Don't 'just' hire an expert

March 18, 2015

I work as a consultant for a company called Xebia, and have worked as a consultant for most of my career so far. Working as a consultant means getting hired by a company that needs certain expertise in order to (hopefully) solve a business- or technical problem.

On paper, this looks like a valid approach: your company has a technical problem, hires an expert, problem gets solved. Everybody wins. Reality however, can be quite messy. The consultant (or his/her boss) makes a lot of money, and the problem doesn’t get solved. This happens more often than it should.

While ‘evil consulting firms’ do exist, a consultancy-job-gone-bad does not necessarily imply a conspiracy, and in most cases it is as frustrating for the consultant as it is for you, the client.

But why does it happen?

1: it’s (not just) a technical problem

In many cases, companies hire an expert to solve a technical problem, but after a short while it turns out problem isn’t a technical one, but a case of bad communication or just a bad security policy.

For instance, I have seen companies spend six figures to have a development setup built (which turned out to be ineffective), when all they actually needed was to enable virtualization support (which was available) on the developers’ workstations, but their ‘IT desktop policy’ didn’t allow this.

In most cases, there actually is a technical problem to be solved, but some organizational changes are also needed. Failing to address the organizational side of the problem can have a huge impact on the technical solution, up to the point of the technical solution becoming ineffective or unusable.

2: (no) communication & mandate

Sometimes, a manager hires an expert, but fails to properly inform all people involved about a few basic things:

  • Who has been hired?
  • Why has this person been hired?
  • What is he/she going to do here?
  • What mandate/authority does he/she have?

This often results in a lot of resistance to change, lack of cooperation, and eventually lack of success. Make sure everyone involved is on the same page, and make sure the expert you’re hiring is given the mandate he/she needs.

3: (not) facilitating effectiveness

Hiring an expert is not cheap. Yet, it’s not unusual to see our effectiveness being impaired by this like:

  • no workstation available at day one, but not allowed to use our own laptop either.
  • waiting for user accounts: This can easily take a couple of days, and then a few more for every other user account that wasn’t created in the first place.
  • no access to documentation: This gets more painful if you’re hired to solve a problem that involves multiple teams, as you might need to request access separately for each team’s documentation.
  • workstation set-up: Usually, if you hire an expert in a certain field, he/she will have a good understanding of, and preference for, tools and/or operating systems. Yet, usually the expert gets the ‘standard workstation’, without the needed tools and usually without administrative permissions needed to install anything else.
  • virtualization for prototyping: if a technical problem is complex enough that you need to hire an expert, there is a big chance the problem is complex enough that there is no easy solution. Using virtualization on our workstation, we can prototype possible solutions. Yet, it’s painfully common to get stuck with either a workstation that has virtualization disabled, or with a (usually Citrix) virtual desktop environment that wouldn’t allow for virtualization in the first place. It’s hard to come up with a solution if you can’t try anything.
  • limited internet access: in a (misguided) effort to boost productivity, many companies limit internet access. Blocking stuff like Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Hacker news (because hacking is bad), etcetera. However, in the process they might also keep you from legitimately looking at useful projects on Github, reading about relevant new technology on Hacker News, or watching an instructional video on Youtube.

4: (not) getting involved

Sometimes you may hire an expert, but because of the nature of his/her expertise, you have no idea what he/she is doing. Go and talk to your expert. Have him/her explain what he/she is doing, why, how it works, when it will be done, what is needed to get it done, and what is next. Also tell your expert what you are doing, where your company is headed, and what makes you tick. An expert locked in a room rarely comes up with the best possible solution. Also, getting involved can help you notice that ‘evil consulting firm’ early on, instead of when you’re filing for bankruptcy.

Hiring wisely

This blog is not about convincing you to not hire an expert. This blog is about not wasting money on hiring ineffectively.

Do you know what problem needs to be solved? Is everyone involved on the same page? Can your expert (or actually: everyone in your company, while we’re at it) work effectively? Do you know what your expert is doing? Do you know what you can do to help solve the problem?

Hiring an expert is a good idea, and when you do it right, hiring even the best expert can be relatively cheap. And in the end, it’s all about value for money.