How To Level Up Your Consulting Game
By Mandy Bitar
If you’re in the tech world, chances are you are either working with a consultant, have thought of becoming a consultant, or at least wondered what consultants do. In this post, I’ll explore what exactly a good consultant does, and how to ensure you’re partnering with the best, or alternatively, how to be the best consultant in tech.
There are several instances where clients reach out to technology consultants. Sometimes they aren’t sure how to address their pain points. They might be concerned that their current technology stack, creative strategy or processes won’t allow them to thrive through the next wave of tech evolutions. They may be seeking innovation and a fresh perspective, hoping to emerge as leaders in their industry. Or, they might simply be up against tight deadlines and don’t have the capacity to produce critical deliverables.
In all instances, it’s fair to assume that clients seek guidance, dedication, and expertise to help get them from A to B. They look for a partner who’s been there, seen it through, and is up-to-date with the latest industry standards and best practices. They’re looking for someone who can strategically remove their pain.
What Exactly is a Tech Consultant
Consultancy is a broad term, but there are some key characteristics that every consultant should embody. If you are a consultant, strive for these traits. If you’re hiring a consultant, partner with someone who represents them.
They are Thought Leaders
A solid tech consultant has a deep understanding of where the future is going in technology. Armed with industry knowledge, they grasp how choices made today will lead a company forward or set it apart from their competitors. Thought leaders have their finger on the pulse of the industry, proven technical expertise, and share their forward-thinking insights.
This type of leadership can be demonstrated through online articles, social media, webinars, and speaking engagements. Extraordinary tech consultants represent thought leadership simply through their approach. They volunteer knowledge because they’re passionate about their work, rather than aiming to sound smarter than everyone else in the room.
They are Subject Matter Experts
This is a big one. When companies invest in a tech consultant, they expect that individual to be a true expert, and rightly so. Subject matter expertise can come with practice, exposure to different challenges, and thorough research to keep abreast of cutting-edge technologies. Strong consultants are invested in constantly growing their expertise, are able to articulate their ideas, and know how to ask the right questions. Moreover, they are confident about what tools to apply, when, and how.
They Use Strategic Thinking
A solid tech consultant can see beyond the current challenge they are trying to solve. They understand the business, long-term vision, and the impact of a solution on other aspects of the project or organization. With strategic thinking, you can achieve success in concrete increments, then learn from them to progress onto the next win.
A tech consultant should look at a big problem, slice it down into achievable goals, and tackle them one at a time. When solving incremental tasks, you are able to show your deliverables faster and gain feedback that is invaluable for making choices about the next increment. It doesn’t stop here: with strategic thinking, a strong consultant ensures all aspects of every single increment are considered.
For instance, let’s assume a consultant is hired to move a company off of an old legacy system. A good consultant will not only spend time understanding key areas but will also look at how the web apps design will be affected. The goal is that the company stays true to its brand, or (if they are lacking that part) a good consultant will suggest another source of expertise to get that part done.
Then during the implementation phase, a great consultant knows that it takes a team to get the project done in a high quality and fast iterative way, therefore they suggest teaming up with QA and DevOps teams/professionals. The DevOps culture will make the agile process flow, using the right tools for the right problem, and help the development team identify gaps in security and Quality. The QA team will put automation testing in place as well as ensures the product or software built is high-quality end to end.
Traits of a Strong Technology Consultant
Professionals who excel in their field don’t just do it because of better cognitive ability; they rely on trust, wisdom and expertise. What makes an extraordinary tech consultant?
Approach with Empathy and Respect
In a nutshell, companies hire a tech consultant because they have a problem that they can’t tackle themselves. A strong consultant keeps this in mind throughout the relationship. Remembering this will help consultants remain empathetic towards the teams and companies they partner with. Consultants should approach engagements without ego, mindful that they are now (even temporarily) part of a team. That team has their own expertise and pride in their work. Instead of dictating and judging, appreciate, listen to opinions, and make suggestions with respect.
Understand the Audience and the Domain
When tech consultants are brought into a company, they might not already have a full understanding of its domain or industry. Therefore, researching and gaining a high-level overview of the ‘why, how and what’ can go a long way. The true requirement is understanding the end users of the software (customers or consumers). A strong consultant is committed to understanding what they want and expect, and how they interact with the technology being built for them. By doing so, you set yourself on the right track to build the right thing from the start.
Listen, Ask, and Listen Some More
This is what I like to call the interrogation phase of tech. It’s the most integral phase and it occurs throughout an engagement. Listening to others’ opinions, concerns, and pain points can broaden your perspective when choosing the right solution. Asking questions and listening helps a consultant fully grasp what has been done so far to remedy some of the pain points and learn where things have failed.
Turn Skepticism into Trust
When you work with a company with a consultancy capacity, there might initially be some skepticism about your credibility. It’s normal to experience some pushback of choices or suggestions you give. In some cases, consultants are trusted immediately due to existing relationships or an excellent track record that is impressive enough to calm the client’s fear. No matter what, your goal is to either gain or retain trust, through consistently achieving goals, being transparent, and always remaining empathetic.
Honest Discussion of Options and Outcomes
During the engagement, a strong consultant should clearly communicate risks and options along with outcomes when choosing one path versus another. You’re there to be the voice that identifies risk if you believe things may head in the wrong direction or yield bad outcomes. You should never belittle the client’s choices, but listen to why they are leaning towards a certain route.
It’s like when people use Google to self-diagnose medical issues. They might accurately identify the issue, or they might be completely off base. In most cases, they still go to a doctor because they require expertise. It’s similar in a consultancy: clients reach out because they want the opinions and they need the help. It is the consultant’s job to help, direct, and advise the client on the best course of action.
Finally, limit unsolicited advice. This may sound counterintuitive, but the key is to find the right balance of when things need to be flagged, rather than passing judgments or opinions unnecessarily.
Communication and Continuous Feedback
Following up with key stakeholders and receiving feedback reduces the risk of building the wrong thing or strategizing the wrong plan. This should be a proactive initiative; do not expect the client or key stakeholder to volunteer information or feedback (especially early in the game). With busy schedules and other priorities, losing track of progress can happen subtly but surely. Seek out feedback! And not just from executives — check in with all team members.
Keeping Up-to-Date and Constantly Learning
Being a lifelong learner is non-negotiable as a technology consultant. It’s critical to keep learning and remain up-to-date with innovative ways to solve problems, and awareness of what others are doing. Industry standards and best practices evolve with time, especially when it comes to technology. It’s alarmingly easy to become outdated and stuck in old habits or technologies. When others seek your expertise, they not only want your tenure (which is very important), they also want to make sure they are hiring someone who will take them a step further.
One of my favorite quotes by Hayao Miyazaki sums up our place in technology: “But remember this, Japanese boy… airplanes are not tools for war. They are not for making money. Airplanes are beautiful dreams. Engineers turn dreams into reality.” A good tech consultant will make sure things are on track to turn dreams into reality.
In order to do so, they interact with empathy, understand who those dreams will serve, listen, ask questions, and gain trust from the dreamers. Through open and honest conversation and continuous feedback, they make sure they are building, guiding or strategizing the right thing. Finally, extraordinary consultants are continuously learning, not only to understand today’s competitive landscape but the innovations of tomorrow.