I participated in the Consulting Careers forum last night in Charlotte, NC at the WFU SsOB campus. It was a well-attended event with about 30 students and 6 panelists (5 alumni) representing other consulting companies such as The North Highland Company, Carlisle and Gallagher Consulting Group,  Techcheck Inc., and Mercer Health & Benefits. It was my first event as an Alumni (now 18 months out) so I was excited to get involved with the WFU community again.

Consulting companies at the WFU Alumni Event

Consulting Companies Represented at the WFU Event on June 10, 2011

I enjoyed the discussion. Mainly student Q&A, it covered questions on the typical consulting day (not that there it is such a thing), how to break into consulting, what industries are served by the consulting industry (essentially all of them), what skills are most valuable to be a good consultant, and the pros/cons of working for bigger vs. smaller firms. There were a few points that really stood out to me as being insightful from the other panelists. I’ll share them here.

First, on the topic of getting introduced to a consulting company, the point was made that it can be very helpful to make an informal introduction of yourself to the company. This can be done by leveraging whatever personal connections one might have with a company, alumni connections perhaps, to simply have lunch or coffee with a company rep which would hopefully give a sense of the culture/lifestyle that might be the norm at a given firm. Consulting is a field which relies on personal touches and comforts, and different firms will have different slants on these softer aspects of the work. The experience at Vision Point Systems, an example of a small boutique technology firm, is going to be much different than at a mega firm like Accenture.

Second, on the topic of what skills would stand out when applying for a consulting position, we all seemed to agree that the things that matter are not the things that come through on a resume. In fact, when discussing certifications such as PMI, or Six Sigma Black Belt, it was raised that these may not just simply be not valued or ignored, they can also become liabilities at certain firms, because of the potentially negative connotations that come along with them. (i.e. spreadsheet jockey)

The last major takeaway I had was on what the definition of “consulting” actually is. There were a few differing perspectives on the panel. Some were close to mine – a consulting is about problem solving end-to-end while leveraging expertise in a particular business aspect and/or industry. Others had the background of consulting being tied closer to sales. My point was that a true consultant differentiates themselves from an integrator, salesperson or technician by not only being an expert in a field or product, but by knowing how the immediate problem is impacting the overall business of the client. In my opinion, there is where the MBA really becomes valuable and why MBAs are so often associated with the consulting field

I look forward to continuing my involvement in the WFU Alumni community, and it was great to make connections with the students and other panelists in the Charlotte area.

Here’s an actual transcription of a Voicemail message I received yesterday

Good Morning, Jim. My name is Matt. I’m calling from Northern Virginia. I had spoken with Kevin from the Fairfax office, and he directed me to you. I was referred to Vision Point a few weeks ago. It was actually regarding a couple questions that I had.  I wanted to follow up with the Blacksburg . He said that would probably help a little more versus the Fairfax office so if you can give me a call back, my number is…

Naturally, the suspense was killing me.

I called him back later that afternoon.

Matt: This is Matt.

Me: Hi, This is Jim, you left me a message. How can I help?

Matt: Oh, Hi Jim. Thanks for calling back. I had a few questions. I ran into Vision Point a few weeks ago at a networking event.

Me: I see. Are you wanting to buy something from us or are you trying to sell us something?

Matt: We’re a hosted Voice-Over-IP provider.

Me: I see. So do you do like SIP Trunks or a hosted PBX-type thing?

Matt: All of our data is in the cloud, on the same network as 80% of all the traffic on the east coast.

Me: I still don’t follow. What business problem of mine are you trying to solve?

Matt: Oh, you can have your phone system hosted by us, and if your building burns down, your phone system will still work.

Me: Ah, I get it.

Oh boy. What a disaster. We’re not in the market for that type of thing right now, so we agreed to part ways, but this was an eye-opening event. First, some people just shouldn’t be doing sales. Second, If you can’t just come out and say what you’re trying to sell and how it will help me, then your business has a problem.

My business isn’t the shining example of marketing brilliance (yet), but at least we don’t make cold calls. 2011 is a year of marketing focus for us, and this event is going to be in the back of my mind the whole time as we are formulating our pitch and sales process. We’ve got some exciting new stuff coming up. I apologize for my silence.

If you’re a Roanoker, you may have heard about the launch of RoanokeOutside.com. It’s been well publicized on Twitter, Facebook, and now some other media outlets such as Star City Harbinger and WSLS. Beth Doughty, Executive Director of the Roanoke Regional Partnership does a good job summarizing the site in their latest press release:

“Making the outdoors an important part of our region’s narrative starts with a comprehensive Web site that catalogues our natural resources and makes it easier for people all over the world to learn about and enjoy our region’s natural resources.”

My company, Vision Point Systems, is behind the development of this site. We have an interesting task ahead of us balancing the demand for an objective catalog of the region’s offerings with the desire to build a dynamic community of outdoor enthusiasts and casual participants. This is one of those instances where social media can seem like a buzzword. It’s tempting to decorate the page with Twitter feeds, Friendfeed streams, etc. There’s a real risk of getting too hung up on the social aspect and burying the real purpose of the site. There will be some much needed traditional web features such as a hiking trail database, links to local outfitters, events lists, and other guidance and tips. The last thing we want to happen is create a feeling of exclusivity because of a passionate core group of outdoor enthusiasts.

The great part about the process we’re going through is that we’ve launched the site as a completely temporary entity to act as a preview and feedback mechanism. We’ve got a clear deadline set for Sept 30 to get the real thing built and we’re thrilled about the buzz the site is getting so far.

The RoanokeOutside.com temporary page

The RoanokeOutside.com temporary page

I’d personally welcome feedback on this subject, but the best course of action is to take the survey on the site itself!

