Know Your Enemies, No. 2: Consultants Again

We established conclusively in last month’s monograph that IT consultants are, on the whole, self-serving parasitic scum who have precisely two areas of high and mutually synergistic capability:

(a)    Bamboozlement at the Vice President level and above.

(b)   Shamelessly sky high invoicing.

But we have not yet looked properly at the type of snake oil they are peddling, and how they manage to keep on flogging it to credulous head honchos year after year after year.

Ah, for the days of the good old fashioned traditional down home authentically rustic conman, unencumbered by of this fancy-dancy modern day MBA nonsense.

Ah, for the days of the good old fashioned traditional down home authentically rustic conman, unencumbered by of this fancy-dancy modern day MBA nonsense.

Used Ideas are the commodities in which consultants trade. Software seems to breed a lot of this guff. Every third propeller-headed geek seems to fancy themselves as a Yoda of the Code(*) and so has developed their own pet philosophy, theory, best practice or development credo that they never tire of droning on about. Some of the lustier strains of dogmatic crankery make it out of the office into the wild and end up spawning sprawling ecosystems of handbooks, evangelists, training courses, gurus and toolkits. UML, for example, was all the rage in the early 2000s. Barely a week would go by without some grinning nutter of a business analyst turning up at your desk with bits of paper filled with ovals, arrows and little stick men. Thankfully those days are gone but new panaceas for global efficiency are minted every year.

Not only stating the bleeding obvious, but also over-stating it in such a ponderous and laborious way as to make decent sensible people grind their teeth down to stumps.

Not only stating the bleeding obvious, but also over-stating it in such a ponderous and laborious way as to make decent sensible people grind their teeth down to stumps.

So what does the market in pre-owned IT enlightenment look like now ? Well, over the last few decades, since the PC revolution made computers ubiquitous and IT projects a chronically untreatable blight of boils on the body corporate, there has at any given time been some currently hot IT doctrine which will wash your dishes whiter, shift stubborn understains and reduce the visible signs of aging more effectively than any other leading brand. In less than half a century we have had Six Sigma, TQM, Kanban, PRINCE2, XP, Scrum, TDD, BDD, SSADM, RAD, Rational Unified Process and The Zachman Framework to name just the first dozen which come to mind. Right now various flavours of Agile are to your average IT department what G Plan furniture, microwave ovens, the family saloon or the video recorder were to the aspirational post-war consumer. They are the must-have lifestyle-revolutionising commodity which will lead one into easy, comfortable, streamlined, successful living. Consultants exploit the changing fashions of corporate IT received wisdom in exactly the same way that advertising executives create and ride the endless waves of retail hysteria.

Just what is it that makes today's IT projects so different, so successful ?

Just what is it that makes today’s IT projects so different, so successful ?

Again, I sincerely do not want to be too dismissive. Not all of those once or currently hip methodologies are complete toss. They could do good, if applied sensitively and with some understanding of what the company they are being applied to does and needs. One could imagine the modern day Flora Poste spending a few months head-scratching before offering up a couple of handfuls of useful suggestions. One expensive mega-project ought to be canned, say. Three separate bits of gubbins doing the same job could be combined into one. Better business analysis is needed, as well as a lot more testing and testers. Maybe even dip a toe into test-driven development in a couple of spots. That system could be neatly replaced with a buy-in which would do a much better job. Those ones on the other hand can’t, and should be kept, but they’d be better maintained in-house rather than by a conveyer belt of fixed price contracts with innumerable semi-competent outsourced offshore numpties. That area could tentatively “go agile.” That bit on the other hand is working fine. Leave it well alone. And so on. But that would require most or all of the boxes in the checklist of ideal consultant virtues proffered in last month’s instalment to be comprehensively ticked. Let us have a look at that list again. For a consultant to truly merit their briefcase full of twenties, they would have to be honest, able, fearless, astute and self-sacrificing to such an extent that they:

  1. Understand software, IT and the business they are advising.
  2. Are sincerely concerned with improving it.
  3. Possess some acumen which could genuinely be of use, garnered from long and bitter experience of being dropped into and sorting out disastrous technology debacles.
  4. Are prepared to solicit opinion from all corners and all levels, from the CEO to the code monkeys to the call centre.
  5. Have no desire to extend their contract beyond the point where they can do good.
  6. Do not wish to bring in any of their pals on big fat day rates.
  7. Have no additional products or services up their sleeves which their employer is gagging to sell to their client.

If your man could at least muster points one, two and three, then he would be at least be competent, willing to help and possess the insight to figure out what might make things run better. However these boxes are never ticked, and if they were, the guy wouldn’t be the sort who’d get the job. A sharp cookie unafraid of speaking the truth and shaming the devil might well make the foolish mistake of pointing out that much of the mess in IT is caused by factors above and outside it. Say, the changes in strategic direction made by the board every damn year, leading to the commissioning of yet more costly and pointless techie clobber whilst existing kit which could be enhanced and improved more economically withers and stumbles. Perhaps the ever increasing requirement for bureaucracy, checkpoints and approvals in the name of governance and oversight might be getting in the way of progress rather than assisting it. Conceivably three of the directors being locked into a tedious alpha-male pissing competition isn’t terribly constructive either, as each time one of the twits gets some dopey vanity project approved the other two have to be compensated with equivalently witless IT budget-flushers thereby wasting three large sacks of money at a time rather than one.

