How should companies evaluate an IT consultant?
It's a difficult task for most companies because they're not experts in IT. On the surface, they're relying on the information that the IT consultant is providing them.
Evaluating IT Consultants
On our website, we actually have a white paper about this. It's called 21 Questions You Should Ask Before You Hire Any IT Consultant. But what you should look at, first of all, is the business itself.
How do they present themselves? How easy were they to get ahold of? Did they keep the appointment that they originally scheduled, or did they move the appointment?
You should always begin the way you wish to continue. If an IT consultant is late, reschedules appointments, and seems frazzled and disorganized at the beginning, you can almost guarantee that the relationship will be like that the whole way through.
Those are the things you can look at on the surface. Ask for references of similar size and types of businesses that they've worked with in the past.
Evaluate their demeanor. Are they arrogant? Are they thoughtful? Do they just answer questions immediately without thinking with no filter? How do they make you feel when you're working with them? Are you comfortable working with this person?
It will be a marriage of sorts, and if you're not comfortable with them in the beginning, you're not gonna be comfortable with them later on.
IT Consultant Skillsets
And then there's the skillset side. It's very hard for you to determine the quality of a skillset as an outsider.
But by Googling them, looking up their background, seeing if there's anything positive or negative on the web, and talking to the reference accounts, you can have a much better feeling whether or not they have the ability to properly manage your network.
Common Mistakes by IT Consultants
The biggest mistake we see IT consultants make is not investing in training. IT teams should be learning how to improve their craft and their skills in cyber security constantly.
Typically, independent IT consultants are spread pretty thin. They have multiple clients that they're supporting, and it's a bit of a hectic life. There's not a lot of time for education, training, or certifications. But it's so important to do that, so you can continue to bring the latest expertise to your clients.
Especially in the area of cybersecurity, most independent IT consultants don't have the background or don't take security as seriously as they need to. Our team is always going through ongoing education.
We have an internal process of certification. When an engineer or technician comes into our organization, we create an education plan for them upfront. It's part of their offer letter. We look at where their certification level is and then we determine what they need to accomplish within a certain time period.
We also give our team paid time off for training. Training for specific certifications is scheduled into their daily, weekly, or monthly tasks. It's extremely important that we continue the professional development of our team members.
IT Consultants Must Invest in Learning
We're always learning. We're always pushing the envelope and looking at new technologies. For instance, people have been talking about the cloud for the last five years, moving to the cloud, what's the cloud, et cetera.
Along those lines, one of the newest technologies that Microsoft has developed is called Windows Virtual Desktop. It's a cloud-hosted service provided by Microsoft and their Azure data center based on Windows 10. We have made a significant investment in it so we can move our clients' infrastructures and their desktops to the cloud.
A COVID-Conscious Cloud Convert
We've had several success stories. Recently, we had a client who has been been in business for 40 years and with us for at least 15 years. Just before COVID happened, they were ready to sign a contract with us to refresh their infrastructure by replacing servers, switches, and all of their physical hardware.
They put that on hold when COVID happened, but shortly after that, we helped them move all of their clients out so they could all work remotely. Then they came back to me and they asked if we could move them to the cloud in 30 days.
This is a client that we never, ever would have expected to go to the cloud. But we said that we could do it in 60 days because we'd made this investment in the cloud already. We already had the ability to spin up and move all eight of their servers to Microsoft's Azure data center in Seattle. Then we set up hosted desktops for each one of the users.
They were able to let their building’s lease go and move out. Now they have 65 employees that are all working from home. And we were able to do that for them in 60 days. We took them live on the day we said we would, and they've been conducting business that way ever since.
We were able to do that because of the investment in resources and training, and because we looked forward to the new technology that our customers would need.
Bringing MRIs Into the 21st Century
We received a call from a prospective medical imaging center client who needed an IT consultant to help with one of their computers.
We sent someone out to look at the computer, which was 12 years old, and running Windows 95. It was attached to the MRI machine that they did all of their patient scans on, and that machine had failed. And it was not just working on one PC, it was working on a PC that controlled the major piece of equipment that this company relied on for their income stream.
First, we had to go in and pull back some layers to figure out the issue and find out if we could get support from the company that provided the software.
There was a specialized serial interface that isn’t available in computers today. But we had the resources and the wherewithal to know where to go and what questions to ask.
We found another IT company that specializes in legacy equipment to get a computer with the specific configuration necessary to run Windows 95 to put the client’s system back together. We were able to do that because of our resources and industry connections.
More importantly, there were no security patches or fixes available for that machine, and in a HIPAA environment where patient records must be protected at all costs, they can't maintain HIPAA compliance running that MRI machine with a Windows 95 computer on their network.
We solved the problem by restructuring their infrastructure so that the administrative computers with patient data weren’t on the same network as the Windows 95 machine.
Consider the Cost of Downtime
Businesses with technical issues also have to consider the cost of downtime. Many customers don't think about how much will cost if the main network or main systems go down.
If you have 35 employees who can't work and you have to send them home, what does that cost? What is the cost to my customer when we can't serve their needs? What's the cost to production if they run behind? You have to take all of this into account.
When we sit down with a customer, we take them through that process to clarify what that downtime will really cost their business. Once we establish that, we look at the entire network and its vulnerabilities.
For example, as of January 2020, Microsoft no longer supports Windows 7. That’s a vulnerability. Servers from before 2008 are also vulnerable. Clients need an IT consultant who can find those pieces of equipment, operating systems, and older or out-of-date pieces of software that are no longer supported and modernize them.
Virtual CIO Services
We also offer our clients virtual CIO services. We act as the client’s chief information officer to create a roadmap for them. For example, we’ll identify aging servers and create a plan to replace them.
That includes updating the servers in a certain period, replacing workstations, and then addressing CNC machines or specialized pieces of warehouse equipment that are running on old operating systems.
Your virtual CIO or IT consultant should always be looking forward. There should be a plan so that you aren’t stuck when a critical piece of equipment goes down so you can keep operating your business and avoid a negative financial impact.