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I have been a consultant for a small software consulting firm for quite some time now. Our normal business model is not staff augmentation, but such that we find clients who need assistance in building a solution of some kind and then send in a team who can build that solution, work with the existing IT staff, train all involved on supportting that solution, then move on to the next job. We, of course, are still around for any needed ongoing support. We have a great reputation in our area and have been very successful in implementing the solutions that we provide.

However, I have noticed a common theme for most of our projects. When we get on-site, there is generally a "stressed" relationship between our team and many of the IT staff currently at the client. I understand completely that there may be some anxiety about our arrival and that defenses can come up when we are around. Many of the folks are understanding and easy to work with, but there are usually some who will not work well with us at all, and who can quickly become a project risk in many ways.

We try to go in with open minds and good attitudes, and try NOT to be arrogent or condecending. We generally get deployed when there is a mess to clean up - but we understand that there were reasons decisions were made that got them in the bind they are...so we just try to determine the next step forward and move on.

My question is this - I'd like to hear from the IT staff and programmers out there who have had consultants in - what are the things that consultants do that fire up negative feelings and attitudes? What can we do better to make the relationship better, not only in the beginning, but as the project moves forward?

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I wanted to add another answer but I will just leave a comment instead because it is small. Don't wear a suit and tie if you can help it. Dressing ABOVE the dress code at any point other than meetings with clients will be a SURE way to completely lose the room with the employees. How are you supposed to trusted if you can't even pretend like you want to fit in? –  maple_shaft Jun 20 '11 at 14:44
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I'm disappointed by the number of answers in this thread which reinforce the premise of the question or just rant at those worthless/arrogant/incompetent consultants, rather than try to answer how relationships between permanent staff and contractors can be improved. Surely a consultant who actually wants better relationships should be encouraged? –  Mark Booth Jun 20 '11 at 15:14
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Thanks Mark...I've seen the comments too. I think it is good to let folks vent a bit. Bottom line from all of the comments sounds like a) go in with humility, b) expect to learn as much as you hope to contribute, c) PROVE YOURSELF. I know there are a LOT of consultants out there who aren't worth the electrons they are programming on, but before you can be respected, you need to prove your worth. –  Catchops Jun 20 '11 at 15:31
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You got the message quite right. The inhouse folks will only respect you for your deeds not the talk. If you show them you're skilled and capable, that will open doors. Nothing else will. –  user8685 Jun 20 '11 at 17:16
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Unless you start dating with some of their staff. Then the catchy talk will suffice. :) –  user8685 Jun 20 '11 at 17:18
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14 Answers

up vote 38 down vote accepted

Let the Wookiee Win

Consultants who want to build and mantain good relationships with existing staff would do well to remember the sage advice from Hans Solo in Star Wars: "Let the Wookiee win"

Not that the in-house staff are wookiees. Well, not all of them. The point is that if you (you being the consultant in this case) want your presence and assistance to be welcome, you cannot be a credit-grabbing glory hog who belittles the in-house staff and prior consultants. Instead, you must help the in-house staff to win, make them look good, and be generally useful, helpful, and humble. How awesome you are is reflected in not only how well you solve problems, but in how many people look forward to your return.

Caveat: I am a consultant. My clients are not wookiees. It's a humorous metaphor.

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+1 But it would sure be super cool if your clients were wookies. –  Spoike Jun 20 '11 at 16:17
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We must find a way to bring more Wookies into the software engineering field. –  Zhehao Mao Jun 20 '11 at 16:59
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I don't mean to be the spelling police, but you misspelled wookiee. (Don't worry, 99.999% of people do!) –  Reid Jun 20 '11 at 17:18
    
employees are often wookies. Management needing to bring in large numbers of consultants are almost always wookies. If they were better, they would know how many employees they need long term and just hire them, and for that matter hire competent employees. –  Dov Jun 20 '11 at 17:37
    
@Reid: fixed, thanks –  Steven A. Lowe Jun 20 '11 at 18:18
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First and foremost, you want to give the perception that you are there to work with the existing IT/Development team. You can present yourself as being there to fill in positions that their in-house team simply does not have the resources to fill without pulling people from more "mission critical" tasks, and, just possibly, as bringing some outside perspectives.

