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All Consulting

What happens when a bartender doesn’t get the job, but files a lawsuit?

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I stumbled on this interesting article, and thought I’d share it. Bartender doesn’t get job, but wins suit for consulting fees

Now some of you may have already made some prejudgements. But I ask that you hold your conclusions, and take a listen.

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Now let’s for a moment, distinguish big firm consultants, with independent consultants. I’m speaking about the latter, the freelancers of the world.

1. Time spent evaluating a consultant

If you’ve hired a consultant or freelancer before, you know you’ll spend time evaluating. You’ll talk about your business problem, and they’ll share how they can help. They may even start brainstorming with you. This alone can be valuable to a firm, as it can give them new ideas and new perspectives to dig into their problem.

Notice too, that while you are a fulltime employee, all that time on the phone, and at your desk, you are getting paid. While that freelancer, is *not* getting paid.

My point is not to complain here. Just merely to point out that there is a lot of work that happens before you are paying your consultant. Before they are even billing. Whether it is preparation, leveling up on knowledge, networking, business dinners, or prospecting.

So when you consider the cost of consulting, figure that there is 25-30% more time that they are *working* though it doesn’t show up on the invoice.

Related: A CTO must never do this

2. Straightforward or naive?

In the case of the bartender story, he did indeed spend time researching for the propsect. Whatever that may entail. There is a point where the consultant goes out on a limb. Some saavy is required to avoid misunderstandings, but ultimately both parties also need to be fair.

Although we all want to make an effort to be straightforward, despite what Fred Wilson says, parties are not always transparent. I would argue if you were too naive in this regard, you would not succeed in business.

Related: What mistakes did you make when starting as a consultant?

3. Avoid the legal route at all costs

Unlike the bartender, I personally would never choose legal arbitration. Is it ever really worth it? In the case of the bartender, he says $35/hr and 5.5 hours work, so $192.50. But how much time did he spend filing the suit? Paperwork, phone calls, emails, whatever. And then driving to the courthouse, cost of gas etc. No way this could come out cost-effective. To my mind many legal cases come down to ego. One party wanting to SHOW the other party they are wrong. Not worth it!

My feeling is always take the high road. Talk with them, and explain where you’re coming from. Also listen to them, and try to understand their perspective. There is always a middle ground that can be found.

Read: How to avoid legal problems in consulting

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All Data

Is banning facial recognition missing the point?

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I thought I would step out of my usual shoes this month and talk about something besides cloud computing. People sometimes ask my opinion on technology, as I know a thing or two about it.

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What are your thoughts on facial recognition? Will banning it solve the problem?

If you are not already familiar with Bruce Schneier you should be. He has been the single smartest person talking about data collection for the past twenty years. He wrote Database Nation, Secrets and Lies, and Beyond Fear. His thinking is non-obvious, insightful, deep and almost always spot on.

Here’s what Bruce Schneier has to say about banning facial recognition.

1. There are many ways to skin a cat

If you want to prevent what facial recognition can do, ban it, right? Well, turns out there are many other ways to do the same thing. You can identify people by their heart beat (think fitbit or apple watch), the way they walk, and of course good old fashioned fingerprints. And we leave those everywhere. What else?

Every phone broadcasts it’s ID which is the MAC address of it’s network interface. And if you have cameras without facial recognition, they can still identify using Iris scanning. Yep really.

Read: How do i migrate my skills to the cloud

2. Surveillance as a norm

When we say we don’t want facial recognition, we mean among other things that we don’t want anonymous identifying of people. But it also means we don’t want the later collection and identifying of people either.

Imagine you have a shoebox full of old photos. Photos at a beach, at a wedding, at tourist sites. Now you scan those into your computer, and you can identify all the people in the background. What a strange world we’ve built.

As Schneier points out, the larger question is what surveillance is okay and what is not? We as a society need to design rules and laws to outline how these technologies can and should be used for good, and to prevent their misuse and harm to people.

Related: 5 things toxic to scalability

3. The darkness of data brokering

The further collection of data by these large entities like facebook & google is more frightening still. Not for the data itself, but for it remaining completely unregulated. Government is still very behind what is happening at these giant companies.

