I’ve been meaning to share my wealth of experience in this arena for a very long time. By day, I’ve been a tech consultant for 11+ years now. During that span, I’ve been involved in many different technologies, several companies and a whole buncha tight spots. Gather ’round if this seems interesting to you!
Listen to your client
Simple, right? Not so much. You see, not only do we consultants get into grooves or patterns but our employer (if it’s different than our client) may have other, over-arching goals to press onto the client. Maybe you think you know best when it comes to a certain technology or methodology. Perhaps your employer wants to sell this client a certain solution further down the line, and that desire affects how you deliver your services. Whatever the case, I propose you listen to your client in a vacuum – separate from all those external voices (including yours).
If you can do this and act upon what they are telling you, then you are halfway there. Now all you need to do is deliver!
My best listening advice comes from a recent example. A client of mine wanted to get a handle on some file permissions for a certain group of servers. Well, I have my own thoughts on how to best go about collecting that data and the software vendor would have probably preferred I pushed the latest technology bits within my application. While all of that is fine and dandy, it wouldn’t have solved my client’s need. After listening to what they had to work with and what they wanted to see, I delivered a solution based upon these things. Sure, I could have delivered something grandiose and unwieldy (and pretty). While that would have satisfied my statement of work, I’m not certain it would have satisfied my client.
On other occasions I have learned better/different ways to do things just by listening to my client. Though we consultants are there to assess, design, deploy and sometimes teach – you mustn’t forget to listen to your damn client. They know what they want… most of the time.
Technology is such a limp and ineffective term to describe my “field.” Tech consultants may work on computers, directories, mail systems, desk phones, cell phones, data lines, software and all manner of devices and concepts in-between. Within each of the areas I listed (and forgot) above, there are literally hundreds/thousands of various solutions and disciplines. It is quite impossible to master it all.
I was once a jack of all trades. I had a solid foundation in hardware/software but I also dabbled in many other areas. Towards the end of my 10 year stint with my previous employer, I had many different balls in the air (heh, balls). At any given moment, I was called-upon to be an expert in one topic and then asked to deliver upon another technology the next day/week. And so on. It burnt me out.
Then the opportunity came along to just do one thing. I actually tried to make this work with my former employer, but they likely saw the value of keeping my hands in most everything. That’s a handy guy to have around! So, instead of continuing towards burnout, I signed-on with an employer who would allow me to just do my one thing.
Damn, that was the best decision I have ever made in my professional life! I’m so much happier now that I’m an expert at one trade. I can answer most questions posed and I can deliver much richer solutions to my clients. In the past, I would say things like “I’ll check on that” or “Perhaps, let me research it.” Now? Now the mystery is gone. Human beings have continuously specialized in their various cultures, and I believe technology specialization is the way to go.
But Matt – what happens if your technology dies? Excellent point! A) my chosen tech has been around for ~20 years so I think I’m good and B) I’m a technology guy – I can learn/adapt as needed. Really, I’m not concerned. Specialize, damn you!
At the end of the day, it’s not about the money (for you)
Well, maybe it is – if you have a stake in the financials. If you don’t, then I suggest you make decisions based upon what’s best for your client above all else. Sure, it may be in the software vendor’s interest to expand licensing, but your client may not care for whatever features that licensing entails. Or, your employer may ask you to string things along to get more service $ from them. Whatever the case – your relationship with the client will suffer if you start acting upon the $ rather than their needs.
I guess this also comes down to just listening to your client, but it also requires you to grow hair on yer chest (yes, even if yer a chick). As an example, I routinely shine a spotlight on the flaws of my product, much to the disdain of my software vendor. I do this because A) these flaws are sometimes obvious and it’s best to discuss them than try to glaze over them and B) I’d rather show my client the warts and the workarounds than have them discover these on their own.
Of course, your situation may vary, but I regularly act in the best interest of my client, even if that act seems at odds with everyone else making more $. I believe, in the end, your relationship with your client is what will keep the $ fine and you have the added effect of a more “partner” relationship rather than a “client/consultant” gig. In my experience, partners are asked back time and again through the years.
Speed (keep the bus over 60mph)
What can I say about speed that I haven’t already mentioned on some of my blog posts about writing / life? Speed can be an impressive force in every aspect of your life, and it is especially potent for us tech consultants.
Respond quickly. Act with alacrity. Diagnose with determination. Hound vendor support daily. Deliver with celerity.
Actually, the first point is usually all that you need to do to appear in control and confident. Sitting on emails is usually perceived as disinterest or laziness from the other end. If something requires a longer response, send a short one to ensure your client knows you are “on it.” If something can be answered quickly, do so.
Another area where speed specifically helps us techies is when the shit don’t work. Gosh, this happens more than is healthy. As you descend into the rabbit-hole, you must have the ability to quickly shift gears, change lanes, plot a new course, bury the hooker – do whatever you need to do to get things back on track as swiftly as possible. The sooner you realize the state of things, the sooner you can alter your plan of attack and achieve success.
The only place where speed isn’t your friend is when emotions are high. If you are involved in such a situation, always give yourself a night’s sleep to calm down. Pass any response by your superiors/peers to see what they think. In this case, a little caution will go a long way.
Yer not gonna win them all
While this shouldn’t become your theme song, you must realize (quickly) that not every engagement will go as planned. Awful client. Bad day for our hero. Misaligned expectations. Shitty software. Screwy timing. All of these things (and more) can contribute to a project going sideways.
What do you do? Well, hopefully you can salvage the operation. Stay professional (even if everyone around you isn’t). Keep your head and sometimes you can turn the shit nugget into a shining pearl… or, more realistically, a less vile shit nugget.
Then, there are the times that things just cannot be salvaged. Obviously, you want these cases to be the exception, rather than the rule. If this happens, realize that you are moving on and you did your best given the circumstances. Like a relief pitcher, you must forget what happened the night before and focus upon a new game the next time out. In other words: let it go! Trust me, you’ll be a shit-ton happier if you can learn to do it.
Communicate with your client and all related parties before the engagement begins. Send frequent status updates, if applicable, during the gig. Then, when all is said and done, keep the lines of communication open. Like a story, every project has a beginning, middle and end. Stay talkative with everyone involved throughout the process and be amazed at where it gets you.
I’ve seen consultants literally lose their jobs because of a failure to communicate. Maybe they got in over their heads technically, but didn’t inform anyone until the project was 6 feet under (I’ve witnessed this one on several occasions). Or, perhaps, they were “mailing this one in” and “checked out” for a certain project – usually the wrong one. In any case, from my experience, clients like to hear from their consultants and you’d be smart to oblige.
Note: This tip also comes with a word of caution. In today’s economy, you may find some clients in a woefully understaffed position. I know some project managers who average about 100 emails per hour. Feel it out. If you encounter this, you may want to lay off just a little with that particular party.
That’s all folks!
Well, this ain’t a finite list but it’s a great place to start. Perhaps I’ll be moved to write more on my consulting life someday… for now, I’m glad that’s off my hairless chest and we shall return to more important matters. What am I doing here? Oh yeah, writing and shit. Well, fuck – I think it’s about time I get back to that.