The [Dev/QA/BA/UX/PM] Consultant

Consulting skills enable you to be a better influencer and an effective agent of change

As part of my attempt to deepen my understanding on the experiences ThoughtWorks wants to provide to its clients, the last couple of months I faced the gamut of traits underlying the single word that differentiates a developer from a consultant developer.

It was supposed to be just a word. Just ten letters. However, when put into practice, this word acquired multiple meanings. But it can become more complex than that. At ThoughtWorks, we are not just developers. Many of us are developers, and at the same time QAs. And at the same time BAs. And UXers. And IMs (Iteration Managers). And even PMs. That’s just how it works.

As developer consultants, we want to deliver a well-designed, fully working piece of code. As QA consultants, we want this piece of code to be excellent in quality. As BA consultants we want the code to meet the client’s expectations and priorities. As UX consultants, we want to make sure users’ needs are being met, and to improve the way people use that piece of code. As IM consultants, we want the client’s continuous feedback on how the code works so that we can improve it in a more orderly fashion. As PM consultants, we want to make sure everybody is happy and working in order to make the code deliver something the client will love and also reach their business objectives.

But what about this word, ‘consultant’, that’s all over the place? As a consultant, what do I want? To answer that question, I had to think a little bit more about what ThoughtWorks’ proposition of value is. And I found out that ThoughtWorks does much more than deliver software. Although delivery is an important part of our core business, we want to go further. We want to change the way software is made. We want to drive technology innovation to the world. We don’t want our clients to just receive the code we produce for them, we want them to join us in this mission of revolutionizing IT.

And for that, dear reader, we need consultants.

Consultants have other valuable characteristics, which are not related to their official “job title.” As I’ve said before, there are many other words overshadowed by it. After some research, I came up with seven words that, for us, describe the essential capabilities a consultant needs to develop.

  1. Accountability. The ability to act as if the client product/project was your own. Imagine the project as your own investment. Try to feel the client’s anxiety to see it done. Look out for their needs as if you were financing the project. In the end, of course, it’s all up to the client. At the same time, we should put all our effort and energy into helping them to succeed.
  2. Communication. Words will play a major role in accomplishing our goals. We will be, most of the time, side by side with the client in order to deliver an innovative product or service to the world. A consultant must manage the art of conversation. They must be able to communicate ideas, justify them, and defend their beliefs.
  3. Business domain comprehension. As consultants we want to have an influence on the design of the product, add our own view to the way the problem in question can be solved, help the client to innovate and succeed in their business. As a condition to do this, we need to know the client’s business. Perhaps we need to study the specific market we are dealing with, read specialized books and articles and get in touch with many experts in that field.
  4. Process and methodologies. Following some guidelines in the process of product development is something that will guarantee that everyone involved is on the same page. The problem is that there are so many options of methodologies to choose from. A consultant should know these options, and decide which one is best for each context. Should we do Scrum? Or Kanban? How can we help the client to understand the benefits of each approach and discover the best approach for the their environment and needs?
  5. Facilitation. Meetings will be a constant in the product delivery process, from the beginning, usually starting with an inception. Meetings will be held with domain experts, stakeholders, users, other members involved in the process and the project team. The ability to help everybody to speak and express themselves, without missing the point is paramount. Facilitation includes things such as having and following good meeting plans, active listening, building empathy with your stakeholders, using a good toolbox of exercises and activities that will help people to reach the expected result, using visual aids (sketches, whiteboards, etc.).
  6. Coaching and mentoring. Many times consultants will see themselves in need to guide the client in a certain direction. This can be focused on something more technical, such as technical language or framework training. It can also be something more business-related, like an innovation principle that managers need to adopt. Influencing and helping others to find the solution needed is another important capability a consultant must have.
  7. Soft skills. Soft skills are a set of attitudes related to interpersonal relationships. When two or more people are working together, apart from the work-related tasks they are performing, there is strong interaction among them which must be addressed carefully. This includes caring about the other person, being patient in training, knowing how to handle conflict, giving open feedback, being open to feedback yourself and adapting to the situation presented.

It might be that you are a consultant already. If so, this article is intended to challenge you to think about the importance of what you do. Having the right attitude and training will empower you to be an agent of change for the people around you and the business you are operating in.

If you are not a consultant, well, I would ask you to keep an open mind. Consider that wherever you work, opportunities for being influential and avant-gardist can be found all the time. I hope these reflections will give you some ideas on what to do next. I am pretty sure the world will be more and more in need of all kinds of professionals that are, also, consultants.

In writing this article I feel in great debt to Linda Luu (@LindaKLuu) and Toby Clemson (@tobyclemson) for the countless conversations we had on the topic while working together on client site. Your feedback, advice and leadership was an inspiration through it all. You know you will always be my mentors.

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