There’s a line from the animated Comedy Central show Dr. Katz that used to run in the 90s … a patient wonders aloud to the psychiatrist (the aforementioned Dr. Katz) why he’s paying exorbitant hourly fees for weekly sessions when he feels like he’s doing pretty good on his own. The doctor explains there are times when he’s overqualified and suggests all the patient really needs is just a “smart aunt”. It’s always reminded me of technical consulting – some clients need ongoing sessions with trained experts, and some just need the equivalent of smart aunt to dispense advice and nudge them along (and some need pretty intense psychotherapy, but that’s neither here nor there…)
Psychiatrist, non-profit consultant. We have similar goals – help the client to help themselves, to the point where they don’t need us anymore. Sounds like planned obsolescence… but don’t worry about us, “plenty more patients where those came from” and all that, ha-ha. The more we get to play the smart aunt role, the more clients we help. Personally, I love the smart aunt role. Don’t get me wrong, if a client needs to lay on the couch while we guide them to a successful project, then that’s what they need. But they’re paying for the privilege. And I’d really rather they spent their money on saving the world. To that end, here is some advice on making consultants work for you.
Is This a Website or a Data Integration Project?
You want a new website and a checklist of features. Forums? Check. Events calendar? Check. RSS? Check. Single sign-on with your AMS and Active Directory? Che… Wait a second, see what you did there? You just started a new project, whether you knew it or not, and whether the PM calls it one or not, and it isn’t part of your website. No, your website is part of it – a data integration project that extends to several of your systems of which the website is one. It might be a mini project or a major project, but it and your website are separate initiatives, initiatives that require their own planning, own meetings and own set of core team members that may or may not overlap. Get that new project started right or kick it out to another phase, or you’ll be spinning your wheels and burning hours.
More after the jump…
Speaking of phasing, it may not be clear how just shifting development around could save a client money. Think of it like this: the client and consultant both have a limited attention span to devote to a project. Even if the budget were miraculously big or the development team preternaturally efficient, there’s a human limit on how much can be envisioned ahead of time, and building features that haven’t been well thought out are big expense, especially when they are redone for not being sufficient during the initial development. Functional phasing allows all parties to concentrate on the goal, be it launching a site or running a successful campaign, and explicitly planning for new features to get the attention they deserve later so they can be built right the first time.
Did You Get Those Things We Sent You?
We’ve already billed hours creating those documents and getting them to you. Why do you want to pay us to read them aloud? Put an end to story time, read the documents ahead of time, and we can trim down the meetings so we can both get back to your business.
Content Editor Support
For CMS builds, our PMs and Client Managers put together extensive user guides (and so should your consultant). We use them to train the client, but we also use them as long-term reference material. It’s inevitable the content editors will forgot how to do certain things, and a lot of times they need to call us up to walk them through it. The dirty little secret is that much of the time, our Client Managers are just looking at the guides we’d already given to the client, that the client probably has sitting on their desk under a pile of papers. We’ve already been paid to make those guides — no need to pay us again!
Let’s use network diagrams as an example. There are plenty of times when a client needs our expertise to diagram their networked systems and the impact a new project will have on it. Other clients already have capable IT staffs that understand the intricacies of infrastructure and have premade diagrams. That’s great, but in my experience technical diagrams are made for a specific, usually internal, purpose and often leave out important basic information. Recently a client was happy to provide that information to us, but didn’t know what format we wanted it, so they asked us, a pretty rare occurrence. We were able to give them a template that had a typical network diagram scenario already laid out, including critical information that we need to do our jobs – not just machine names, but ports, internal/external IPs, etc. It’s win/win – the client doesn’t need to start from scratch, and we don’t have to go back to the client for basic info.
YAGNI (You Ain’t Gonna Need It)
That’s one of those annoying self-important abbreviations that presuppose there’s a limited combination of English words starting with those initials and its important enough you’ll figure it out eventually. It’s also a powerful programming concept that discourages building functionality in anticipation of needing it later, and applicable to the concepting that clients do with us. Customers — think about your long-term needs, yes – but be aggressive in scope cutting when you meet with your consultant. If you aren’t planning on using the functionality as soon as the system is deployed, there’s a good chance you ain’t gonna need it at all. If the Internet came to me today and asked me to come up with a annoyingly self-important abbreviation meme, I’d use a corollary of the YAGNI idea – YAGUI – you ain’t gonna use it. It’s no good for our design and development teams to spend time on functionality a client doesn’t have the content for or the personnel to utilize, even if the client really should be using it. And the truth is that on many occasions, we can already tell a client that ahead of time – do you know how many clients ask for complex content workflow with routing & notifications , get 10 people trained up on a system, and then find only a single person actually does the updating? YAGUI.
Clients really do have the choice in the relationship, and in the sort of money they want to spend with their consultants. So which is it — do you really need the couch or just a smart aunt?