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A Reminder of Reality

One of my friends posted a link to this article on FaceBook today and I couldn’t help but read the whole thing after the first few lines.

If you need a huge dose of reality, a swift kick in the pants, or just a major motivation push, I recommend that you take 30 minutes to read this article (and watch all of the crazy videos).

Note that this is majorly NSFW and some of it is downright offensive (intentionally!)…

6 Harsh Truths that Will Make You a Better Person

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To follow-up on an earlier post, I decided to do a write-up that describes the different consultant roles on a project, in detail.

(Please note that the below information is specific to the niche software consulting I have been exposed to in my career, and may not apply to every type of consulting project.)

First of all, allow me to take a quick detour…

WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”)

So…this principle does not always apply when it comes to the fine art of selling and placing consultants on a project. Let me debunk some common myths when it comes to staffing:

  • Staffing is product of both time and individual skill sets – not just skill sets. For instance, if there is a consultant who is not the optimal candidate for a project, but the timing of the project is just right…let’s just say that timing is the overriding factor in this case. This is why consulting firms do their best to hire excellent overall consultants – so everyone can fit almost every need at any time. From what I’ve seen, consulting firms will do their absolute best to staff the right person for each project. However, other factors come into play that complicate matters (besides timing): size of the deal, key player politics, potential future sales, etc.
  • The experience and client list written on a consultant bio/resume that is sent in advance to the client for approval may be slightly embellished. I have never witnessed flat out lying (unless the consultant does it themselves – they write the bulk of their bio/resume), but I have seen plenty of embellishing. Remember: the goal of the consulting firm is to get the client to approve the consultant so the project can start and money can flow. Enough said. If you are a client and worried about staffing, set-up phone interviews with the proposed consultant team. Then you can ask the hard questions about background, experience, etc. In my opinion, clients don’t do this enough.
  • In addition, the title on the consultant’s bio/resume may not represent the role the consultant actually plays on the project. This may be embellished to make the client feel like the fit is good. For instance, someone who is considered to be a Sr. Consultant at the firm may be listed as an Architect or a Manager on their bio. They may not have the expected amount of experience in that area. But keep in mind that a consultant firm’s reputation is everything. So more likely than not, they are not going to staff someone who they feel can handle the big task being asked of them. Consulting firms don’t like to fail.
  • The consultant who initially sells you the project/software may not actually be on your project. There are special consultants who only do what we call “pre-sales” (someone who gets the client interested in the firm and/or software product). They have skills in other areas that are helpful – they are great sales people and can demo products well. They may not be the best consultants. In optimal situations, the consultant who does the initial interview is staffed on the project, thereby allowing for continuity and familiarity.

PROJECT ROLES

Sales

The sales person assigned to a client may be called a “Business Development Manager” (a.k.a. “BDM”), “Account Executive”, etc. They are the person you will hear from the most during the initial sales cycle. They may wine and dine you, get chummy with you, and act like they’re your best friend. Once the project starts, some will disappear – never to be heard from again unless there are: new contracts, change orders, issues with cost, issues with people, project parties, unpaid invoices, etc. If you’re lucky, you’ll get one who will be in constant communication with you throughout a project, developing a trusted relationship that you will come to appreciate over time. If you’re lucky

What to look for: I will be honest – I don’ t have personal experience in this area. The closest I’ve come is being involved on the pre-sales side.

I imagine you may want to look for the following traits:

  • Honest communication
  • A likeable and trustworthy nature
  • Continued presence throughout a project lifecycle and a genuine feeling of concern
  • Advocacy for you when it comes to the consulting firm and the product vendor

Management

Management usually encompasses any or all of the following titles: “Vice President”, “Partner”, “Engagement Manager”, “Project Manager”, “Project Lead”, “Principal”, and/or “Architect”. (Note: due to their specialized skill set, I have segregated Architects to the next section.)

The management team on a project includes the people the client management team interacts with the most. This usually includes a Project Manager and an Architect. The Vice President of Consulting may also make occassional visits. If there is an issue with the project it is up to this team to communicate it. They should be your first line of defense and your true consulting friend. You should have the utmost confidence in this team, and they should be your trusted advisor during the good, bad, and ugly. (Notice the overuse of the word “should” in the previous statements.)

