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How can we secretly deploy this key to production?

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I worked with a client some time back that was in a very unfortunate position indeed. Through various management shuffling, the COO was the new sheriff in town. Which is fine and normal.

Except in this case the entire operations was managed across the sea.

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Now in many or most cases that would be fine. The new COO asks for the root credentials, works with devops to get new hires on board, and move forward. But these were not normal circumstances.

No, here the turf war began in earnest. Threats were even lobbed about what damage could be done.

1. Get a handle on all the systems

Upon starting the engagement, I attempted to inventory everything. What aws logins & IAM accounts were there? What servers were deployed? What networks, and security groups were setup like?

I followed many of the suggestions I outlined here: locking down cloud systems.

However we hit some hurdles, because I did not have my key deployed on production servers. I also could not update the deployed keys. So we were stuck in a holding pattern.

Read: Is AWS too complex?

2. Can you deploy this key in secret?

As we moved through the mess, and still could not gain control of systems, I received a strange request.

Can you deploy your key to production in secret?

Well of course what I’m thinking at this point is, I sure hope not. If a new engineer could bypass the devops team and get the keys changed on the servers, that would amount to a giant security hole. It was as it turned out not possible to do.

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

3. Git is not a good way sidestep human communication

What I realized is that we were trying to use git to deploy a key, which would have communicated our intentions to the devops team anyway. What’s more it would have communicated it in a strange way. Why is this happening, and what are *they* trying to do over there in New York?

Better to communicate the normal way, hey we hired this new engineer and we would like to give him access to these production servers. End of story.

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

4. How things got resolved

We attempted to get the key installed on systems, which did precipitate a conversation about, who is this guy Sean and what’s his role? All of that stalled for a while.

In the end a new CTO was hired, and the devops lead in Odessa reported to this new guy. This was a savvy move since the new CTO didn’t yet have a relationship good or bad with the loose cannon in Ukraine.

As we stepped forward carefully, we got a hold of credentials, and then planned an early morning cutover. While multiple engineers were poised at our keyboards, the devops lead in Ukraine was being fired. So we were locking him out a the same time.

Related: How to hire a developer that doesn’t suck?

5. No technology can sidestep hard conversations

It all went smoothly, and a lot was learned.

What I learned was that when strange requests surface, usually it means some bigger conversation needs to happen.

No technology is can sidestep those hard conversations.

Related: 30 questions to ask a serverless fanboy

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How can communication mixups sour an enagement?

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I recently had some communications mixups with a customer. It reminded me how delicate, communications are between customers & vendors. What’s more they can be challenging between developers & managers. It highlighted for me these challenges, and the strategies I’ve learned over the years.

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While I didn’t lose the project, the initial misunderstandings continued to eclipse the project, long after they were cleared up.

1. First a missed conference call

Early on, we setup a call to discuss the challenges. The time of the conference call had been agreed to, but somehow it didn’t make it into my calendar. So when the appointed day & time came, i missed the call. This was before any contract was signed, or even the engagement had gotten started.

Needless to say this is a very delicate moment, as everything we do sets precedents about our personality and working style.

While we were able to reschedule, it added some initial strain to the relationship. As you’ll see that compounded more later.

Related: Walking the delicate balance of transparency

2. Next arriving late to the kickoff meeting

I always pride myself on timeliness. I think it communicates all sorts of things to customers. First it shows you’re serious and will manage the project carefully. Next it shows you respect for others time.

As usual, I left plenty of extra time, so I would arrive well before the meeting. Arriving at the building 20 minutes early, I searched but could not find the entrance. Neither could google as it turns out. Strange I thought, what could be wrong? I walked into the building where the address should be, and asked the doorman. He explained that the company didn’t reside there. Perhaps they’re not located at Park Avenue, but rather Park Avenue South, he suggested. And then the lightbulb goes off. Of course!

Realizing I now have 5 minutes to arrive on time, I’m going to be late. So I attempt to call the manager leading the meeting. I get his voicemail, and leave a message. I then jump in a taxi, and head to the Park Avenue South address. Arriving 10 minutes late, I quickly head upstairs. I’m greeted by some grumbling, and frustrated looks.

