How To Become A Consultant

Ever thought about joining the ranks of IT Consultants?

On Thursday January 20th, 2011, I’m presenting a free PASS Professional Development Virtual Chapter webcast on how to get started in Information Technology consulting. If you have the expressed goal or the suppressed desire to become an independent consultant, this webcast is designed to help you create a clear transistion strategy from full-time employee to full-time IT consultant with a minimum of risk along the way.

During the webcast, I’ll discuss:

  • The many hats that a consultant must wear
  • Strategies for minimizing risk during your transition
  • Options for setting up your business
  • How to handle the “Give me an estimate” question
  • Low cost ways to promote your new business
  • Some best practices as you get started

Much of the information comes from my “The Rational Guide to IT Consulting” book published by Rational Press.

I hope you’ll join me for this event. For more information or to register, visit the PASS Virtual Chapter web site.

“Just Hit Somebody!” Developing A Bias Toward Action

“Come on, hit somebody!” That’s the sage advice I once received from my high school football coach. Later he elaborated to our entire group. I’m paraphrasing here:

If you don’t know who to block, that’s a mental mistake. You should know who to block. Period. But if you don’t know who you’re suppose to block, don’t just stand there; block somebody, hit anybody! Just standing there looking stupid is your second mistake. It’s better to make one mistake at full speed than making two mistakes by just standing there looking stupid.”

Line of Scrimmage

Inaction Is An Action

Much of the advice that I received from my football coaches doesn’t apply well to life off of the grid iron; it was far too sports-specific. However, that one piece of advice, “just hit somebody”, has stuck with me all these years.

Sometimes in business, in personal affairs, or even in spiritual matters, it’s far too easy to not make a decision. We tell ourselves that we need more information. Or perhaps we have enough information, but we need time to consider it all.

I certainly understand that. In fact, that’s my natural tendency. I’ve never taken a DISC assessment, but I probably have high values in the S and C dimensions which lean toward being cautious and deliberate.

But I’ve come to realize that often not making a decision is indeed making a conscious decision to do nothing. Continually asking for more information or trying to further analyze all the information that you already have leads to what’s known as Paralysis of Analysis. The opportunity is lost due to the time it took to reach a decision.

Sometimes it’s better to make a decision, any decision, and move forward.

Don’t Make Rash Decisions

To be clear, I’m not advocating that you should dispense with due diligence, that you should go around making a series of rash decisions. No, that’s short sighted and will lead to suboptimal results.

Each decision should be well researched and carefully analyzed. To a point. Then a decision should be drawn and action taken. Without action, there is no decision. You only have a wish. A decision requires an action.

Developing A Bias Toward Action

So how do we develop a bias toward action? It’s actually far easier than you may think. First you must recognize that no decision can be made with perfect knowledge beforehand. You simply will not be able to fully anticipate every aspect, every contingency, every possibility in a reasonable amount of time. It can’t be done. So there’s no point in allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

Second, you must consider your options based on what you know now and determine the best approach. Notice that this does indeed require that you do your due diligence, that you analyze your situation and options, and that your draw a conclusion (decision) from those options.

And finally, you must consider the opportunity cost of inaction. Will the marginal benefit/cost of delaying action result in a substantial gain? Will gathering additional information produce a significantly better result? Or will it only delay the result? What are the consequences of inaction?

At that point, you have enough information to reach a decision. To act immediately, or to act by intentionally delaying a final decision while you do more research. If it’s the latter, set a timeline to collect the required information and repeat the process.

If all things are equal, consider just acting now.

As Winston Churchill once said “I never worry about action, but only inaction.”

The Lone Ranger And Data Integrity

Many IT Pros can relate to the the Lone Ranger. With the aid of but one trusty side kick, the Lone Ranger stands to protect the unsuspecting townsfolk from the wayward derelicts that plagued the American frontier. He also ate bacon three meals a day.

Like the Lone Ranger, IT Pros ride the fast-paced trail of the business environment, protecting key business systems from improper access and malcontent users. We’re often alone in our quest for data integrity, the lone voice standing out against complete and utter data anarchy. And we love bacon!

But I Neeeeeeeeeeeed It

Ok, I maybe overstating the issue slightly. Most users don’t awaken each morning with the hopes of bringing complete and utter data anarchy to our systems. They simply need something that’s beyond the current capability of the system. So they make do as best they can.