Required role on a project? For whatever reason, there is a lot of controversy on this topic. Clients always want to shave costs, and this seems to be one of the first areas that get cut, especially the Project Manager role (probably because this is the most expensive area). I personally think that a project manager should exist for every single project, whether that role be fulfilled by the client or a consulting firm…no matter how small the project is. Sometimes this position is filled by a hybrid role – perhaps an Architect who is also the part-time Project Manager. I think there are many cases where this has worked well. In some situations, I think there may be a need to have several project managers – especially if there are multiple projects running concurrently.

Look at it this way – if no one is steering the boat, how will anyone know where it is going? And if  there are multiple boats – how will you keep them all in line?

What to look for: Management can take a variety of forms and roles. Therefore, it’s hard to nail down a specific set of characteristics.

My personal opinion is that a good management team will have the following basic traits:

  • Excellent, upfront, and honest written and verbal communication
  • LOTS of experience in project management
  • Enough technical knowledge to understand the potential pitfalls, risks, and issues that the consultant team will encounter
  • Meticulous, detail-oriented nature
  • Constant anticipation and pre-planning
  • Tact and the keen ability to read people well (and react professionally)
  • Works well under pressure

Side note on Project Managers: although a PMP certification is a plus, I do not think it is a requirement. This is an area where street smarts overrule book smarts (again, in my opinion). Also, not all project managers need project plans. I’ll probably get flack for saying this, but Microsoft Project is a beast. It can help steer a project in the right direction, but beyond that, it is just an organization tool. The real skill is the style and finesse that the project managers bring to the table.

Architects

The Architects are the “cream of the crop” at consulting firms. They can also be divas. Architects are paid well and I’ve noticed a distinct pattern of consulting firms turning a blind eye to their less than perfect antics. They generally have 10+ years of experience, although I’ve seen successful Architects with less experience.

The definition of an Architect varies from firm to firm. But the commonalities I’ve noticed include:

  • Being stretched across multiple projects (and are therefore not engaged full time and/or from project start to finish)
  • Strong ability to lead both consultant and client teams
  • Fantastic selling skills
  • Great written and verbal communication styles
  • Industry thought leaders
  • Natural mentors
  • Excellent experience in what they do and know
  • Work well under pressure

A good number of Architects also have large egos and can be argumentative and defensive if they are not listened to or are questioned. I guess you take the good with the bad. Architects are in their position for a reason and from what I’ve seen…they really do know what they’re talking about and have a wealth of experience to draw from. They are your bread and butter technically.

Required role on a project? Yes. Plain and simple. This role may not need to be full-time, but I feel that it is necessary.

What to look for: I’ve found the following traits to be most helpful:

  • Excellent, upfront, and honest written and verbal communication
  • Well rounded technical experience, with depth in several technologies
  • Enough project management knowledge to understand the potential project pitfalls, risks, and issues that the consultant team will encounter
  • Constant anticipation and pre-planning
  • Great ability to translate technical speak to non-technical people
  • Natural ability to mentor and train

Senior Consultants

Senior consultants are referred to as “Senior Consultant” – I really haven’t seen this title stray at the firms I’ve been with. Depending on the company, they usually have 5+ years of experience and have been “around the block”. They may have deep technical expertise in a few areas or a wide range of skills. They are not architect-ready, but they may stand in for the Architect while they are offsite. Some act as the Project Lead or take on the duties of the Project Manager. Some Seniors may never want to be Architects – they may shy away from big team leading (and the inevitable accountability that comes with it) and prefer to do the “doing” instead.

Required role on a project? Not always. Project budget and size are always a factor.

What to look for: In a nutshell, Senior Consultants are more experienced Consultants (see next section), but the distinguishing factors are that they can be left to their own devices and can lead small teams.

A good Senior Consultant has the following traits:

  • Extensive knowledge and experience in 1+ technologies
  • Works well without supervision
  • Can lead and direct teams (but not extensively on a project)
  • Effective, honest verbal and written communication
  • Knows when to follow and when to lead

Consultants

The Consultant is a bread and butter role on any large project. (Insider’s note: they also make the most profit for a consulting firm.) They have less experience than most of the other titles at a firm, but they know more than your average business analyst.

