November 22, 2002
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With more and more companies reducing high-tech
staff, the use of consultants continues to grow. This has led to an interesting,
if somewhat disconcerting, reality where you must work closely with other
high-tech consultants, almost as if you were all employees of the company.
Unfortunately, this can lead to situations where you might find yourself
stepping on each other’s toes, with few methods of resolving conflicts
when they arise.
As employee headcounts are reduced, high-tech consultants are often brought
in to perform particular projects as necessary. Perhaps a database or
web site needs to be developed. Maybe a new network system is to be installed.
Whatever the reason, projects often start with fairly well defined duties
and deliverables. The reality of working in a consultant-heavy environment
is different, though. As projects are added, proceed and alter, the needs
of one consultant can quickly come to depend on the action of some other
consultant or employee. This is where the friction often arises.
One personal example arose out of the need to install new computer systems
for some employees so that their current PC’s could be freed for
use in a new database system. The database consultant was awaiting these
machines, but as only one person, my hours were limited and the switchover
took longer than planned. In order to free up the needed machines, the
other consultant took it upon himself to proceed with the installation
of the new computers without me. This person didn’t even want to
perform the work, but thought it necessary in order to move forward with
a part of their project.
While I must praise this person for their initiative, I also felt that
perhaps this was the beginning of a bad situation. While I could certainly
not perform this consultant’s database work, they had the ability
to perform tasks for which I had been hired. At the least, we were in
danger of getting in each other’s way. At the most extreme, there
was a possibility that the client would begin to question the need for
my services when others could provide them. In this particular case, there
was no malice intended, only the driving force of project deadlines. A
bit of discussion between us quickly remedied any misunderstanding. Still,
you are best to be aware of situations such as this, as they can be manufactured
as a way to gain advantage with a client.
Serving many masters
The truth is, in any consultant-heavy environment, you quickly become
subject to the wishes and whims of many masters. Your client will be pushing
you in one direction, while the realities of another consultant’s
project will be pushing you in another. Your job, and your career, depends
on your ability to manage these demands in the best way possible.
In some cases, I find this balance by communicating with other consultants
directly, outside the earshot of our common client. In this way, we can
freely discuss needs and issues, without the client becoming unduly concerned
or involved. I regularly “meet” via instant messaging with
one fellow consultant, as we are rarely at the client site during the
same work hours. Even when we are in the same office, other duties require
our attention and we don’t get the chance to discuss issues as clearly
as necessary. These IM meetings allow us to coordinate our efforts, clarify
the client’s overall needs, and develop ways of meeting these needs.
Such communication can also avoid problems of the client acting as a middleman.
Like a game of “telephone” at a party, messages can get distorted
when passed through too many people. The client’s own priorities,
or a simple lack of understanding, can quickly drive a project off-course.
If you are unclear on the needs of another consultant, speak to them directly.
This is the only way to insure that you truly understand their needs and
It is a simple reality of a high-tech career that, at most companies,
you will be working with fewer employees and more consultants. Working
with a set of consulting peers is much different than working together
as fellow employees. You must develop relationships with each person and
work diligently to insure that you understand each other’s needs
so that you can best serve the client, together. When consultant relationships
break down, everyone suffers, as does your high-tech career.