I spend a lot of time engaging with programming related content, online and in person. Most of this content is created by people who describe themselves as “consultants” of some variety. Up until recently I had never worked with any consultants of this variety anywhere. I had wondered, where are all the consultants? Recently at work the floodgates opened and a huge wave of consultants appeared to help a couple of teams hit their objectives. I’m talking 40-50 consultants against an existing total engineering team of ~250.
Watching this from the outside was interesting since it seemed like our people spent a lot of time trying to get the consultants up to speed on everything that is going on. This was exacerbated as the consultants did not get access to everything a normal employee would, most notably the wiki; that meant that large quantities of the documentation that would normally just be linked to a new employee had to be exported and therefore couldn’t easily be contributed back to either. There were also timezone issues since many of the consultants were in eastern Europe , which resulted in them having a limited access window to interact with anyone on the US east coast and no reasonable time for them to interact with those on the US west coast. The remote only contractor presence was interesting given our unwillingness to start full time employees as remote. Overall the teams that picked up the consultants seemed to be able to eventually get around the obstacles and get the consultants contributing.
All of this was of idle curiosity as to the way the rest of the organization was run until the team I was on was slated to pick up oversight of two new consultants. Fortunately by the time we had gotten there most of the immediate logistical problems had been solved, and the majority of the basic onboarding documentation had been extracted from the wiki and put into a google drive the consultants were able to see. We also had the advantage of picking up US based consultants so the time zone issues weren’t an issue. Overall both consultants are very sharp, and experienced in the kind technologies we use. But, we have them for three months to start with, so we get the whole onboarding overhead but only three months to get the return on investment that comes from it.
This raises three questions in my mind. First, when the consultants are done how much more did we get done over what we could have gotten rather than just doing it ourselves? Second, isn’t the whole process just going to repeat itself with the next big set of deliverables for engineering? Third, is the content being generated by these consultants I’m seeing their reaction to other companies that have already gotten themselves into trouble? The first question seems like it should be net positive, at least for the consultants my team has, but I think part of that is because the kinks in the system were worked out by others who went first. I feel like the second question is much more intriguing. It seems like the initial need for the consultants was due to a failure of organic growth in engineering. So the resources we put into finding and vetting the consultants weren’t being put into finding and vetting employees. Therefore, it seems like while we may have gotten more engineering work done in the short-term, HR/management resources were spread thinner in terms of doing the long term recruiting. Even though the consultants were doing great work, it feels our longer term ambitions may have been sacrificed to meet present obligations. The third question is much broader. If the advice being poured out into the internet and being delivered at conference talks and similar is the result of consultants looking at lots of organizations that are already dysfunctional, then it’s possible that it’s biased toward bringing bad to passable versus aiming for great. It strikes me as being like trying to form a psychological theory using just a prison population because that’s the psychologist happens to treat everyday. Since having this thought I haven’t been able to see any common architectural or management mantras that are clearly thought up based on these sorts of situations. Maybe Tolstoy was right after all: Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.