Sunday 17 April 2011

Working for consultancy companies

Recently I was approached by the guys from the Graduate Developer Community (GDC) where they asked me for an interview about life in a consultancy company. Their idea, that came out from an email I sent to the London Java Community (LJC) ages ago about different career paths, was to interview professionals that followed different career paths and publish these interviews on a website called GDC Careers so that graduates and people starting in our industry could have an idea about what is available out there in terms of jobs and career paths.

The interview was originally published on the GDC Careers but I'll also be publishing it here in full. I hope it helps any professional that would like to know more about life on consultancy companies.

NOTE: Throughout my career I've worked for three consultancy companies and this is just my general view of all of them. Each project is a different project and different consultants, working for the same consultancy company but in different projects, can have a completely different view of their employers.

Sandro Mancuso has been working as a software developer since 1996 but started writing code for pure enjoyment way before that. Although he has worked for software houses and startups, he spent the majority of his career working for international consultancy companies where he had the opportunity to work on a great variety of projects and across many different industries. He has a BSc in Computer Science and a MSc in Distributed Objects. He is a Co-founder of the London Software Craftsmanship Community (LSCC).

Title – What is your job title?

Senior Consultant.

What is your role about?

My role is to work with clients, helping them to identify what they really need, advise them, provide options, and help them to achieve whatever they want to achieve in the most efficient way.

OK, I know. That was not very specific or helpful. This is because the role of a consultant can vary quite a lot. Different consultants may choose different career paths. Some follow a more business oriented career, advising clients on strategy, marketing, investment, finance, etc. Some follow a more process oriented career, emphasising project management, Agile Coaching, training, business analysis, requirements, etc. Others prefer a more technical career path, working more often as developers, technical architects and team leaders, mentoring, etc. In my case, I took the more technical path so normally I do what I like doing, that is writing code, regardless of my position in the project. Although I was a hands-on developer on all my assignments, many of them had elements of mentoring. Some times I also got involved in customised training courses for clients, like TDD, Agile, etc.

I work mainly in Agile Java projects. Technologies vary quite a lot since every now and again we are working for different clients, different industries and completely different systems. Sometimes clients already have something in place and the technology stack is already defined. In this case, we often use whatever they are using to start with but we always try to make suggestions if we see that other technologies or frameworks should be used instead. Some other projects, mainly greenfield ones, we generally have freedom to choose the technology stack we judge is the best for the problem. 

What are the best/most positive parts of the job/industry?

In my view, the best thing about being a consultant is the amount of technologies and business domains that you are exposed to during your career. Because of the frequency that we change projects, we end up being exposed to a lot of interesting problems quite early in our careers, giving us a great understanding of many different software projects.

Networking is definitely another very positive aspect of being a consultant. As we move from project to project, client to client, we end up meeting a lot of people, in different organisations, what can be very useful as you progress in your career. The more people you work with or for, the more options you will have in the future.

Another important point is that, as a consultant, you need to be sellable. This may sound a bit negative, but if fact, what it means is that you need to be at the top of your game, knowing the latest technologies, methodologies and trends. The more you know, the easier it will be for a consultancy to place you in a project (sell you to a client). As the consultancy companies recognise that, in general they have different mechanisms (training, conferences, internal talks, events, etc) that you can take advantage of to improve your skills.

Because your peers are also moving from project to project and using different technologies in each project, it is amazing what you can learn from them. The variety of information shared among consultants about projects, businesses, methodologies, technologies, etc, is absolutely priceless. There is always someone doing something different somewhere.

What are the negative parts to the job/industry?

The main complain that consultants have is that in general you don’t have much saying on where you are going to be sent to. Once you decide you want to work for a consultancy company, you need to be aware that travelling is always a possibility. A few lucky consultants get to stay for a long time on projects close to their homes but in general this is not the case. If travelling or long commute is not an option for you, you really need to think hard before becoming a consultant. For those living in big cities, like London for example, in general this is not a big problem since the majority of the clients will be there anyway.

According to your level of seniority, years in the company and history of projects you delivered, you can refuse to go to some projects, in case you don’t like the project (less often) or if the commute is bad (more often). However, this is a card that needs to be played very wisely since you don’t get to play it more than once in a short period of time.

In some projects, you may be seen as an outsider by a few permanent employees. Some feel threatened by the presence of a “consultant”, since you may be “exposing” problems in the current process and software. It’s part of our job to deal with that and do whatever we can to be seen as another team member, a person that shares the same goals, and not an outsider.

Career Path

What is the standard career path/qualifications?

This varies quite a lot since consultancies may offer different type of services and they will need people that are more specialised in some areas than in others. Services offered may include software development, project management, training, coaching, business advice (strategy, finance, investment, etc), auditing, etc. Some consultancies tend to work more on the “consulting” side of things and tend to engage with clients at a more senior level (CEOs, CTOs, Directors, etc). Other consultancies are more focused on software delivery and tend to engage with clients at lower levels (directors, project managers, head of departments, etc). And, of course, some consultancies do a bit of both.

I’ll just talk about consultancies that focus more on software delivery since that’s my background.

My title is Senior Consultant but this is a reasonably vague title. Many consultancies, internally, distinguish their consultants by grades. Each grade has different ranges of salaries and responsibilities and we take on responsibilities on projects, in general, according to our grade.

For people aspiring a more technical career, in the entry levels you are expected to have a good knowledge of a programming language (in our case Java or .Net), most common frameworks, good understanding of Object-Oriented Programming and you would be working as a team member (developer). As you move up through the grades, you may take roles where you will be leading teams, be the technical architect, enterprise architect, Agile coach, etc. At the higher grades, besides all the technical knowledge you will also have some extra responsibilities like writing technical proposals, pre-sales, project inceptions, project management, manage clients expectation, etc. However, some consultants manage to reach the higher grades and remain totally hands on. That’s the path I’m following.

