Selling Solutions: The Ugly Side of Consulting

Over my career I’ve experienced a wide variety of working situations as geography, life situation (e.g. children), or the desire for something different encouraged change.

I worked in a small firm of professional engineers building solutions for the power generation industry, sharing a small office in a one-story building at the edge of a mid-sized city. I often rode a bicycle to work, the day veering to miserable when an unexpected rain rolled in.

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My most vivid memory of that office was a coworker who ate oranges regularly: I loved the fragrance from the peels that filled the air. Strange how so many memories are scent based.

It was a motivated, fundamentally agile and fast moving workplace, and there was a good amount of passion for what we were doing.

When my wife got a great job offer in another city, and realistically I had exhausted the challenges of the role, I moved on.

I worked in a skyscraper in a mega city for a large telecommunications company, commuting in by train. I walked from the station to the office everyday (underground when the weather was bad), taking a slightly different, circuitous route for variety, then finding my way to my tiny cube in a forest of cubes. Every lunch I would wander the area and buy food from a street vendor, which given Toronto’s street food bureaucracy meant a hot dog most of the time.

I had no idea what the people in cubes near me even did (though when I thought back to reminisce, it was the workplace depicted in the movie 1984 — the John Hurt version — that came to mind), and can’t recall their names. The people I actually worked with were in other cities and sites.

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Then I was recruited by a bank, enticed by financial products and benefits that drew me given the birth of my first child. Canada is a destructively reserved, uncompetitive nation in general, so being recruited was pretty unique to start with, and a bit of an ego boost, even if the banking conglomerate had to completely upend their pay scale in the process. Through the years described I turned down a variety of offers from Bay Area and Seattle companies: Canada is my home and I rather like living here, even though in practice the people and organizations I end up working with are almost always in other nations.

I worked for that mega financial company in a suburban office, again in a series of cubes. Most of my coworkers were careerist who by and large despised their job and despised the company, but nonetheless planned as if it were their indefinite future. Which was at odds with the goals of the executive who were doing their best to ensure that most of them had a short future with the company. The commute got torturous, and it was incredibly hard to have any feeling of accomplishment with the work: Change was tightly restricted, the process so limiting that the lifecycle of every project was a burst of unsanctioned activity, usually by a rogue team, which then became a sanctioned solution that was largely static, growing ever more obsolete until it was eventually replaced by the next emergent upstart unsanctioned project, or an external solution that could be developed without any of those internal controls or restrictions. Progress, uh, finds a way.

That model, seen at so many firms, is like stocking your kitchen with only quinoa and açaí berries, talking about the importance of good eating, and then buying a Big Mac and a large pizza whenever your hunger overwhelms you. Tight controls at a financial organization are obviously required, but when they restrict action to the point that the only progress is by taking solutions from outside purveyors or rogue teams with no controls, the whole exercise is rendered absurd.

To make it worse, the controls were illusory, stifling for little to no benefit. Virtually any change required a security audit by the security team, and sign-offs from virtually all levels, which itself necessitated inter-city travel and literally weeks of coordination. While it sounds logical, and the root premise seems fine (if it were more speedily accomplished), in reality the process was farce, and despite slowing every project to a glacial pace offered effectively no real safeguards at all. This was one of those process demands that only seemed protective to people on the outside looking in, but when you’re in the thick of it you sweat the notion that there is any real trust in these safeguards, because they do nothing against the sort of things they’re implemented to stop.

The work was becoming soul destroying. It also risked being career destroying (grinding your days away accomplishing little isn’t skill building, instead inspiring burnout. The only long-term path would be a move to pure management). I moved on.

I worked for a small but potent financial technology company building innovative solutions using the latest patterns and practices and technologies to provide a competitive edge for the operations of the firm. The ability to architect things from the beginning, to use the best technologies, and to have a good amount of financial and stakeholder backing made it interesting and very rewarding.