Some specific guidelines:

  • Keep the in-house team in the loop. Making an effort to communicate with them may alleviate some anxiety over "what those people might be doing".
  • Solicit their opinions. If you find specific areas that you feel are problems, ask how the in-house team has handled it in the past. If you have possible solutions, you may want to ask their opinions. Getting this feedback shows that you value their opinions, respect their experience, and possibly prevents you from duplicating their previous efforts.
  • Ask for their assistance when appropriate. Particularly when it comes to the current system and infrastructure. Consultants who ignore the current operating environment are both threatening, and fail to inspire confidence in their competence. Treat the in-house team as SMEs.

The more you engage them, and the more you show that you respect them, the more likely they are to feel that you are there to work with them, and not to compete against them.

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These are things that GOOD consulting company employees already do. BAD ones are more concerned with appearing like they know everything better than ANYBODY in house does. –  maple_shaft Jun 20 '11 at 14:42
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@maple_shaft There are also consultants who just assume that everyone in-house is incompetent, and try to do everything from scratch. I don't think it is accurate to claim every decent consulting company pays enough attention to reassuring the in-house teams (I don't think its safe to assume every consultant is either excellent or horrible, with no middle ground, either). The OP was asking for what could be done to improve things. If the only options are "either you're already good, in which case you're perfect, or you suck and can't become good", then there's not much point in answering. –  Beofett Jun 20 '11 at 14:52
    
I wish I could "Accept" two answers for this question, but I chose the one that had the most up-votes (Wookiee). But, if I could choose two, this would be there as well. Thanks for the feedback! I unfortunately see a lot of the negative behavior even in my firm - which is disturbing. I try to be as humble as possible and do my best to be an asset to my customer. So I am working as hard as possible to try and "smooth" over some of those negative feelings. Thanks again! –  Catchops Jun 23 '11 at 14:16
    
@Catchops Thanks for the kind words. It's hard to compete with such awesome use of a classic pop-culture catch phrase coupled with succinct and outstanding advice. I'd +2 Steven's answer if I could :) I'm glad you got helpful answers to your question, and I wish you the best of luck. Its a shame more consultants don't place value on the goals you are trying to accomplish. It is good to know there are honest consultants out there, and hopefully just by asking these questions, you have helped to remove some of the negative associations many IT staff and programmers have. –  Beofett Jun 23 '11 at 14:54
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I find that going to lunch with people is the best way to break down barriers. Don't try to force anyone, and one-on-one lunches with a different person each time is better, but do it regularly.

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I can't think why this was downvoted; one of the basics of relationship-building with customers is "Get plenty of beer down them." –  Brian Hooper Jun 20 '11 at 15:35
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I can guess why it was downvoted; I'm sure a lot of people have gotten bitter about forced friendliness with people they can barely stand. I suppose I should put a footnote on my answer: This only works if you aren't a scumbag. –  jhocking Jun 20 '11 at 15:38
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My firm's breach-storming technique typically involves four of us turning up at the client office: a project manager, an architect, and a couple of grunts (usually programmers with infrastructure skills on the side). There's then meetings and chats and whatnot, in which our bigwigs pair off with their bigwigs, and our programmers end up chatting with their programmers, sysops, etc. Quite often including some lunch or a beer. Their grunts might resent our bigwigs, but the grunts on both sides are united by the common bond of being the put-apon bottom rung in a rickety ladder. Bonding ensues. –  Tom Anderson Jun 20 '11 at 17:26
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It's not intentionally devious. We genuinely are united by the common bond of being the put-apon bottom rung in a rickety ladder. We're in unanimous agreement that the architects will be first up against the wall when the revolution comes. –  Tom Anderson Jun 20 '11 at 19:44
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I have a suspicion that some of the down-voters (I didn't vote) may have questioned the 'one-on-one' tactic you suggest. I find that this may take many, especially the non-technical, outside their comfort zone. If anything, you want to keep the in-house people on their home turf. As a consultant, I would try not to take out less than two employees at a time, because of the perception that this is a 'fact-finding' mission which the more apprehensive envision to be a 'gossip-finding' mission -- ammunition for you to create dissension and distrust among the employees. –  M. Tibbits Jun 21 '11 at 14:21
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Don't take it personally. Most people are reasonable and understand that you guys are working people too and you are just trying to make your way in the world like anyone else. Many times this disdain is because the people on the ground have a disdain for the management decision that brought you there in the first place.