Despite this being an understandable mistake, it comes on the heels of another mixup. So now I’ve set a precedent of lateness. Despite being a timely person, it’s hard to erase the stamp that is there now.

We continued to have strained relations through the engagement. While it did finish to completion, I believe it would have gotten extended were I not to have stumbled early on.

Also: When you have to take the fall

3. What can a mixup indicate?

There are many questions it may raise. Possible ones include:

o Is candidate too busy with other tasks?
o Is the person forgetful?
o Is one party bullying on their perspective?
o Is there finger pointing & blame game in the org?
o What is the culture of the organization?
o Is it one of understanding & working together or blame game?
o Is the person uninterested?
o Is the project not a priority?
o Is the company disorganized
o Is miscommunication endemic?

Some of these thoughts may bubble up consciously, and some may linger as a bad taste in your mouth. Regardless, they should be faced head on, with understanding and humility on both sides.

Read: Why i ask for a deposit

4. The weight of first impressions

Inevitably, when there is a mixup, of lateness or missed meeting, there is a technical explanation. In my story above, the *reason* is Park Avenue and Park Avenue South are completely different addresses.

o First impressions are KEY

Even with a reasonable explanation, there is a reaction that is felt.

o There is a visceral emotional reaction we all have anyway

Such a reaction is easy to cause, but hard to patch up. It will take time, and multiple interactions to set a new impression to people.

o Reactions can be incorrect & irrational sometimes
o They can color further interactions

With time impressions can be adjusted, but it takes much more work after an initial mistake.

Check out: How to hire a developer that doesn’t suck

5. Possible solutions

While there is no sure fire way to avoid mixups like these, there are some things that can work in your favor.

o maintain flexibility

That means accepting blame, and mutual responsibility in reaching the goal posts.

o maintain a sense of I *can* be wrong

Everyone can be wrong, and everyone makes mistakes. So don’t try to avoid blame. That said emphasize that everyone must work together. On communicating engagement details, on mutual agreed times, and time zones.

o look for a sense of we *can* be wrong

I think these types of mixups can also be beneficial. For they underscore the customers management style. Do they point fingers, or acknowledge reasonable mistakes. Both parties will make mistakes eventually, and understanding of this builds good faith down the road.

o “let’s work together to improve communication”

Framing the mixup as a shared problem is important. Although the address mixup above is technically my fault, it’s probably a common one. Park Avenue South confuses everyone in New York. So an understanding customer might offer to share a bit in this with you.

o hold frame of mutual responsibility and working together using the word “we”

The frame is key. It’s not *all* your fault, nor is it the customers if they mixup. We all need to be understanding, to a point.

Also: Can daily notes help you work better with clients?

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What hidden things does a deposit reveal?

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I like this idea of how integration tests in software development show you that everything is working and connected together properly.

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I think it’s interesting to consider how a deposit may serve a similar function across the financial space & contractual space.

1. Alignment across business units

In really small organizations, everyone is in tight communication. Finance knows what engineering is doing. In medium to large organizations, there can be a disconnect. Engineering may be 100% ready to start today, but finance is not ready. In some cases finance may not even know a consultant is being hired. Each case is different.

Some CTOs get this right away, and are already ahead of the request. While others might ask, “Well we’re ready to get going today, do you really need the deposit first? Because that might take some time.”

My thinking is, yes the engineering department is ready, but the organization is *not* completely ready. And it’s better that there be alignment across the organization. Ironing out that alignment, helps avoid other problems later on.

Related: When you have to take the fall

2. Organization or disorganization

Sometimes there is complete alignment, the contract is already ready, and the whole org really is ready to go. In other cases there can be some disfunction. For instance the lawyers have a lot of hoops that want us to jump through, in terms of a contract.

In other cases finance may only cut checks on a certain day of the month, or only pay 30 days after receiving an invoice. There are a lot of different policies. By insisting that we receive a deposit, however small, we iron out these things early.