An oft-used, arguably somewhat hackneyed, but still accurate and valuable visual metaphor for typical project progress within the shambolic IT space.

An oft-used, arguably somewhat hackneyed, but still accurate and valuable visual metaphor for typical project progress within the shambolic IT space.

Nope, that’s the kind of candour that leads one away from a four figure day rate. Whoever pays the piper calls the tune, and if that piper is a shrewd piper and wants some well-paid repeat piping business, he’ll make sure his tunes flatter his paymaster. It’s an ignoble tradition across many fields of human activity. Even the venerated Bard was not immune; Shakespeare spent a lot of stage time bigging up the Tudors whilst giving a good posthumous kicking to Richard III. Following that bitter but compelling logic to its inevitable end, it’s fairly predictable what lines the final recommendations will follow.

Richard of York. Lovely bloke, by all reliable accounts. Loyal, brave, not at all hunchbacked and probably not a multiple-tower-prince-killer. Definitely didn’t deserve to be traduced by a propagandist Brummie scribbler in the pay of the new regime, or dumped under a car park in Leicester for 500 years.

Richard of York. Lovely bloke, by all reliable accounts. Loyal, brave, not at all hunchbacked and probably not a multiple-tower-prince-killer. Definitely didn’t deserve to be traduced by a propagandist Brummie scribbler in the pay of the new regime, or dumped under a car park in Leicester for 500 years.

First off, there’ll obviously be big dollops of whichever techniques, gear and psychobabble are currently snazziest and most ostensibly cutting edge and therefore most likely to dazzle the crowd. These lumps of currently modish tripe will be served up in the usual syrupy IT mumbo jumbo gumbo sauce with pints of buzzwords, quarts of polysyllabic waffle, and buckets of trite truisms delivered in such magisterial tones that it is as if a new science were being unveiled. Because of the need to butter up the audience and the desire to include everything sexy that could be thought of, the 200 page submission will be awash with contradictions even to the casual reader. One section will extol the virtues of agility, flexibility and iterative development. Two chapters later, the tub will be thumped for superlative requirements gathering, exhaustive planning, an unbreakable grip on scope and the iron fist of tight project management leading to right-first-time-on-time-on-budget delivery. The pages between will valiantly attempt to paper over the giant logical crevasse between these positions using all the rhetorical flourishes and weapons-grade jargon the writers can muster. In some cases there will be blatant jarring discord even within the same sentence, as one course of action is advocated from logic that would support its exact opposite. For example:

“Because it is essential that the business procure, and seamlessly integrate, best-in-class software over the whole technology landscape, it is vital that a single ‘One-Stop Shop’ supplier is engaged who can deliver a co-ordinated suite of interoperating solutions across the whole piece.”

How will each piece be best in class if you’re going to get all of them from the same place ? If you did need the best in the world for everything, you’d shop around. You’d go to Jermyn Street for your shoes, and maybe direct to an organic farm in Norfolk for your sausages. It amounts to saying that you wish to buy the finest wines, meats, cheeses, washing machines, underpants and literature available to humanity, and as it’s the only place you can find all of those goods sold together under the same roof, you must buy them from a really big out of town Tescos. The true greatness of that blob of italicised consultantese(**) is that it builds a daft contradiction from a set of asinine premises that are wrong to begin with. It isn’t essential that you buy any software. It certainly isn’t necessary to buy all new software for everything and what you do buy needn’t be the absolute tip-top toppermost of the poppermost; it just has to work well enough. And it categorically doesn’t all have to be bought from a single one of the mega-combines and, even if it is, all the pieces are very unlikely to slot together neatly and easily.

Argos. It’s got the biggest catalogue, therefore it must ipso facto have all of the very the best stuff. That’s A-grade ironclad consultant logic, that is.

Argos. It’s got the biggest catalogue, therefore it must ipso facto have all of the very the best stuff. That’s A-grade ironclad consultant logic, that is.

But it sounds nice, and most importantly it parrots back the half-baked and inconsistent notions of the bigwigs that commissioned the consultancy exercise in the first place. Because above all else, arselicking the top bosses is what the consultants want and need to do. They may have spent months gathering data, interviewing multifarious peons and producing pyschogeographical organisational topologies but the key inputs to the consultants’ final report will be the half-dozen half hour chit-chats they had with the directors. If an influential one of those Wise Men believes that strict adherence to ITIL(***) is the key to success, then that axiomatic truth will be hammered into every other page. If another one read something in Computer Weekly about amazing synergies achieved through Cloud-based hosting, then it’ll be Amazon this, that and the other all the way through. The other consequence of this continual need to soft-soap the top brass is that they will be kowtowed to incessantly as an essential source of wise counsel and sound judgement. If this was just another layer of the old flannel, that would be alright but sadly this has woeful practical consequences in the form of More Bloody Governance and Extra Sodding Sign-offs. Once all of the report’s many edicts have been enacted in full, and despite all its windy pontification about empowerment and flat structures and proactivity, you will find that approval is needed at the Assistant Director level or above for any spend over fifty quid or job of more than half a day’s duration. This on the basis that the plebs below haven’t even the wit to pour piss out of their own boots and therefore solid business decisions must be escalated up to those lofty Alpine heights where the air is pure and the lakes filled with clear blue managerial sagacity and erudition.

