Subcontractors: The consultant’s nightmare

If you want to lose your head, accept a project that you cannot competently deliver internally. Welcome to the challenging world of associate consultants

If you want to lose your head, accept a project that you cannot competently deliver internally. Welcome to the challenging world of associate consultants or subcontractors or independent contracts.

In the engineering world, it is common to partner and wins a big project with many associates. Many times, the risk of project completion is shared evenly among the partners and the client is aware of the arrangement.

The story is different with associate consultants.

I learned early on that you cannot win in the consulting business by only accepting projects for which you have internal capabilities to deliver. We are usually open to identifying talent and co-opting people on our projects, especially at the proposal phase. Never after the contracting stage.

One time, we saw a bid invitation for the provision of a black box pen test. We had not yet developed internal capabilities at the time. Being an area in which our consulting firm had planned to focus, we bided and won. We had included in our proposal, the name of the associate consultant, as part of our team. At the time, he had recently arrived from India as a cybersecurity graduate with a long list of certificates in cybersecurity. The man had an impressive paper CV.  We were so excited to have this person on our team that we started including his CV in our proposals without testing or interviewing him whatsoever. A big mistake. Paper qualifications are liers.

We missed the red flags early on. Usually, we interviewed prospective candidates by challenging them to hack our company network. Many would just promise to start the task the following day, but would never return. I became fond of the challenge. And come to think of it, none ever hacked our network then, despite implementing the average sector only that we had a segmented network that made it difficult to reach the honey pots, our

  • Finance servers – with all our financial and HR data, and the
  • Document management servers – with all client data.

When we called this associate for discussion about the commencement of the consulting project, he was more obsessed about his pay even before he had fully understood the scope of work and our expectations of him. And then he wanted to first sign the contract.

My experience has shown that folks who know what to do rarely talk about money before they understand the work at hand to be done. Plus they rarely set conditions for project execution on the initial payment. They treasure the opportunity to prove their expertise. They play the long term game, not the short term one. They even insist, don’t worry about the money you will pay me. Let’s agree on the scope so that your expectations and those of the client are met. You agree with the task, their fee, and they get out their laptop and start working. And you start seeing results. Even when they complete the work, they do not disturb you with fees. They are busy folks who do their part because they expect you to do yours. Only after you delay, you will receive an email at about 9 pm or 10 pm, titled: “reminder—don’t forget to send my ‘damage’.

Many government institutions insist on ‘deliverables’ by the consultant. One of the deliverables is usually the Inception Report. You can tell a good professional by the quality of their inception report. And that is how the man from India became exposed. He could not write an inception report. “Do you have a template for the inception report?” he asked. And without a blink, it was availed. But he could not customize it. This folk was just learning on the job.

In cybersecurity assessments, we prefer to start from out to inside. We start with a black box or external penetration testing and then conduct a white box or internal penetration testing. We asked the Indian expert to give us his pen test program and tools for the black box.  And the indicative table of contents for the final report. He could not deliver anything. And then he disappeared.

We looked for the man in vain. We had to work with another former colleague to get the job completed. But we learned our lessons. Be careful with subcontractors. Never put anyone’s CV in the proposal if you have never worked with them.

What is your experience with independent consultants in terms of skills, reliability, and professionalism?

Have you ever met an associate who while at the client he played Judas? “by the way I do not work at the firm, I am their contractor on this project I usually do the work for them. Next time hire me directly, so you do not pay a lot. Here is my company address?”

I realize the best way to grow the firm, is to develop internal capacity to deliver your specialist service areas. Don’t swim in too deep waters. You may not come out easily if at all you don’t drown.

Copyright Mustapha B Mugisa, 2020. All rights reserved.

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