Secondary Systems

Some store data in Excel spreadsheets or Access databases (gasp!). Most of these secondary systems start off as a simple way to help one user track certain data. Over time, however, they can grow and spread like wet Gremlins. A second user discovers the existence of the neat new work-around. Then another, and another.

The next thing you know, the single-user, temporary, and unplanned work-around has become a team-level or department-level mission critical system. It’s frequently inaccessible to others who would benefit from the data, it’s difficult to back up, and it’s now yours to support.

All of this leads to disparate systems and silos of data. Maintenance becomes difficult; accurate reporting, impossible.

Getting Creative

Other users get creative with how they store data in the system. They find and exploit areas of the supported system to accomplish what they need to do. Sometimes they shove multiple pieces of data into one column; for example, they store two are three email addresses in the one allotted field. Or worse, they save two completely different types of data in one field; for instance storing a telephone number and an email address in the email address field.

Users can also repurpose an existing column for their own use under certain circumstances. They may put the customer’s email address in the P.O. Box field if they customer doesn’t have a P.O. Box.

Both techniques make producing reliable reports from the nearly impossible. Some of this can be controlled with data validation, but not perfectly. Users can still find ways around most protective measures.

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall

Why, oh why, do they do this to us? Don’t they realize that taking such liberties with data makes it impossible to have consistent and dependable information? Surely they’ve heard “Garbage In, Garbage Out” Oh, but they do it anyway.

But before we lash out and condemn them for making our lives miserable, we should first look in the mirror to see if any of the blame lies with us.

Have their requests for changes to the supported system continually fallen on deaf ears? Are their changes perpetually on priority level D? Have they asked for a newer version of the supported software, but been denied because we’re too busy to test and install it? Do we default to no rather than to yes?

It’s Not Us Against Them

Unfortunately in many organizations, the IT department has an almost antagonistic relationship with the departments and people they support. This is counterproductive, both to the organization and to our own goals. It makes life difficult for everyone.

So, don’t be the Lone Ranger. Reach out and work with users to support their goals. Strive to understand their needs and then look at the technology and processes that may help to fulfill those needs. You won’t be able to solve all of their problems, but building that relationship will help to solve some of your own problems.

Stop, Drop, And Roll Before Answering

“I can’t believe what they’re telling me!”, that’s what the little voice in my head screams in some of my initial client meetings. Fortunately it usually passes through the marketing and PR filter en route to my mouth and it comes out “That’s interesting. How’s it working for you?”

You wouldn’t believe some of the systems and processes I’ve seen over the course of my 16 years as a consultant.

Some people know that they have a horrible patchwork of broken systems that are loosely held together by duct tape and bubble gum. Others think their system is “flexible except for this one issue we’d like for you to fix.” I’ve learned that one man’s flexibility is another’s bad design.

Fortunately experience begets familiarity and some of the issues I see are remarkably similar to ones that I’ve solved in the past.

It’s tempting to show them just how smart I am and immediately jump to the solution. In fact, cutting to the chase would save them time and money so everybody wins. Except there’s only one problem: I didn’t listen.

You’ve Got To Listen

Listening is incredibly important, not only for consultants, but for everyone. Regardless of your walk in life, being an good listener will help you as you work with other people. Listening helps people to feel understood, to feel that you care. And that goes a long way in building a relationship.

Conversely, if you don’t take the time to listen, other people don’t feel understood. You’re not listening, so you simply cannot understand what’s going on. They assume you don’t care or that you’re just too self-centered. Without a good understanding of the problem, they reason, how can you possibly offer a good solution?

So before you offer a solution, take some time to stop, drop, and roll.

Stop

Don’t interrupt their description of the problem. Let them tell it to you in all its glory, even if you’ve heard it all before. It’s important to them to tell it.

Most people feel their situations are unique and quite different than the problems you may have faced in the past. Let them tell you why. In fact, you may actually learn that their problem is subtly yet significantly different that what you were expecting.

Two rules to keep in mind. First don’t interrupt. If the other person is talking, be quiet. You can nod your head in agreement or smile when appropriate, but don’t say anything. Second, when the other person has stopped talking, count to 5 to make sure that he is really finished and not just regrouping his thoughts. Only then do you know it’s your turn to talk.

