Category Archives: Consulting

5 data points I track for reputation & career building

When I tell people I’ve been independent for two decades, they often look at me surprised. How do you do that? How do you keep business coming in?

recent linkedin views

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As a freelancer you surely have to be on top of changing trends, and where the wind is blowing. But whether you’re a CEO or CTO of a larger firm, or a developer, HR or marketing director, you can also benefit by actively tracking yourself. Career building never ends…

1. Real Leads

This is probably the hardest metric to track, but the most important. A lead is anyone who may potentially hire my services. These can come from Linkedin, newsletter subscribers, or via a Google search. I track how they reached me, and how warm the lead is.

I do also track when recruiters reach out, as I think this can serve as a useful barometer as well. Also as my blog has grown, I get a lot of SEO bloggers, fishing for sites they can post backlinks on. Although I rarely entertain them, it is a useful reflection of how popular your site is getting.

Also: Are we fast approaching cloud-mageddon?

2. Newsletter signups

I think of the newsletter as an extension of my blog. I invite everyone I’ve ever touched in business. This includes coworkers, to colleagues at meetups & conferences. I invite recruiters & headhunters as well, because name recognition & reputation building is also important.

The newsletter is a way to show up in the inbox of everybody you’ve ever worked with. Month after month, year in and year out, you’re plodding away & doing your thing. It’s a reminder that you’re out there, and colleagues, CEOs & CTOs refer me all the time. It’s been very valuable over ten years.

newsletter signups

I also track email opens & email clicks. Those range around 25% and 10% respectively. I know when I’ve hit a topic that resonates & try to have that inform future content direction.

Related: The Myth of Five Nines

3. Linkedin Views

Linkedin is super valuable too. They provide a nice graph of how many times your profile was viewed weekly through to the last 90 days. This is super useful to find out if your resume & profile is keyword rich.

I like to actively tweak my profile, for the latest trending terminology. For example in the 90’s Unix Administrator or Systems Administrator was common, but nowadays everyone likes to say SRE. What’s that? Site Reliability Engineer. Yes it’s a buzzword, and as it turns out people use trending terms & buzzwords to search for people with your skills.

So get on it, and edit those terms!

Read: Is Amazon too big to fail?

4. Website Visitors

In a services business you don’t usually sell widgets on your website. However, I like to think of a web presense as my business card. So in that light, more visitors means more renown. That projects your personal brand, and builds it long term.

website visitors

Also: When hosting data on Amazon turns bloodsport

5. Klout Score

Klout score is a rough measure of how active you are across social media. Twitter is a big one, but it also finds you on Linkedin & other platforms as well. Although the score is far from perfect, it does give you a sense of reputation & noteriety, which do ultimately translate to business.

Also: 5 Things Toxic To Scalability

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What Deborah Tannen taught me about conversation & interruption

tannen you just dont understand

I was recently invited to attend a charity event in Washington DC. Dinner was a catered affair of 300 with a few senators & Muhammad Yunus there to talk about micro financing.

After dinner we broke up into some smaller groups, and had great conversations into the night. It was interesting to me as I don’t often rub elbows with lobbyists & political animals. While we were all talking, the subject of language came up, and in particular how different people’s styles affect how they come off.

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I became really engaged, as this topic has always interested me. I was introduced to the ideas of Deborah Tannen. She’s a professor of linguistics from Georgetown University, and an expert on the topic.

Afterward, I went straight to my kindle & bought here seminal book “You Just Don’t Understand”.

Boy do I understand a lot more now.

1. Conversational style varies by culture & gender

Across cultures, from europeans to Asians, North to South Americans, conversational styles vary. Some pause longer between breathes, while others make briefer pauses. Some deem conversation more like judge & jury, where each should be afforded carefully the chance to take stage, while others prefer the casual chance to jump in, and constant overlap.

These differences lead to the sense of pushiness versus interest, interruption versus dominance. Interest versus boredom. Since all these cultures have a different style, it can get rather complicated interpreting someone’s intentions if you’re not from that culture.

What’s more these vary quite a bit between men & women.

Also: What I learned from Jay Heinrichs about click worthy blog titles

2. Report & rapport talk are different

Report talk is in public, perhaps at a lecture, or out with a large group of friends around the dinner table. There stories & conversation revolves around a larger group.

Rapport talk on the other hand is at home, among intimates.

