Thursday, October 08, 2015

On Being A Consultant

I've been an engineer for multiple decades. I've been a consultant for more than a decade. I've only been a great consultant for a few years.

It took me a few years to become an master engineer. It took me decades to become a master architect.  It has taken me longer to become a master consultant.

Growing up through the ranks of Microsoft and shipping products such as Visual Studio can teach one the value of delivering technical excellence, but not necessarily the soft skills and relationship management to make the process smooth and experiences positive.  In truth, surrounded by anti-social geniuses it was as easy to learn bad business habits as it was to learn set theory and how write elegant code in one pass.

Becoming capable as a consult required an unlearning of many aspects of the engineering value system. Similar to the inspired theory made famous in "A Beautiful Mind", it requires solving for more than one definition of the right answer. Which inherently invalidates the idea of getting something right the first time without any interaction.

As I learned to find a balance, I realized that I enjoyed the process of finding this balance. That bringing together strictly technical elegance and the wider spectrum of elegance in business was in itself a unique type of challenge that I found rewarding. Which is why I have not found myself particularly at home in large corporations doing maintenance on legacy systems year in and year out. Or even within the same enterprise solving and re-solving the same problems over and over for incremental refinement. Instead I am most at home when I can bring together seemingly unrelated solutions to craft evolutionary advancements where the impact can be significant. For example, using the same sophisticated algorithms that solve just-in-time manufacturing problems but applied to slotting seats and routes for an airline. These problems are many but they are intrinsically non-repeating. And therefore making a consistent income from this type of interesting work requires exposure to many industries and many clients. If one wants to keep doing innovative work for innovative companies, one must always be searching for the next bit of innovative work. And therein lies the rub. While I am working, I prefer to be focused on my work, not on finding the next bit of work that will bring me income once this current bit of work is completed.

Which leads me to the online marketplaces and project boards as a means to expand the pipeline of available opportunities. Recently I decided to start working with some "new" agency types as a means to extend my network. While my social and client network has no seeming end to the need for talents such as mine, there are indeed limitations and the idea of increasing my pool of opportunities from a much larger perspective is enticing. Previously I have been reluctant to post my profile in more publicly trafficked spaces because of the lack of oversight and proper vetting. My time is valuable and my talents unique, so it makes sense that I would employ a buffer between my time and the deluge of clients who don't appreciate that I am not the best choice to build the [landing page|brochure|insert mundane UI here] for their [flower shop|dry cleaners|insert small business here].

After a few experiences I have concluded that these "new" types of agencies are really the same old staffing agencies and development shops in disguise. The worst of these has been TopTal which is really just a bunch of elitist shysters who have found an interesting marketing approach to increase their margins while providing no additional value.