It was a wonderful company with great, highly capable people, but when my mentor and a partner in the firm passed away, various corporate changes had core individuals looking to relocate the Canadian office to a location that would demand a much longer commute (there were many more individuals whose interests were at stake, so I also didn’t want to stand in the way of it for my own selfish reasons either). It seemed like a good time to move on to new adventures.

Since, and at varied times in between, I’ve worked as an independent consultant through my company yafla Inc. Always working with customers directly, never through a body shopper.

Many of those engagements have been hugely rewarding experiences, where I’m doing challenging work that makes a huge difference with smart clients that optimize the benefits.

The financial rewards can be good, though when you consider the countless hours of research, learning, investigating, building trial solutions of emergent technologies, etc, and then add the personal costs like office space and the accouterments of doing business…it isn’t as amazing. They are quite a contrast to some of the wild tales that are making the rounds: Every couple of weeks I see the community percolating someone’s claims about charging tens of thousands per week with ease for some vague service, choosing and picking their clients at will (the articles getting wide and easy traction because it feeds egos and are aspirational — Fire those clients! Charge 10x more than the market! “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”. The developer market eats that stuff up).

The motives for these easy money pieces are often dubious: if someone is making incredible claims and using that exposure to pitch something else, or to establish an air of authority, be wary. It’s the “financial guru” who makes “so much money” on the markets that she’s mostly interested in getting the pittance you’ll pay for their how-to-secrets pamphlet — the facts don’t mesh. The situation often seems so unlikely that it’s one of those “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” situations, yet is often presented more as a girlfriend-in-Canada. Just believe, and while you’re here can I interest you in some Amway?

I mention this because I always worry that loads of smart developers read those stories and quit their jobs in a rush to start making their tens of thousands per week, choosing among countless offers to find the perfect role as desired from week to week, jetting off to Europe on a whim for some beachfront remote work. It also provides an absurd benchmark from which to base your own pricing, targeting a mythical situation that by and large doesn’t actually exist.

If you don’t already have the reputation and the network, you’re probably going to hit a complete brick wall with an empty sales funnel and a sense of desperation that soon has you making WordPress templates for sub-minimum wage on some freelance site. Even if you have a great reputation and an extensive network of well-heeled clients, with some unique niche skills, the industry is, in my experience, much more difficult than a lot of these stories would have you believe.

Maybe I’m just speaking from a limited perspective, but with clients among financial and technology firms in New York City, Los Angeles, Toronto, Europe and the Bay Area, it’s a very different world to the one often presented.

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The consulting world is one where a lot of people just want to waste your time, and it’s hard to know until it’s too late.

There’s an episode of the enjoyable series “Silicon Valley” where a “prospective investor” calls the team in to talk about their technology, the ostensible goal being to discover if it’s worth investing in. Midway through, members of the Pied Piper team realize that they are being “brain raped”, the whole ruse really just a way to try to get some free technology/solutions. Add that sometimes people just want to talk, and a common surrogate for accomplishment is meetings, so occasionally you get engagement discussions where you start to sense that the initiative isn’t real, having no real commitment or sign-off, and is really just some people filling their calendar full of pseudo-work.

This, I have found, is the reality of a good percentage of prospective “sales” processes, and I suspect is the reason many firms engage a sales staff that know little enough, talking to middle-management on the other side at an equal footing, that their engagement can’t really, by itself, bring much value to anyone (even though it’s very costly for both sides), getting the client to the pay stage without actually telling them what for, on the backs of a selection of well cooked steaks and vintage bottles of wine.

I could simply refuse to talk specifics (the decisions that set the foundation for success are themselves very valuable, and are often the greatest contributors to project success, performance, and lifespan) until the clock has started ticking and a contract is signed, or demand a fee for the initial sales process, and I’m sure such is the solution for those people purportedly charging $40,000 per week1, picking among the long line of potential customers throwing money at them, but that doesn’t really work in practice for me: It’s hard to give a client a sense of the value that you’re bringing, or the scope and scale of the commitment to get to the delicious deliverables, without talking through their problem and how you’re going to solve it, making timelines and roadmaps and technology stack diagrams.

