Making IT Useful

The 10 commandments of IT consulting success

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IT pros looking to cash in on the rising demand for IT consultants, know this: IT consulting isn't all golf meetings and extended lunches. In fact, it can often involve thankless work fraught with unexpected detours, murky goals, and the occasional sudden jettisoning of your project.

But it can also be exceedingly fulfilling and empowering to improve the fortunes of your clients. Build a respectable business as an independent IT consultant, with a healthy client roster, and it can be lucrative as well.

While there's no script to follow in becoming a successful IT consultant, several hard-learned lessons can help guide your way. Anyone considering breaking out on their own or trying to take their already established consulting business to the next level should heed the following 10 commandments of IT consulting success.

1. The client is the hero -- and the hero defines success. Every consulting gig is an adventure. Bureaucratic hurdles, technical constraints, unsavory politics -- delivering the right solution, on time and on budget, is a significant challenge every time you sign a new contract. But before you embark on this journey, remember this: The client is the hero of this adventure, not you, not your company, and certainly not some shiny new technology that’s caught your eye.

When consulting, your role is mentor. And your goal is to guide your client in a manner that ensures they prevail on their own terms. The success of your gig is defined by the client, not by you or your company. That may sound simple, but it’s much more complex because client success is defined by the goals and expectations of three parties: the person at the client site who champions the cause for which you labor, the users of the resulting system, and the patron with financial responsibility for the project.

Suppose you're working with the IT manager (champion) to build a new system for the production manager (hero) for use by inventory specialists (more heroes). The stated business goal is to speed up inventory operations, and the project is funded by the CFO (patron). Deliver a solution that speeds up operations as everyone initially agreed, in a sufficiently quantifiable way, and the project succeeds, right? Not quite!

The champion will also want to limit the impact on his budget and equipment. The heroes will also want simple interactions that are metaphorically similar to their existing process, on devices they can reliably use one-handed, and that will allow all of them to work on the same order at once without issues arising. And the patron wants to see ongoing proof that her investment is paying off.

Success is now defined as the technical goal plus your ability to find a way to support the new system within existing capabilities, as well as your ability to engage heavily with users for UX design and measure and report before-and-after metrics that demonstrate ROI at each iteration of the project.

2. Listen for the unexpected. When starting a consulting gig, there is always too much to absorb. What is the nature of the technical environment? Who are the people on site with the greatest insight into the problems you need to solve? Where are there opportunities to rework processes to better ends? What technical and bureaucratic constraints are you dealing with? How much of what the client hopes to accomplish is a pipe dream?

Your first duty is to actively listen, so your understanding of the project, the players, and the environment is shared. But you need to be discerning. Much of what you hear will be run-of-the-mill, and some will be outright speculation and fantasy. Absorb these, but don't dwell on them. The ordinary parts of the system may hide surprises, but you can't dig into every detail right away. Instead, keep the conversation going to cover as much of the high ground as possible.
While you are doing this, make special note of any unexpected or unusual issues that arise. These can be both a problem and an opportunity. For example, having to talk to a back-end ERP system is fairly ordinary, but having to talk to it by directly manipulating its database is not, and it may cause significant bottlenecks and interface issues.

3. Reserve judgment. Don’t shoot down the client’s ideas on technicalities right out of the gate simply to look smart. The point isn’t to tell them why their idea won’t work; the point is to understand where they are trying to go with their idea, and to find a better way to help them get there. There will be time to get into technical details as the gig evolves, but the outset is for absorbing the bigger picture. Debating details or shrugging off what you perceive to be a “bad” idea will blind you to the kernel of a good idea hidden within.

For example, let’s say the idea of simulating the entire complex production environment in the cloud is proposed as a way of testing deployments. Likely, doing so would be unfeasible for technical reasons, but it has the kernel of a good idea buried within: perhaps we can deploy to the cloud instead of the existing complex production environment? The possible answer: not yet -- but it could be a good move worth putting on the table.

