Behind the scenes of consultancy: the rough and the smooth

Behind the scenes of consultancy: the rough and the smooth


Behind the scenes of consultancy: the rough and the smooth for Tech on the Tyne was held on 5th December 2023 at TusPark in Newcastle upon Tyne with Eric Mok and Clair Hillier talking about their experiences in consultancy.

Seeing consultancy through the lens of the client - Eric Mok

Eric has been in consultancy for twenty years and work with different clients including public sector, retail and others. They used to be a Java Developer and are now a delivery manager. What do they do? What do clients think they do? Will cover topics - why do we need help from a consultancy from a client's perspective and when ready to start and then agile culture vs operations. Why would clients need help from a consultancy? Expertise, diverse range of skills, experience, guidance, resources, external view, problem solving, implementation of changes.

Why do we need help from a consultancy? Limited knowledge or experience in specific areas, lack specific skills internally, lack people and struggle to recruit quickly and manage BAU. Time & Materials - delivery team with specific deliverables, agreed timescale, team profile or budget and flexible on scope or complexity and often blended into the client team with other dependencies such as product owner from client. Fixed Price - delivery team with specific deliverables and scope with agreed budged and timeframe with penalty but limited dependency on client team but there is a risk to the consultancy. Resource Augmentation - individually “deployed” with limited specific deliverables and temporary arrangement such as three months or six months for places that need more resource if need certain things and may not be doing anything just in case are needed.

Ways of working and culture, client may want consultancy to bring new ways of working and culture or show what “good looks like” or want the best of both worlds and continuously evolve together or some clients will say they like the way they work. They may insist on how they deliver products including long release timescales or user acceptance testing and can result in clashes compared to agile approach, it would take a long time to change their culture so to get things delivered you have to accept not so good ways of working.

How do I want to see progress? Regular show & tell and review sessions with the whole team, regular status and progress reporting with milestone tracker with the delivery manager, or just want to see the end-product and outcome not wanting to be involved in the process but typically it is all of the above. The outcome is important but want to take clients through the journey of development and make sure they are understanding the requirements.

Multiple suppliers' environments. Work collaboratively and integrate like a single team - whether that works or not is another matter. Could be hierarchical and dependencies, roles, responsibilities, and commercial arrangements which needs to be clear and need to understand what others are doing and define who is in charge in terms of blockers such as the client or consultancy. You may have different suppliers doing different parts of the system and need to be integrated together and the client would manage this.

Experience of those attending including stating that there are resourcing partners which are not consultancies, consultancy is challenging status quo and leaving legacy of best practice for clients, to be able to beat the competition the value needs to be something you need to preserve, need to define the consultancy model for each individual company.

Ready to start work? The client has decided that they need a team of people to help deliver or solve a problem. Are they really ready to go? Budget available and approved, ready to onboard such as account access or laptops along with Jira and licences for software, internal teams ready, clear requirements or do the client have thought about what they want or are they just making it up as they go along, project control ready on the client side such as budget or risk control and are other suppliers ready to go.

What's important to you on the first day with a client? Responsibilities, access, understanding goals, agreed ways of working, lines of communication, security clearance, understanding stakeholders, NDA / contracts agreed, mandatory training, relationships, integration and need to have a sprint zero to make sure everyone is on the same page but need to understand what the client is looking for and be able to work with them.

Agile Culture vs Doing Agile - Enterprise Agile has steps from Idea to Feasibility, Concept to Discovery, Product to Delivery and then to MVP, these may be waterfall or agile in parts. One word to describe Agile - Misused, “two weeks”, value, change, adaptative, methodology. Mindset - user centric design, good communication and collaboration, continuous improvement, self-organising team. Fast problem solving including fail fast and work output or lean. Agile is a mindset described by values, defined by principles and manifested through a number of practices. Doing - Agile ceremonies including daily stand-ups, sprint planning, retrospectives. Product backlog structured with epic, features, stories etc. Story points and velocity to estimate and plan along with cross-function teams. In a consultancy mindset has to come first and this has to live in the client, and they need to get that user involved.

