What Working at ThoughtWorks Has Taught Me About Consulting So Far

In my book The Nomadic Developer, I spent an entire chapter covering techniques that allow you to thrive as a technology consultant.  Of course, I wrote that before I joined ThoughtWorks.  Since joining, I can certainly say that ThoughtWorks has given me quite an education about technology consulting.  This post explores some of the things I have learned over the past 18 months.

Technology Consulting is 10% Technology, 90% Consulting

Being a great technologist is around 10% of the skillset required for being a good technology consultant.  I used to think it was 50%, but my understanding has now vastly changed towards the direction of the so called “soft skills” being more important.  In most companies, there are thousands of opportunities to make things better using technology in some way, shape, or form.  The trick to opening those opportunities is overcoming the massive “wall of cynicism” towards these kinds of investments.  Discovering the opportunities, overcoming the wall of cynicism, getting the human stakeholders on board (not just upper management!), and then actually putting this all together to get a project funded and delivered seems to be 90% of the challenge.

Technology Consulting is a Subset Of, not Different Than, Management Consulting

You can do a project without having it have deep implications for the overall business.  But I doubt that is the kind of project I would ever want to work on.  Most technology investments are, in fact, capital investments in the business.  It is very common for technology to end up both constraining and enabling corporate strategy. Even minor implementation details can have significant effects on strategic choices that a company will be able to make down the road. Everything from ability to do effective mergers, price changes, new product launches, and other strategic initiatives deeply depend on business technology.  For good or ill, technology decisions drive business strategy – and until that condition changes, it is my conjecture that effective technology consulting is really a part of the overall management consulting picture.

ThoughtWorks, having recognized this, is formally rolling out our Consulting Practice which, among other things, seeks to formally do what we have been doing informally since our inception, which is to advise companies not just on how to implement technology, but what technology to implement.

Clients are Never Perfect

Expecting to come to TW where you will work on perfectly “aligned” clients that always espouse our values is, to be blunt, a poor expectation. Most people call the doctor when they are sick, not when they are well. Sometimes – no – all the time – organizational transformation is HARD, and you will have to, excuse my French, slog through some shit in order to get to the holy grail of your client that needs help becoming a perfectly functioning agile client that perfectly practices continuous delivery.

Never Underestimate The Importance of Soft Skills

Good consulting involves:

  • Controlling your temper and not being “shocked” when you see things like bad code and retrograde practices. When you go on site, expect anything and everything.
  • Understanding and addressing the skepticism of organizations for which you are the 4th, 5th, or 10th person who has been put there to try to fix things.
  • Learning how to build credibility so you can spend it later when you need to.
  • Understanding the limits of your own capabilities, so you can know when to call for help (aka you do not have all the answers).
  • Learning how to understand a domain quickly and credibly, so you can talk in the language of the client
  • … and a million other little things that have more to do with relations between humans than they have to do with technology …

It has been quite an experience, personally, just finding out how much I didn’t know, learning how to apply these principles in a large programme of work.  That these things are important is rather intuitivley obvious, but at scale, it becomes a list of things you have to remind yourself about every day.  When the stakes go up, and the number of people increase, the importance of these basic fundamentals really starts to outweigh almost everything else!

The Bottom Line

If you want to actually deliver a great technology solution, getting the technology right is just the table stakes.  Getting the people thing right – the consulting – is 90% of the actual work.  It is thrilling, engrossing work, but it certainly isn’t just about software!

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Comments

  • Elena  On December 8, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Let’s hear it for the soft skills! You rock as always Aaron!

    Elena

  • Ryan Hayes  On December 8, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    Absolutely right. Soft skills are vital to being successful as a tech consultant. Even in the technology side, you often need a team that’s on your side to even execute properly. Great article.

  • vj  On January 28, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    While I totally agree with these sentences – “. Most people call the doctor when they are sick, not when they are well. Sometimes – no – all the time – organizational transformation is HARD,” –
    the one thing to note is that as a doctor if you are trying to give a bitter medicine to the patient who is terminally ill and the patient refuses to take it time and again,the the question is whether you are the right doctor for such a patient ?
    :)

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