It is the typical song and dance, management wants to take a new approach, they distrust the ability of there employees to handle this new task, employees take it personally.

Further there are a LOT of BAD borderline CRIMINAL consultant companies out there that make HUGE promises to management, bring NOTHING to the table, and most of their crappy architecture and design gets implemented (or completely redone) by employees who understand the business model and are closer to the business requirements.

To top it all off a lot of these deals go down behind closed doors with no transparency, and there can be corrupt things going on, like in the case of somewhere I used to work where the guy who owned the consulting company was close friends with the department head, so an unqualified consulting company comes in and frivolous spending on the part of the consulting company is billed with extraordinary markup in a complex and criminal money laundering (siphoning) scheme.

Of course you can naturally assume that the department head got a might fine kickback from his buddy at the consulting company for the "work".

Most managers don't realize just how perceptive their employees REALLY are to what is actually going on.

A lot of people myself included have experienced this firsthand from an employees perspective. It shouldn't be hard to see why you are not trusted.

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So it's called a "kickback". Only knew the Russian word until now. :) –  user8685 Jun 20 '11 at 14:14
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+1 for "Many times this disdain is because the people on the ground have a disdain for the management decision that brought you there in the first place." –  jhocking Jun 20 '11 at 16:16
    
You nailed it - it's the management. –  TrojanName Jun 21 '11 at 11:17
    
@jhocking: Yep, sometimes there are wrong management decisions that lead to a difficult situation and then an external consultant is hired to save the day. And then the external consultant can put your company in their portfolio and say how their methodology helped. –  Giorgio May 12 '13 at 8:37
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I don't think it's what consultants do per say, but rather what they represent. They are perceived as:

  • expensive (even though the consultant herself may be getting paid peanuts, the consultancy is likely making a big margin)
  • green (even if they're experts in a technology, they can't be experts in every domain, let alone every corporate culture)
  • temporary (this can lead to people being less inclined to make any efforts to socialize with the consultant)
  • likely to cause more problems than they fix. After all, they're gonna take off as soon as the project is "done" and leave it in the hands of a full-timer

Disclaimer: I've worked as a consultant and have felt the disdain first-hand.

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add to that - the consultants who come in are less experienced and skilled than the IT staff - the first selling consultant is better but that is just to get the juniors in –  Mark Jun 20 '11 at 14:13
    
"temporary": True. A consultant may be more expensive but they are external. If an employee was in charge of solving the same problem, he or she might become more authoritative within the company and then ask for a career and / or salary advance. So sometimes it is better to hire a consultant to solve that particular problem even if the problem could be solved by an employee. –  Giorgio May 12 '13 at 8:40
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We've made rather negative experiences with consultants (all during my time in Germany).

We had a few inhouse. Mostly they were talking a lot, saying in other words what we already knew then collected a large paycheck. People got mad because the consultants gained large money for nothing while hard-working employees were asking for a pay rise for years.

Once we had a UI consultant. We showed him our app, explained the problems and our ideas. At the next meeting he presented his "solution" - a quick mock-up he did on his iPad to document our own ideas. He was even bragging how it only took him a few hours to do the job. WTF?