4. Technology is not holy. There is nothing special about a particular technology that makes using it more important than achieving the client’s success. Resist the temptation of shiny things that do not matter. Instead, advocate for the practical tools that do matter. Industry awards and accolades are far less important than a functioning system. Consider the client’s constraints and future plans to use the right tools for the right jobs, with respect for both.

For example, your team knows that HotTechTool2020 would be perfect for this new system. It offers the performance you need, supports all the latest browsers, and could cut development time by half. But it requires new production hardware and takes several months to learn to use well; furthermore, none of the client's developers have even heard of it.

While the hardware costs might be surmountable, the client's developers are comfortable with OldTechTool88 used by the current system, and the client doesn't think it could find enough hotshot devs to keep your newfangled solution going once your team is done. After some discussion, you all agree that upgrading to OldTechTool1999 is a more sustainable path.

5. Respect the client’s privacy and reputation. The client may not want their competition to know they’re working with you, much less what you are working on. Respect the client’s privacy and reputation with silence; never mention the client’s name without permission; even then, do so judiciously and to mutual benefit.

Simply talking glowingly about those you're working with at the client site can haunt you, as you never know who is looking to steal away talented people. A conversation in a hotel bar could well lead to your champion being poached, and now your project is suspended indefinitely.

6. Momentum is everything. It takes time to understand a technical environment and to absorb the implications of any change you might make to that environment. Give the client, and yourself, sufficient time between discussions to allow for dissemination and internal discussion, as warranted, but be mindful of momentum. Often when the process slows down, it is because the next decision or commitment is larger than expected or anticipated, so don’t wait too long to reconnect. Take smaller steps if necessary, but keep moving.

Suppose your proposal for the first set of deliverables has been submitted, and you're waiting for the patron to approve it. And waiting. And waiting. After several days, you're still being told that the proposal is under consideration, but your grapevine is telling you the patron is reeling from sticker shock and questioning the sanity of everyone involved.
Often this will be because the client has never used an outside consultant before, and the size of the first commitment is scaring them. Re-engage with the client, verify and validate their reactions, and lead them into a discussion of smaller, less scary first steps, to maintain momentum.

7. Communication is king. Efficient, responsive communication keeps the connection strong. Don’t waste everyone’s time with unnecessary meetings. Don’t waste the client’s time with unnecessary requests. And whatever you do, don’t waste your own time with nonproductive activities, even when requested by the client.

For example, it's not unusual for clients to request detailed activity reports, time sheets, daily status updates, and any other number of periodic administrative reporting activities -- because that is how they are used to managing internal projects. Most of these are a waste of your time and theirs, and you can often prove it merely by totaling the time required for paperwork and meetings and presenting that total not as a drain on productivity, but as additional overhead. Saying, “All this paperwork costs the team 10 hours a week each,” is less impactful than saying, “The administrative overhead is costing you the equivalent of an extra team member; let's discuss what is truly necessary.”

8. Honor your reputation
Your reputation and your company’s reputation are primary assets. Respect that, and yourself, at all times. This includes not only what you take on but what you don’t. Make no outrageous claims on your website or in private, make no discomforting promises. It is better to say no to a project and keep your reputation than it is to say yes and lose integrity.

The most common -- and seemingly benign -- mistake of this type can be vendor affiliations, which are a double-edge sword for your reputation. If you claim affiliation with a specific vendor's products, everything you say may be viewed as a sales pitch originating from the vendor. Morever, the waxing or waning of the vendor's reputation will reflect on you, for good or ill. People will also likely doubt your ability to deliver on jobs that don't use the vendor's products, and there will always be the underlying question of whether you are using the right tool for the job or settling for the best the vendor has to offer and ignoring better options.