Drop

Drop a few clarifying questions back to the other person. Ask them to explain in more detail or from another perspective. Many people will focus solely on the immediate affects of the issue or what they deem as pertinent. If you delve a little deeper you can uncover a lot more information. Asking relevant questions also reassures them that you are listening.

Don’t limit yourself to abstract or technical questions. Ask them about the impact of what they are describing. How is this situation affecting them personally? How has the problem affected their job or other’s perception of them?

Getting personal helps you to understand their motives. This is especially powerful when talking with a prospective client.

Roll

Roll back what you hear them saying. Restate their problem and its affects. Summarizing or restating what they’ve told you helps makes sure that you, do indeed, understand their issue. It also communicates to them that you understand.

This also helps to transition the conversation. It’s moving from their turn to talk to your turn. They’ve described the problem, now it’s your turn to offer suggestions or recommendations.

Solve

After they have completely described their scenario to their satisfaction, then you are free to offer your guidance. Your initial assessment may have been right on, but they wouldn’t have listened to you since you didn’t listen to them. Listening cost you only a few more minutes of time and the rewards were definitely worth it.

So, the next time you’re visiting a prospective new client or someone approaches you with a problem, remember: Stop, Drop, and Roll.

So I Got Promoted, Now What? Employ the Same Successful Tactics

[This is part three in a series of posts about how to effectively transition to your new role after being promoted.]

Series Outline

Constant Change

It seems that Moore’s Law is on its seventh double espresso. The law, which was originally described by Gordon E. Moore in 1965, primarily relates to advances in computer hardware. But given the dizzying pace of changes in all technology , I think it’s more broadly applicable to other areas today. The affects on IT Professionals is fairly obvious.

Can you name a database administrator, a solutions architect, a seasoned developer, or any other highly skilled, highly technical IT Professional that views his job as a run-of-the-mill 9 to 5 position? I can’t. Most successful people in our industry realize that in order to do their jobs, a certain amount of continuing education is required.

So over time, we’ve developed ways to keep up with the latest trends in our field. We listen to podcasts, read blogs, attend conferences, participate in user groups, and take training classes. These sources, among others, help us to do our jobs better.

There’s A Lot To Learn

It’s important to realize that once you’ve been promoted, your job has substantially changed. Many IT Professionals fail to recognize this shift and languish in their new role as Team Lead, Manager, or Director. I’ve seen it countless times at the companies where I’ve consulted.

Need proof? Think back to the first few weeks or months as a new database administrator or application developer. How much did you know, really know, about your job? At the time you may have thought you knew it all, but if you’re honest with yourself, you didn’t. Think about how much more you know now.

The same applies to your new job. You may feel like you know how to manage others and work at a higher level in the organization, but trust me when I say there’s plenty more to learn.

New Job, Same Preparation

That’s not to say that everything you learned in your last role is now obsolete. On the contrary, we can supplement that expertise with newfound and complementary knowledge and once again prepare to excel in our new role. The good news is that you already know how to do this – just take the same approach that landed you the promotion.

Dive Into Your New Role

In much the same way you seized your prior technical role and sought out every bit of information you could in your area of expertise, you can and should do the exact same thing in your new role. How?

  • Seek out podcasts on how to manage a technical team. I like Manager Tools series of podcasts.
  • Look for blogs that are dedicated to effective management.
  • Attend a non-technical conference. Once again I hear good things about the Manager Tools conferences.
  • Read books on effective communications and leadership. There are classics like anything from Peter Drucker and Dale Carnagie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People as well as more contemporary books like Good to Great.
  • Join associations.

Expand Your Horizon

In your prior role, you may have found it valuable to learn some ancillary technologies to help you do your job better. The same is also true for your new role.

  • Get involved with ToastMasters International.
  • Read books about making presentations. Presenting to Win describes how to create an engaging presentation.
  • Learn more about negotiations tactics.
  • Look for opportunities to improve your budgeting and financial skills.

You Can’t Improve What You Don’t Measure

As a database or network professional, you may have found that capturing statistics and benchmarking data paid off in many ways. Metrics help determine when things are begining to depart from the norm. They can be used to help predict when upgrades will be needed. And they can be used to identify where the problem really is, and more importantly where it isn’t.

Metrics can be used in your new role, too. Capturing metrics can help you to justify new expenditures, identify gaps in your current levels and processes, and benchmark your areas of responsibility. Remember the adage: you cannot improve what you don’t measure.