Google knows things about your wife & husband that you don’t know. Google knows what the CEO of your competitor company is thinking and doing. Google knows your weaknesses, how and when you break the law. It’s hard to really grasp the scope. Every part of our online lives touches one of these companies. Even if you don’t use their services, you email people who do, and therefore are still known by them.

The laws we’ve built for the last century to prevent these types of abuses are mostly irrelevant to modern internet data companies. And as unregulated entities, they remain adversarial to citizens. We remain the product, not the customer.

Related: Did Disney have to fail?

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All Cloud Computing CTO/CIO Devops

When should I use Ansible versus packer or Terraform?

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I was having a conversation with a colleague recently. We wee discussing devops, and the topic of Ansible came up as I was advocating it as a great too to get things done.

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Here’s what he had to say…

— quote —
I’ve tried using ansible a few times and this is what I found with it.

It is great for what it does. It’s wonderful to be able to spin up a new app or web server automatically. However what I have found for my needs is …

It is easier to build a piece of furniture than it is to explain all the steps required for someone else to build it. Or in order to replicated the steps automatically.

With cloud servers, it’s enough, for me that I’ve built it once. When I need to spin up another, I simply clone the working copy.

— unquote —

My thoughts below.

1. When is Terraform good

Terraform is a coss-platform infrastructure building tool. If you need an IAM user or S3 bucket, Terraform can create it. Need an ec2 instance of a particular type, deployed with an autoscaling group TF is a great tool for that.

With Terraform you can capture in code, everything about your application stack, so that you can standup a complete copy in another region, that’s powerful!

Read: How can 1% of something equal nothing?

2. When is packer right?

Packer is another useful tool that Devops can use to automate. Like AWS own EC2 Image Builder, it allows you to create the images that you boot your instances off of. Think of them as docker images for the server itself.

For example there are lots of dependencies your application requires, and you’ll install with your package manager. And there are services you want to start. You *could* use an ansible playbook to get these going, but better to build a new image that contains all the software you need on the box.

Packer easily sits into your CI pipeline, so you can have new software deployed and ready anytime.

The principal difference is that a new AMI requires you to spinup a new server. You can’t take action on a running server with this tool.

Related: Is Fred Wilson right about dealing in an honest, direct and transparent way?

3. When does Ansible make sense?

In particular here’s what my response was about Ansible itself.

— quote —

Absolutely. It’s an interesting balance to strike.

Because of course packer or EC2 image builder are very powerful and fit neatly into a CI pipeline. That said there are things ansible is nicely suited for too.

For example I want to distribute public keys onto specific servers. I have a yml file with the keys. I have a new developer starting, I have him or her git checkout branch, edit keys.yml, commit, push changes, then make a pull request. When the new keys.yml file gets merged, an ansible playbook kicks off to distribute the new set of keys to the relavant servers.

— unquote —

If you want to take actions on running servers, like deploying keys or other ongoing tweaks, that is where Ansible really shines.

Related: What mistakes did you make when starting as a consultant?

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All Consulting CTO/CIO Devops Hiring

Should I join this new startup Delicious Data?

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I’ve been asked this before by folks.

Hey, you know technology, what stock picks would you recommend?

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It’s a tough question, with a lot of intangibles. It’s no wonder people ask friends for advice. You have to think about what matters to you? Your free time? Your income? Your time to commute? What about the team you’re working with? Or what your job contributes to the world?

Many of those I can’t quantify for you. What you can quantify money, so it’s worth doing that!

1. What are their prospects for success?

When asked about the chances of a companies success, knowing the industry may be one small part. You also have to know how many competitors they have, and where they are along in the process. And it’s not just developing technology, but team dynamics that are huge. From what I hear VCs hire more for team than for idea.

What factors outside domain expertise come into play? Lots! The weather, financial markets, or the big guys like google or amazon coming into the market. They may not buy you, they may just replicate your idea. Then where are you?

Read: How to hack job search the smart way

2. How can I apply mathematics to money?

My answer is always the same, go for the S&P 500. If the S&P beats 90% of all stocks, then nine out of ten times you will win this way. That’s it, calculation done.