To be successful as a consultant, you need to be a well-rounded professional. Just knowing a programming language well is far from being enough to be a good consultant. You are expected to have knowledge in many different areas since you never know in which project you will end up and which position in the project you will have. And regardless what the project is, you need to be ready. Of course that we all know that is simply impossible to know everything that is out there but at least you need to show that you have the motivation and drive to learn whatever is thrown at you.

Besides the technical skills, another thing that is very important for a good consultant is soft skills, due to the amount of iteration with clients. I’m still working to improve mine. :)

What are the prospects?

Over the years, after many different projects, a consultant will have a good understanding of different types of software projects, technologies and also will have met a lot of people working for many different companies. This gives the consultant a good variety of options for the future. 

In your experience are you aware of any differences your role has between industries/sectors?

In terms of clients we work for, yes, there are huge differences. Working for clients where software is not their core business (a big supermarket chain, a media company, etc) is totally different from working for clients where software is their core business or is an extremely important part of it (software products, internet companies, telcos, etc). There’s also the investment banks, financial companies, government, gambling, etc. Each client will demand a different type of service and a different type of expertise. Some clients will ask a consultancy to help creating the process, roles and responsibilities, requirements, definite the technology stack, etc. Full freedom. Other clients, which have a more mature software capability, may ask a consultancy to provide help with a very specific problem. Sometimes they just need some good developers for a limited period of time. They may want someone in there to coach and mentor their own developers. That means, the role can vary quite a lot, depending on the client.

Reflection and The Future

What was it like coming into the industry?

Before joining my first consultancy company, I had worked for two small software houses and I didn’t know much about it. Job was announced in one of the main Brazilian newspapers. 800+ developers applied and just 34 were hired after a month long selection process, 4 phases, including a two week training and group dynamics. My two previous companies combined had in total 10 people. This consultancy company had more than one thousand employees just in Sao Paulo. Many thousands around the world. I was completely lost and a bit scared by the size of the projects. Before I was writing software for local shops and businesses and there I was working in projects for multinational companies and governments. Complete shock. New technologies, new people, massive projects, multiple teams involved, clients speaking different languages, etc. After a few months, I was quite comfortable there and knew that I had made the right choice. I guess that I was very lucky there, firstly because I was assigned to work on a very technical and capable team and secondly because for two and a half years I had the best mentor (my boss) that I could ever have asked for.

However, joining a modern and more agile consultancy company today is totally different, much easier and less traumatic, even when working on big projects for big clients. In general you will be working in smaller teams (even on long term projects) and following agile methodologies. The technologies used are accessible to every one. When I started, back in the 90ies, we couldn’t just go to a website, download certain technologies and install on our PCs. Many of the technologies were proprietary. There’s absolutely nothing to fear about joining a consultancy company today and the world is a much better place now. :-)

Do you have any thoughts on the future of your role/industry?

I think that while there is a need for software development, consultancies and consultants will always have a place. However, the time where consultants were the only or the best specialists in the market are over. Due to the internet, open source projects, social networking, user groups, conferences, shared videos, podcasts, etc, any one, anywhere in the world, has access to the latest technology at the minute it is released. Consultants now, more than ever, need to be at the top of their game. Consultancy companies will need to do their best to get the best professionals in the market in order to survive. They will need, more than ever, to show to clients that they have the best people to work on their projects.

What advice would you give someone entering your industry?

The following advices are valid for any developer starting his or her career, regardless if he wants to be a consultant, the industry or career path he will choose:

- Firstly and most importantly, enjoy and be proud of what you do. Software development is a very cool profession. During your career, there will be many people out there that will be using and benefiting from stuff you created. And this is definitely really cool.

- If you think you studied hard during university, think again. You haven’t even started studying hard yet. Software development IS NOT a 9 to 5 profession. Be prepared to study hard, outside working hours, for the rest of your life.

- Always aim for jobs where you are going to learn more and not earn more. Preferably a place where you could have a good mentor. Be patient because money will come. If you are good and keep learning, you will have a very decent life throughout your career. If you just aim for the money instead of learning, you may get a good money now and be unemployable and out of the market in a few years time.

- Put a lot of effort on learning the fundamentals of software development instead of just learning the latest framework. If you have a good foundation, you will be able to learn any new technology much faster.

- Contribute to open source projects, learn from their code base and take the opportunity to communicate with other contributors.

- Always have a pet project (you may be excused if you are actively contributing to an open source project). Pet projects are great for you to try different technologies, techniques and methodologies. The cool thing about a pet project is that you have the power to do whatever you want, whenever you want, making it quite fun to work on. You don’t need to finish a pet project, in fact, you never will.

- Join you local user groups. The amount of stuff you learn and people you meet is just priceless.

Have you come across anything or anyone that has helped you move forward in the industry?

Definitely the mentor I had early on in my career. He was an exceptional developer and like a father for all of us in the team. He could hit us as hard as he wanted but no one else was allowed to do it. He shielded his team (us) from all the external heat and pressure. Quality was non-negotiable. He was a true believer that “how it’s done is as important as having it done“, phrase that I use as my blog’s subtitle. He believed in the apprenticeship model, although we’ve never used the term. It was there and then that I learned the true values of what today is called software craftsmanship. I worked for him and on that team for two and a half years and by far it was, if not the best, one of the best teams that I've been part of. My mentor gave me everything I needed to become the professional I am today.

Twitter: @sandromancuso


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