Show Me The Money

Redundancy, high availability, and up-time are all good concepts and even measurements in some cases for technical people. We can see how they naturally help us to achieve our goals. However, oftentimes those concepts are a bit too abstract for other people, particularly those who may hold the pursestrings. In those cases, putting the concept or technology into financial terms often helps. For example the cost of a High Availability solution may be $200,000. That sounds expensive until you realize that the cost of being down for just one day is $500,000. In that case, $200,000 maybe well worth the investment depending on the probability of an outage.

The same tactics can be employed in your new role. Learn to associate your projects and requests with financial measures. Calculate the Return On Investment. The practice will help you to better understand the real need (or lack of real need). And it’ll help form a good basis for your request to your boss.

Carpe Diem

Although I couldn’t find a reference for it, I believe it was Tom Peters that once quipped “Nothing begets failure like success.” I believe he meant that once a company was successful at one endeavor, it was in danger of always trying to repeat that success and thus stifling true innovation.

As individuals, we are susceptible to that as well. If we, in our new job, continue doing the exact same set of tasks that made us successful in our prior role, we will doom ourselves to failure. However, we can employ the same fervor, the same passion, and the same tactics that lead to our prior success in our new roles and seize the day.

So I Got Promoted, Now What? Stop Doing Your Old Job

[This is part two in a series of posts about how to effectively transition to your new role after being promoted.]

Series Outline

Your Hard Work Has Paid Off

You’ve work hard over the past few years, going the extra mile to make sure that everything in your charge has gone well. You’ve managed your individual and team projects well; you’ve organized your work and developed a personal discipline so that nothing has fallen through the cracks. And now your hard work has finally paid dividends. You’ ve been recognized with a promotion. So now what do you do?

This is a question that many highly skilled, highly technical people ask themselves once the euphoria of increased pay and acknowledgement has worn off.

Unfortunately, many don’t pursue the answer long enough to find it. Instead they get mired down into the daily routine of their new role and never explore how they could better prepare to succeed. Many languish in mediocrity at best, and fail at worst.

So what’s the first thing you need to do?

Stop Doing Your Old Job

Stop doing your old job. To many, this may sound too obvious to mention. If you are promoted to a new position, why would you want to continue doing your old job as well as the new one? Isn’t one job enough?

Unfortunately, in many cases it’s just not that discrete. Often the promotion is a “working promotion.” You’ve been promoted to Senior DBA, to Development Team Lead, to Manager of the Administration Team, or to Director of Operations. The promotion comes with a new title, an increase in pay, and some new responsibilities. However, you find that in addition to your new duties, you are still accountable for many of the same tasks you had before your promotion.

To be successful in your new role, you will need to approach it with the same fervor and dedication that led to your promotion. You won’t be able to do that if effectively if you are spending a significant amount of your time doing your old job. Something has to give and it had better be the old job.

“But, It’s Not My Job”

To be clear, I’m not advocating that you tell your boss “It’s not my job anymore.” when he asks you about something that was your direct responsibility prior to the promotion. They don’t want to hear that. And besides, unless your promotion has moved you to a completely new department, that task still falls under your purview. And it’ll remain your responsibility until you’re told specifically otherwise or your replacement can be found.

So, in order to stop doing your old job, you’ll need to identify people who can successfully step into the role you once occupied, or at least take on many of the responsibilities. This can be done through a series of progressively larger and more impacting steps: assign immediate tasks, delegate small projects, and create a growth plan for your team.

Assign Immediate Tasks

Many of us have daily, weekly, or even monthly tasks that require our time and attention. There are backups to verify, meetings to attend, status reports to create, numbers to run, and logs to review, to name but a few. None of these are particularly urgent. Many are not high profile. But all need to be done.

In your prior role, you probably handled each of these at part of your job. Those responsibilities were commiserate with your level. In your new role, however, many of those activities will drain one of the most precious resources you have: your time. If you can safely offload those discrete yet repetitive tasks to one or your team members, you’ll potential free several hours per week.

Delegate Small Projects

The next step is to begin delegating some of the projects for which you are responsible. Start small and work your way up. Don’t begin with a large, complex project with multiple moving parts requiring input from numerous colleagues. Start with a small, fairly self-contained project that can be accomplished without  much outside input. Expect to work closely with the team member to whom you’ve delegated the project.

