If there is one constant associated with the majority of engineering firms, it's their reliance on technology. While technology can take many forms, the ubiquitous workstation and associated networking technologies prove to be the pinnacle of productivity for any engineering firm. What's more, these devices often prove to be the primary tool on which an engineer must rely, especially those in the fields of design and simulation.
Engineers have come to count on the latest technology to deliver the productivity that they need to accomplish critical projects on schedule. Nevertheless, many engineers may not be experiencing the full benefits offered by that technology--and are wasting precious time trying to get things to work in the most productive way. Simply put, when a tool such as workstation or computer network is not deployed properly, productivity suffers. And in the high-stakes world of engineering, time is most definitely money.
There comes a time when an engineering firm should turn to professional help, at least in the form of a properly qualified IT consultant. However, determining when to seek external guidance can be hard to recognize, especially when engineers have become used to solving IT problems on their own and forging ahead by using any means possible.
At first blush, the "damn the torpedoes" approach seems to be the fastest path to regaining productivity. But nothing could be further from the truth. There are multiple situations where it can take many hours to solve an IT problem, only because someone is hampered by a lack of experience or knowledge. Sometimes that problem was created because of an improper deployment or configuration of the technology, or the problem was a result of making changes to an existing system. Either way, productivity suffers, frustrations rise and tempers flare, leading to a situation that is far less than ideal. Encountering a situation as such only exemplifies the need to bring in a professional to solve thorny IT issues, to make sure that systems are deployed properly, configurations are done correctly and data is kept secure.
Many firms have different reasons for deciding to bring in an IT consultant, and those reasons can range from strategic, such as a major change in a firm's technological road map, to practical, such as a physical reduction of in-house support staff. Either way, it all comes down to a point in time where existing staffers have moved beyond their comfort zone of dealing with IT products.
One of the primary benefits of hiring a consultant is that he or she can really help office staff navigate new initiatives while providing hands-on help and advice. Another benefit is that consultants can help prevent staff from making tactical mistakes, ones that could affect IT operations and create downtime. What's more, consultants bring in a third-party perspective, which can add fresh information and insights into critical IT decisions.
Bringing a consultant on board is no easy task, especially when an organization is leveraging leading-edge technology and highly sophisticated software, as most engineering firms are known to do. Nevertheless, those concerns should not be translated into a reason to not seek external help. On the contrary, vetting a consultant and taking a project-based approach to garnering professional services only helps to cement what may turn out to be a long-term consulting relationship "one that turns that IT consultant into a trusted technical advisor.
One of the first things to realize is that hiring an IT consultant for a mission-critical task or project that drives core business sometimes is more cost- and time-efficient than hiring a full-time employee, whom you may have to train, work with and guide. Specialized IT pros can be brought in to work on critical, deadline-driven tasks or perform maintenance, audits and of course, consult on technology plans. That makes it imperative to find the right IT consultant for the job. It can be a tricky and potentially risky endeavor, but there are steps that can be taken to ensure the job gets done, while minimizing risks to the company.
Do Your Homework
The first steps involve lots of careful research, asking relevant, detailed and tough questions of both the staff and the potential consultants. The goal is to locate a consultant who can best mesh with the team. Finding that person can start with talking to business peers and asking whom they use for IT support and why.
Quick Tips for IT Help
When deciding whether to contract an outside IT professional on a per-project or an ongoing basis, consider these points:
- How much of your productivity is lost due to improperly configured networks and downed workstations?
- Could your time be better spent on tasks related directly to product design and simulation than on IT projects?
- Are your IT systems falling behind due to a limited knowledge of new technologies?
Another critical element to consider is exactly which services are needed. Is the IT consultant needed for a particular project, for example, or for overall training, maintenance and support? Such questions will help to determine the type of consulting relationship that needs to be developed, and can play heavily into determining what reasonable fees can be defined. If the need is based upon a project, then that project should be fully defined early, with expectations outlined and results measured.
For example, a network upgrade or deployment of new workstations can be treated as a project-driven event: Outline the expectations, estimate the hours, plan the deadlines and determine the deliverables. Ongoing support can be treated in much the same fashion, with a contract defined that outlines the type of support to be delivered, the costs associated with it and what metrics will be used to measure success.
When selecting a potential candidate, engineering firms will benefit from performing the same basic due diligence required for any business decision. That may involve checking with local business and technology groups, and doing detailed informational searches using Google, LinkedIn, and even Facebook. It is also important to get references from prospective consultants, especially when they've done similar projects for others.
Also consider validating those references, even if it means contacting those references and examining the projects that the consultant has accomplished for those companies. Because an IT consultant may become a critical resource for the business, and may be exposed to company secrets or proprietary information, engineering firms should consider conducting background checks on candidates, and validate that candidates have wide experience to perform the tasks needed. Engineering firms should not have to pay for a consultant who is going to learn about technology on the job.
Another consideration is availability. Is the consultant local? Will he or she guarantee response times? For what hours do you need support? Can the consultant escalate problems to vendors? These questions can help define expectations--and also take into account the cost of downtime, something that is frequently overlooked.
Other questions to keep in mind when hiring a consultant include qualifications, certifications and education. On a more personal level, it is also a good idea to discern through an interview whether the individual has the motivation, communications skills, management experience and perceptual skills to do the job.
All of the above will help you find the correct candidate for IT support, while minimizing the risk to the business.
Frank Ohlhorst is chief analyst and freelance writer at Ohlhorst.net. Send e-mail about this article to DE-Editors@deskeng.com.