Yeah but how does that pertain to joining a startup?

How indeed. I still say invest in the index, not in one pony. So use that advice as you will.

Gambling on one company is something for gamblers. If you want to become a vc, that’s a different question. In that case you would do a lot of due diligence on team and idea, to be sure you’re putting your money in a smart place.

Can’t I do that as an employee? Yes sure, but the intangibles remain strong.

How can 1% of something equal nothing?.

Related: Is Fred Wilson right about dealing in an honest, direct and transparent way?

3. How does all this help me?

It leaves out the intangibles. Don’t count paper as part of your compensation package. If money is a key factor, divide the number of hours per year by your salary plus real benefits – health insurance and so forth – to come up with a real number. Compare that to other jobs.

The heck with these finance jobs that pay $200k and offer a $50k bonus, but ask you to work 90-100 hours per week. Why not get two $180k/yr jobs at 45 hours per week? You see the logic right?

And what else? Of course if you’re going to be commuting in to an office everyday, and joining the family, you want to have great coworkers. So make sure you like the place where you’re working. I don’t know how much this is worth to you, but I would say it’s quite valuable!

Related: What to do when prospects mislead you?

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All Security

Does Amazon’s security work well for startups?

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I was sifting through my project & progress reports from former clients today. Something struck me loud and clear. It seems 4 out of 5 of them don’t implement VPC best practices.

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Which begs the question again and again, is the service just too damn complicated? I wrote about this topic before… Is aws a bit too complex for most or at least smaller dev teams?

1. No private subnets

What are those you ask? I really hope you’re not asking that.

The best practices way to deploy on amazon is using a vpc. This provides a logical grouping. You could have a dev, stage and prod vpc, and perhaps a utility one for other more permanent services.

Within that VPC, you want to have everything deployed in one or more private subnets. These are each mapped to a specific AZ in that region. The AZ mapps to a physical datacenter, a single building within that region. These private subnets have *NO route to the internet*.

How do you reach resources in the private subnet? You must be coming from the public subnet deployed within that same VPC. All the routing rules enforce this. The two types of resources that would be deployed in public subnet: load balancer for 80/443 traffic, and a jump or bastion box for ssh.

Read: How can 1% of something equal nothing?

2. Security groups with all ports open

Another thing that I see more often than you might guess is all ports open by some wildcard rule. *BAD*. We all know it’s bad, but it happens. And then it gets forgotten. We see developers doing it as a temporary fix to get something working and forget to later plug up the hole.

Even for security groups that don’t have this problem, they often allow port 22 from anywhere on the internet (0.0.0.0). This is unnecessary and rather reckless. Everyone should be coming from known source IPs. This can be an office network, or it can be some other trusted server on the internet. Or a block of IPs that you’ll always have assigned.

And of course don’t have your database port open. MySQL and Postgres don’t have particularly great protections here.

Related: Is Fred Wilson right about dealing in an honest, direct and transparent way?

3. No flowlogs enabled

Flowlogs allow you to log things at the packet level. Want to know about failed ssh attempts? Log that. What to know about other ports? Log that too.

If you are funneling all your connections through a jump box, then you can just enable flowlogs then you can configure your vpc flowlogs monitoring just for that box itself. You may also want to watch what’s happening with the load balancer too.

Flowlogs work at the network interface layer of your VPC, so you’ll need to understand VPCs in depth.

Related: What mistakes did you make when starting as a consultant?

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All Consulting CTO/CIO Devops Software Development

Do you fear you are an imposter? Join the club

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I was reading another delicious hacker news thread, this time on a psychology question. How do you work with the fear of your own incompetence?

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It’s a great question. I’ve had this suspicion for years, and it was only after stumbling on psychology books that I even knew it was a thing.

So how *do* you manage this fear?

1. Demonstrate that it is a fear

Fear is a funny thing. It can color reality. You may not even realize it’s happening. When it comes to imposter syndrome, prove yourself wrong. Do the work, and then step back and show yourself the evidence.

You’re a logical rational engineer, so you should be able to weigh the evidence, and see that you made a mistake.

Doing good work is not about perfectionism. It is about knowing you can execute, and delivering quality. That doesn’t not mean there are no imperfections. That means good enough. That means equal to or better than the team you’re working in.