Another time we had a consultant from QlikView. He was rushing through, wasn't explaining anything just made us click through for several hours. To almost every request to explain specific technical things he was responding something vague citing "those Swedes" did something weird again. In his feedback form I recommended him to cut off on his references to "those Swedes".

I've never seen a consultant worth his money.

Add to that the fact that out of our university pack everyone clueless, lazy and incurious about programming went to consulting. They were later telling stories how it was pure fun to be telling clients about things they had not a slightest clue about. A few who understood programming joined real software companies. So I have a good picture what contingent goes to consultancies.

The only thing that could change my mind is meeting a consultant knowing the subject and not the art of talking. Knowing the subject in-depth and not on a basic level gained by reading a couple of blogs and the entries on Wikipedia. Our UI consultant told us about a usability book he was just reading. I had it hard to resist temptation to advice him first read then come.

P.S. I know there are smart and great guys offering consultancy services. It's just that I haven't met one in person. So I'm suspicious by default unless they prove themselves worthy.

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"those Swedes" is more correct. ;-) (coming from a Swedish consultant) –  Spoike Jun 20 '11 at 13:56
    
@Spoike: Thanks a lot. Couldn't quite find the right word. :) –  user8685 Jun 20 '11 at 14:06
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Sounds infuriating. Were these consultants from big firms, or small ones? As an employee of a small consulting firm, i can tell you that the guys from those big ones aren't worth the paper their business cards are printed on. They hire graduates, teach them the bare minimum, send them out into the field (usually with an efficient support machine behind them, so they can look like they can get results), and issue a massive invoice. Whereas us guys in the small firms, oh, we're craftsmen, sages, and poets. –  Tom Anderson Jun 20 '11 at 17:29
    
The guy from QlikView was at least 40. The others were about 30 give or take. Can't quite tell about the company affiliation of those others, could well be they were independent. –  user8685 Jun 20 '11 at 18:27
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In my experience there are consultants from big houses (Anderson being the most egregious) who come in to take what the existing people tell them, document it in Anderson (excuse me, now Accenture) style, then present it to management. They can't present it as the knowledge of the employees for the following reasons:

  1. management was unwilling to listen to their employees telling them why their idea wouldn't work/wouldn't come in in the time demanded, and disclosing the source of the information would only make management unwilling to listen to the consultant.

  2. If management was clued in to where the information really was, they would have little justification to hire the consultants.

So bringing in these "management consultants" is the death sign for big projects -- it shows that upper management is getting impatient with the results, and they want an outside picture of what's going on. If they were better at managing, they would be in touch with their own people, but that's like saying if they dealt better with their own families they wouldn't need therapists -- it's a good idea, but tough to implement.

The most insulting thing about the Anderson consultants was that they didn't know more than the employees, they knew far less, yet Anderson was somehow able to scam management into billing out at very high rates. (actually, the technique was very simple, the partners all went to school with the losers in upper management, that's why they are partners.) I personally saw one young woman, right out of college, learning Word at the client (a bank's) expense, all for $1000/day (not that she got a big cut). So it's quite understandable when the employees are irate about having to tell some young snot who doesn't know anything (literally) so they can type it in and tell it to management. Of course, the anger is misplaced. These employees should be angry at management, but they can't take it out on them.

It sounds like you run a small shop where you actually bring in technical expertise to do the work. Then the employees are threatened by your presence, and potentially feel worse in the comparison. There are a few remedies.

  1. Show your excellence. At first people may be hostile, but if you really are good at it, they will eventually come to you for help, particularly if you're generous with your time helping everyone.

  2. Be friendly, even in the face of hostility. Be unfailingly polite, even when they are not.

  3. Quietly, behind the scenes, enlist management. If the project leader needs to sit with the two of you at first, you can start a dialog. They won't be able to be as hostile in front of a manager, and once the ball is rolling, things should improve.