The second-most common mistake is accepting jobs outside your scope. If your organization has a certain specialty, such as front-end JavaScript development, then you should turn down jobs outside of that specialty. Best case, it dilutes your marketing; worst case, your project fails to meet up to the reputation of your JavaScript work, and now you have a hard-to-swallow black mark on your engagement history.

9. Believe in the truth
Speak the truth as you see it, even when the client does not want to hear it. Truth should not be a hammer; it should be a window. No one wants to hear bad news, let alone bad news that is the result of their actions. But sometimes, you have to deliver the bad news anyway.

Remember that it is not your place to shield clients from unpleasant facts. Simply present the information in a neutral fashion without your interpretation or conclusions, and let the client draw their own conclusions. It is far better to say, "There is an issue with Invoice vs. Quote discrepancies caused by unexpected charges," than it is to say, "The VP is altering invoices to favor his friends and punish his enemies." The former is a presentation of facts, while the latter is a conclusion and accusation.

10. Love thy client as thyself Every project ends, eventually. Sometimes the end is planned. Sometimes you can see the end coming. But sometimes it is a complete surprise. Regardless of the circumstances, remain grateful for the trust and work received, make sure the client has all of the information they need to continue without you, and always maintain a professional, helpful demeanor.

A contract suddenly ending is rarely about you, so don't react to it emotionally. Love thy client, and let them go in peace. You never know what will come, but gratitude and serenity will more likely keep you in their sights for future contracts.

How to Effectively Market Your Business... Really?

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We've been in business almost 15 years and to this day I don't think we've ever had a great marketing approach for branding our name or drawing new clients. Every project we've ever undertaken has been the result of good solid relationships. Relationships earned through hard work, trust and successful outcomes.

Over the past four to five years we've have been inundated with phone calls and emails from marketing companies that claim they can get us more leads... our name quickly recognized in the market, and place us in the lime light of social media. Of course, it all comes with a cost and there's never a guarantee that our investment in their strategies will help our bottom line... just theirs...

After all, for a small Upstate firm like us, what's the value in having 2000 "Likes" if they came from the West coast? What's the value tweeting all you can muster into 140 characters just to be beaten out by Justin Bieber?

But in today's market place these are the steps that need to be taken to demonstrate to your customers that you up to date and understand both the technology and the philosophy behind the social media buzz.

That being said... we understand the benefits of social media, but I'd rather shake a real hand then click one.

Standardized EHR Systems Introduce New Worries

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The words private and privacy have really evolved during my lifetime. When I was young these words were used to describe someone’s personality or the culture in which they lived. Privacy meant having a lot of trees on your property or a sign on your office door. It meant storing your personal effects in a safe place in your home, perhaps in a shoebox under the bed. Privacy was somewhat simple to achieve and for the most part up to you to protect. You just kept what you didn’t want to shared either in your head or out of the view of friends, family and the general public. If you didn’t what people to know your thoughts on a particular issue, you kept it to yourself... you were a private person.

From the beginning of time people have been very private about common everyday things like financial information, health history, love and marriage. Until recently, those areas of our lives have always been conducted on paper or by telephone. The phone calls were made behind closed doors and the paper was either hand delivered or sealed tightly in an envelope. The information coming and going could be safely exchanged with little worry about the contents being shared outside the relationship unless you wanted to share it. And if your privacy was compromised, you had a better than average chance of determining who may have been responsible and how far the information traveled. Privacy was also easier to maintain years ago because of the company we kept, or the “network” as we now call it. My families had twenty or so close friend and neighbors; we had classmates, one family doctor, a dentist and several aunt and uncles. These people were basically all the people we frequently interacted with. Our bills were delivered to our creditors using the U.S. Postal Service and garbage was stored in plastic bags and picked up on Wednesday by a guy named Al. We had a very simple network and if it was privacy we were looking for, it was easy to find. Read More...