The Consultant has 1-5 years of experience. This role may require supervision and guidance. Their technical knowledge will be limited, but better than someone in the corporate world.

Required role on a project? Most of the time, but again – project budget and size are a factor. Consultants have a lower cost factor associated with them, so they fill gaps well when it comes to project budgets.

What to look for: Since these guys generally have less technical expertise, you should focus, instead, on the following traits:

  • Decent experience in at 1+ relevant technologies (but at an intermediate level, not beginner)
  • Strong technical or business apptitude
  • A good understanding of how projects work
  • Ambition and an eagerness to learn
  • Lack of a big ego
  • Willingness to share information with others

Junior Consultants

The Junior Consultant is the lowest level consultant at a firm. At most firms, the “Associate”/”Junior” Consultant has little to no consulting experience or little to no experience in the work place (they may have been recruited straight out of college).

Required role on a project? Not always. Project budget and size are a factor. Also, not all consulting firms hire Juniors. They have the lowest cost factor associated with them.

What to look for: Juniors are great to have on a project. Most of them are young, so they bring a certain level of naivety and energy to a project, which can be refreshing. (Sidenote: They can also make you feel old.)

Since these guys generally lack technical expertise, you should focus, instead, on the following traits:

  • Ambition and an eagerness to learn
  • Lack of a big ego (most Juniors have some ego)
  • Willingness to share information with others
  • Strong aptitude for technical matters
  • Great documentation skills
  • Willingness to do the “gopher” tasks

Infrastructure

Referred to as Infrastructure or Technical consultants, this is a very different type of consultant. They are usually responsible for installing the software and/or spec’ing out the hardware. Their expertise is geared towards networks, operating systems, software optimization, and hardware. They are integral to existing client IT/IS/administration/support structures. Infrastructure consultants have a very short life on projects – they will be there in a full or part time capacity for a short time, usually just 1-6 weeks. They usually cannot have an intelligent conversation about software implementation – that is left to the remaining project team members.

Required role on a project? Depends. If you are a client trying to install the software yourself (yikes – God help you), then you may not need them. I would recommend hiring these experts to do your installation, but you should do the research first and go with a reputable company that has tons of experience.

What to look for: Because this is a different breed of consultants, I would recommend the following characteristics:

  • Thorough written documentation of efforts
  • LOTS of experience with software installations
  • A meticulous and detail-oriented nature
  • Excellent support network to turn to when there are problems (there are almost always problems – every environment is different)
  • Works well under pressure

So, there you have an in-depth look at the players on a consulting engagement…at least my 2 cents worth. Although some of you out there may disagree (feel free to comment with your thoughts), this is my personal experience over the years.

There is one thing that must be said before I end this post…I have yet to be on an engagement where all of the planets aligned and the entire project team was made up of perfect consultants in each role. That is not reality. Therefore, if you are reading this post, taking notes, ready to unleash harsh interviews onto your upcoming consultants…basically hoping to fulfill a utopia of sorts – I’m going to burst your bubble right now. Life doesn’t work that way. BUT…you can get a fantastic team, even when a few of the consultants have hang ups, quirks, or inexperience. There is something to be said about the team dynamic and how it can win out over the perfection of individuals. I have seen that scenario played out more times than I expected to over the years…and it’s beautiful.

Cheers,
The Traveling Consultant

This profile is one that I hope to work with on every project. I wish I were this profile myself, but unfortunately I don’t possess all of these wonderful traits. 🙂

The “Great Guy/Gal”

Definition: You know this guy/gal almost immediately. This person makes everyone smile, puts any situation at ease, and while also getting their work done on time and on budget. In essence, they are one of the perfect consultants.

% of consultants that exhibit this trait: ~1 in every 300 (or at least in my estimation)

Detailed definition: This type of consultant possesses all of the great characteristics that you are looking for in both: 1) an honest worker and 2) a great friend. They are honest, ethical, hard-working, and have a good passion for the job. In addition, you trust them completely. You can have both work and off-topic conversations with them – they are so easy going. I have found, however, that these folks are generally not in leadership positions. They are usually “doers” with great people skills.

Fortunately, I have met 2 people like this. They were both young guys who were new to consulting.

