Cloud consulting isn’t a profession — but it should be

Tony Nicol

The cloud and data industry is continuously and rapidly evolving. In fact, the global cloud computing market is forecast to grow from USD 445.3 billion in 2021 to USD 947.3 billion by 2026 — a Compound Annual Growth Rate of 16.3%. It’s an exciting space that’s both fed and driven my passion for technology throughout my career. Cloud computing, during the 2010’s in particular, has redefined how organizations work. We’ve seen the rise of serverless computing; containers and microservices; the explosion of SaaS, PaaS and IaaS; multi-cloud strategies; edge computing; big data and IoT; open-source services and more.

But, while its relative newness and booming demand fuels an enthralling rate of change and innovation, that same recency also means it lacks the common governance frameworks found across more mature sectors. This environment creates a prevailing modus operandi that needs addressing. It’s my hope that yesterday’s launch of Vivanti — a modern data-focused cloud consultancy based in New York, which operates with a consultant-led, customer-first approach — will go some way to addressing this problem.

Which side is your bread buttered on?

So, why do I feel cloud and data consulting isn’t yet a true profession, and why is that problematic?

Which side is your bread buttered on?

Long-standing vocations have had the time to develop and agree upon standard operating practices, often crystalizing those best practices and associated ethical expectations in a code of conduct. By contrast, cloud consulting — and the technological capabilities and concepts upon which it’s based — hasn’t existed in a static enough state, for a sufficiently long enough period of time, to develop a common set of rules. If we take a look at some well-established occupations, the conundrum facing cloud consulting becomes clear.

As a doctor, you’re ultimately responsible for the health, dignity and human rights of your patients — concepts that are carefully defined within the American Medical Association‘s code of conduct. The American Bar Association stipulates that a lawyer is ethically bound to provide ‘competent representation’ for their clients above all other considerations. Similarly, financial advisers are obligated to act in the best interests of their clients, commonly known as fulfilling their ‘fiduciary duty’. These industries are true professions because they have broadly accepted frameworks that provide industry-wide operating guidelines. Further, these professions share a core tenant: The recipient of their services, the client, comes first.

But when we look at cloud consulting as a collective, to whom are we ultimately responsible and accountable? There’s no universally accepted answer, impartial governing body, or published rulebook. It’s tempting to suggest that people and entities have an innate sense of ethics and client obligation; many consultants do. But, when competing agendas are allowed to exist — without the overarching governance offered by a uniform set of operating principles — there remains potential for that natural tension to be exploited.

Now, that exploitation doesn’t have to be anything sinister or conniving. Far from it. But, if enhancing profit margins and client success are given equal weighting, and allowed to exist on opposite arcs of the decision-making process, it’s inevitable that the client will sometimes lose out. If, organizationally, people are ultimately accountable to the company bottom line, or the recipients of some short-term financial win, then that’s what will drive the actions of individuals when push comes to shove. However, the core driver should always be what they genuinely believe is right for their client.

So, how do we begin to address this dilemma and eliminate the tendency for firm-centric bias?

The concept of total empowerment in cloud consulting

The first challenge of establishing a code of ethics is to set your operating priorities and to put someone in charge of ensuring those priorities are adhered to in practice. That’s why the concept of total empowerment, when applied to a consulting context, makes a potentially difficult challenge much easier.

Total empowerment, as I see it, has two central components: A client-first mindset and a consultant-led approach.

To institute a true client-first way of working, consultants need to be organizationally empowered to advocate for their clients’ best interests at each step of every engagement — just as doctors or lawyers are entrusted to do. Consultants should always think of their clients as people first and foremost.

On the client side, that means focusing on the relationship holistically, rather than the short-term bottom line. As consultants, our role isn’t just to simply do the job a client pays us to complete. Delivery is a must; which many consultancies can do. However, we should help the client achieve their goals (of which the prescribed tasks represent just one component), rather than just doing as we’re told. Ultimately, it’s about engaging on a person-to-person level with the individuals who engage with us as consultants. You then work with those people hand-in-glove, hopefully generate outcomes that move beyond the baseline of the brief, and work with a mindset that aims to get them promoted. Whilst you can never guarantee somebody’s promotion, using this mindset significantly lowers the risk of non-delivery. It also significantly increases the chance the client sees you as a long-term strategic partner. Simply put, doing the right thing is actually a good long-term business strategy. This was the approach I instilled at Servian, a 900-person-strong data-focused cloud consultancy I founded and sold to Cognizant this year.

Internally, total empowerment is about giving consultants the autonomy to act decisively, in order to drive clients’ businesses forward, without exception. No permission should ever be required for a consultant to do what they believe is right for the client. To ensure a sustained cultural shift in this regard, consultancies should also expect their consultants to be professionally loyal to each client at every turn. Consultants should be ultimately accountable to the client — not the entity in their email signature, on their health insurance or bank statements. Consultants should be both rewarded for the passionate pursuit of this ideal and free from the fear of reprisals; especially if standing-by the client means a sub-optimal financial outcome for the firm.

Making cloud consulting better for all of us

If we can embrace total empowerment as standard operating practice, we go a long way to creating a climate that demands — and even rewards — unwavering commitment to the client. Whilst imperfect, self-governance is an important first step towards creating a regulated profession for the cloud consulting industry.

It’s these same principles upon which I’ve founded Vivanti in the US. It’s my hope that this approach will bring a new level of professional integrity to the cloud consulting space, improving the industry for the people it serves and those who work within it. Operating with this client-first mindset and consultant-led methodology, just as a doctor or lawyer would, is the basis upon which Vivanti will build trusted partnerships and drive positive change within the US cloud consulting industry.

My position is simple: We need to shift the industry’s operating dynamic to ensure professional loyalty to the client is fixed at the forefront of our decision-making processes. Don’t take short-cuts and adopt cookie cutter methodologies just because they are convenient, tactically advantageous, or financially expedient in the short-term. If you do the right thing by the client, you’ll get more work over the long-haul.

So what do you think? How should we go about improving cloud and data consulting as a collective?