Posts about Life as a consultant

New Pastures.

November 18th, 2010

Things have been a bit quiet recently.

I was busy being a consultant and then making the decision to leave consulting and try for something a little more grounded, as nice as those air miles were they don’t buy happiness.

I still haven’t stopped writing, however and expect more soon….

Taxi Drivers

November 18th, 2010

If there’s one thing you get used to when jet setting round the world leading the glamorous life of a consultant, it’s taxi drivers. Taxi drivers are very much like consultants. They squabble over your custom, take you round the world for a shortcut, talk crap for the entire journey and then charge you too much at the other end. Seriously though, a taxi driver can make or break your day. It’s the taxi driver who tells you where the good restaurants and bars are – or not, as the case may be, if you have a project based in Bexhill On Sea. Yes. It has happened. A taxi driver knows where your office is, your hotel is and (hopefully) gets you to the airport on time to get your flight. Most importantly, a taxi driver takes you home when you land and gives you blank receipts for expenses if you’ve been having a hard week and/or they fancy you.

My first taxi of the day is from my home to the airport to catch the first flight to wherever I need to be. Let me set the scene. I am wearing a suit. I am carrying a laptop bag. I have a generic corporate briefcase. I am carrying the highest scoring frequent flyer’s card that you can get and yet every time, EVERY TIME
“You off somewhere nice on holiday?” the driver asks me.
My answer is always standard and incorporates the fact that I’m dressed to go to work and carrying a work bag and you guys drive me to the airport every Monday morning to get to work. The question doubly riles me because I’d flippin’ love a holiday. Having it waved in my face by my taxi-driver whilst on my way to another week to Beelzebub Pleasure Park doesn’t set me up for the morning.

The next journey I have to make is usually when I get off the plane. In this instance, myself and a colleague had been in the airport from 0530h for a 0700 flight which was delayed 2 hours. We landed, angry and irritated and with our manager bawling us off down the phone to have “foreseen this” and come over the night before. We clambered into the cab, trolley cases akimbo, my comrade dropped his wallet and I think I poked a hole in my new coat lining with my watch hand turner knob thing.

The driver ripped forth with a broad “yo-ho there, where you two suits off to then?” before flooring the accelerator and narrowly missing a postbox. I swallowed my breakfast which had came up.
“I got this cab in 1992,” he announced, before we had informed him of our destination. “I have to clean it every day, drunks, bloody drunks”
“Er, can we go to the High St?” (obviously not, just being elusive) I interrupted.
“Yes, and it’s awful, right were you’re sitting now some kid was heaving over it. All cleaned up now though, it’s a pain at 5am but it needs doing.”
At this point it clicked that we had nabbed this driver from the nightshift – the vomit had been right there just hours before and all it had seen was a sponge and soapy water. I wondered just how much amphetamines he’d consumed to keep him going. He continued in earnest whilst I dried to concentrate on antiseptic thoughts. How he got the vehicle, how he fixed it up – even how often he replaced the handles. By the time I arrived at my destination I was throughly exhausted and an SME in taxi repair. My colleague got the cab fare and I noted that he didn’t tip too generously.

It was bad enough first thing but even worse last thing. In the morning, you are just tired. In the evening, you’re tired, hungry, overworked and in pain from lugging your life in a wheely-bag so unsuspecting taxi drivers have been known to find the sharper side of my tongue. After a two hour train commute to client site, a ten hour day then another two hour train commute back to the hotel and then (yes, there is more) a 4h train commute to my next client site for the next day I was not in the most gracious of moods. The taxi driver who found me at 0130h wrestling with my trench coat stuck in my bag zip landed himself in it when he proceeded to talk about the weather for the duration of our 45minute commute.
“Having a degree in science, I consider myself reasonably well informed about rain…” “…and the hydrological cycle,” I added.  Just to be doubly obnoxious.
Up to that point I had managed to get by with those strange groans and grunts that sound like they come from a chronically ill calf but I wanted to mitigate the chance that he would want more interaction.

The next day I was making the reverse journey. My flight left in exactly eighty minutes. It was rush hour. I hopped into a cab and requested the airport ASAP, but in a nice and jovial way. I’d cut things this fine before. He trundled off in third gear. And stayed there. After half an hour, I asked how much longer the journey was going to take. I knew it was about forty five minutes total from my taxi journey with Michael Fish the night before and I had allowed a bit for rush hour. Note – the airport was beside the train station. Just for those curious as to why these buildings seemed to be the same thing.
“Oh, er, you’re taking about another half hour minimum. It is rush hour you know.”
I did know, but I also knew that the road was empty for the foreseeable several hundred meters.
“I know, I appreciate it. I don’t mean to put pressure on you…it’s just, well, can’t get go even a little faster, I have a flight to catch and I know you guys can get me there in no time, it’s why I don’t use prebooks.”
He said nothing and continued on at his usual place. More nervous now, I interrupted his peaceful driving.