ISC Releases Hoopdog.com

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Every now and again something simple is created that people find extremely useful. Something that’s not overdone or trying to accomplish more than it’s intended to do. Something simple and easy to understand that actually accomplished a goal. I think our website falls into that fold. We’ve identified a need and provided a simple solution. We designed a website that we believe will help Club Basketball Organizations and their Coaches, Players, Fans and the College Coaching community.

Our site was created and developed with club basketball community in mind… For organization managers or the poor soul who volunteered as tournament director, we have built a very easy to use interface which will enable them to generate guaranteed game schedules with the push of a button. You can advertise your tournament on HoopDog.com, have teams register to participate and collect tournament fees though our interface… and when the time is right you can generate the tournament schedule and notify your participates… all the stressful details are taken care of. All you have to do is secure your venues and focus on promoting your event.

Visit the Hoopdog.com Facebook page… or check out our video!

ISC Helps Davis Vision Transition to HIPAA 5010

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ISC project management services are aiding Davis Vision, one of the nation's leading managed vision care organizations, in their transition from the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) 4010 standards to the HIPAA 5010 standards for their enrollment and claims transactions. This project has involved overseeing the necessary development changes to Davis Vision’s systems, as well as the migration of Davis Vision’s existing 4010 clients to the 5010 format, and bringing on new clients with the 5010 transactions.

OCFS Adapts to New Statewide Financial System

OCFS's Contract Management System Adapts to NYS's New Statewide Financial System

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Major changes to New York State's financial processes took place this year when its Statewide Financial System (SFS) went live in April 2012. As a result, the isC team at the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) had to adapt the OCFS Contract Management System (CMS) and its bulkload procedures in order to integrate all contract and financial data from CMS with the new Statewide Financial System (SFS). Significant application changes were also successfully made to accommodate the new SFS business rules so agency business can continue seamlessly. The team continues to make necessary changes to the CMS application and its procedures as SFS business rules continue to evolve.

OCFS's CMS Moves to .Net framework 4.0.

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The isC team at the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) is underway with an extensive overhaul of the agency’s Contract Management System (CMS) in order to migrate its .Net framework from 1.1 to 4.0 in order to take advantage of its latest features. The framework migration is slated to go live by year's end.

Small Business Solutions

isConsilium offers support to small businesses looking to cost effectively expand their systems and applications to the cloud.

isConsilium Inc., a small business itself, is comprised of experienced project oriented consultants that provide a range of quality services to support client’s information needs.  Having recently implemented cloud-based systems for its own use, isC is now ready to help small business clients cost-effectively move forward to online, scalable systems without incurring the large IT costs normally associated with the transition.

Recent improvements in web-based systems which implement cloud technology (such as Google-apps and Quickbooks Online) now provide low cost alternatives to in-house server-based systems.  In-house systems require significant software/hardware and staffing costs.  By moving these to the cloud, these costs are greatly minimized.

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Product release for GE-Intelligent Platforms

Successful Phasor Data Concentrator

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isConsilium congratulates GE-Intelligent Platforms (in collaboration with GE-Digital Energy) on their successful development and release of the the Enervista Synchrophasor Viewer Software and Multilin P30 Phasor Data Concentrator hardware.  isConsilium provided a team of QA consultants to support the Quality Assurance efforts for these novel products.  isConsilium staff were closely involved in the day-to-day design and development activities, and in cooperation with the GE Intelligent Platforms QA lead, created test strategies and plans and carried out the tests and resolution activities.  isConsilium staff continue working with GE-Intelligent Platforms on other projects, providing quality assurance services as an extension of our successful initial relationship. Read More...

OCFS Online Bidders List Goes Live

The Online Bidders List (OBL) is a New York State Office of Children and Family Services web application for managing the creation and dissemination of procurement information as well as prospective bidder preferences for what information they receive. It is a companion application to the award-winning Contract Management System (CMS) and features functionality for composing the procurement narrative and defining attributes such as key dates, eligibility criteria and funding information and includes a module for uploading and managing associated documents. Read More...