Using Core Consultant Skills to Climb the Learning Curve

When you’re making custom software, there’s bound to be complexity. At Atomic, we work with a wide range of clients across a diverse set of industries. This means we’re regularly learning about a new industry with its own conventions and unique sets of terminology.

We’re experts at making sense of their technical puzzles, as well as bringing feasible and desirable end-products and experiences to users. But our clients are the subject matter experts and know the intricacies of their product and the marketplace. It can be overwhelming to try to understand a new industry, but it’s also one of the most exciting parts of being a consultant.

And, yes, the momentary feelings of apprehension as you look at the steep learning curve are completely normal, too. I’ve found that there’s no magic bullet for learning new material except to be curious and hunker down on core consultant skills.

Eliminate Distractions and Be Present

As a delivery lead or project manager, much of your day can be spent fielding questions, responding to emails, and clarifying details for your development team. This is a huge part of the role, but deep learning requires some separation from the daily multi-tasking.

Being present in the moment while surrounded by a world of distractions is an ongoing practice most of us have not mastered. It can take a lot of energy to give your full attention to learning, but you owe this to your client, your teammates, and ultimately, to the software you’re creating. Silence your Slack notifications and close irrelevant tabs to really focus on the task at hand.

Take Notes

Always take notes! If you’re trying make sense of something non-linear, consider using a whiteboard or Post-its to capture connections and interdependencies. Keep a list of the major and minor problems the client is facing. Later, tally up everything they’ve shared that your software should be addressing.

Also, listen for what features are most important and valuable to your client and users. Even if you don’t fully understand what you’re hearing, record it. Make a note of what you’ll need to revisit in a future conversation. Begin to understand the language of your users and client, and as you’re asking questions, show your understanding of the concepts by using their terminology.

Ask Questions

Good questions are an important part of what a consultant brings to the table. As you are trying to understand something new, focus not only on the detailed questions, but also on the broader questions about why things work the way that they do. Refrain from judgement and focus on questions that uncover the “why”s of the project. Sometimes the questions that a beginner asks can help an expert look at a problem with new eyes.

Some starter questions you can bring up include:

  • What’s the history behind this feature?
  • Who are the primary users?
  • What type of feedback have you heard from users?
  • What do people in the business view as current constraints?

In the end, we aim to put great, usable, and compelling software into the world, and that often requires eliminating complexity for a user. Great questions can drive great outcomes.

Last but not least, block time on your calendar after the meeting to process the information and to reflect on your initial reactions.