Initially, delegating will not free up your time. On the contrary, it will likely consume more of your time in the short-term than if you just did it yourself. But the payoff is just around the corner, just a few months down the road. As you get better at delegating and your team learns how to run with the delegated projects, you’ll be able to do more and more. Delegation is a force multiplier once you pay the initial start up costs in time.

Create a Growth Plan for Your Team

The best people have a knack for bringing out the best in other people. They somehow get others to perform and exceed even their own expectations. You want those kind of people on your team. And if you want them on your team, you can bet that your boss wants them on his team, too.

One way to bring out the best in other people is to consciously and intentionally create a growth plan for each of them. Talk with them. Learn their aspirations. Discover their likes and dislikes. Create a plan to help  them grow professionally, technically, and interpersonally. In short, you’d eventually like for them to easily step into your shoes once you get promoted again.

Ifs, Ands, and Buts

But isn’t all this risky? Won’t one of your team members take your job? Or won’t they get promoted out from under you?

Fostering an environment where you can be more effective while growing your people is not “risky.” In fact, a good argument can be made for just the opposite. Not growing your team is risky. Creating an environment where personal growth is not evident, where the same old routine is done day in and day out, is far riskier to you than growing your team. The best people won’t want to stay in that environment. You’ll be left with the mediocre.

One of the best compliments you can be paid as a manager is to have one of your team members promoted to a new position. It’s speaks well of the environment you’ve created. And when that happens again and again, senior management will recognize your role in producing highly effective people.

And when you get promoted, you’re next transition will be easier because you’ll have already cultivated your replacement.


“So I Got Promoted, Now What?”

“In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” That’s the premise of Dr. Laurence Peter in his 1969 book, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong My first thought when I read a statement like that is: I wonder if Dr. Peter worked in a hierarchy and if so would his premise still apply?

Nevertheless. I think we’ve all seen instances where someone who is very good with technology is promoted and flounders. Horribly. And the worse they do, the more stress they feel. And they flounder even more. So what happens? The don’t make changes in their daily work required by the new position.

This is the first in an nine-part series on how to do your job better once you’ve been promoted. Hopefully the next eight posts in the series will help you to be aware of the new dynamics required by your new role so you adjust and excel.

Stop Doing Your Old Job

At first blush, this may sound too obvious to be worth mentioning. But there’s a reason it’s first on the list. This is far more prevalent than you may think.  If you don’t address this shortly after your promotion, it can set you up for failure down the road. [more…]

Employ the Same Successful Tactics

In your prior role, you approached your job, your responsibilities, and your preparation in a certain way, one that eventually led to your promotion. And while you don’t want to simply repeat the “what” you were doing before, you can most definitely leverage the “how” that got you the promotion. [more…]

Get to Know Your Peers

Far too often, IT professionals believe, mistakenly in my opinion, that they are paid to be good with technology. To be sure, that’s a part of it. In some jobs it may even be the majority of it. However, none us work in a vacuum and it’s important to know your colleagues before you need them. [more…]

Get a Trusted System

In your prior role, your may have had little difficulty managing your  workload and tasks. But now things are more complex. You are responsible for for work that you assign or delegate to others. You had better find a good system for managing that work.

Manage Your Email

Email is a great way to communicate, however when you receive scores or even hundreds of emails every day, it can quickly become unwieldy and detrimental to your productivity. A considerable portion of your day, or even night, can be consumed by email. You’ve got to find a good technique for managing your email inbox.

Manage Your Calendar

This could just as easily be called “Protect Your Time”. The collaborative world of shared calendars can be great for people who’s job it is to coordinate and plan meetings. However, for those of us who must attend meetings as well as doing work, shared calendars can be quite a disruption our days. You must take steps to ensure you have time to work.

Start Having Weekly One-on-Ones

As a new supervisor, team lead, manager, director, or even executive team member, it’s critical to build a trust with your team that can weather the storms that are sure to come. A great way to do this is to conduct a weekly, one-half hour, one-on-one meeting with each of member.

Recognize the Tendency to Revert

When push comes to shove and the pressure really begins to mount, many new managers tend revert back to their comfort zone, to their strengths, to what made them successful in their prior role. But that only makes matters worse. Being aware of this can help you to avoid it.

Questions:

  • What were some of the unforeseen challenges that you faced after your last promotion?
  • How did you cope with the new challenges?
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