She says that women tend to prefer the latter while men prefer the former. So in different circumstances it can appear that one or the other has “nothing to say”, when it actually revolves around their preferences of when to speak.

Related: Is automation killing old-school operations?

3. Like & respect

Women’s behavior & style of speaking is rooted in the goal of being liked. So there are many cases where they may downplay themselves, to reach a more equal state with those around them.

Men’s behavior & conversational style is based around seeking respect. This can often mean emphasizing differences, and not parity.

Read: Do managers underestimate operational cost?

4. Contest or connection?

Men often see the world through the lens of contest, especially in relationships with others. Women on the other hand tend to see it as an interconnected network. By building bonds you strengthen that network.

These two styles inform dramatically different behaviors in similar situations.

Also: Is Reid Hoffman right about career risk?

5. Interest or independence

Here’s another example of how men & women may see things differently.


When men change the subject, women think they are showing a lack of sympathy — a failure of intimacy. But the failure to ask probing questions could just as well be a way of respecting the other’s need for independence.

So it seems styles & priorities inform intention & interpretation of a lot in conversations.

Although all of this doesn’t resolve or put to rest these differences, being informed can certainly help a lot towards understanding.

Also: What I learned from the 37 Signals team about work & startups

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Why I use Airbnb chat even when texting is easier

airbnb

If you’ve ever traveled & stayed with an Airbnb host, you know that once you book you can easily switch to text messaging. Sometimes this is easier. But as I found out, it’s smarter to stick with a channel that we all can share.

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I had a similar experience with a recent consulting customer. The lesson was much the same.

Choose your communication channels wisely, for you may need them for other reasons later on.

1. Not what I paid for

I’ve been hosting travelers off & on through Airbnb for some time. It’s a fun past time, as you can meet some interesting people, and share a little bit of *your* city. That and there’s a little bit of extra income too, which doesn’t hurt.

One visitor I had wasn’t particularly happy with the setup. I’ve hosted dozens of people before, so I know that the space is popular to most. However this one guy seemed unhappy from the start. He didn’t read the fine print that it was a shared space with separate rooms. He was unhappy with the specific location too. And later he complained about a bicycle I had loaned him.

Also: Is Amazon too big to fail?

2. How Airbnb chat helped

At the end of his visit he asked for some of the fee to be refunded.

As I dug through our Airbnb chat, I copy/pasted our various communications, and in the end this helped clarify & remedy the situation. It also didn’t hurt that Airbnb themselves were there behind the scenes and could review all these messages as well.

Having a third party to arbitrate can make a big difference. Lets hope it doesn’t come to that, but if it does, you want a communication channel they can also see.

Related: 5 Reasons to move data to Amazon Redshift

3. Consulting engagements & corporate emails

Over the years I generally use my own email for projects & engagements. However recently I took on a longer engagement. At the start there was some insistence on using an internal email for communications. I was hesitant, but eventually conceded as it tied in with google calendaring and various internal aliases.

As the months went by, I tried & failed to use both emails for correspondence. It was a habit that was hard to change. What’s more forwarding *all* emails to my own was also difficult. With an ongoing barrage of all@company.com messages numbering in the hundreds, it simply blew up my email account. That wasn’t sustainable either.

Read: Do managers underestimate operational cost?

4. After you leave

You may not be thinking of after your consulting assignment at the start of it. But you should be. You’ll engage in many communications, about a lot of different topics. Some about what is & isn’t in scope. Some about deliverables & timelines.

You’ll also have communications has things unfold, and as they are delivered. All of these are crucial to the engagement, as evidence of what was done when. If after you leave, all those emails are gone (at least that you can reach), it can be problematic.

What’s more once you set a precedent communicating one way, it’s hard to change habits. Best to set the precedent strongly up front.

Also: Are we fast approaching cloud-mageddon

5. Your channel is your paper trail

In todays mobile-heavy world, there are tons of channels we can use to communicate. From Whatsapp to Slack, Hipchat to email & text. They all have their strengths & weaknesses.

But sometimes we need to choose based on future needs. Leaving a paper trail can be important. Having future control over those past communications can bring legal benefit.

And all of these communications can help avoid misunderstandings if they’re available for review later.

Also: Which tech do startups use most?