Waterfall Agile Hybrid - Sometimes you've got to move with the flow while sprinting forward. Commercial is typically waterfall as is progress reporting such as a Gantt Chart, regulatory and legislative deadlines are fixed scope along with governance processes which can be waterfall but can automate checks where possible along plus release approach such as how often do you release every two weeks but instead over a longer period and dependencies can be very waterfall. It is important to get senior leaders to work at pace and approach be adapted to work quickly and if fail small you can fix quick but how often does this happen, many leaders aren't willing to take that risk if anything goes wrong.

From the consultant's perspective - Clair Hillier

Clair works at Waterstons and started as a software developer, moved to a software testing role later and are now a consultant. Waterstons have teams that work on bespoke solutions along with Microsoft 365 and technology consultants and cyber consultants. They don't pick the company they work at lightly and enjoy being a consultant.

Introduction - they hire staff that will challenge clients and won't take the status quo, work will be one-on-one such as going in and reviewing agile processes and this is where the interrogation begins and it is a massive honour to go into those teams, if someone comes in to disrupt your team is they have to be a good fit. The client will question on what they want and they will see what they need and sometimes the client will want to interview you and will have to go through this process, it is much more important that the client gets the right person, for some of the team it can be a challenge but they like it as get to meet new people and if like to find out how people tick so know how to pick out the quite ones to speak more and loud ones to speak less. When they decide they want you the purchase order comes through and have to decide on the culture, pick the company you want to work with carefully and know what your life will be like and what the company culture is like and integrating into this can be really hard.

The Culture - At Waterstons you just deliver, no one is checking what time you come in and go out, there is some hierarchy but it is a loose one and there are no offices and there are flexible guests but then going out on site may need to get used to having to be more formal, need to embed those thoughts about what you have to do on site. Have to understand the politics and understand which teams hate each other and work through this, you can ask some clever questions and read the dynamic of the room, don't be dismissal or disrespectful of anything and need to read between the lines quite a bit.

Being onsite and the engagement - will be one-on-one engagement with teams and will have to go on site, need to dress the match the client in theory, if turn up too smart or too casual can be a balancing act to juggle this. Sharing knowledge, will share what they know if someone is struggling, but make sure you aren't rubbing their faces in it, have to be really open and really careful. When dealing with teams as they may fear that the system bring written will replace their job, so will need to reassure them. They may be talking about using Excel to do something so could ask them did you want to be an Excel Warrior, so then can introduce idea of doing something different. Once there for a while it will be fine, but those first engagements can be tough, or things like tea or coffee is there rounds or is there a box to put money in or other things. Some clients have the best canteen or lunch facilities available, some clients may not offer you any food or drink. If you love meeting people it is excellent but it is not without its pitfalls - some clients have cake under a cloche.

Styles of working - have to have a real range of working, may be doing things themselves or going on site so may have a range of styles to insert selves into. Clients will have a huge range of procedures, but their have their own such as release procedures, but then have to teach teams of what should happen and need understand how some clients may work such as comms plans and need to train teams to expect this and the bare minimum way clients will work, need to keep the teams up to date.

Delivery - They are lucky they get to do a big range or projects from agile to waterfall, they have some agile that are scrum or kanban where client is very available and have high trust. They are lucky to have that really big variance but pretty much stick to scrum but for example a finance system is delivered when done then updated more often afterwards. Have done different projects for places such as airports, or a cake factory where a site visit was very appealing, doing works with Guide Dogs and more. One of the things they do on delivery that is apparent is to upskill teams which just makes sense but this comes with expectation that team will upskill themselves at all times so work to get right hires to find people who are really interested in technology, these are people who would build their skills up anyway, not many programmers code in their own time but they get them in. Once of the things great for consultant or bad things but will be listened to compared to someone already there who has been saying it for some time. Project Closure - This can be a bit twitchy, agile it can keep going and is up to client, waterfall is clients want it done and signed off with no lingering or actions so have to make sure that is the case and then can go off onto the next job.