The good clients realize the value and continue the process through to the next stage, but there are a seemingly limitless number of bad clients who’ll immediately start browsing freelancer sites to find the lowest hourly they can with some matching keywords (high concurrency vectorization via in-memory data representations and OpenCL…well this guy says he used a database, and data is data right, so that’s about the same?), demanding that you match it. I of course decline. That will always come back to haunt them, but that doesn’t undo the fact that it wasted a lot of my time, and there is no reward or satisfaction seeing their march to failure.

Repeat this several dozen times, sometimes with the same non-clients shamelessly attempting a round two. I won’t even get to the issue of clients who suddenly have grievances with rates after the solution is delivered to specification and on-time, or simply don’t have the capacity to pay at all (clients that have demonstrated traits of being profoundly cheap — if they’re calling you to fix a disaster project that has been failing for years with their far flung, offshore team that they chose purely based upon cut-rate prices [there are incredibly talented and capable “offshore” teams, and I am never one to denigrate fearfully based on geography — there are brilliant minds across the globe. But there are other teams that are put together on the basis of price alone, the goal being to have the largest headcount at the lowest cost, the results always an absolute disaster] — are usually circling the drain and are a client you don’t want).

These are all time sucking distractions, and when time is what you monetize this is a problem. The solution, of course, is to grow to the point where you have sales staff, and an accounts receivable staff, and various intermediaries and so on, but pretty soon the overhead is so great that the next solution is to ride on the backs of low cost talent, hiring new graduates who are mostly trained in how to increase billable hours. See: Most medium to large consulting companies.

It’s a descent to mediocrity, which is not something that interests me. I need the challenge, and the reward of doing great work. That’s what drives me.

Most prospective clients, good and bad, will compare your rate with that of a hypothetical, generalist full-time employee, and this can be an ongoing source of friction. Even if you hit the ground running (usually having done an enormous amount of work to be ready for this), with a very specialized, proven set of unique skills and a long track record of success, quickly pounding out a solution using every best practice on your own hardware in your own office, over a short engagement that is just a rapid fire of high value deliverables, someone is going to divide some numbers and compare your rate with the unloaded contrived hourly of that guy who made the Excel spreadsheet calculations a few years back (so, like, a programmer or something) and currently bides his day browsing Reddit.

It happens in almost every engagement. It’s why the common claim of enormous rates rings so hollow — if you say that you’re going to save an organization $500,000, and do the work to make that actually happen — say by doing an analysis and modifications to a process that required 10x the hardware it should, not even counting the customer and reputation loss through miserable response times — if that took you an hour, many clients will quickly run an “equivalent full time employee” calculation and figure that your work was worth $88,000 / 52 / 5 / 8…$42. And thirty cents…what the heck, make it thirty five cents, kid, but don’t spend it all at one place.

The compensate-based-upon-value-derived client, generally the coarse rationale to explain the myth of enormous rates, is more of a unicorn than a common case, most instead concerned only with the amount of time you spent doing the visible aspects of the job. That same messed up evaluation is the curse of traditional employees as well, most employers concerning themselves most with how many hours you warm a seat than the fundamental value you bring to the organization.

That process performance example is a very real one that I’ve endured a number of times. If clients have a long running process or query, I have a bit of a humored internal standard that I can usually reduce the runtime 98%, which you could also say makes it run in 1/50th the time. More often than not it is 99%+ (to 99.9%+. If someone mentions the words big data, it’s usually on the very high end of the savings estimates), only attacking the largest and most egregious culprits. These clients can task their entire team to try to do this for months on end and see no success, yet when I provide that solution, it immediately becomes the normal baseline, and is judged for the time spent (which usually isn’t much time at all), not for the enormous value derived.

This story has played out hundreds of times, and each time I always think I should provide an A:B demonstration, with the B being black-boxed and only available for some large, ransom-like fee.