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What’s the luckiest thing that’s happened in your career?

sashi [via Flickr]

I was browsing through Career Dean recently, a site that facilitates professionals to share knowledge & experience with more junior & recent college grads about the work world. It’s a great site. I saw the question What’s the luckiest thing that’s ever happened for your career?

I read in John Adam’s AMA his “million dollar piss” (www.careerdean.com/q/howd-you-get-the-job-twitter), which he sowed the seeds of his success basically during a piss. That’s a 1 in a million kind of story I know. I’d like to hear if anyone else has ever experienced anything remotely lucky in that way? =) something fun to come back and read if anyone answers.

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Here’s how I responded…

I moved to NYC & worked at a tiny startup in the mid-nineties. Got to do Mac stuff, windows & Sun Solaris unix as well. Jumped on an Oracle project where I was a bit underwater. The firm hired a consultant to assist me for a few days. I watched what he did and learned like a sponge. Within a few months I dove into Oracle consulting and never looked back.

I felt this was an amazingly lucky opportunity to for a few reasons.

1. DIY

I’ve been consulting for almost twenty years now. And I get asked all the time how to get into freelance or independent consulting. For me the jumping off point was working for a really small ten person startup.

An environment like this is very different from a large corporation where you do one thing. At a tiny shop, everything is very do-it-yourself. You have to be self-serve & lean. It’s a constant challenge to teach yourself what you don’t already know. It’s a very vibrant environment as you enter your career.

Also: 5 Things toxic to scalability

2. Generalist

I also found that I had the chance to really apply everything I learned in computer science. It’s a hardware problem? It’s a software problem? These kind of silos that you experience at university don’t apply. One day you can be doing windows, mac, or Unix operating system configuration, the next you can be writing code. And on the third day you can be doing dba work.

In today’s terminology, this role was site reliability engineer or SRE, fullstack developer, tech support, evangelist, CTO, DBA, scalability & performance lead and more.

Related: Are generalists better at scaling the web?

3. Cutting edge

Startups to be sure are on the bleeding edge. They’re constrained by budgets, and through sheer will & experimentation, are cutting their teeth on the newest technologies out there.

These days that might be Cassandra & Kafka, Docker, MongoDB, hdfs, Redshift and so on.

Read: Do managers underestimate operational cost?

4. Ok to Fail

In larger enterprises, a lot of politics weigh on decisions, and exotic technologies are risky. When you’re at a startup, and by design you are entering uncharted waters, it’s sort of a given that it is ok to fail. This encourages learning, as there is less risk of failure.

Also: Is the difference between dev & ops a four-letter word?

5. Iterative & Agile

We talk about being agile, and lean at startups. At a very small place like this, you have one or two developers, and you deploy code constantly. It’s agile by default. And that’s a good thing.

Also: Is high availability overrated? The myth of five nines.

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Best of Scalable Startups Consulting Content

strawberries

I’ve been blogging very regularly for the past four years. In fact the blog itself has been around for over ten years! Time flies!

In that time I’ve posted a lot of evergreen content, some that google finds, and some that could be dusted off.

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So here’s a peak into the archives, of some of the very best of scalable startups. Enjoy!

1. I blog about consulting

When you spend years doing consulting, professional services & freelance work, you learn all sorts of things. You stumble, you find yourself in unfamiliar territory, you learn. All that makes great fodder for blogging about business, and war stories. So here’s some of my best writing on the topic.

I had one experience where a prospect was still on the fence. That may be positive spin, as the title was
When prospects mislead. It turned out to be more a case of free consulting advice than anything else.

At networking events, I meet other freelancers, and consultants. There’s always debate about this topic, so I wrote
Why i ask clients for a deposit. There are reasons for both client and consultant, and I touch on the lessons i’ve learned.

It might seem strange that I’d write a post titled
Why I can’t raise the bar at every firm but there are prospects that aren’t the right fit for me. Here are some of the pre-qualifying questions on both sides of the fence.

Sad to say, but every client & consultant relationship isn’t a love story. So I wrote
When a client takes a swing at you about one such relationship and how I handled it.

I ask the question,
Does weekly billing increase time pressure? I think it does change the dynamic in some positive ways and I discuss those.

You’re ready to hire a consultant. What’s next? As it turns out, professional services is more a peer relationship with CEO’s, CTO’s & managers. So the typical, “send me your resume” and so forth may not be best. Here’s
5 conversational ways to evaluate consultants that provide an alternate approach to finding the best services.