That means you’re improving the bottom line for the firm you’re part of. Help them deliver new features, new code, new product. And help other team members do the same. That’s the name of the game.

Read: How can 1% of something equal nothing?

2. Look at your history

Whenever I have this feeling, I look at my own history. Then it makes me sorta chuckle. I have a list of twenty companies that I worked for recently, and they’ve all been really happy with my work.

How do I know I did good work? They paid me handsomely, paid me on time, and then recommended me to other colleagues.

That’s how I know I’m not an imposter. Am I perfect? Nope. Do I know everything? Nope? But I do good work, and I take ownership, admit when I’m wrong, and play well with others.

If you want to stand out, take a look at these two pieces:

Check out: What do the best engineers do better?

And this: How to think like a senior engineer

Those will help you on your way…

Related: Is Fred Wilson right about dealing in an honest, direct and transparent way?

3. Realize your perfectionism

I think a lot of engineers or bright people have this problem. They want everything to be perfect. They want to produce documents without spelling errors, and code without bugs. They want to deliver everything on time perfectly every time. And they want to feel they know everything.

But it doesn’t play to your benefit. People resent this type of thinking, and it’s unhealthy besides. Take a deep breath, realize we’re all working towards the same goal, and keep your eye on the ball. That means have a sense of humor. You’re probably *way* harder on yourself then others will ever be.

Related: What mistakes did you make when starting as a consultant?

4. Be easier on yourself and easier on others

As you begin to be “easier” on yourself, hopefully you’ll also be a little bit easier on others. Be patient with mistakes. Understand that people have a lot going on in their life. Notice that they are trying.

Sure even after you gain a sense of humor, there will be some people who are not trying, who don’t care or who are really incompetent. But have your default position be patience, and give them and yourself the benefit of the doubt.

Usually if said person is really that bad, others will also complain and the problem will come to management’s attention. It is their job, after all to manage the team as a whole, and keep it productive.

Have fun!

Related: Why did mailchimp fraudulently charge my credit card?

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All Consulting CTO/CIO Security

How do we secure an existing aws hosted application?

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What if you don’t have the luxury of a greenfield. You are looking at an already built application, and asking yourself, how do I secure this?

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One can think of it as a giant labyrinth, with many turns and many paths. Some of those paths have not had light shining in them for some time. So you’ll need to be cautious, thorough, and vigilant.

Here are some notes on where to start.

1. Scanning – code

One area you’ll need to dig into is the application code itself. If you don’t have the luxury to push new code, you’ll need to verify what version is deployed, and scan the repository for keys or passwords. You can also scan on the server itself. Better to double your efforts.

Read: What do the best engineers do better?

2. Scanning – network

Your VPC is obviously your first layer of defense. Scan the routing table policies, to make sure there aren’t open ports or whitelisted IPs.

Do the same sort of review for security groups, as those are an alternative method for configuring access to servers.

AWS has a service called Flowlogs, which can be enabled. These give you detailed network layer logging, which you can then scan for trouble.

Related: Is Fred Wilson right about dealing in an honest, direct and transparent way?

3. Scanning – IAM, keys & console

Your existing devs probably have keys to some or all of the EC2 boxes. If you don’t want to relaunch all of these boxes with new keys, or don’t have the luxury to do that, you’ll need to lock down the security groups, whitelisted IPs and VPC routing rules.

You’ll also need to carefully review IAM roles & policies. Amazon Inspector may be a useful tool to scan your environment, and find glaring holes and enforce best practices. But you’ll also want to do your own scanning both automated and manually eyeballing the accounts.

You’ll also want to lock down console access, especially the root account, and any others that have adminstrator privileges. Enable password policies and password rotation, as well as multi-factor authentication. There is also a nice toggle for “alert on login”. You certainly want to know about those!

Related: What mistakes did you make when starting as a consultant?

4. Scanning – services

Review all of the AWS services that are deployed. Ask yourself some of these questions:

o which regions & availability zones am I deployed in?
o what elastic IPs do I have configured where?
o what IAM roles & policies do I have created?
o what databases, API gateways & S3 buckets are configured
o etc…

Cloudtrail can be a great help here as it can log all sorts of useful information. You can then scan those logs for problems.