Up in the Managerial Mountains, where one can see from miles away what the toiling peasants in the valleys below will overlook, though it may be just under their miserable grubby lower-class noses. Much like this scene, albeit with more cufflinks, mahogany and trays of artisanal delicatessen sandwiches.

Up in the Managerial Mountains, where one can see from miles away what the toiling peasants in the valleys below will overlook, though it may be just under their miserable grubby lower-class noses. Much like this scene, albeit with more cufflinks, mahogany and trays of artisanal delicatessen sandwiches.

It’s not so much that your average Captains of Industry are any more vain, ignorant, self-aggrandizing and silly than the rest of us, but rather that they are more often given scope to exercise those defective personality traits and are able to do so in such a way that is ruinous for their workforce, their shareholders and ultimately the economy as a whole. Indeed, today’s weird contra-logical lunatic commercial setup seems actively to encourage them to behave in these ways, and to reward them handsomely for doing so. Consider at the extreme the Remuneration Committee of your typical large PLC, which has the job of setting salaries and benefits for the directors and other notable high-ups in the firm. It will be composed of non-executive directors who are in theory independent of the day to day (executive) management. But in fact they are drawn from the same slightly stagnant pool of top talent, the floating international gentleman’s club of senior suits. They will all be on several other boards around the world, mostly in a non-exec capacity but likely as not as a real live C-something-O somewhere. Or if they aren’t right now, they have been recently  and will be again shortly. Their kids went to the same schools, they see each other at the Royal Opera House and Turnberry, and they’re always bumping in to one another in the marina at Antibes. So when the committee meets and its august membership pose themselves the question “How much should hard-working, visionary, agreeable grandees such as ourselves be paid ?” it is not hard to guess which of the options

(a)    a little more

(b)   substantially more

(c)    a vast amount more in order to adequately reflect the massive weight of responsibility shouldered, the golden leadership acuity provided, and the need to compete internationally in order to procure and retain the very best expertise.

they might be likely to plump for.

But let us return from this tangential and generalised up-the-workers-down-with-the-bosses harangue to the point, i.e. the specific case of IT Consultants and their dreaded final report. We have by now clearly established that little can be expected from this lengthy eructation beyond flannel, fads, flattery, fudge and fashionable foolishness. That will not of course stop the piles of bumph being perused with a solemnity worthy of the publication of On the Origin of Species or The Wealth of Nations, and will not prevent your professional world being turned upside down for the next few years on the strength of its baseless and nonsensical proposals. Until, in fact, the company reaches the conclusion of its next consultancy exercise after yet another shitstorm of disasters. This will naturally demand the wholesale reversal of anything that was implemented the last time around: jobs that were outsourced should come back in, bespoke systems commissioned should be junked and replaced by packages, existing buy-ins replaced by self-builds, and if everything was Open Source before, then it’s all Microsoft now. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même f**king chose all over a-bloody-gain, as they say in France. There will be another round of tumultuous upheaval in the continuing quest to find a short cut to the sublime, a portal to a parallel universe of perfection, or a silver bullet(****) to slay the seven succubi of software development or what have you. And it won’t work in any way, shape or form, and the only thing that will be high-throughput, smooth, rapid and efficient will be the flow of money from customer to consultant. Or from sucker to swindler, if we decide finally to start calling a spade a spade.

But on the bright side, consultancy exercises do at least offer a break from mundane everyday routine. Here’s hoping you get a good one next time, who offers something a little more challenging than a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces as a team problem envisioning exercise.

Consultancy: How It Should Be Done. “The pig doesn’t care about you, but you care about the pig.”

– – – E n d – – –

(*) And the worst of these opinionated gits are the bloggers. On they bore, every month (or every bloody week if they have a particularly bad case of blogorrhoea) with their latest Olympian pronouncement on the emergent technology landscape. God, I hate bloggers. Unmitigated pompous gobshiteing twats, to a man and woman.

(**) Depressingly, almost a direct quote from a hefty consultancy excretion seen by this author.

(***) ITIL purports to stand for Information Technology Infrastructure Library and is a highly formalised means of controlling computer systems, services and projects. See here. It’s absolutely appalling. ITIL seems to have been invented purely to prevent anything at all happening ever, and to ensure that hard-working, clever, helpful and productive people are placed firmly under the thumb of the lazy, the stupid, the officious and the worthless. It amounts to an imposition of Feudalism on software development. Possible actual derivations include:

  • Inane, Totalitarian, Infuriating, Leaden.
  • Idiots Terminate IT Labours
  • It’s Terrible; I’d Leave

(****) Re: Silver Bullets – there aren’t any. Fred Brooks is older, cleverer and wiser than you and I, and he says so.

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