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6 March 2007

Stop trying to look sophisticated

By Andrew Clifford

Sometimes we need to ignore the sophisticated and specialist skills that we pride ourselves on having, and use simple techniques instead.

Like many IT consultants, I advertise all sorts of sophisticated and specialist skills: cost reduction, systems integration, long-term IT management, IT governance, and so on. And I proudly boast that I can apply these skills to meet my clients' needs.

But I have to be careful. For most of my working life I have been on the receiving end of consultancy. I used to get really annoyed by consultants who would bend the work to meet their specialist skills, rather than the other way around. Now that I am the consultant, I have to remember this. I have to present myself as a sophisticated specialist, but be able to quickly abandon this and use simpler skills when needed.

I have been working with a large UK IT company. I was brought in because of my experience in systems integration. But when I got there, I found that their design was sound and most of the systems integration was already under way.

There was of course a temptation to show off, criticise their design, and do something clever like define some XML standards or messaging protocols. But they did not need this. What they needed was a good overall view of the solution, to make sure that the design would tie up and to make sure that nothing had been missed. So instead of doing anything very sophisticated, I have been working with the client to build up good lists of systems, interfaces and servers.

Lists help in a number of ways. A sophisticated design will probably concentrate on the new, risky or interesting parts, but might forget the old less interesting parts. Lists help bring completeness.

Lists bring a sense of proportion. We had been discussing whether one server should run Windows or Linux, and this had become an issue for some people. But drawing up a list showed that we needed about 75 new servers, and gave us a good idea of what most of them needed to be. This let us get on with managing the build work, and not be too distracted by an issue with one or two of the servers.

Lists tie things together. Different groups - development, testing, infrastructure, and so on - need to co-ordinate their work, and need good lists to do so. A list provides a basis for communication, and a focus for managing change.

The work on lists has shown me that simple techniques, carried through carefully, are often more effective than applying more sophisticated skills. It might be a blow to my pretensions as a consultant, but the alternative, making the work more complicated to make me look good, would not meet my clients needs. We should not let our professional pride stop us doing simple things well.

And anyway, with all my new experience, I can always advertise myself as a "Strategic Inventory Consultant". I will go and have a think about that.

Next: How long should IT systems last?

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