Related: Why did mailchimp fraudulently charge my credit card?

5. Rebuilding

The scanning approach can work, but there is a strong need to be thorough. If you miss one whitelisted IP or existing ssh key, you can leave the whole network open to a crafty intruder.

Another option is to rebuild the whole application. This gives you the time to:

o automate the whole stack with terraform
o test that everything is working
o plan for failover
o ensure that every bucket is secure with lifecycle policies enabled
o ensure that every EBS volume is encrypted
o enabled cloudtrail, cloudwatch etc

o potentially setup in a *brand new* aws account, for even more confidence
o backup all the pieces of the application as you go

Read: Did Disney+ have to fail?

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All Consulting CTO/CIO Devops Startups

What do the best engineers do better?

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I’m fascinated by this topic.

I recently found another thread on HN about it What do top engineers you know do that others don’t.

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As always for hacker news, there’s a feisty debate about what such character includes.

Here’s my take.

1. Tackle learning quickly

Whether it means getting up to speed on a new service that AWS has launched, building a new api for an application that has never been built before, or getting up to speed with a new platform. Learning is ongoing.

Top engineers can make this a seemless part of their daily routine. Getting going quickly with new concepts and technologies, means wading into the water at first, to gain the general lay of the land. Now you can talk intelligently about the features, limitations and challenges.

From there he or she can dive in quickly to the specific area required for the project, and move forward with that technology comfortably.

Related: How do I migrate my skills to the cloud?

2. Customer & product perspective

When building code, it’s easy to get mired in libraries, sorting algorithms, and API minutiae. And all of that is very important. But what are you building, and why are you building it?

Understanding your customer, what they do day-to-day is not always easy. It means using the product yourself, and also talking with sales teams regularly to hear what they are hearing.

Then pouring all this into your user stories. For top engineers it will inform their decisions, and help them communicate to product & project managers about what issues their encountering. Tradeoffs about features, coding, performance and technical debt can be better evaluated with more information.

Read: Is Fred Wilson honest about transparency?

3. Dig Deeper

Does your code run slowly? Have you tried to figure out why?

Is it related to:

o latency in production that doesn’t appear our your laptop
o untuned production database queries
o untuned connection pooling
o slow API calls
o weird kubernetes or orchestration issues
o web host issue with memory shortage
o web host issue with slow unoptimized code
o issues on the client side

Top engineers have seen applications slow down or fail in a myriad of ways. This allows them to imagine how a new application might be failing, and investigate those.

Related: What mistakes did you make when starting as a consultant?

4. Great communicators

In startups, your engineers need to communicate to many folks who don’t have an engineering background. Product & UI/UX folks probably are quite technical on their own. But what about sales teams who are dealing directly with customers? Or C-suite folks who watch the business bottom lines, but may not have the same low level technical understanding?

Great communicators can find the right metaphor to explain hurdles and holdups, technical debt, or the latest performance challenges. And explaining those in terms that resonate for others is incredibly valuable to the team and business velocity.

Related: Can Mailchimp fraudulently charge your credit card?

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All Business Consulting CTO/CIO

Is Fred Wilson right about dealing in an honest, direct & transparent way?

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I was just reading Fred Wilson’s excellent blog AVC. While I enjoy & respect his work immensely, I don’t always agree with what he has to say.

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The recent post was titled No Shenanigans.

He writes that these are part of Twiliio’s company values…


Be thoughtful. Always deal in an honest, direct, and transparent way.

While anyone can appreciate the sentiment, and everyone wishes things always worked well, sometimes the world of business can be a bit tougher than these words imply.

To me the words themselves are disingenous, ie they are *not* honest and direct to begin with. They sugar coat things in a Disney sort of way, when we know there are horror stories out there.

Buyer, customer & employee alike beware.

1. Disappearing stock options

In an article How can 1% of something equal nothing I wrote about a guy from Dogpatch lab whose company got bought for 100 million, and who didn’t get a penny.

