Working with Consultants

Published On: 2018-04-27By:

After being immersed into the consulting world again for 6 months now, I’ve gotten to work with clients in several different areas of world, although most of them are based here in the United States.  Over that time I learned every client is different and handles things differently, but that is one thing I like about the job.  The diversity helps to keep me on my toes and ensures that I stay in touch with my client.  As the months have gone on, I’ve recognized a reoccurring theme.

Clients apologize for asking questions. 

This has caused me to think about how clients should be interacting with their respective consultants, regardless if that consultant is myself or someone else.  So, here’s a list of how I think a client should be engaging their consultant.

Ask Questions

If you feel like your consultants aren’t approachable with questions, find a different consultant.  In the SQL Server world, there are a ton of consulting companies that will be more than happy to answer your questions.  I’ve been a consultant more than once and I’m a firm believer that I’m here to work myself out of a job for my client.  I want to be able to teach them how things work with SQL Server and provide them the tools and knowledge necessary for them to be self-supportive.  If they want to continue to keep me on retainer, that’s great!! I am more than happy to do that.  However, if my client walks away with new knowledge and relies on me less, that’s a win in my book.

Documentation

If you do not have a DBA on staff and your consultant suggests changes within the environment, document those changes. Somewhere, anywhere just be as consistent as possible.  Do not rely on the consultant to document things as they might leave, and their notes might go with them.  If you use Outlook and OneNote, you can easily archive emails into a OneNote note for safe keeping.  I bring this up specifically because I recently had a client that had a mis-configured SQL Server instance.  When I asked about why certain settings the way they were, nobody had any idea as to why or who did it.  This can cause issues because maybe, just maybe, something was set in a particular manner for a specific reason.  If my client cannot articulate the reasons why, we must start over to establish a baseline given that we do not know the underline cause for the initial configuration.

Documentation also helps if and when you need to change consulting companies.  It does happen and having documentation to provide to your new consultant can help save time and money.  This is always a good thing.

It’s Okay to say No

If a consultant recommends something that you are uncomfortable with, it’s Okay to say No.  The consultant should be able to have a discussion with you to help resolve any issues that you have with their recommendations.  If they are not able to do so or they become belligerent, find a different consultant.  Even mid-stream in a project, another consulting firm should be able to pick it up and roll with it.   Do not be a sheep and blindly follow along.  Go back to the first item and ask questions.

Consultants Make Mistakes

There I said it.  We, just like you, are human and at times we make mistakes.  If your consultant is unable to recognize when they make a mistake or accept responsibility for the mistake, find a different consultant.  Mistakes happen for various reasons and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve made mistakes with clients. If they tell you that they never make mistakes or be willing to tell you the story of when they made mistakes, that should be a warning flag.   In this regard, it’s important to know how your consultant will react to making mistakes.   Can they articulate how they would handle a mistake when making the change? As a DBA, recoverability is always one of my goals.  How do I recover from making a mistake?  Can your consultant answer that question? Ask them.

Taking Precautions

If your consultant does not side on precaution when appropriate or at least warn you of side affects, ask them.  Prior to making changes, ask your consultant “Are there any adverse side affects of making this change?”.  If they cannot articulate a yes or no, do not allow the change to be implemented.  Ultimately it is your environment, not the consultants.  Furthermore, refer to the previous section.  Is your consultant suggesting that things be tested prior to production?  If not, they should be.

Change Process

Every organization has a different method to implement changes into their Production environment.  Your consultant should be asking about that prior to making any changes.  To be clear, if you have given carte blanche permissions to your consultant to make whatever changes they want, then that’s on you.  If you haven’t done that however, if your consultant is making changes themselves, they should follow any predefined processes that you already have in place.  Of course, if the production environment is completely down and out, that might go out the window until things are stabilized.  However, in that event, your consultant should provide you with documentation on what the issue was and how they resolved it.

Security

Security is and should be one of your consultant’s top priorities.  Is your consultant wary of sending sensitive data in unsecured email? Do they provide a secure way for you to upload files to them?  Do they recognize secure issues within your environment and tell you about them?  Data breaches happen every day.  In my opinion, if they are worth their weight in gold, they should let you know about potential security issues, even if it makes their job harder.

Summary

A good consultant will want the best for you and your organization.   They should be open to questions, provide good documentation and communication, test things when possible, hedge on the side of caution, follow your predefined processes and be aware of security issues.  If you have a consultant that doesn’t do any of these items, consider finding a new consultant.  After all, it’s your organization they are supposed to be helping, not theirs.

What else did I miss?  Are you a consultant, if so, what do you wish your clients would ask/do?  If you are a client, what other things do you look for when working with a consultant?  I would love to hear your feedback!

 

© 2018, John Morehouse. All rights reserved.


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One response to “Working with Consultants”

  1. Mike Walsh says:

    Good stuff here, John.

    As a consultant for about 7 or so years now, I think you hit on a lot of it. It’s supposed to be a relationship – a partnership between a client and a consultant. Take advantage of the consultant being there! Ask your questions and never feel bad!! That’s why we are there.

    Also, though, I think one of the things a consultant is there to help you with is we have a higher chance of having a “been there/done that/seen it fail/seen it succeed” reaction to ideas and architectures. The more experience and clients a consultant has helped, the more you identify patterns. We can help you make those “pay now or pay later” choices based on experience. Absolutely – you can and should say nowhere it makes sense, but as you ask those questions, you are hopefully asking them in a “Socratic method” as a client. Sadly, there are some consultants whose chief aim is to “bill more.”

    Thankfully in the MSFT Data Platform space, there are great firms like DCAC, SQL Skills, etc whose chief aim is really to make your pain go away and help you be on the best path forward for you. That sometimes means you spend a bit more today, though. But if the consultant is saying pretty bluntly “This will hurt you later if you don’t think about these things, I’ve seen others hurt by it,” they mean it and normally have your best interest in mind.

    Love the tips and advice, though! It’s a two-way street. As a company, your data and your reputation are your most precious assets. Be very cautious with anyone who is able to touch your data! And if they buck at your real concern and desire for controls, that ought to be a sign!

    Great post, sir.

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