If the engineering manager or CTO hiring you promises one thing, but finance has a policy against that, you’ll want to know early to avoid misunderstandings.

Related: Why generalists are better at scaling the web

3. Trust

The amount of a deposit is really irrelevant. It’s all about getting ducks in a row. Both in terms of what may be required of you the vendor, and what the company’s policies may be when onboarding consultants.

By ironing out these issues early, the customer is showing some faith in you as a vendor. They want you in particular, and will do what they need to, to make it work.

Related: Is AGILE right for fixing performance issues?

4. We want you to rush, but we don’t

I’ve encountered many cases where engineering was “ready” but finance was not. It’s tough. From the perspective of the CTO it may be a moot point to get stuck on.

My thought is to hold the frame of two organizations working together. When the organization has alignment that hiring this engineering resource is a priority, it will get things done that it needs to.

Related: How to hire a developer that doesn’t suck

5. Stress tests or organizational integration tests

In software testing, we have something called an integration test. It might be confirming that a login works, or a certain page can load. Behind the scenes that test requires the database to be running, the queuing system to work, an API call to return successfully, and so on. A lot of moving parts all have to be working for that test to succeed.

In a very real way, a deposit is the financial equivalent of an integration test. It confirms that we’re all aligned in the ways we need to, and are ready to get started.

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

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Walking the delicate balance of transparency

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I’ve written before about How I use progress reports to stay on track.

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I think it’s an interesting topic, and an important one.

While I do believe transparency is important when working with clients, that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

1. I start with daily notes

As I mentioned above I think they’re important. They provide visibility, improve trust, and keep me on track. They also help me remember what was happening on particular days. They’re like breadcrumbs on the path to building solutions.

Related: How to hire a developer that doesn’t suck

2. Notes can highlight organizational dysfunction

Often in my notes, there are details of who I coordinate to get what done. Perhaps I need credentials to reach a particular server. But to get those, I need an email address. And to get that, someone in department X must set that up. And there are delays with that process.

Those delays can cascade through the onboarding process, frustrating everyone. Although the operations team is read and raring to go, the finance or legal team is not quite ready, and there are delays there. Or there are hiccups in some other frequent business process.

Related: Why generalists are better at scaling the web

3. Notes can highlight task complexity

Sometimes I hear the phrase “That should be simple to do”. Only to find the devil buried in the details. As we put boots on the ground, we find there are many dependent tasks that are not finished. So those must be completed first.

In this case I think complexity of notes is a real triumph. For CTOs that are more management oriented, they may not have day-to-day understanding of coding complexity. And that’s ok. But when that complexity is laid out in all it’s gory detail it can be a real educational experience.

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

4. For some CTOs high level is better

For some CTOs, they don’t want to slog through endless notes about setting up credentials, or problems with permissions of keys on server X or Y.

While in these cases I still collect the detail, I may also add some high level bullet points, that focus on what all these underlying parts are in service of.

Related: When you have to take the fall

5. Be prepared for archeological surprises

Inevitably there will be surprises. Whether department X does not know what department Y is doing. Or whether setting up an aws account takes two days, instead of two hours. Be prepared.

Inevitably I find these all help communication. And since I’ve been keeping them, I’ve never had a customer balk at an invoice. Notes don’t lie!

Related: Why i ask for a deposit

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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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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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When You Have to Take the Fall

Also find Sean Hull’s ramblings on twitter @hullsean.

One of the biggest jobs in operations is monitoring. There are so many servers, databases, webservers, search servers, backup servers. Each has lots of moving parts, lots that can go wrong. Typically if you have monitoring, and react to that monitoring, you’ll head off bigger problems later.

A problem is brewing

We, myself & the operations team started receiving alerts for one server. Space was filling up. Anyone can relate to this problem. You fill up your dropbox, or the drive on your laptop and all sorts of problems will quickly bubble to the surface.

Also check out – Why generalists are better at scaling the web.

As we investigated over the coming days, a complicated chain of processes and backups were using space on this server. Space that didn’t belong to them.