Example 1: The first Great Guy was a very young kid who came to consulting straight from college. He had an enormous appetite for all things technical. In the truest sense of the word, he was a nerd…but he was also very cool (a “geek”?). In his spare time, he DJ’ed – he had an entire suite of electronica music that he would demo for us, which easily upped his coolness factor. He always had a smile on his face, was eager to learn, and seemed to just enjoy life. He often went out with us (older) team members after work for dinner or fun, and he was a barrel of laughs. He was always doing crazy (but nice) things for our team.

But what I liked most about him was his small ego – he didn’t let the little things get to him. He also didn’t get caught up in office politics or gossip. I often looked at him and thought “This kid is going places.” I still keep this person in my LinkedIn contacts list – he is at another firm, kicking butt and taking names.

Example 2: The second Great Guy I’ve come to known was also new to consulting. He was only a couple of years out of college. This guy possessed many similar traits as Great Guy #1. He was fun, easy-going, had a small ego, and didn’t get caught up in the little things that “stir the pot”. The cool thing about this kid was that he had a great designer’s eye, in addition to picking up technology quickly. His layouts were so fabulous – the sales team loved to have him create demos for them, as the clients gravitated to his stuff.

Why would a consultant behave in such a manner?

If you’re lucky, you’ll meet a consultant like this at least once in your lifetime. And the funny thing is, due to the lack of ego – they don’t even know how superb and special they are. They just know they have a lot of friends in the firm.

How do you know when a consultant is a Great Guy/Gal?

After the first day with them, you’ll think “I like this person!” and you look forward to working with them everyday.

What can one do about Great Guy/Gal?

Hire them! IMMEDIATELY!

For whatever reason, I’ve encountered 4 of these types of consultants. They have all been female project managers. I am not sure why this is the case, but in defense of all female project managers out there – my experience does not cause me to stereotype the female species.

The “Flake”

Definition: A consultant who continuously drops the ball on tasks and never seems to be listening to anyone, nor understands what people tell them.

% of consultants that exhibit this trait: ~1 in every 100 consultants

Detailed definition: UrbanDictionary.com (yes, I look up words there all the time – for a laugh or just because the definitions are so true!) describes a flake as “An unreliable person; someone who agrees to do something, but never follows through”. I think unreliable is the perfect definition.

Example 1: The first Flake I encountered worked at my first consulting firm. She began her career at the bottom of the ranks and worked her way up. Since she was unofficially in the project manager role before she was promoted, it made sense to the company to promote her to that position. However, once she “officially” became a project manager, she changed. She started flapping her gums around her team for hours at a time (instead of focusing on work) and she would spontaneously not show up to the client on days when she was expected. When trying to reach her by cell phone, she wouldn’t answer half of the time…and when she did the cell phone would suddenly hit a dead zone and drop mid-sentence during hard conversations. Unfortunately for her, her consulting life there was short-lived and ended quite soon after the client complaints started rolling in.

Example 2: This next Flake managed a very large project at my second firm. At first she was fun to be around – vibrant and smiling. She stood up for her team when they needed support and she gave an encouraging shoulder to cry on when members of her team needed it. Seemed great, right? She was doing a “fine job” until the project went sour. Once that happened, people started paying attention to her performance. During meetings it was discovered that she was doing nothing more than nodding. She didn’t understand the details being discussed. People noticed that she wasn’t taking notes, either. She didn’t follow-up or follow through on things. And she didn’t document the important decisions of the project – crucial for CYA’s. (Sidenote: although these details sound very specific and, well…anal…they are well-known standards for project managers.) After the project hit rock bottom, it was suddenly hard to reach her by cell phone. She became defensive in conversations and meetings. She also started throwing her team members under the bus, one by one. After one incredibly stressful morning, her team members could not find her anywhere. After about an hour, she came in looking fully refreshed and smiling, exclaiming “It is such a beautiful day. I just needed to bask in the sun for an hour!”. She was laid off several months later.

Example 3: This final Flake managed a large project at my third firm. She was an older lady and very refined – she wore skirt suits every day. Her manner was professional and she seemed to be a great project manager on the surface. She had a project plan, she stayed on top of tasks, and she kept her project status reports in tip-top shape and submitted them on time. But she drove her team mad…when her team members launched into any sort of technical detail in response to a question, she would nod her head and then turn around and ask them the exact same question…then space out again the second time around. Several people asked her “Are you listening to me?” She would nod and then ask the same question a different way. As she was there only on a trial basis, the client decided not to sign her onto a contract.