You might think these stories are anomalies. In my personal experience working in the dot-com era & more recently, I’ve seen quite a few of these unfold. As a consultant I’ve always been on the outside, but I sure do have sympathy for the employees who were dealing in an honest, direct, & transparent way, until they found out four years of hard work got them no dividend.

Ouch!

Read: Why I ask clients for a deposit

2. Not getting paid

I’ve had my own experiences of being slighted. I wrote When clients don’t pay to tell my own story. I’ve learned from scrapes & bruises. And I tend to be more careful now, especially with new prospects.

That’s another way of saying, when I was young & green, I was naive. I was honest, direct and transparent. And because of it I was taken advantage of.

So again folks, buyer beware in this world.

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

3. Aspirational

I think at the end of the day, the words Fred quotes are an aspiration. We would like to shoot for that ideal. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be careful as well.

Protect your own interests, and read between the lines. You never know when things will go south.

Trust is something that is earned, over time. Especially in the business world. And all the company value statements in the world can’t rewrite human nature.

Read: What mistakes did you make when you first started out as a consultant?

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All Consulting CTO/CIO Startups

What mistakes did you make when starting as a consultant ?

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I was recently reading a Hacker News thread on mistakes made in consulting. While most of the discussion I didn’t agree with folks *at all*, it did get me thinking about my own lessons.

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Since these threads in HN often end up in debate, I decided to blog my answers instead. Here they are!

1. Not getting a deposit

I wrote before about When clients don’t pay. It doesn’t happen often, but it does on occasion.

Most of the time, you have a solid relationship because you’re referred by someone who you have also worked with. And a bad actor will get a bad rep among others in the network. This also by the way keeps consultants honest too, as your reputation is at stake with every new customer.

But there have been a few. And there are other good reasons Why I ask clients for a deposit.

It can be a nominal amount of a few hundred dollars. But it gets you into the finance system, provides a small hurdle that the client must also jump over, and generally provides good will to both parties. It says “we’re serious”.

And that’s important!

Read: What I learned from 10 years of blogging

2. Giving away free advice

In the first few years of consulting, I worked for so many great companies, that I figured they were all great. Then along comes one shady shop, for whom I was called in to help with scaling an application.

For a couple of hours we met face to face to discuss their challenges. What I found was an application that had grown beyond it’s original ambitions. I suggested they evaluate the product, provide new service levels to their customers, at different price points. And then for the higher paying customers, build out new hardware just for them.

It was a great solution, if I do say so myself. The customer thought so too. They went and implemented it themselves, without hiring me! I think they even offered to pay me a couple of hours for the meeting.

Suffice it to say I was pissed. There wasn’t much I could do because we didn’t have any agreement in place at that stage. I had no idea people would do stuff like this.

But I learned the hard way. Sad to say it’s the few bad actors that make us all play more carefully in business. Buyer beware!

Related: 6 Devops interview questions

3. Billing hourly

Billing hourly is how many start out. Some think of it as an industry standard. Lawyers do it, hey why not?

But hourly billing can be very confusing to customers. If you work 10 hours to solve a problem one week and 60 the next, they will find these invoices confusing and frustrating. What’s more on the 10 hour end of the spectrum you’ll be answering questions why the work was so “easy” and on the 60 hour end, what did you do wrong?

Customers often just want a problem solved. They want you and they want your availability. And the value of that may vary quite a lot. If you can figure out a way to bill weekly or monthly such that the client is happy with the value you’re providing, this will simplify your life immeasurably. Customers will be happier, and so will you.

I also recommend keeping daily notes and providing progress reports to your client.

Read: High availability what is it and why is it important?

4. Don’t step on toes

As a consultant, you will often be working with a team of fulltime folks. Not always, but sometimes there can be a tiny bit of resentment. Maybe because you’re outside opinion is threatening, or maybe for a million other reasons.

So I recommend treading carefully. Try to reassure your teamates that you aren’t trying to outshine them. Inevitably you’ll be in meetings with folks smarter than you. Certainly they will know more as they have boots on the ground, but sometimes, they are just plain & simple smarter than you. 🙂

Feel things out, and don’t step on toes. Some need to be right. Let them be that.

Read: High availability what is it and why is it important?

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