One of the hardest things for engineers can be sales. Along the way to consulting success, I wrote
Can an engineer learn to love sales? Eventually it’s a skill that you have to improve at, if you want to stay in business for yourself.

Ever consulting engagement is not about your own triumphs. The conclusion isn’t always the wonderful things you’ve done for the firm. I wrote
When you have to take the fall after an engagement where it wasn’t a celebration at the end.

Sometimes in consulting, there’s what you’re hired to do on paper, and then what the real challenges are.
When you’re hired to solve a people problem addresses one such engagement, and how I handled it.

Believe it or not folks, sometimes there is a disconnect between management, and accounts payable. So I wrote
When clients don’t pay as a lesson & how I handled it.

Consulting is decidedly not the career path for everyone.
Why do people leave consulting
is my attempt to explain why some I’ve seen have left the business.

Everybody doesn’t love consultants. So
Do you heed John Greathouse – beware the consultant? That’s a question I attempted to answer.

Are you talking to Oracle or other technology sales teams about what solutions are right for your business?
Beware a wolf in sheeps clothing as it can be surprisingly dangerous field.

Another war story I wrote,
When apples & oranges bring down your business. Here a misunderstanding of semantics, means manager & dba make a severe misjudgement, and both pay the price.

After twenty years in the business, here are the
Top 3 questions I get from clients.

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When prospects mislead

MUHAMMAD ALI ROCKS GEORGE FOREMAN ON THE JAW

While a story is fresh in ones mind, it’s a great time to tell it. And so I set out to putting pen to paper about a recent consulting war story.

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A financial services firm reached out to me, asking about services. We discussed the project plan, and the day after the call I sent along a quote. I suggested three options, a weekly fee, a monthly one, or monthly with advance payment.

They decided to go with option C, and we arranged a kickoff meeting.

1. Level setting on trust

I’ve done this kind of work for so long, and worked with so many clients over the years, that it sometimes becomes second nature. I arrived, and we chatted amicably. I asked him about his wikipedia page, which he seemed excited to talk about.

I was surprised that there wasn’t a check ready, as we had decided on advanced payment in full, but didn’t make a mention right away. He then tried to dial in his partner, but that just went to voicemail. So we continued the meeting without him.

I don’t know how important the meeting was to both team members, but they were both on the invite & emails. His partner never called back through the meeting either.

Read this: When migrating from Oracle to MySQL Prepare to Bushwack

2. Negotiations is part art & dance

Interestingly I had met up with some colleagues the night before over italian food. I mentioned I was meeting a new prospect the next day, but had reservations about whether they had really decided to hire me, or were just still prospecting.

So during the meeting I was somewhat conscious of that question. Are we already in exploratory, discovery mode? Has the project even begun? That’s a question, and from what I sensed it was still an open one.

As the meeting wore on, questions about oracle licenses, versions, and EC2 configurations came up. Furious note taking continues.

Related: Which tech do startups use most?

3. Time & mismanagement

One thing that comes up for me in these situations is questions of time management. In order to work with a new client, I must clear my schedule, and make time available. That has a value to start with. When it turns out a project isn’t actually ready yet, it becomes an awkward stumble out of the gates.

Also: Is automation killing the sysadmin job role?

4. Can you research this one thing

As I raised various concerns about Oracle, the data loader portion, and unknowns around how that software worked, the prospect asked if I could do a little research for them.

This is where things started to crack. Rather than answer the question, I made a more aggressive nod to the question on my mind: Have we really started on this project yet? I explained that I was confused, and gathered from our email this this was a kickoff meeting. The tension in the air rose noticeably.

He then explained “Well we’re still waiting to hear back from a vendor about XYZ”. From there I began to gather up my things.

Check this: What can fashion week teach Chad Dickerson about Net Neutrality?

5. Watch out for those Rothkos

As I stand up I comment on the digs. “Is this shared office space, those look like Rothkos?” I ask. “Nope this is all ours, my wife is a collector & art dealer. We have some real Warhol’s too”. “Wow…”, I respond, “tough business to be in!”. With that he says “Well it is very volatile, we can be out of business in a month.”

My take away here isn’t to be wary of all new prospects. Each person or business has their own *style* of doing business. Rather, until you’ve established trust with a new client, consider that you may not yet be working on the project at all.