Why would a consultant behave in such a manner?

Flakes are flakes – they are completely oblivious. And if they receive any sort of positive feedback about their performance, they hang onto it forever and believe they are great! Unfortunately, I have seen the road end for all of them in some form or fashion.

How do you know when a consultant is a Flake?

If you find yourself:

  • repeating yourself a lot around them
  • confused when you are around them
  • watching them look like a deer in headlights when you explain something with any sort of detail
  • trying to reach them repeatedly by phone or email, with no luck

What can one do about Flakes?

Upper management involvement plays a key role in dealing with Flakes. But since most upper management is uninvolved at the lower levels, it can be hard to make traction on replacing them or removing them.

It’s important to be specific when communicating Flake issues to management. It’s also important to point out how their behavior effects the bottom line (money).

And if you do choose to take on a Flake, tread carefully. Remember that Flakes are usually in management – so they will get the benefit of the doubt (since they have obviously made it that far for a reason).

This particular consultant profile is one of the main reasons why I left management. I was suffocated by the number of Diva consultants that the firm turned a blind eye to.

The “Diva”

Definition: a consultant who insists on a high-maintenance, extravagant workstyle

% of consultants that exhibit this trait: ~1 in every 20

Detailed definition: If you are a client, you will recognize this consultant when you get your first expense bill. If you are a consultant, you will recognize this type of consultant once you get past the dazzle and glimmer that surrounds them wherever they go.

At first, with clients, this consultant is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. They say all the right things and seem to be nothing short of awesome. And they really know their stuff – they can confuse you with their brilliant minds and fantastic buzz words. But then, as you start examining the expense bills, their true self will start to unravel…

Example 1: Early in my consulting career, I worked under a project manager who fell into this profile. The client liked him enough to keep him on the project, but those of us who worked under him grew to hate him after the first few months. He would want to take an hour-long trips to the coffee shop a half mile away because that “barista” had “bitter-less” coffee. (And if it were raining or snowing, one of us peons would have to drop everything to make the coffee run for him.) He would eat dinner with the team only when we went to the high-priced steak restaurants. He would require that we submit individual status reports that looked exactly like his format (which did not follow the company’s standard methodology) because it was how he wanted it. And, he would require that someone drive him around every week. He sat in the front passenger seat since that was (conclusively) the seat least likely to be targeted in the event of a sniper attack…everyone else rode in the back. Note that this guy came from a military background – military consultants have quirky habits.

Example 2: This example is based on one of the most “celebrity” diva consultants I have ever met. Luckily, he has since left our company. This person would take a limo to and from the airport every week, although it cost the client 25% more. He also ignored all other standard travel expense policies, like booking flights at least 3 weeks in advance to get a cheaper rate. He would book his flight the weekend before, which could cost the client >$500 extra. Finally, he would ignore emails from 90% of his peers – unless you were the CEO or another member of upper management, your email went straight into the Trash bin. (I would bet an entire paycheck that he created a special Outlook rule.) But…he made sure to respond to every email from the client with extra sugar, and the client loved him…just not his expense bill.

Example 3: There once was this hot shot kid who came to us from a large consulting firm. Upon arrival, she immediately exclaimed that she was going to be our new CEO within 5 years. Most of us just shook our heads at her, remembering what it was like to be young and naive. But her true “diva-ness” stemmed from her working hours. She proclaimed that she could only work 40 total hours a week, including travel. Therefore, if her travel snapped up 15 hours of the week, she would only work (and bill) 25 hours, as 15 travel hours + 25 billable hours = 40 total hours. To this day, we don’t understand how she got away with it. She no longer works at my firm.

Why would a consultant behave in such a manner?

It’s really simple: Divas are usually not self-aware, so most of them do not even realize they are behaving badly. In addition, they keep getting away with it. As no one likes to deal with Divas, consulting firms often turn a blind eye to these folks because they are gifted in a particular area of expertise and have dazzled enough clients to be in high demand. They are usually high billers and are spread across multiple projects at once. I’ve noticed that most of these Divas are also Over Billers (see post entitled “Consultant Profiles: the Over Biller”).

How do you know when a consultant is a Diva?

