Consultancy 419

If you’re in the corporate software development space, you’ve heard about the Hertz / Accenture lawsuit. It’s an Enterprise-class nightmare where more than 30 million dollars were burned on a subpar website. That’s a 3 and seven zeroes. If you’re in that same corporate software development space, it’s hardly the first time you’ve encountered a project like this.

When I look back on my career, I’ve been part of more than one of those drowning Behemoths. Most of us have. We’re attracted by the sheer level of ambition, only to find out it’s a web of bad decisions, toothless management and well-paid consultants. We try for a few months, get frustrated and leave.

The pattern is always the same: hire a Big Name Consultancy Firm. Let them staff an army of employees and freelancers at an above market rate. Do Fixed Price Scrum, because that somehow guarantees a favourable outcome. Of course, this requires even more overhead consultants. Be sure to build a convoluted architecture that just needs microservices, events and K8s. If you’re not doing expensive discovery workshops and Agile ceremonies, then why are you even in this business?

Working in a delivery team on one of these dying mammoths had a predictable pattern as well. Cynicism was ever present. Smart people would underperform and bore out. Junior developers would be shipped in by the container. Management would be changed on a monthly basis. Nothing would get done and people on the floor knew it. Top management constantly reported progress. The customer seemed unhappy but determined to continue.

When I was a lot younger, I truly believed “they” didn’t know any better. We had a duty to report the actual status to the higher-ups and help them make better decisions. That’s not the way it works.

We call them challenges. Difficult projects. Ambitious transformations.

The word we are trying hard to avoid is “scam”.

Only a certain kind of audience receives a leaflet from a fortune teller and thinks: this might solve my problems! That’s how charlatans operate: they make it as incredible as possible to filter out the sane. They don’t want to waste their time on critical, reserved victims. That’s time-consuming and odds are they won’t close the sale. What they are looking for are the gullible, the fragile, the desperate. People who respond to even the most incredible story will fall for anything.

That’s how Nigerian 419 scammers plunder bank accounts. That’s why Homeopaths can convince their victims to ditch the chemo and buy their elderberry creme instead.

We see an eerily similar pattern when looking at the Digital Transformation space. The sales teams have a very specific target audience in mind when trying to peddle their next 10 million dollar web app.

Their victims are always the people who should know better but don’t. It’s always the digitally clueless CEO who wants to play with the big boys. It’s always the Director who knows her old fashioned company is falling behind and is desperate to leap ahead.

It’s never the savvy manager who questions whether they really need CQRS and Event Sourcing. It’s never the thrifty entrepreneur who’s sceptical of the need for a fulltime Scrum Master. Not the kind of customer who wonders why the site is not responsive after the first million. It’s always the gullible, the fragile, the desperate.

It doesn’t really matter whether the fortune teller is a criminal or whether she really believes she’s clairvoyant. Most Big Name Consultancies probably believe their approach works.

I’m not saying a consultancy firm selling a Fixed Price Digital Transformation project to a bank is the corporate equivalent of a 419 scam. I’m not calling Accenture criminals. I’m pointing out a deadly dynamic of a desperate, clueless customer who’s handed over critical thinking to a partner with a dubious track record. The answer always seems to be more people, more services, more money.

There will always be gullible suckers who spend way too much money on something that’s obviously too good to be true. It just seems to happen an awful lot in our industry. Of course, management at Hertz should have been a lot more critical. After the first two million, there were probably enough red flags. Customers are grown-ups who are responsible for their own grown-up decisions.

On the other hand, it’s undeniable that we as an industry are way too good at exploiting the less-than-critical. It’s time we own up to that.

The cynics on the floor need to be even louder. Project managers who inherit impossible plans should call that out.

If you are a manager handling a multi-million dollar project, set aside some money for an external audit. Present your plans to a few external senior developers and let them vet the validity. Get the tools to challenge your vendor and avoid being suckered out of money.