And with that the dance continues. While you may wish to demonstrate and illustrate your knowledge, and the solutions you’d recommend, beware of solving the problem before you’re even hired!

Read: Are SQL Databases Dead?

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Do we need another book on communicating?

supercommunicator

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I had to ask the question. There are so many books on communicating & presenting affectively, it begs the question, what can this book do that others haven’t?

While it’s a fair question, I don’t necessarily think it stands with peers. That said it’s a new book, with a new tone, preaching many of the best advice and doing it with a flair. If you’ve read a ton of communication books, you may not find something new, but if the topic is one you’re just digging into, Pietrucha is a great place to start.

1. Jobs vs Gates – inspired presentations

If you’ve ever seen these two companies CEO’s do new product demos, you’ll immediately get it. You don’t have to be an apple fanboy to appreciate how Jobs presents without buzzwords, and cuts to the heart of our hearts.

That means don’t get mired in jargon, speak to our passions, and be your own ambassador.

Also: Do managers underestimate operational costs?

2. Lead with a story & a question

In a recent discussion with a prospect I was asked about one experience that stood out over the years of consulting.

One popped into my head of a dot-com startup in the late 90’s. The company was trying to close an acquisition deal, but the web application was sick & feverish. My first few days involved conversations with lead engineers, DBA & operations team members. As I turn over more stones, I found a key component, the database, misconfigured. I sifted through configurations, and found the setup lacking. The server was using only 5% of memory. Some of the settings were even still at their default. Changing the right ones allowed the machine to flex it’s muscles like a marathon runner taken off a starvation diet. Things improved very quickly, and the site returned to a snappy responsive self.

The CEO beamed with approval, and just a few weeks later the firm was purchased for over 80 million dollars. Not bad work if you can get it. :)

Read: Which tech do startups use most?

3. Drop the vernacular & speak broadly

After recently doing some writing for muckrack on how to reach pitch journalists and then at Infoworld getting started with Amazon EC2. I’ve learned a ton. Having a professional editor explain what they want really puts things in perspective.

Editors will start by talking about their audience. If you’re a blogger, do you know who your audience is, and what they really get from your site? There may be many answers. Once you get your audience, how can you speak to all of them? In my case, I have readers who are programmers & devops, then I have CEO’s & VCs. But it doesn’t stop there. What about recruiters, and hiring managers? How about random internet searchers, and students?

All of these folks can get something from my site, and using broad language allows everyone to be within reach. Don’t sacrifice depth, but use language and stories to make your point.

Check this: 5 ways startups misstep on scalability

4. Analogies that resonate

I attend a lot of mini conferences, meetups, drinkups & social events in nyc. I find it’s one of the keys to success in consulting.

In an endless sea of conversations, you will find yourself talking about what your day-to-day business is all about. In my early years in nyc, these conversations would consist of technically correct descriptions, followed by glazed eyes, and a quick change of subject. After this happens often enough you start to wonder, how can I share such a technical description to a broader audience?

Truth is it’s only technical because you know so much about it. If I stand back I might say I’m “a sort of specialized surgeon for the internet”, or “a traffic cop of sorts, for the information highway we all share”, or better yet “a plumber, that you call when your pipes are backed up and your customers are screaming”.

Whichever analogy I use, I see eyes light up, and a look of understanding. “Oh I can see how that would be an important specialization”. Indeed.

The right analogy makes all the difference!

Related: Are startup CEO’s hiding their scalability problems?

5. Put your words on the chopping block

If you haven’t already done so, start chopping. Sentences & paragraphs all benefit from shortening & edit. Distill your big ideas in summary and let the story lend the detail. Your audience will pay closer attention, and see the big picture you are trying to share.

The guys at 37 signals do this eloquently in RE:Work .

Read this: Is Amazon RDS hard to manage?

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Why I can’t raise the bar at every firm

Screen-shot-2012-08-02-at-1.28.35-PM

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It may seem counterintuitive. If I am not the best solution provider, why on earth would I highlight it?

I believe by pointing those cases out, I also underline the clients and problems that I’m particularly well suited too, and for which I can really provide value. Read on!

1. People Problems

Sometimes, you’re hired to solve a particular problem which is framed as a technical one. Some process needs to be reworked, recoded or retooled. It’s framed as a technical problem, yet as things unfold the client already has the expertise in-house to solve & write the code. What then?

