A trick to launch tech consulting projects on time

The IT consulting field has a longtime reputation for over-promising and under-delivering. When I worked at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) in the early ’90s, I was on a project that delivered two years late. When I worked at Solo Cup company (now Dart), I watched as a consulting company repeatedly extended our go-live, finally launching our new Customer Management System 21 months late. This reputation is so prevalent that seasoned executives who hire IT consultants have learned to always apply significant buffers to the dates (and costs) promised by their consultants.

This morning I was reminded of how unusual it is when IT projects are delivered on time. After a 12-month engagement, we’re about to launch a business automation system for one of our national association clients, on time and on budget. This morning I received the following email from our client:

“…we have a minor issue that we hope you can help us with. It seems Jeff didn’t put the maintenance contract in this year’s budget — thinking at the time that we probably wouldn’t launch on time.”

So how did this project deliver on time? Primarily by calculating our Full Time Equivalents (FTEs) uniquely.

Calculating FTEs

Typically in our industry, a FTE, i.e. one employee available to work full time, is expected to contribute 40 hours per week to a project. If a project is estimated to require 6,400 hours of staff time, and the complexity, skills needed, and structure of the project warrant a team of 5 people, the typical IT consulting firm will schedule 5 employees and promise the client that they’ll deliver in 8 months (6400 hours / (5 people x 40hrs/wk) = 32 weeks = 8 months).

But the fact is that full time employees do not produce 40 hours of productive work in a week — unless they’re working 50–60 hours per week. And then what if something unexpected happens in the project (whichalways happens) and there are delays or hurdles that require more effort or slow down progress? You’re left with exhausted employees who don’t have additional capacity or calendar days to accommodate the unexpecteds, and the project delivers late — usually very late. The client’s hands are tied, their business is hanging in suspended animation, and everyone feels deflated.

So what’s a consulting firm to do? Estimate FTEs accurately.

When we’re calculating timelines for a project, we assume that an FTE contributes 25–30 hours per week. For a project that is estimated to require 6400 hours of development and is structured to accommodate 5 staff members, we will estimate that the project will deliver in 12 months (6400 hours / (5 people x 25hrs/wk) = 51 weeks = 12 months).

But how do you tell a client that the project is going to take 12 months when your competition is telling them that the project will take 8 months?

Answer: You tell the truth.

Clients want their project completed for the least amount of investment in the shortest amount of time. Right? Well, sort of. What they also want, and hold as even more important, is to know what to expect, to plan for that expectation, and then to get what they expected (or more). When you estimate the effort and timeline with accurate FTE calculations and explain to your client how you estimated the project duration, they understand that you’ve accounted for the inevitable rather than crossing your fingers and hoping everything will go exactly as planned. Clients want to be able to rely on the project schedule and are grateful to know the real launch date from the beginning.

Of course, correctly calculating FTEs and telling the truth are not tricks at all. The IT consulting industry has simply bought into the belief that the next project won’t have the same unexpecteds as the last 1000 projects. And we’re also scared that if we tell the client the truth from the beginning (that employees won’t actually produce 40 hours of deliverables each week and that unexpected complexities will arise), then the client will get cold feet. But clients do not get cold feet when they’re told the truth — if they understand why it’s the truth.

The moral is that executives who hire IT consultants should ask details about how estimated efforts and durations have been calculated. Always question your consultants if you see math that includes 40 hrs/wk for an FTE. And IT consultants should challenge the way our industry has historically estimated projects. Be willing to tell the truth. The truth empowers us and it works. Almost every time.

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