They are smooth talking, very sharp, and often full of themselves. And you’ll know when you start seeing those expense bills, because Divas typically charge 20% more than other consultants due to their high-priced lifestyle.

So what can one do about Divas?

This is really an internal issue, one that consulting firms must manage. Management has to acknowledge that they have a Diva in their midst and then figure out a way to manage their expenses and personality conflicts with others. But, to be honest…because Divas are Divas, their lifespan at a single consulting firm is about 1-3 years. Perhaps everyone can just wait them out…

The Happiest DJ in the World

Recently I went on a couple of international trips, one for business and one for pleasure. I can now add “world traveler” to my profile. 🙂

What was most surprising to me about these trips was the renewed respect they helped me gain for my career. Although my career could function without travel (and I have downright loathed the travel aspect of it at times), I now realize that I could not function without it. Travel has been my constant companion – the backdrop character in my life. It has opened numerous doors for me and my family. After 11 years of navigating the many planes, trains, and automobiles, I now have learned to accept travel…and I can even venture to say that it brings a smile to my face.

While watching a podcast called “The Best of YouTube” during my journey this morning, I came across a wonderful video that I must share with you all. It is called “The Happiest DJ in the World” and has brought me much laughter. I share it with you in hopes that it reminds you of the passion and joy your career brings you. May we all strive to be this happy doing what we do best and enjoy our jobs to the fullest!

Ciao!
-The Traveling Consultant

One of my close, personal friends is a “Talker”, so I write this post with love…

The “Talker”

Definition: A consultant who rambles on and on about anything and everything…and can talk you into oblivion (without noticing). This consultant is the type of person you can ask a question of any topic to, and you can count on never hearing “I don’t know” as the response.

% of consultants that exhibit this trait: ~1 in every 100 consultants

Detailed definition: This consultant can go on and on about any topic. They are happy to divulge their opinion, a family member’s opinion, or even a friend’s opinion on the subject. Sometimes, they even give you your opinion. This type of person is gifted with acumen…they have great knowledge that they either: 1) acquired from past conversations (and retained with an elephant-like memory), or 2) Googled and stored in the “vault”. When you get them going on a topic that they particularly like, it is referred to as “geeking out”. I often wonder if these folks are insomniacs – I don’t understand how they have time to learn everything about everything.

Example 1: As stated above, one of my close, personal friends is a Talker. Some have affectionately called him “diarrhea mouth” behind his back. He especially gets going late at night after a few beers. I can’t help but love him…he can ramble for an hour on a single topic, but he also has many other wonderful qualities that make him an excellent friend, especially the gift of techie knowledge. We often geek out together over our newest i-gadgets.

Example 2: A consultant at my firm is also a Talker, and because I am not a personal friend of his, his rambling often annoys me. I was first introduced to him on a project by way of gossip. Consultant friends were discussing a game they liked to play with him. When he came over to one of their cubes to fulfill his word quota for the day (one of the four or five times a day he did this), they would play the “timer game” with him. It would start with a question about a random, inane topic. His response would get secretly timed. Then the consultants would compare notes to see which topic he talked longest on, and that person would “win”. A variation of this game involved asking sequential random questions to see how long he could talk before getting interrupted by the client. While he was talking, they wouldn’t even look at him – they just continued working on their laptops, nodding from time to time to keep him going. For whatever reason, he didn’t mind – he would continue to look at them as he kept talking.

Why would a consultant behave in such a manner?

These people have no awareness whatsoever of their affliction. They may hear people snicker and joke directly about their lengthy conversations, but they seem genuinely surprised – as if it’s the first time they’ve been told they talk “a lot”.

How do you know when a consultant is a Talker?

At first, when you’re just meeting a Talker (and blissfully unaware), you politely nod and continue with the conversation although you don’t particularly care for it. Then you look at your watch and 15 minutes have disappeared…and the subject is still the same. An hour later, you are looking for someone to bail you out, or you suddenly “have to go to the bathroom”.

What can one do about Talkers?

These consultants are harmless. Although they have the gift of gab, they are generally sweet people who trade off their rambling with excellent technical knowledge that will save you in a tight spot. If you get caught in their avalanche of words, make sure you have an out (or your cell phone so you can text an S.O.S. message to a colleague).