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James Serra's Blog

James is currently a Senior Business Intelligence Architect/Developer and has over 20 years of IT experience. James started his career as a software developer, then became a DBA 12 years ago, and for the last five years he has been working extensively with Business Intelligence using the SQL Server BI stack (SSAS, SSRS, and SSIS). James has been at times a permanent employee, consultant, contractor, and owner of his own business. All these experiences along with continuous learning has helped James to develop many successful data warehouse and BI projects. James has earned the MCITP Business Developer 2008, MCITP Database Administrator 2008, and MCITP Database Developer 2008, and has a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Engineering. His blog is at .

Consultants – Why pay more?

As an independent consultant who has a higher bill rate than average, I would hope it is obvious to clients that the extra money spent would be well worth it.  But that is not always the case, and sometimes who have to help them to understand, like most things in this world, you get what you pay for.  The added value you can get with a higher-priced independent consultant can pay for itself many times over, especially when you are building an end-to-end business intelligence solution.  Here are my reasons why it makes sense to hire the higher-priced independent consultant:

  • They bring experience from prior projects on what works and what does not.  So you avoid common mistakes and do things the right way
  • The know all the tools to use for shortcuts.  You can spend days or weeks writing your own solution, or you can be made aware of a tool that will do the job quickly and better
  • You will receive architecture decisions that are correct, hence saving the large cost of having to “redo” a project because of an inexperienced architect
  • They code faster.  I have seen coders who are 2x-4x faster than the average person
  • They do not need supervision: They can work on their own and ask few questions, so you are not wasting your time or saying “I would have just done this myself if I knew I would be spending all this time answering questions”
  • They can bring in colleagues who are good. Need more resources on a project?  Ask the independent consultant who he has worked with that would be a good fit for the current project.  Would you rather use that person or ask a placement firm to find someone?
  • They have excellent people skills, which is the #1 priority for a succesful project
  • They are much more efficient with their time.  They have learned over the years to maximize their time and get the most work done in that 8-hour day.  They are the masters of time management
  • They work hard.  To feel like they are earning their rate, they put in the extra effort and spend non-billable hours keeping up with technology and learning so they can make sure they are finding the best solutions for their client
  • They know colleagues they can reach out to help solve problems or bounce ideas off of.  They have built relationships over the years with other experts, so they can get advise to make sure their client’s project is successful
  • The have experience with many tools so know the best one for the job.  The biggest project failures are the ones where the wrong technology or tool was chosen from the start.  Experienced consultants will have been on a project similar to yours and will know which tools made that project successful
  • With an independent consultant you get them on the job instead of a large consulting company doing a bait and switch (showing you impressive resumes who will work on your project, but then replacing them with much-less experienced consultants because there are the only ones available)
  • They are still a lot less expensive than the big consulting companies.  And chances are the independent consultant will be better than what you will get with a big consulting companies because guess what happens to the top talent at a big consulting company?  They become highly paid independent consultants!
  • The end result will be the project is done quicker and with a better solution.  So the extra money spent on a higher-priced consultant will likely result in bigger savings to the company

As BI consultant and longtime colleague of mine Garrett Edmondson pointed out, there are some inherent risks as well. 

It can be very difficult for an organization to determine if the consultant (independent or otherwise) actually has the required skills because in many instances the organization lacks those skills internally.  Otherwise, why would the consultant be needed?

You should own your organizational deficiencies and enlist the help of a very knowledgeable/expensive consultant to help fill either a fulltime or contract position.  A little investment on the front end can yield tremendous results.  Also, the very knowledgeable/expensive consultant can train and mentor a junior BI developer by actually implementing a solution with him. 

Just because someone comes from a large consulting company does not necessarily mean that they have the required skills.  In my experience most large consulting companies actually have very small DW/BI practices, and that void is filled in by smaller consulting companies that specialize in DW/BI.

A few things can be done mitigate the risks:

In my humble opinion, a true data warehouse/ BI expert is worth their weight in gold.  Ask for references and then actually contact them!

Most hardware/software vendors have a list of recommended partners.  They are usually on the recommended list because they have been successful in the past, which might be a good indication of future results. 

While it might have been possible in the past to have one guy know it all when it comes to BI, I don’t think that is still possible.  Do you really think that someone can truly be an expert in all of the following?

  • Master Data Management – MDS
  • Data Cleansing – DQS
  • ETL – SSIS
  • Data Warehouse SMP Hardware Architecture (all IO components see: FastTrack)
  • - oRAID/LUN/FILEGROUP/DATABASE FILE configuration
  • - HBA, Fiber Channel Switch, RAID Controllers, RAID enclosures
  • Data Warehouse MPP Architecture – PDW
  • Dimensional Modeling
  • Data Warehouse Life Cycle
  • DW project management
  • Unstructured Data – HDFS
  • MapReduce – Java
  • Unstructured Data Hardware Architecture – Hadoop Cluster
  • Data Mining/Machine Learning Algorithms
  • CRISP-DM Methodology
  • MDX
  • SSAS Cubes
  • Reporting – SSRS/PowerPivot/PerformancePoint
  • Geospatial data
  • “Cloud” computing
  • In memory/Columnstore technologies….

I could easily double the size of the list.  It simply is not possible to know it all when it comes to BI and finding an organization that truly has expertise in all areas of BI is rare.

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