Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Consulting assignment life cycle 13: prototyping and quality assurance testing, and buy-ins

Posted in consulting, job search by Timothy Platt on May 21, 2012

This is my thirteenth installment on consulting and the consulting assignment life cycle (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 225-236 for parts 1-12.)

Short term, single task assignments often simply involve showing up, completing a brief block of work effort and moving on. But particularly when a consultant is brought in for more complex, and longer term assignments, their consulting agreements often includes quality assurance and due diligence on what they have been doing, both to make sure that their efforts work and that they do so in the ongoing context of their client business itself. Consultants are also often brought in to develop or provide resources that would serve as prototypes of further and more widespread implementation – which might be developed and provided either by in-house staff or through further consulting or other third party provider services. Think of this as a due diligence and fiscal risk remediation exercise too.

My goal in this series installment is to discuss prototyping and quality assurance testing in the consulting context, and I will do so using a specific long term assignment that I was actively involved with – here as an in-house employee working with a long term-engaged consultant.

I was working as webmaster for a large healthcare-oriented nonprofit when a consultant was brought in to develop a single, unified data warehouse solution that would fold in and include all of the various data set collections that has been accumulated throughout a network of nationally distributed chapter offices. The project itself consisted of a complex set of subtasks, which in broad brushstroke outline included:

1. Identifying all of the chapter office databases and how they were set up.
2. Obtaining copies of all of them, collecting them together at a single home office location.
3. Arranging for chapter updates on any new data accumulated throughout this network while a single organization-wide data warehouse solution was being developed, so this new system would be as up to date as possible for chapter office-developed content when initially going live.
4. Data cleansing to de-duplicate and error-correct data content where duplications and inconsistencies were found in records obtained.
5. Database standardization with all key data fields labeled according to a single scheme that would be used moving forward in the new combined system.
6. Development of a new database system with appropriate backend and user interface systems, and with this housed on appropriate hardware platforms, with backup servers and with automated synchronization and update capabilities between these servers.
7. Porting all of the accumulated, and cleaned and reformatted data into the new system.
8. Testing and training with a staged rollout process for bringing this new system online – first just at the home office and then for a set of tester field offices, and finally with an organization-wide rollout and implementation.

I have left out a number of key steps here but have at least sought to include enough of the overall process in this eight point outline to be able to meaningfully note how quality assurance testing and prototyping entered in as key requirements.

In this case the endpoint deliverable for the consulting assignment was a full organization-wide rollout and not a prototype for further and perhaps later development. But I stress that prototyping is still crucially important for any project of this scale and complexity, or even for simpler projects where so many stakeholder have to buy off on what is done.

• A complex project of this sort would be organized and developed as a process flow with staged benchmarks, and with them pegged to points in this process where specific functionally significant goals are reached.
• Every such benchmark step in this work flow for which a testable product would be developed, would be prototype tested to validate successfully reaching this stage in the overall consulting assignment.
• This is important for several reasons. First, it allows for validation that everything works up to that point in the assignment. Second, and just as importantly, testing and hands-on testing by stakeholders and members of their teams can reveal any unstated client assumptions that might impact on what would be acceptable as a working solution. Without this buy-in a consultant can easily find they have developed a working solution but the wrong working solution that the client stakeholders and end users will not find acceptable. And third, agreement as to benchmark prototype-testing results and buy-in on the systems and subsystems developed would be entered into the records as meeting a next part of the consulting agreement.

I strongly recommend a software version of rapid prototyping called rapid application development where it can be fruitfully applied, but whatever development system or paradigm is employed, this should be done systematically, according to recognized standards and with careful documentation. And as should be clear by now, this posting is all about systematic process, validation of staged results and systematic buy-in. And it is all about identifying and addressing surprises and problems early so they can be addressed on the fly and with minimal backtracking and do-overs.

I am going to turn to the issues of licensing agreements and use of third party resources in my next installment. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2. I have also posted extensively on jobs and careers-related topics in my first Guide directory page on Job Search and Career Development.

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