Such “value proposition” arguments are a complete non-starter in most engagements. Moreso if the people you interact with at the firm don’t particularly care if the company saves or makes $500,000…because that doesn’t directly benefit them (in that 98% scenario, if your intermediary is the one who pushed the organization to scale-out their “big data” 500MB database, your improvements probably won’t see much enthusiasm), which is often the case. As the client firm grows larger, the circle of concern of many of the people you interact with collapses, until their net concern is “what can you do to make me look good” (see — the clients who wastes your time. Once you’ve delivered the exact action plan, technology stack, and approach, they can be the seer that seems to have a handle on the project…for a while at least).

It’s a serious question of ethics when the person you answer to at a client has motives that are fundamentally at odds with the organization.

It’s a tough business. It’s tough finding the right clients, tougher still convincing them to use your services, and tougher yet again to get a decent rate. It’s tough to do what’s right for a client without simply pandering to the personal ego and agenda of the company representative that controls your engagement. And now you need to get them to actually pay.

Don’t take this as sour grapes, bitter, or anything else with a negative motive. In most people’s judgment I have done very well, however that’s under some of the most perfect conditions possible (unique skills and a pretty good reputation and established network in a very rich industry, where the things I do offer enormous value and competitive advantage), but even still I’ve dealt with an enormous amount of nonsense, and dealt with the same demotivating distractions day in and day out.

Okay I am bitter about the fake clients: I really despise the time wasting aspect, and that almost feels like I was robbed of some of my lifespan.

Which is why I mostly disengaged from doing consulting. Without compromising the service, becoming the mediocrity that defines the scene, there is just too much wasted time and effort for sporadic reward. Even among long-time clients who have benefited enormously from my services, the false economics (the “equivalent to a full time” calculation, and boring discussions around it) just get too exhausting to argue with repeatedly as various different people rotate into the discussion. Organizations will dump tens of millions achieving effectively nothing year in and year out, but a relatively small engagement with an “outsider”, fundamentally improving and rocketing the organization forward, becomes an enormous point of political strife. Most prospects are either too small to realistically afford an engagement, or large enough that individuals have established fiefdoms and motivations aren’t entirely honest.

Maybe I’m just doing it wrong. Perhaps. But it just isn’t for me. I remain skeptical of the too-good-to-be-true tales that are too common.

I’m doing something quite a bit different now, still working for myself, in my comfortable and absurdly productive home office, but with much more focus and selectivity of the people I work with. That is not particularly relevant to this piece (though I am selling a white paper that describes the approach), mentioning it only because it seems contextual.

A lot of consulting is bullshit. For many people, I suspect, it would be much less rewarding than just getting a normal job. Be skeptical of overly optimistic stories to the contrary. A lot of tales you read about the industry are fictions, used to exaggerate accomplishments or to feed attention to some new initiative, which by itself is harmless but can mislead people looking to ply the trade.

1 – This piece got quite a surprising amount of attention, and as always I like to address some of the feedback or comments-

  • Addressing the common reality of the consulting world isn’t being negative, and being delusional about it isn’t being positive. For people who are or want to be in this industry, you’re either realistic or you’re out of work. If you subscribe to the matching frequency philosophy, then by all means argue that notion and daydream under the apple tree about the endless riches, but it won’t get paid engagements.
  • Weekly pricing has little to do with daily or hourly pricing, and these are not interchangeable. Each infers engagement length minimums. Ala “I know a security consultant who once charged $2000 for a day” often entails a one-off, single day engagement (with all of the overhead each engagement brings), and generally does not translate into a $10,000 weekly engagement. When someone talks in terms of weekly pricing, they are talking about week long engagements.
  • For that matter, $10,000 per week is a universe removed from $40,000 per week. The former is something that happens in high value engagements, after much fretting and usually a drawn out process. The latter…I have never seen anyone not a celebrity individually make anything close to this. It may happen, of course, but is absolutely not the norm.
  • Judge claims by the situation. If someone claims their boundless success and extraordinary, atypical rates, using that not to pitch their consulting (because, of course, pretty much every client is going to just give a pass when they see someone expects those sorts of rates, discussions rendered futile) but instead to pitch other things, if not their own prowess…come on: Be skeptical.