As the many discussions around the recent IR35 legislation change for contractors demonstrate, there has always been a need for different types of workers in an organisation.
The Shamrock organisation (as set out by Charles Handy) nicely wraps this up for us with the idea that organisations can (and should) draw upon three main aspects of the workforce: first, a professional core, comprised of managers, technicians and other professionals that make up the heart of the company — its values, its direction and its competencies. Second, a part-time workforce that brings value by responding to demand and supplementing the work of the core. And third, the final leaf of the shamrock — and the focus of this article — the contractor/outsourced workforce.
But what specific benefits does working with external contractors bring, and why are they so important when tackling complex technical challenges?
Here we'll look at the advantages of working with specialist partners as a way of sourcing expert talent, gaining the confidence to explore unfamiliar solutions, and bridging the siloed skill sets that often exist in technology teams.
A way of sourcing specialist talent
When an organisation embarks on a project, many aspects of the work to be undertaken could be completely new. This is particularly relevant with technology-based challenges — perhaps the project involves some software development but the organisation has never done this before. Alternatively, the organisation might have some in-house tech talent, but they are either unavailable or the technological demands of the project mean that there are gaps in the required levels of knowledge and experience.
Whilst companies could choose to hire permanent staff for such a project, this is extremely time consuming, and makes little sense — as once the project is over, you may be left with specialised staff that have nothing to do. It is in these cases that looking to an external consultancy partner is a natural solution.
New technologies - a confidence struggle
Aside from the fact that it makes sense from a staff resourcing perspective, engaging with a consultancy to work on a project has a number of huge benefits. One of the most important of these is generating the confidence required to take on the new or unknown.
Looking at new technologies can be daunting, especially when it's not your day job. Teams can get stuck in a rut, and often need a nudge to look outward and see what is possible with the tools today. Sometimes, inspiration comes in the form of blog posts, technology events and talks. However, this only gets you so far — maybe to the Proof of Concept stage if you're lucky. At some point, you need to take the leap and back a solution to the point where you have a proven plan and an implementation strategy you can believe in. However, when it's new to you, this can be quite hard to do.
I know this really well from my own experience. When I worked in the DVLA as a Senior Cloud Engineer, I would often see new technologies dropped into a sprint. This would invariably lead to lots of discussion (half of it focused on the technology and the other half around the issues caused by dropping new technologies into the sprint…)
We would ask ourselves: how can we be competent enough to implement a solution based on this new technology when we've never used it before?
Discussions like these were very interesting, and there was never a silver bullet answer. Luckily, the DVLA has an exemplary approach to training and staff wellbeing, and this really helped me and my team. But the problem still remains — even with training, you’ve still not had the experience of seeing this new tech working in a production environment. Maybe you’ve been through a few labs, even done the training course - but production is different.
Is it battle hardened? What are the failure modes? Can we support this ourselves?
These unanswered questions can lead to feeling daunted by the challenge of implementing something new, and can often lead to otherwise great ideas being left to stagnate.
A wealth of experience
It is in these situations that the experience of external partners can come in. Having people there to work with you on a project, who have done it before, who have seen it fail before — can be an unbeatable benefit.
Not only do they offer internal staff support by immediately increasing boots on the ground, but they also can inspire confidence. New ideas can be sounded out with renewed vigour, stagnated projects given a new lease of life and the perceived limitations of what was possible challenged. The very fact that an external party has been brought in to effect change is in itself a vehicle to signal that this is an opportunity to make a real difference in how things are day to day.
During my time at the DVLA I saw the value that external partners brought to the organisation first hand; in terms of process change, of cultural change and in the experience that they brought with them.
But there's something else too, a specific issue that arises in the tech talent ecosystem, that external partners can also help to address...
Siloed teams, siloed skills
Traditional ways of working have typically led the career paths of application developers and infrastructure engineers to be completely separate. After all, these roles were fundamentally different; at their core, one role dealt with hardware and the other role with software. In the past, this divide never needed to be ‘bridged’ — once the hardware was in place and accessible, the software could be deployed and run on it.
As a consequence, most application problems quickly fall outside the comfort zone of infrastructure engineers, and infrastructure problems are the same with application developers. In a large organisation, you realise that there is always a separate team that deals with a specific function, or has a specific skill set — so, what happens when an infrastructure engineer encounters a problem that they think is with the application? They throw it over the fence, with their observations, and the application engineer continues investigating — or vice versa.
This is where a big fault lies with these specialised teams. Certain types of problems will be batted back and forth between specialities for a long time — sometimes forever — until someone with skills in both areas can take ownership of the issue. It's quite hard to bridge this gap — or to even identify it — but if you do manage to solve it, then productivity can really spike.
Here is where a consultancy led team can really help
With years of experience in both of these fields, I quickly realised that the divide between infrastructure and software development was an important gap that I could fill. When it came to advanced problem solving, or indeed any problem which spanned the gap between infrastructure and software development, I found that I was uniquely placed to be able to help or help others help themselves. This is the value of working with people who are highly experienced, have been exposed to different environments, and worked with a range of different solutions.
At TPXimpact, we are able to draw from a wealth of knowledge and experience composed of staff at the top of their game, from many different backgrounds and areas of expertise - so as a matter of course, the teams we deploy are cross-functional.
A consultancy like us has been through so many projects before and has seen what works and what doesn't — as well as picking up new ideas and ways of working from the people we’ve met during our journey. Sometimes, a fresh perspective can be a breath of fresh air for a struggling project or an organisational ambition, and this is exactly what we can bring.
Listen to the engineers!
A great measure of a consultancy partner is the opinion of them as held by the in-house engineers at the client organisation. These are the people they are there to bolster and complement; not detract from and alienate. A good partner will bring them on the journey, and work with them to not only achieve the goals as set out in the engagement but to inspire and demonstrate that there is a better way of working - and that it is achievable together.
In summary, external partners can be a critical part of an organisation's available workforce, and can offer real value in terms of deliverables in project work, programmes of change and also enhancing culture in existing teams.
At TPXimpact, we can draw upon a wide range of knowledge, experience and expertise to deliver great value to your organisation — with a focus on high standards of quality across all of our disciplines, we feel we can really make a difference.
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