Saturday, October 04, 2008

Much ado about consultants….

A few days ago, a senior official of the government agency I work in summoned me to her office. There, I was told in not so many words that in view of our office’s poor performance when it comes to implementing information technology thrusts, she was planning to propose to top management the hiring of a Chief Information Officer (CIO), more than likely a consultant, to oversee IT development and deployment. She subsequently asked me if I would be willing to act as a special assistant/liaison to this proposed CIO.

While I did not refuse the assignment (in the grand scheme of things, I’m not in a position to refuse anyway), I found myself somewhat disturbed and somewhat revolted by the idea.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with hiring a consultant for a particular task...virtually all large corporations do it at one time or another. In fact, large corporations do it all the time. It just got me thinking; just what is it about consultants that seem to give people the impression that they hold the answer to everything?

I’ve worked with a lot of consultants in my time, and unfortunately, in the greater part of cases, the experience hasn’t all been that fruitful. I'm inclined to think that this negative assessment is fairly commonplace, especially regarding consultants employed by the public sector.

A large paycheck + recommending power + no accountability almost always = a big fat 0.

Our office has had a lot of consultants in its 12 year history, and truth be told, the vast majority of consultants have hardly contributed anything worthwhile to the corporation. Well, nothing dramatic or even noticeable at the very least.

To be fair, it is not always the consultants’ fault. At the end of the day, the essence of a consultant can usually be distilled down to the recommendations he or she submits to management. Whether management chooses to implement the recommendations or not is another issue altogether.

But on the other side, there are consultants who merely suck up funds from corporate coffers who hardly contribute anything, if any. These are the types who typically has some poor schmuck in the office make up some fictional account of alleged outputs in order to justify the paycheck. Almost always, that poor schmuck earns less than half, maybe even a quarter of that consultant, yet he gets stuck with the unenviable job of justifying the consultants continued employment.

What does it take to be a consultant anyway? The quick answer is probably age and experience, though it seems oxymoronic to apply the same in the IT industry, where technology rapidly shifts from one paradigm into another.

Take me for example. At 36, I’m not exactly spring chicken anymore. My IT experience and/or training range from COBOL to Java, From AppleSoft BASIC to Visual Basic, from dBase III+ to Oracle, from Z-80 and 6502 processors to MicroSparc and UltraSparc, to quad-core x86-64, from various flavors of UNIX to LINUX, from CP/M to DOS to Vista, from Netware to TCP/IP, from 14.4 kbps modems to leased lines and 3.5G HSDPA. Hell, you could even consider my journeys from VisiCalc to Lotus 1-2-3 to Excel, and from WordStar to Word. Would that qualify me to be a IT consultant?

The irony is, a well established and reputable IT consultant is, more often than not, nothing more than an expensive repository of information of how to apply obsolete technology. So how do they get their reputations in the first place? Let’s just say that they were fortunate (lucky?) enough to have bet on the right horse, that is to say, technology, at the start of their careers, making them authorities on the subject. In retrospect, I seem to have bet on the wrong horses in the past. Thin clients and Java haven't really lived up to all their hype ten years ago.

But the question is, with information technology advancing at the pace it’s at, do we really want a consultant telling us how to use technology which may no longer be viable?

Hell, if being a consultant involves nothing more than telling people what to do without you caring whether they do it or not and get paid big bucks at the same time, then I’m obviously in the wrong line of work.

Kidding aside, I guess I’m a bit peeved over the way least our management...almost always assumes that consultants possess a panacea for whatever ails them, even at the expense of the careers of highly qualified organic personnel.

Nonetheless, there are exceptions. There are a number of good consultants who not only have the foresight to advocate the right technology at the right time, but also have continued to learn and grow at the same pace as the industry. It is unfortunate that these consultants are few and far in between. Besides, they get good track records by avoiding clients whose IT projects end up as white elephants, and white elephant is almost synonymous with government.

In the event that a consultant is really needed, I’d prefer that our agency instead engage the services of a consulting firm rather than a solitary freelancing consultant. At least that way, there’s a measure of protection from obsolescence given that you’re dealing with a pool of people instead of an individual, and a firm has a corporate reputation to maintain and preserve, ensuring some level of accountability for any crappy ideas it chooses to recommend or implement. It’s obviously a more expensive proposition, but at least you’re almost guaranteed to get something out of the deal.

Consultant = big paycheck + recommending power + no accountability

Consulting firm = bigger paycheck + recommending power + industrial accountability

Organic personnel = small paycheck + recommendations not taken seriously + full accountability

See what I’m getting at?

As for the assignment I was talking about at the start of this post, I’ll probably find a way out of it. Not that I’m trying to avoid work, but because I’d rather not be involved in any endeavor which in all likelihood would end up as a white elephant. And with my office’s track record when it comes to consultants, it’s a safe bet this situation would not be any different.

As for being a consultant...I probably don’t have it in me.

I’d much rather have right opinions which other people may not take seriously instead of wrong opinions which everyone believes. Call it naivete, call it blind idealism, I call it sticking to my guns.

I've always been the prophet of doom at our office. The devil's advocate with the uncanny ability to predict projects destined to failure from the very start. No one believes me though, even though time and time again my predictions were spot on. Well, what can I say. If management would rather believe idiots then that's their call.

Adolf Hitler would have been a good consultant.

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