What makes a successful consulting project?

When a client doesn't have time for a glamorous, blue-sky project, what's a consultant to do?

Soon after I started working at Lullabot, I got my first client, and like all clients this one had a problem. They were a university whose site was running on Drupal 6: 2500 page nodes filled with HTML. The layout was largely managed through the WYSIWYG, and the quality of the HTML was all over the place. They wanted to take this site and migrate it to Drupal 7, with a properly designed content model and responsive layout, possibly using Panels.

In six months.

With one developer on staff.

Cautious optimism

Despite the difficult demands and daunting schedule, I was excited! It is relatively rare to be approached by someone with a solid technical background who wants to do what is architecturally right for their organization. We started off trying to get a handle on what content was out there, and what the content types and fields might look like. As we progressed, it became apparent that each department was really doing their own thing, and any attempt to build a content model was going to require some discussion to get them all on the same page.

At the same time, we were discussing issues around migration of the content, and it became apparent that getting these HTML blobs into fields was going to be a big problem. In some cases, if the HTML is tightly structured, you can automate this process by scraping the HTML and extracting the data. However in this case, with no consistency at all, turning this HTML into fielded data was going to be an almost completely manual task.


Only a couple weeks into the project I realized that the schedule was completely unrealistic for what they were attempting to do. So I sat down with the client and we started talking about their priorities. I knew something had to give, but you can't figure out what until you know what is most important. As we talked, it became apparent that in this case, the schedule was a 100% hard dependency - the new site needed to be launched in time for the start of the next school year. Not only that, people were reasonably happy using the site, with the exception of pain around media handling.

Given this, I recommended that they simply migrate their existing architecture to Drupal 7. This would reduce the number of unknowns to a very small number (mostly related to individual module upgrades) and would give them a very basic migration path. In order to start getting some more structure around their layouts, they would start using Panelizer in some cases (like landing pages) which would give their editors more freedom to place blocks of content without having to hand code HTML. On top of that, we now also had time to address some of the problems around media handling with the addition of some modules that were new for Drupal 7, and a bit of custom code.

Many devs would look at this solution and shake their heads. You've taken a site that was not much more than hand-coded HTML shoved into a CMS, and turned it into more of the same. What a waste, what a failure!

I would respectfully disagree. As consultants, our job is not to make a site with the best possible architecture, but to make a site with the best possible architecture within the framework of the client's priorities. Knowing the kind of site this client wanted to build, I was a little reluctant to propose the solution I did, even though I knew it was the best of all the available solutions. While this client was disappointed that they couldn't build the site the way they wanted, they were also hugely relieved to have a plan that looked manageable and achievable. It allowed them to build the site in a way that enabled future upgrades as time permitted, but didn't force the investment immediately.


What does a successful consulting project look like? It is a juggling act, and to some extent the rules are different for every one. One of the most important things that we as consultants can do, especially when we are devs or architects at heart, is to leave our own priorities at the door and focus on the client. What are their priorities? What are their pain points? What are their criteria for success? Taking the time to pull all of this data out of the client, and using it to craft a solution, is really the heart of our job, and for me personally, it is what gives me the most joy and satisfaction.

This is where the real puzzles are solved, where you can make the most of your experience, where you can take all the data you have, and craft something the client didn't even know they wanted in the first place. Now you have a plan that makes sense and meet's the client's goals, both spoken and unspoken. That, my friends, is what success looks like.

Published in:

Get in touch with us

Tell us about your project or drop us a line. We'd love to hear from you!