  4. Be humble. You don't know everything, and you should exaggerate what you want to learn from them, and minimize what you want them to learn from you.

  5. Keep reminding them that you're temporary. You say "I have to do this right, because you will have to deal with it, I'll be gone in a few months." That gives the employee more confidence. It also makes them feel better about the high billing rate, when they realize that after this, you'll be on the beach a while. It doesn't have to be true, but it's worth saying.

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The employees used to call Anderson "the bank robbers" because they were taking this bank for millions. –  Dov Jun 20 '11 at 17:41
    
This answer would be much better without the rant about Anderson, the last paragraph and points list would have been fine on their own. –  Mark Booth Jun 21 '11 at 13:15
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This story is objectively true, and indicates why there is an attitude among employees that consultants are the enemy. It is one thing to hire consultants to solve a problem. But the scenario I outlined did not just happen once, it was essentially a large part of Anderson's business model. The senior person would come in to analyze the situation and invariably, the "solution" would be to bring in 5-10 junior people to do a report. But since the people they brought in had no knowledge of actual development, they were really just billing. –  Dov Jun 21 '11 at 13:51
    
When I did manpower studies for the Navy, we had a big consulting firm called in to study something we had just finished that the organization disagreed with. They paid them several million dollars, they requested our report (that we spent three years collecting data for and then doing statistical analysis) through the Freedom of information act and put their cover on it. Did not change a single word. The organization loved their "better" product. –  HLGEM Jul 13 '11 at 19:16
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I've worked both sides of the fence, and I'm not sure its a solvable problem. At it's root, hiring a consulting company is insulting to the existing staff: they feel (rightly) that management believes that they lack the expertise to complete the project. They also feel that management respects you more than they do their own employees (after all, management sought you out, and listens to you), which is bound to cause resentment. And they'll know how much you're charging, and that will also cause resentment.

Additionally, many consultants aren't especially competent...This is not to say that they are *in*competent, but there is nothing more guaranteed to breed resentment than having some average-ability schmuck being brought in to solve an easy problem for a huge chunk of money. They seldom understand the complexities of local systems and infrastructure, which usually results in mistakes and inordinate amounts of hand-holding (you know how people are when they start a new job, and can't even make the coffee machine work? Consultants are like that all the time.)

The only time you are guaranteed to be appreciated as a consultant is when the whole department recognizes the need for what you do. If they want you, it's a whole different world, and they'll bend over backwards. I once worked on this huge RFID inventory system for a furniture company, and they just loved us to death. On the other hand, I also worked on a code modernization for a firm that did bankruptcy services, and I thought more than once that one of the workers there was going to take a swing at me (we were stealing their job security, and they knew it).

In short, if you specialize in something the company doesn't do, people tend to like you. If you specialize in something that the company does a lot of, people are going to hate you. Either you won't be as good at it as they are, or you'll make them look bad, and either way, it'll be ugly.

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Consulting... if you're not a part of the solution, there's good money to be made in prolonging the problem.


We try to go in with open minds and good attitudes, and try NOT to be arrogent or condecending

well, that sounds pretty condescending right there - the implication being that you're going in there because you're 'better' than the staffers and your job is to 'fix' the things they couldn't do.

We've used consultants and the problem is really that management feels these expensive guys really are better than the internal staff, often this is just not the case - if the staff were listened to or given the opportunity to speak out, the need for the consultant would not be there. Obviously this presents certain feelings of resentment towards the consultants as they come in to say things everyone else already knows.

IMHO the only way round this is to come in to consult over something the staff do not know - not to teach them something new, but to provide true expertise. I recall us hiring an Oracle DBA for some consultancy, training and general 'make our DBs work better', as no-one in the office was more than an adequate DBA, and this guy really did know his stuff, he was respected.

