When to Call in the Consultants

The decision to contract with a software consulting team is an important one. Bringing in a consulting team like Atomic Object when you don’t need one can be a costly capital mistake. Understanding when to bring that team in and when to let them go is equally important. I’ve recently been using an analogy that I find especially effective in helping potential clients make that call.

To explain this analogy, I’ll need to back up and talk about how we hire at Atomic Object. Our hiring process is very rigorous, and we work hard to make Atomic a great place to work. Why do we do this? Because, as a consultancy, we need to hire top-notch makers or individuals we believe can be “A-Team” players in the near term. Part of our value proposition we express to clients is that we add a high amount of value that justifies the expense of our billable rate. It is our belief that everyone on a consulting team needs to add value early and often. A lot of times, I think of these highly capable teams as squads of Marine Commandos.


Many of our clients already have huge IT departments. Why would they need custom software consultants? Because the skill set their IT department hired for may not be appropriate for greenfield product development. I think of our clients’ workforce as Army Infantry. Just like the real Army, their ability to maintain territory and extend existing advantages is very important in the life cycle of a campaign, but isn’t right for all situations. Sometimes a squad of highly capable commandos is required.

We get deployed by clients when:

A Beachhead is Required

The best teams for product development are made up of developers and designers who are poly-skilled generalists. They employ human-centered design practices to frame problems in a way computers can understand, and they have the ability to work up and down pretty much any technology stack. This type of person is hard to employ in IT. His or her skills would probably be under-utilized in maintaining and building out pre-existing, large software products, resulting in an unhappy employee and subsequent turnover.

If a client needs a beachhead in uncharted territory, they should call in the Marines (or a software consultancy, in this case). A consultancy has the skill set and tools to carve out a high-level strategy for a custom product and set a strong foundation for future success. The client’s product will be tailored to its needs, rather than compromised to suit the expertise of its existing team.

Once the beachhead is created, the consultants will work hand-in-hand with the IT department to maintain and expand a future feature set of the given software product.

Things Haven’t Gone According to Plan

Another time a client may want to call in the Marines is when they’re taking heavy fire from stakeholders, because a project has gone off the rails. Budgets are out of control, and milestones aren’t being hit.

There are a lot of reasons this can happen. Consultants don’t have a magic wand that will make all of a client’s problems go away. What they do have is a lot of experience triaging issues in stressful situations in order to get derailed projects to a better place.

Timing is crucial

If a client needs to deploy Marine Commandos, midway through a project isn’t ideal. It’s better to deploy them at the beginning of the project. Consultants can be much more effective when they establish a beachhead at the beginning—rather than trying to retrofit an existing project. Doing the latter necessitates inefficiencies as the team mitigates technical debt, making projects slow to get up to speed.

It’s Time to Level Up

There are also times when an ancillary benefit of embedding a team of commandos into a client’s larger team is the ability to level up the larger whole. Because consultancies like Atomic hire smart, experienced people who value teaching and learning, enhancing the entire team is often a natural consequence of clients bringing on consultancies.

This also brings up a possible risk. Many clients already have designers and developers on staff, and the addition of a consultant can bring up some sticky questions. When an Atomic team is brought in to start a new project or to augment an existing team, what does that communicate to the clients’ makers? Is Atomic better? Were the consultants brought in because the original team couldn’t get the job done? The connotations of that dynamic aren’t positive and won’t lead to project success.

The answers to these questions lie in the military analogy I’ve been using. Marines have a specific purpose and an associated skill set that helps them to accomplish their purpose. They also need to be very good at their jobs, because of the context in which they usually achieve their purpose.

Does this mean they are better than the other branches of the military? Not at all. There are things that a standing army can do better than the Marines. There are situations where bringing in Marine Commandos could be much, much worse than deploying the Navy or Air Force. But could a co-mingling of these different forces in a single campaign lead to everyone learning something from others while continuing to conserve their own speciality? Absolutely.

Knowing When it’s Time to Say Goodbye

Marines aren’t meant to stick around. They are an incisive force meant for a specific purpose. When their job is done, they pack up and head back to camp.

Atomic teams are similar. Our clients pay a premium for our services, because we are really good at setting the foundation for custom software products. But once our services aren’t needed, it’s time to say goodbye and reduce expenditures. We exit projects by ramping down over a responsible time period while handing the project off to a client team.

The client team is probably more suited to maintaining and extending feature sets. They are more like a standing army. Ideally, they preserve order and insure that society operates within norms acceptable to the whole. As I intimated earlier, Marines aren’t good at doing this job; they are ready to get off to new territories that need taming.

It may be that during an engagement with an Atomic team, a client requests our help in staffing up their own team of Marines. An interesting dynamic can arise in this situation. The client is most likely paying their own team a lower rate and they can’t justify the high capital expense of the Atomic team. Once a client has an internal team who can work in much the same way we do, they should have confidence in their team of poly-skilled generalists and accept that it’s time to say goodbye.

On the other hand, if clients find themselves in need of a beachhead, have a project that’s gone astray, or are looking to augment an existing team’s abilities, consider calling in the Marines.