I just got off a massive conference call  for a client with 20+ other people. It’s noteworthy to me that calls like this take place, especially when the 20 people come from 20 different departments. It’s also understandable that people might be annoyed when pulled from their daily routine for a call regarding a unique event that’s about to happen that they may have a very minor role in. The main facilitator for this particular call is a co-consultant from another vendor. He about got ripped to shreds by the more senior people on the call for things like pausing to take notes or simply just taking a while to get around to the point of his questions. Poor Guy. I might be tempted to say that these types of meetings can be evened out with detailed objective documentation. This guy took it too far in that regard as well. He sends out documents multiple times a day with filenames about 150 characters long. Emails go to 25 people with all the thread history embedded in the message. The documents themselves are just list on list on list… I’m on the fringe of involvement myself. I’m annoyed – not to the point of being hostile – but I certainly wish I could ignore what’s going on.

This type of situation makes me reflect on my own communication style, and the general communication style we coach in my company. I’ve come up with these insights:

  • Meetings should be for the benefit of those participating. If an attendee won’t be directly acting based on the entirety of the topic discussed or won’t be expected to raise questions or concerns about the overll topic, they probably don’t need to be in the meeting. Side meetings or email conversations can extract a lot of information that can be recorded and reported by a central moderator.
  • When speaking, be clear about who you are speaking to and end every comment with a directive or question.
  • Summary documents are useful, but only when action items or outliers are clearly identified. I think a stoplight solution is great way to show what is at risk.
  • If you, as a facilitator, have concerns, it is best to approach the owner of those items offline first instead of the public forum.
  • The telephone is still a useful tool.
  • A picture is worth a 1000 words. I love Visio diagrams to show relationships. Nothing says “This is where the failure point is going to be” better than a big red X on a flow chart or system diagram.
  • Don’t impose your organization methods on everyone else. If you feel you need to catalog every email, do it in a way that will not clutter everyone else’s email box with superfluous subject lines, etc
  • Most people are smart, just busy.

Just some thoughts. Hopefully they are good reminders.

Today’s IT Management for MBA’s class had one interesting takeaway for me: a list of complaints companies typically have with IT vendors. The list, as adapted from a 2007 Forrester Research study is basically as follows:

  • Cost savings not as much as expected
  • Inability to respond to changing business needs
  • Inflexibility towards price, volume or scope changes
  • Not enough time invested by the vendor towards making the contract successful
  • Not enough effort towards continuous improvement
  • Lack of cooperation with other vendors or suppliers
  • Poor or inconsistent quality

I read this list as good checklist for what a company like Vision Point Systems should be pitching to all potential and current clients. I believe we already do a good job of incorporating the tenants associated with avoiding these mistakes into our business culture, and that this is a main reason for our success in the face of competition from other larger and more established IT consulting companies. I’ll certainly be sure to emphasize these aspects even more from here on out.

I’ve been contacted by at least 5 different local (SW VA) IT Recruiting firms in the last 3 months or so. I know that despite the general hard economic times, good software people are hard to find. So I’m sure there’s something to be said for the value of providing access to known, but out-of-work talent. I’m still trying to find the business advantage for a company like mine, however. I invite any such recruiters to make the case here (I know some of you already read my blog)

Here’s my perspective. The hiring process at Vision Point Systems is very subjective. We hire people, for whichever position, that we feel will be a good consultant in whatever their specialty is. This is a qualitative trait that is hard to filter in any sort of pre-screening or skills assessment that I would expect a recruiter to do. In that case, I would expect to have to interview any candidate directly myself anyway. Interviewing seems to be the most time-consuming part of the process from my position. I’ve gotten into a good rhythm and am comfortable with the productivity of the traditional job posting channels we utilize today (jobs.roanoke.com or Hokies4Hire, for example)

I also don’t like spending as much time on the phone as I do with the recruiters on a recurring basis, when I haven’t yet reached out to any for them to help me fill a position. I won’t be looking forward to the number of calls I would be receiving if I do engage a firm’s services.

The other value argument I’ve heard is the “trial period” arrangement. This means I could hire someone through a staffing firm and not have to worry about signing the new employee up for benefits, etc, until we’re confident they are a good fit. This isn’t how I like to approach hiring. I want new hires to come on board with a sense of ownership right away. Keeping them at arm’s length by having them off the payroll doesn’t match the culture I’m working to build.

All this being said, I’m sure the recruiter model works in some situations – larger or product-based companies, for example. For a small consulting firm where everyone is expected to carry the company banner, I just don’t see the value.

So please, anyone with another perspective on this, chime in.

The new roanoke.org site has been launched. Vision Point Systems has been working with The Roanoke Regional Partnership and Neathawk, Debuque, and Packet for a few months now on implementing this great new site. ND&P provided the look and feel to go along with the group’s new branding, and we made everything work, and easy for the RRP admins to maintain.

I’m really proud of this site for many reasons, but if for no other reason than for it being a home-grown product. RRP is as much of an advocate of this region as you can get. By choosing us from Blacksburg and ND&P from Roanoke, it was an easy process for us to collaborate, communicate, and actually meet in person to get the project done. The site is even hosted by Tech Squared, also in Roanoke.

Another great aspect of the site is that we were able to use tools and data provided by other parties such as with the Cost of Living Calculator and Site and Building Data.

My favorite, though, is how we’ve brought in the MyScoper events feed here. This is great example of RSS and syndication at work. I’ve spoken with the folks at MyScoper and I know they love that we’re doing this.  I’ll be looking for other potential information providers – perhaps for things like restaurants, weather, outdoor activities, etc.

I see the blogs are already abuzz about this (Stuart Mease, EdPro), and I look forward to the continued evolution of this new tool for the region’s current and future residents.