Ultimately, do you really think you go in to places where no-one there could do what you've been hired to do? If the answer is yes then you'll probably get a good rep, chances are the answer is no. I suppose the former situations mean that there's been a failure of management to work effectively and you're coming in to sweep the place clean and give everyone the chance of a fresh start. But you don't get many of those situations.. as management would never admit needing to hire you :)

PS. the other thing you can do is get rid of all the shyster know-nothing, charge-lots consultants that most people are familiar with. They do more harm to your reputation than you realise.

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I've been a "consultant" (a member of a staff augmentation force called in to help , and worked with them as well.

First off, there will be some ruffled feathers whenever the layout of a "team" changes. There are four stages of team development;

  • "Forming" - team first gets to know each other by name, lays down basic ground rules for working together, starts getting into the environment. Generally takes about a week.
  • "Storming" - team butts heads on differences of opinion, personalities, ego, etc. This will start to happen almost immediately and will overlap with the "norming" phase as personal conflicts arise and are resolved or overcome.
  • "Norming" - team works through these differences. Management may identify HR problems in the team and take appropriate action, but most of this is simply people getting used to working with each other. This can take weeks or even months, but generally, attempting to interfere with the process too much will actually hinder "norming".
  • "Performing" - the "steady state", with the team largely knowing how to work together instead of as a collection of individuals. Here, you start to see the "synergy" buzzword, where the team performs better than the sum of its parts because they interact without any retaliation or personal ambition other than to help the team. Only incremental changes should be made to the makeup of such a team, to replace attrition or augment the team; large increases, decreases or merging of teams will upset the chemistry and the process starts over.

You have to go through all four stages to get a team clicking along producing at full capacity. Trying to push through the "storming" and "norming" phases just produces a team nursing grudges, egos and general resentment of other members; it WILL blow up in the team's face eventually, and in the meantime the team, not trusting each other, will not be performing as well as they could.

Now, that being said, the formation of one team consisting of consultants and in-house developers is particularly combative. It still follows the same phases above, but the two teams merging into one come from different corporate cultures and report to different people who have little to no say in ther behavior of other people. The in-house team will likely take the stereotypical view that the consultants are coming in with 6-figure salaries to completely undo all their hard work, in the process undermining their professional standing and reputations in the eyes of their managers. In reality, the "consultants" may be on contract, getting no benefits, little job security and being told to do a job that looks insurmountable at first.

In this case, IMO it's generally better to keep the two teams as separate as possible. Two teams can work on one project, with the proper management. Consultation between teams should happen at the senior or project manager level, depending on how much the project managers are kept in the loop of specific design decisions and problems. Overlap of work each team is doing at the same time should be avoided; it's harder to hit a moving target, so Team 1 should not be depending on anything Team 2 is currently developing or refactoring and vice-versa.

This is a situation in which Agile is a very effective project management methodology. Split the work up into manageable chunks, assign independent chunks to each team and let each team figure out how best to meet the requirements. Make sure design rules are followed; when Team 2 comes across a dependency on Team 1's code, it will ruffle feathers on both sides if too much refactoring is needed.

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Simply saying this (quoting you):

We generally get deployed when there is a mess to clean up - but we understand that there were reasons decisions were made that got them in the bind they are...so we just try to determine the next step forward and move on.

Would've put my defenses down if I were in their position.

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Don't change the world the first day.

Share more of your brilliance personally, not just in meetings.

One of the fine arts of consulting is knowing when to step up. You're most likely more current than any internal programmers can be, as they're probably as focused as much on their own domain as the latest technology & software practices. Talk about latest trends, and maybe options to software issues they may be having, but do it personally - you'll find that you'll become a valued resource for knowledge, and involved earlier and earlier in the development process.

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Make sure that you truly are being a "consultant" and not just a "contractor".

Consultants bring value and advice. Contractors bring labor.

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"If you're not part of the solution - there is still serious money to be made in prolonging the problem" just make sure you don't fit into that quote.

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