It may be that the right people aren’t communicating, project managers aren’t seeing the issues, or part of the human systems are gummed up. We can’t raise the technical bar, but we can help getting those folks talking.

I wrote about this before in When You’re Hired to Solve a People Problem.

Also: Why are oil spills & financial instability related to datacenter outages?

2. ORM Usage & Technical Debt

If you’ve read my blog you know I am not very fond of Object Relational Modelers.

I would also argue as Ward Cunningham does so elloquently that technical debt can be a real and pressing problem.

Here we would help identify and frame the problem, though the work of raising the bar technically involves the longer process of retooling & refactoring your code base.

Related: Why database choices are tricky

3. Where Commodity & Offshore Works

Some firms are already making use of odesk or offshoring resources, where you might pay as little as $150/day. If you have a very technical manager or CTO, such a solution may work well for you.

At the other end of the spectrum are the high priced senior consultants from firms like Oracle, Percona or Pythian. Yes they may set you back as much as $3500/day.

In those cases a scalability & performance review may make sense. Here’s how.. Although specialists are necessary, remember to ask yourself Why generalists are better at scaling the web.

We sit in the sweet spot between the two options. With low overhead, our prices are more affordable. At the same time you’re getting a whole lot more than a commodity solution. We’ll communicate in plain language with folks at every technical level. And for many firms that in itself is a value add.

Check this: Does Oracle Aim to Kill MySQL?

4. Existing team did their homework

Believe it or not, I’ve gone into consulting engagements where the existing team has really really done their homework.

In those cases it becomes much harder to raise the bar technically. In those cases I can help when existing team missed something. But more importantly, I can validate a correct setup, or identify technical debt.

Having an outside perspective then, can provide reassurance. As I see ten to fifteen new environments per year, I’ve seen hundreds in the past decade & a half. That’s helpful perspective in itself.

Read: Does Oracle Aim to Kill MySQL?

5. Availability & Uptime Are Already High

I wrote in depth about high availability in the Myth of Five Nines

At the end of the day, availability can only approach perfection, not actually reach it. That’s a property of complex systems. If your uptime is already extremely high, again we can validate your environment, review and provide & summarize findings. But we may not be able to raise the bar.

If that’s you, it’s a good problem to have!

Also: Why AirBNB Didn’t Have to Fail

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Why weekly billing amps up time pressure

http://www.flickr.com/photos/estabrook/5729555412/

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This past year I worked on an 8 week contract. I was tasked with helping improve scalability, measuring current throughput, then troubleshooting systems & infrastructure to find the big problem areas.

Slow process of on-boarding

In only six months, the firm had grown from a small startup, to a larger mid-sized company. That kind of growth is great for margins & investors, but it’s tough on teams & management.

We had outlined a nice todo list up front. Tasks would fit well within our eight week budget, with some additional time for things that came up along the way.

As it turned out, on-boarding for the project got drawn out. I got tangled in email problems, configuring, forwarding, and so forth. The default on-boarding process placed me on various general lists about office parties, and treasure hunts. Having all this email forwarded to me became a problem to untangle.

Meanwhile getting credentials and logins to the correct servers was a challenge. Tickets were created, emails flew back and forth and time rolled on.

Read this: Why operations & MySQL DBA talent is hard to find

Time pressure at the end of engagement

As the engagement barreled on, we reached the final two weeks mark. It was then that I scheduled another meeting with the director of operations, and to go over status.

At that point the team was fighting some new fires with database change management. I was intrigued by the problem, and wanted to dig in and see if I could assist. But at that point we both agreed there wasn’t sufficient time left to devote to it.

Having spent a large portion of the engagement up front on administrative tasks, we now had time pressure at the end to finish the tasks agreed to.

Related: 8 Questions to ask an AWS expert

The hourly billing experience

I’d worked on many hourly clients over the past decade. With hourly projects the VPN configuration, logins & admin tasks sometimes fell through the cracks. Firms of all sizes, even small startups, often have a lot of balls in the air at once.

On hourly billing, when things get drawn out, there’s no real pressure. The cost to the firm is the same whether they drag their feet or push to get things done rapidly.

Read this: Why Amazon RDS doesn’t support Maria DB or Percona

Contrast with weekly billing – mutual accountabilities

The contrast with weekly billing engagements is palpable. You feel it right out of the gates. We both want to make good use of time. And clients feel they don’t want to waste resources, and budgets.

