In the classic corporate satire Office Space, “the Bobs” – two management consultants brought in to trim the fat from fictional software company Initech – pepper a beleaguered “engineer liaison” with questions about his (apparently minimal) job duties before getting to the punchline: “What would you say … you do here?”
It’s a great bit, but in a real-life IT shop the script should be flipped: It’s you who needs to ask the consultants about what they do – and ideally not months (or years) after you’ve engaged with them.
Consultants can deliver significant value to IT leaders and their teams, especially when your strategic ambitions outpace the expertise and resources available in-house. But this usually only occurs when you have a strong shared understanding of their role and how you can best work together.
This is particularly true in the diverse, distributed universe of hybrid cloud, multi-cloud, application modernization, and containerization. Cloud consulting is now an industry unto itself.
That’s because, for all but the biggest of companies, it’s not realistic to build an internal team that has all of the technical skills and knowledge you might need on your own team at any given moment. Even if it were possible, it likely would be inefficient. Cloud consultants can fill gaps or help you lever up a project – not unlike how you might lean on a public cloud for infrastructure or other resources when they’re needed – not for five years before and five years after they’re needed.
“Consultants are a very effective method to digital transformation, cloud implementations, and niche expertise that may be non-core to a CIO’s business operations,” says Kerem Koca, founder and CEO of Blue.cloud. “Given their expertise, consultants can quickly scale a transformation effort or cloud implementation up or down, and are also extremely time-efficient in finding skillsets not commonly found in an IT team.”
[ Also read What IT leaders should look for in cloud managed services. ]
That’s the happy path, and it’s the one most IT leaders would prefer to travel. Finding that path requires asking good questions – not just of potential consultants, but of yourself. The less productive consulting engagements usually arise out of differing sources of truth – project deliverables, how long the engagement should last, who is responsible for what, and so forth. When one or both parties can’t articulate the fundamentals, something isn’t right.
A brief intermission: “Consultant” is obviously a broad term, and “cloud consultant” is only a little more specific. For the purposes of this article, it refers to an individual or company you hire on a contract basis to deliver work on any aspect of your cloud infrastructure, migration, application modernization, and so forth.
4 questions CIOs should ask about your cloud consultant strategy
With that in mind, consider these four fundamental questions as a starting point – or a midstream checkpoint – for evaluating cloud consultants and how they fit or support your overall cloud strategy.
1. What can we do with this consultant that we couldn’t do without?
Kind of like that Office Space scene, everyone in the room should squirm if they can’t really say what the cloud consultant … does here. This ultimately rests with you as an IT and business leader: What gaps or needs can a consultant fill? What value will they help deliver?
This could be anything from knowledge of a particular tool or cloud platform that’s new to your team to developing a business case for app modernization to architecting a hybrid cloud environment from the ground up.
“Engage cloud consultants that have a specialized skill that you can’t wait to develop or cultivate on your own,” advises Peter Nebel, SVP strategy, AllCloud.
For some IT leaders, that might be specific cloud skills or domain knowledge that are missing from their current team. Others might view this through the lens of business cases or impacts. Still others might look at it through the lens of time – as in, we’ll accomplish X faster with a consultant on board.
No matter how you apply the question to your unique organization, the principle remains the same: Bringing in a cloud consultant should help you do something tomorrow that you can’t do today.
“With any technology, the CIO needs to ask: ‘With this tool, how can I create more business value than my business colleagues could without the tool?’” says David Zhao, managing director of Coda Strategy. “Cloud is no different. Cloud consultants need to bring business solutions to challenges that are relevant to the CIO’s peers in the executive team. Otherwise, cloud risks being a hammer looking for a nail.”
2. No, really: What are they going to work on?
If the work is ill-defined, the results will be too. While your initial needs might be broad, productive consulting arrangements grow from specific work products or goals. “We need help” is incomplete. “We need help with X” is moving in the right direction.
[ Related read: What IT leaders should look for in cloud managed services. ]
Carmen Taglienti, distinguished engineer at Insight, shares a list of example use cases for cloud consultants, particularly with an eye on large enterprise environments and hybrid cloud strategy.
- Augmenting staff to take on a large cloud/hybrid cloud efforts
- Enabling staff with cloud expertise from the third-party consultant
- Streamlining and accelerating implementation in the cloud/hybrid cloud model
- Providing managed services and support for cloud/hybrid cloud implementation where staff does not exist internally
- Innovating and providing strategic guidance on the cloud/hybrid journey
- Application/workload rationalization across hybrid cloud to maximize the benefits
- Ensuring securitization and compliance within the cloud/hybrid environment
- Establishing and optimizing DevOps approaches
- Advancing capabilities into other areas, such as data/AI, cybersecurity, modern applications, IoT, digital transformation
Each of these can be developed for further specificity based on the particular goals and needs of your business. And your own needs or uses might be different – the idea here is to make sure they’re clearly defined.
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3. How do we know when to use a consultant?
You should be asking not just why you need a cloud consultant, but also when.
Of course, if you ask prospective consulting firms “When should I hire you?” you’ll probably get multiple versions of the same answer: Today.
You’ll need to have your own method of telling time, so to speak. A clear answer to question #1 above is a good litmus test.
“The best time to engage a cloud consultant is when your organization is able to clearly articulate the business challenges you face which you need to change,” Nebel says.
If you’re at least at this stage, any time can theoretically be the right time to engage with a cloud consultant. The specifics of “when” should be dictated by “what” and “why.”
“The business case does not need to be developed yet, because your cloud consultant can help develop this for you alongside the KPIs you want to improve and thus help with the vendor selection,” Nebel says. “If as a CIO you are confident that you have employed solution architects that can define the ‘to-be’ solution architecture, then task them with defining that alongside the business and then engage a cloud consultant to execute the vision.”
“The best time to engage a cloud consultant is when your organization is able to clearly articulate the business challenges you face which you need to change.”
The timing question also applies to the back end.
[ Read next: 4 essential cloud project questions ]
“Know exactly how long you want to use your cloud consultants,” Nebel says. “For example, after the initial deployment of a solution, who will support the solution in production? Knowing that your cloud consultant should support the deployment could help reduce the cost for an implementation.”
Indeed, knowledge transfer and long-term operations should be a big part of the timing questions – and the overall project.
“Although consultants bring a necessary outside perspective and know-how, the internal IT team should always be in the loop to properly maintain the infrastructure,” says Koca from Blue.cloud.
4. How will we measure results?
As always, make sure you’re able to track results in a matter that reflects your organizational realities and shows progress (or where the engagement has stalled.)
“Have clear and quantifiable success metrics for your engagement – if you can’t measure your success, you don’t know if it was worth the investment,” Nebel says.
In general, your cloud consulting engagements should include clear deliverables or milestones: “Essentially, ‘what are we getting, and when?’” Koca says.
That’s also a foundation for evaluating results. Returning to that first question, you should be able to show that consultant engagement did in fact enable your team to do things that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible, or at least not on the same timeline.
“Hiring a consultant should be dramatically increasing your team’s organizational efficiency to drive business outcomes,” Koca says.
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