you can pivot if needed.
* Maybe a partner changes an integration structure.
* Maybe a third-party software provider changes terms or functionality or costs.
* Maybe digging into a code base reveals problems are more pervasive than anyone expected.
* Maybe a key employee on your team decides to move on.

When something happens, be open to adjustments. Of course, you’ll want to know why you should adjust, and what the impact of these adjustments are. Just remember that your business can benefit from the right adjustments, as long as you do it strategically and wisely. So take off the blinders and consider a new course if the situation merits it.

DON’T: Get Lost in the Details

One of the biggest kinds of roadblocks that happen in software projects is obsessing on small features or pieces of functionality to the point that it stymies the entire project. The same can happen in a software consulting situation.

Whether you’re a business stakeholder or a software engineer, majoring on the minors results in a lot of chewed-up effort with little to show for it.

If you’re a business owner, you need to make sure you keep the big picture in mind, so you can hold everyone accountable toward that. If you’re a software engineer, you need to filter client feedback with the big picture in mind, and make the consequences clear if someone starts sweating the small stuff.

In the end, it’s fine if your business wants to spend a lot of time and/or money getting one small feature exactly right. But you never want to do this unintentionally. So keep the magnifying glass in your pocket until everyone agrees it’s time to break it out.

DO: Open Yourself to New Ideas

We’ve talked a lot about having defined goals during this post. By now, you know that this is important.

But you can’t write this goal in stone.

During the course of your consulting agreement, new information may come to light that alters or even outright changes the goal. Or someone else could launch a new technology that affects what you’re trying to do.

A good consultant will consider new ideas and new possibilities and bring the best ones to your attention. Evaluate these ideas and see if there is a path to even greater ROI than you originally thought.

DON’T: Fall Hook, Line, and Sinker

This one is really important.

Your software consultant should be working in your best interest. If you picked the right one, that will happen.

But not all software consultants do. Some are only interested in extending their agreement or continuing to charge the hourly rate. And they’ll say anything to do that.

This means that you need to have a finely tuned BS detector against software engineers or account specialists who try to
* Hide what they don’t know
* Run down other options, whether they’re firms, tehcnologies, platforms, or solutions
* Dazzle you with the latest buzzwords without explaining what they mean or how they actually impact your business

When a developer starts trying to fool you, you should dig in deeper. Find out what’s really happening.
* Is your developer past the edge of his or her expertise?
* Is there a problem your firm is trying to hide from you?
* Are they trying to keep you in a certain technology because it’s more financially beneficial for them?

Not every developer does this, of course. But the reputation of this industry (our industry) is marked by this accusation for a reason. Make sure you don’t fall victim to such ploys.

DO: Measure Your Investment

In the end, you’ll need to measure the amount you spend vs. the benefits you gain, so you can calculate the ROI of your investment. Make sure you include all of your costs, including the time your team spends working with the consultants.

You’ll also want to monitor ROI during the project. While it will be harder to get exact numbers in the midst of things, you need to have a sense that the benefits are happening along the way. This way, if something goes wrong and you need to cut off the consulting agreement, you will have something to show for your investment.

One note here: often, the benefits of software development or software consulting come in waves. So as you measure ROI, don’t expect a straight graph up and to the right. Take a more nuanced view to ensure that you understand where progress is and whether that rate is satisfactory.

DON’T: Write a Blank Check

It’s important to measure your investment, both during the consulting agreement and once it concludes. This will give you insight into whether your consultant is delivering what has been promised so that you’re getting bang for the buck on each dollar you spend. If that’s not happening, it’s time to cut things off.

You also need to know when a consultant’s contributions have reached the point of diminishing returns. Many times, a software consulting agreement does a wonderful job of fixing a nagging problem or achieving a specific goal. Once the low-hanging fruit has been picked, your business needs to know if your chosen consultant can continue to deliver the kind of ROI you expect and deserve. If not, it may be time to pause an agreement or even look for a new consultant for the new benefits you’re trying to gain.

DO: Have a DTR

In conclusion, you need to treat your software consultant like you do a new boyfriend or girlfriend. Flowers aren’t necessary, but a DTR (define the relationship) talk probably will be at some point.

You need to make sure you have honest dialogue with your consultant about what’s going well, what isn’t going well, and whether the consultant remains the best fit for your business now and in the future.

If you’re following these 11 tips, these conversations will be honest discussions that make your software stack and your business better.

Which is a good thing, because that’s the reason for hiring a software consultant in the first place.

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