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What questions should one ask a prospective IT consultant?

Scout Young's Profile

We're a small oil & gas company -  what are the "must ask" questions we should pose to a prospective IT consultant?

Answers

Topic Expert
Donald Koscheka
Title: Principal
Company: Bluecloud Communications
(Principal, Bluecloud Communications) |

If you're a small company, presumably you'll be hiring a 'generalist' to help you put together your IT infrastructure. This is a pretty broad area, but having been an IT consultant, I can offer some pointers:

(1) Identify their area of expertise. Are they 'infrastructure focused' or 'solution focused'? If you are asking them to build servers, install software, etc. you're going to want someone who is more infrastructure focused.

(2) Determine what criteria they use for making design decisions. Most IT people tend to be biased toward one particular technology, like Microsoft Windows or Linux, so their decisions are based on what they are comfortable with. Don't settle for that - you need them to make decisions that you're comfortable with. Ask: What platforms do you have experience with? Ideally, they will have worked across multiple platforms (windows, mac, unix, etc).

(3) Do they have the skills needed to make cost/benefit trade-offs. As a small business, you're likely to have limited resources, so you want your IT solutions to be designed to your budget and your needs. You want your IT consultant to be able to help you make sound financial decisions as well as good technical decisions.

(4) Do they have any vendor affiliations that might bias their decisions? Some IT consultants have partnerships with vendors like Oracle and Microsoft. Because they can potentially make some extra money by selling you products they represent, they are more likely to recommend those products. This is not necessarily bad, but you will want to know about these relationships before the fact.

(5) How deep is their technical expertise - what types of projects have they done before, what was their involvement? What were the issues they discovered in past projects? What are the things they would recommend you avoid in your organization?

(6) Did they manage the work or do the work? If you're hiring an individual, you need them to be able to actually perform the work, not just manage it.

(7) What certifications do they have - most IT consultants carry some form of vendor-sanctioned certifications. These certification are not proof that they have the expertise you will require, but they do serve as evidence that they at least have some technical knowledge in that area.

(8) How good are they at documenting their work. You will need 'run books' to help you rebuild servers or deploy new systems - so documentation is an important part of the job. Ask the consultant to provide samples of their documentation. Also, determine if they can help you build your business continuity and disaster recovery plans.

Topic Expert
Malak Kazan
Title: VP, Special Projects
Company: ERI Economic Research Institute
(VP, Special Projects, ERI Economic Research Institute) |

To dovetail on the similar themes already mentioned: try to have the consultant be on-site not work virtually or from home "often". Have someone internal (assuming the consultant is a contractor not being hired as an employee) assigned to manage or work with this person so knowledge transfer and project deliverables are evaluated. If the objectives of the assignment include RFP or selecting IT products/services and the person you identify has experience in this regard, leverage their positive or negative biases for some vendors to save you "time" and angst. Having been a consultant, it is a fine line between getting the best solution for the client, being objective and knowing which vendors actually deliver quality results. If your company is an early adopter and would consider a new "best-of-breed" type solution, you want someone with excellent project management skills.

Topic Expert
Keith Perry
Title: Consulting CFO and Business Operations A..
Company: Growth Accelerator
(Consulting CFO and Business Operations Advisor, Growth Accelerator) |

The above, plus:
1) References.
2) Examples of skills on your particular systems.
3) Ask them to present on what they would do for you (after giving them a run down). A good IT consultant will have listened and have a good idea of what is important to you.

Topic Expert
Len Green
Title: Performance Improvement Consultant and E..
Company: Haygarth Consulting LLC
LinkedIn Profile
(Performance Improvement Consultant and ERP Strategist, Haygarth Consulting LLC) |

Scout:

What types of issues are you trying to address that makes you believe you need an IT consultant? I ask that because "IT consultant" can range from deep "techie" services like programming/system development, to network admin/security and support, to softer issues like process improvement, software selection, change management etc etc.

At TSI, we help clients with process improvement, software selection, change management but I would not say we are "IT consultants."

That said, suggestions above are good. One item I would add is asking yourself "Do I feel I can trust these guys?" So probe for this during the meetings, take your time, and if the sales person and the delivery personare different people, get to meet the person who is proposed to do the work before you sign.

HOWARD SCHWEDEL
Title: Executive & Business Coach, Career Trans..
Company: Howard B. Schwedel, MBA / Schwedel Busin..
(Executive & Business Coach, Career Transition, Franchise Selection, Howard B. Schwedel, MBA / Schwedel Business Svc.) |

Keep it simple and open ended. What will you do to make my life easier and how much will it cost me?

Topic Expert
Henry Schumann
Title: Manager FP&A
Company: Allscripts
(Manager FP&A, Allscripts) |

I would also get a list of the actual employees that will be working on your assignment. It is not uncommon for IT consultant shops to win the job first then try to find folks who can staff the project after the fact.

James Finn
Title: Consultant: Finance, Internal Control, ..
Company: Finn Consulting
( Consultant: Finance, Internal Control, IT Systems, and Compliance, Finn Consulting ) |

I agree most with Lee in that while most of these answers are excellent choices for "How" a technology consultant can help, they put the cart before the horse in the respect that "Its not what questions you should ask the IT consultant that are most important, its what questions should your management ask itself".

You must pull together a "Business requirement" first that is focused on "What" needs to be done. I recommend you "Google" IDEF0 (thats a zero) for a non-proprietary methodology. A mid size company may take 4 to 6 months and cover 50 pages with text and responsibility matrices.

This will also expose the fact that every manager in your company "Thinks" they are a major stakeholder, and should manage the project since their work is most important. Don't let let any one manager drive the business requirement or let it become a "Finance only " project unless it "really is" and the company has funded it to work. (i.e. at least 3 times what they think it should cost)

Jim Finn

Topic Expert
Wayne Spivak
Title: President & CFO
Company: SBAConsulting.com
LinkedIn Profile
(President & CFO, SBAConsulting.com) |

Are you hiring a company of consultants or an individual? Individuals have issues - sickness, injury, death, vacation, over booking, gaps in knowledge (they are human) etc.

Companies have all that, but hopefully spread out so you can always get assistance when needed.

At a minimum, if you hire an individual, make sure they have some sort of arrangement for other back-up people - and meet them!

Derek Jones
Title: Co-Founder & Partner
Company: C&J Partnership
(Co-Founder & Partner, C&J Partnership) |

Consultant is willing to a partially deferred compensation structure based on agreed quality and performance metrics?

Topic Expert
Wayne Spivak
Title: President & CFO
Company: SBAConsulting.com
LinkedIn Profile
(President & CFO, SBAConsulting.com) |

Derek,

I would never agree to this unless I had an iron-clad scope of work which required sign-off for each change order.

Just like the construction industry, while there may be billing/payment based on percentage of completion, any deviation from the job scope (drawings) comes with a price tag.

Roberto Guandique
Title: Partner
Company: RTI
(Partner, RTI) |

All are excellent "generic" questions.....You should ask your "own" questions based on the context of your needs- present and future, and your budget. For example, there is not need to ask a consultant a question about his other affiliations if your needs are specific to a Microsoft Office installation. You already know what you need specifically. Once you define your specific needs, you will have specific questions. All will depend on your specific needs. There is not cookie-cutter question guide for a Consultant. It all depends!.....

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