“Look, If you can get me to the airport in half an hour, that leaves me ten minutes to get to the gate. I can do it in ten minutes – I just need to get there. I’ll give you £50 if you can do it.”
Fourth gear. Better, better.

So, anyway, I made it to the airport. I even got one of the special boarding passes that are given to particularly late people. My bank account was also a good bit lighter after that expedition. I have since developed a series of the most uninteresting topics in the world which with whom I wax lyrical at taxi drivers in order to discourage them from conversation. They include: “The harvest pattern of spring wheat” “how tarmac is made” and “the bones in the hand.”
Sometimes I just pretend not to speak English.  It’s that exciting.


July 21st, 2010

There are three types of honesty. No honesty, good honesty and bad honesty. Now, consulting gets a bad press on the honesty stakes which is unfortunate really as most consultants I know are very honest people. Clever and cunning; yes but dishonest ? No. Well, most of the time they aren’t dishonest but some of them need to practise their art a little more with working the good honesty and bad honesty split. In business as in real life, the truth is often destructive and one of the consultant’s jobs is to feed the truth to the client in a non destructive way.

I’ve been witness to all three types of honesty and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt is that it’s much easier to do it wrong than to do it right. My favourite “no honesty“ example comes from a meeting I attended with a client and my manager. The client asked me if I had conducted an analysis of their data. Having just been drafted onto the project, I said no. My manager jumped in and “suggested” that “what I meant” was that I didn’t realise that a basic analysis had been started and they could have it by first thing tomorrow. What this actually translated to was “no one has done any analysis and now you’re going to spent all night doing it. Ha-ha.”  I was so affronted that I sat up all night writing this poem about my situation.

Same manager different project; we were sitting round the table over business lunch, discussing the development of the clients’ new portal. They had already questioned our ability to deliver the work and my manager was getting edgy at the thoughts of the precious moneys slipping away. “Look,” he spoke up “ XXX (ie: me) is a Subject Matter Expert. XXX led the development of this area on the last project and has had plenty of exposure to the tool.” Yes, by exposure you mean the consulting equivalent of trudging lost and weary through the windswept Arctic wastelands of the user-guides and IT help forums trying to find out how to do a simple one line derivation.

So, we sold the work on one big whopping lie around the fact that none of us even knew what the software was, never mind how to use it. I’ll be honest. You have to blag sometimes. The nature of the work means that any member of the client team could, at any time, ask you anything. We have to instill confidence in our clients as the worst reply to a question is that we don’t know (or worse, say nothing). We HAVE to answer the question and we have to craft our words in a careful enough way to provide a comprehensive answer without promising the world or sounding stupid.
There is a fine line, however, between being professionally vague and lying through your teeth. Blagging is fine when it’s some sort of high level management decision; “yes, we can help align your technical strategic objectives” as oppose to “yes, we have all the experience required to build your intranet portal.”

Honesty of any kind does foster respect. Upon starting my new project, my manager was very upfront with the client. He told them I was a junior consultant, I was still skilling up and not to expect the world. He illustrated impeccable management from there on; when he couldn’t do something he was open and truthful yet never disruptive. I picked up three little tricks to be honest yet careful.
The first is to make the spectator feel special no matter how bad the situation. We won’t meet the deadline? He told them, albeit in a softly-softly way. Instead of saying that he was clueless and holding off until another team member came back from annual leave, he explained the problem to the client and suggested that the delay came from finding someone who was skilled in this very specific problem whereas he spent time honing his SME knowledge in another area. The client was happy to accept the delay because they felt they were holding out to get the best service possible.
The second trick to good honesty is to never say no. “No” is a dirty word in consulting although it makes it harder to manage expectations. The same manager was under pressure from the client to make fundamental changes to the design. It would reap little reward for a huge overhead so he instead focused on the benefits to not changing the system. He didn’t ever mention a comparison between the two solutions or refuse to undertake the redesign – he just said that in his experience it was best practice to keep the original.
Lastly, make the client think of the idea themselves. If you have a hard message to deliver try and make it look as if the client realised this of their own deduction rather than having to deliver bad news. This takes more practice than the other two. Start by listing the obvious advantages or requirements of a solution. Tell the client they need a solution according to the requirements. Hopefully they’ll put two and two together and come up the solution you want them to (with a bit of coaxing). I’ve only seen this done once successfully and when it fails it makes a real mockery of everyone involved.

Managing client expectations is paramount to success. Lying isn’t managing expectations – it’s setting everyone up for a fall. With a bit of careful insight into human nature and a creative way with words you can actually have an honest career as a consultant. If you believe that, you believe anything.