The customer who became a consultant
Kristian Lerche recently left a permanent job as an IT project manager for a new role as an ad hoc freelance consultant. Below, he shares his experience as both employer and employee and also suggests why so many major IT projects fail.
You definitely have an affinity for the subject when, without having written a single line of code, you complete the first year of the computer science programme with the highest grade. This happened for freelance consultant Kristian Lerche, one year into his studies. Yet as he relates, it was by no means a given that he would study computer science.
"During my A levels, I thought of how the IT sector would be an area with some of the greatest upheavals, compared to more traditional industries. A mason, for example, will experience some, but not many, changes in his profession in the course of his career. IT, on the other hand, has more or less changed beyond recognition for every decade of the last 50 years," says Kristian Lerche.
"If you are quite good at maths, IT is a type of applied maths that can take you far. Forget all about the misconceptions that IT people bury themselves away in a basement for years at a time. On the contrary, IT people must always interact closely with customers, to make their wishes come true, which I find really fascinating. You'll find out that you can really make a difference for people."
Building bridges between IT and the business side
Via ProData Consult, Kristian Lerche is currently employed by Statens IT, where he is helping to centralise the operation of a number of ministerial IT systems. Part of this assignment is technical in nature, but another key aspect is to coordinate between many stakeholders, technicians and customers. This combination of deep technical insight and human project manager competences is the essence of Kristian Lerche's professional CV – and the key to successful IT implementations.
"I started my career as a developer in Danske Bank in 2006. But in time, I felt that I was often sitting on my hands and not using my full potential. My idea was therefore to be a technically oriented project manager, setting up the right framework for a team who could then run with the ball. My task is thus to build bridges between the business side's requirements and the IT team who are to fulfil them. So I have to live with the fact that I can't help to code the solution," says Kristian Lerche.
"There are plenty of pitfalls in a project framework, in the borderland between IT and the commercial side. Having the best possible control of that process was a bearing principle of my work nine years ago, as it still is today."
Different corporate cultures
After three years' with Danske Bank, followed by six years at Nets – in 2015 Kristian Lerche decided to see whether freelance consulting was for him.
"At that point, I had only worked for two companies, but often had a lot to do with external consultants. I had long been a bit envious of their opportunity to engage with various corporate cultures and sectors. Fundamentally, you encounter many of the same computer science, process and managerial challenges time and time again. So it can be fascinating to see how people tackle these challenges. This was one of the reasons I was keen to become a freelance consultant," he says.
When projects go wrong
Despite his admittedly limited experience after around ten years in the IT sector, Kristian Lerche has a lot of experience from IT projects, in terms of both successes and failures.
"I feel the same way as when a doctor examines a patient. He will see various symptoms that he can use to make a diagnosis. In the same way, I can see very quickly whether a project will succeed or fail. Each project will have its own symptoms and I'm almost never mistaken about where it is heading," he says.
"One fundamental aspect is to avoid bureaucracy and administration, which are pretty certain to kill off a project. The desire to be able to control everything is in conflict with a key aspect of IT development, which should be uncontrolled. A lot of us may feel bad about trusting blindly that everything will be okay, but often this is what you have to do."
But an IT project must have some kind of structure?
"Yes it does, and you can, to some extent, set a structure for a project process. This is a bit like chalking up a soccer pitch and then letting the teams decide how they will play their matches. This is a difficult balancing act, but I think we can see a tendency towards running more agile development, compared to the traditional tight structure, e.g. by applying the Scrum and Kanban methods."
Playing patience for DKK 250 million
The long-gone Amanda project and the police's Polsag system are just two of many examples, over time, of very large and expensive IT projects that were never completed because things went wrong during the development process.
"It's interesting to consider how the picture is very different in the games industry, where a game like World of Warcraft from Blizzard was created by nearly 150-300 people. This was an enormous success, and Blizzard's revenue is close to the level of a small country. This just goes to show how successful you can be and that major IT projects are not automatically doomed to fail. It's just that something often goes wrong when the process is constrained by a very narrow framework."
But isn't it naive to expect anything different, when this is often a case of assigning political responsibility?
"Yes, you could say that. It can be good to place the responsibility, but this is often responsibility for failure. The more the development of major IT projects is regulated, the harder it tends to be to achieve your goals." What have you gained in return for the increased control, if several years' development of an IT project for DKK 250 million ends up being dropped and binned? The people that worked on this project could just as well have sat playing patience the whole time," says Kristian Lerche.
Like landscaping a new garden
Kristian Lerche explains how a successful IT project has to be anchored internally – both by management and the intermediate layer of employees who are typically responsible for the project's progress.
"Building an IT system is a special process," says Kristian Lerche. "It's not like building a new house, where both buyer and supplier have a pretty good idea of how the final building will look, before starting. With IT, things are different, since the business side seldom knows the details of what the IT system should include. In overall terms, they would like to have a new website or a new case processing system, without knowing how it will look. IT and the business side must therefore engage in a type of partnership, going hand in hand through the development process, meeting regularly and reflecting on the product," says Kristian Lerche.
"It's like landscaping a new site. You may meet the landscape gardener to find out how the beds should look, to match the rest of the site. Once the gardener has laid a few stones, you might come out to see whether their position matches your own ideas. Then you make the necessary corrections, or change everything completely. You do this before you start to add any plants. In the same way, IT projects require a common understanding of the overall objective, and the creative scope to achieve that objective. Without the latter, you won't get anywhere," he concludes.
As a former procurement manager of consultants from providers such as ProData Consult, Kristian Lerche has some good advice for freelance consultants.
Focus on the assignment.
It is important that the consultant's approach is to focus on the objective without being distracted by other things. Team leaders can face challenges in keeping internal employees motivated, but a team leader must be able to take a more relaxed approach with a consultant.
Be a dream employee.
To have your professional contribution accepted within the organisation, it is an advantage to deliver and engage unproblematically with the culture that you are part of.
Build up a good reputation.
There is a lot to be said about networking, but sometimes it can get the upper hand and overshadow professionalism. Good results tend to generate a surprising number of new assignments – for both external employees and consultants
Avoid creating unnecessary turbulence within the company. This also means not contributing to any dissatisfaction. In this respect, internal employees have more leeway to express their opinions. Sometimes, an external consultant should be anonymous.
Avoid dominating meetings and discussions.
Even though there may be a professional justification, general meetings are a forum for internal employees, since they will have to work together and take responsibility for things in the future. You can naturally give your input, if it is welcomed. If you are in any doubt, have a private word with the manager.
Be careful about creating new assignments for yourself.
You may lose some of your credibility and integrity if you are too obvious about creating new consulting assignments for yourself. On the other hand, it is fair and to be expected if you nonetheless point out opportunities and potential. Once the message has been sent, you can assume that it has been understood. This is a balancing act.