That’s a good thing. There’s an incentive on everybody’s part to keep things moving.

Also: Why generalists are better at scaling the web

We act when we feel it in our wallet

My conclusion from these experiences, we act when we feel pressure on our wallet. With weekly billing the client will pressure their own teams on mutual accountabilities. They’ll also pressure you the consultant or service provider. So be prepared to pull your own weight.

When things are not moving along smoothly, expect discussion to quickly bubble to the surface. Embrace these moments, for everyone will have incentive to solve those problems.

Time pressure & budgets – keys to successful consulting engagement.

Related: Why I don’t work with recruiters

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5 conversational ways to evaluate great consultants

Startups and more mature businesses alike, and those large and small, at some point will need to hire a consultant or two. Want to get the best bang for your buck? Ask some tough questions!

Join 8000 others and follow Sean Hull on twitter @hullsean.

1. Make sure they’re not going to quit

I’ve heard so many crash and burn stories over the years, it makes my head spin.

One client had hired a consultant who was supposed to be the best in NYC. After only a few weeks of working with the client, he explained that they were “doing it all wrong”. Furthermore he had a travel schedule to meet, with speaking engagements in South America.

So he basically dropped them! As the client retold this story to me, I wonder if they could hear my head shaking, I was stunned. Who would turn away from a customer in pain? And furthermore turn away from one who could clearly use the expertise of someone who had seen a lot before!?

Keep in mind the reasons why people leave consulting.

2. Be sure they have some war stories to tell

Any consultant who’s been in business for a while, surely has some good war stories to tell. Talk about those, and find out the battles they’ve been in.

I can tell a few myself. In one case I was only 12 hours from leaving for summer vacation when a long time colleague and former client called me. They were in a serious emergency. The big boys, the remote DBAs that many in the industry use, had broken their database. Replication was misconfigured, and they were running blind. I ended up on a SKYPE call fixing the database and troubleshooting problems on Virgin’s inflight wifi. You don’t forget that kind of firefighting.

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Be sure they won’t quit, ask about war stories, test for some push back and be sure they empathize with your business pain. But more importantly ask them to tell their own business story. You’ll learn a lot.
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For another client, back in the dot-com days, their application was stalling completely. Customers were leaving, and so was an 80 million dollar buyout deal. Nothing a few Oracle parameters couldn’t fix!.

And there are always a few tales of woe between sales teams, and the engineers that then must deploy solutions in the real world. Beware the sales wolf in sheeps clothing and do your homework aka due diligence on technical solutions.

3. Ensure they can provide resistance & push back

Good consultants have to walk a tightrope all the time. On the one hand they are tasked with making their clients happy. At the end of the day, improving their position, business bottom line, yes these are crucial. Sure that means saying yes, that means trying to be a problem solver as much as possible.

But always saying yes, avoids hard truths that you have to share. I had one client whose primary Oracle dba went on vacation. Before he left we reviewed systems. Multi-master replication in Oracle is brittle by nature. We both agreed. And I agreed not to change the configurations lest it break other things down the line. Not one week into his vacation a mandate comes back from on high, this change absolutely has to happen now. There are millions of dollars at stake!

Applying strong resistance is necessary to avoid breaking something even bigger. And it was not easy to stand strong in the face of such pressure. But I assured the team that such changes would mean even bigger problems for the company.

4. Find out if they empathize with your pain

In one of the biggest ironic twists, consultants should understand the pain of building a business. Because they themselves have experienced when clients don’t pay so they understand cash flow problems themselves. That is what every small business struggles with, and most startups too!

5. Ask them how they built their business

For me, one of the least appreciated things about independent consulting is, that in the most important ways, it is about running a small business. So someone who has built and kept running a freelance or consulting business knows how to make hard decisions, and keep their eyes on the ball.

A consultant needs to know how to get business first and foremost. But then how to manage engagements carefully. Once you’ve got those two down, keep building your business incrementally.

Someone who has successfully run a real business for years can share the story of what they’ve done. What has worked, what hasn’t worked, how they have pivoted when necessary, how they have failed fast, and moved through it.

They can tell you how they stay cash flow positive, can deliver on time, can be likeable and communicate with teams, and really understand every side of a business.

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