Dinner boils over

What happened next was inevitable. The weekly batch jobs kicked off and failed for lack of space. Those processes were not being monitored. Business units then discovered missing data in their reports and a firestorm of emails ensued.

Hiring? Get our MySQL DBA Interview Guide for managers, recruiters and candidates alike.

Why weren’t these services being monitored, they wanted to know.

Time to shoot the messenger

Having recently seen a changing of the guard, and a couple of key positions left vacant, it was clear that the root problem was communication.

Looking for talent? Why is it so hard to find a mythical MySQL DBA or devops expert these days?

I followed up the group emails, explaining in polite tone that we do in fact have monitoring in place, but that it seemed a clear chain of command was missing, and this process fell through the cracks.

I quickly received a response from the CTO requesting that I not send “these types of emails” to the team and to direct issues directly to him.

You might also like: A CTO Must Never Do This

A consultants job

As the sands continued to shift, a lead architect did emerge, one who took ownership of the products overall. Acting as a sort of life guard with a higher perch from which to watch, we were able to escalate important issues & he would then prioritize the team accordingly.

Are you a startup grappling with scalability? Keep in mind these 5 things toxic to scalability

Sometimes things have to break a little first.

What’s more a consultants job isn’t necessarily to lead the pack, nor to force management to act. A consultant’s job is to provide the best advice possible & to raise issues to the decision makers. And yes sometimes it means being a bit of a fall guy.

Those are the breaks of the game.

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When You're Hired to Solve a People Problem

Also find Sean Hull’s ramblings on twitter @hullsean.

A good five years ago I worked for a firm in online education. Among various products they provided through their website, they were struggling with a process to get content churned out more quickly. The bottleneck was slowing down their business, and limiting the new products they could offer.

Help Us Publish, Please…

Among a number of things I was asked to look at, one particularly vexing problem surrounded publishing. Adding new products had become a cumbersome & difficult process. It took days sometimes weeks. For obvious reasons the stake holders wanted to wrestle this process out of the hands of engineering, and place it were it arguably belonged in the hands of the business units.

[quote]
When you’re hired to solve specific technical problems it only figures that you go looking for software solutions. But sometimes the problems turn out to involve the people and processes of an organization. Getting them unstuck is one of the biggest challenges an professional services consultant can face. But it is also one of the most rewarding to solve.
[/quote]

Bumping into Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt

As I dug into the meat of the problem I began to work closely with the database administrator. He was a very smart gentleman & friendly in his own way. But he also spoke with a very thick accent and brusqueness about his manner that proved difficult at times. After working together for some awhile, however I began to win him over, and he started to trust me.

Looking for a top-flight database administrator? Here’s our interview guide for recruiters, managers and candidates alike

It became apparent that he was rather resistant to handing over the keys to the publish process to non-technical folks in other departments. Having handled his share of outages, and bungling screw ups, which sometimes fall on operations during some of the least hospitable hours on the dial, I could understand his concern. What’s more he knew the code which had grown unwieldy.

If I were to use a polite euphemism I would call it spaghetti code.

Management, Managers & Trouble Brewing

Around then the CTO decided to send a manager to sniff around. Unfortunately the manager in question was a very hands off type. His edict was simply to get this done in two weeks, and proceeded to go on vacation. Upon his return when things were still hitting snags, things started to go south.

Despite AWS failures firms like AirBNB and Reddit didn’t have to go down.

Though some of the process had been automated, I refused to move the changes into full push-button automation without first testing on dev environments. Of course those requests had fallen on deaf ears.

Problem comes to a head

Next the hands off manager escalated things upstream, of course adding his own spin on the situation. Shortly thereafter I’m called into the CTOs office only to get royally chewed out. A serious smack down which I’ll admit came almost out of nowhere.

A related article which readers also found quite popular: A CTO Must Never Do This

Oh, honestly I’m not complaining. On some level this is the job of the consultant. To act as the third party, wise or unbiased second opinion, and even punching bag at times.

Once things calmed down, I explained the situation from top to bottom. Yes there was messy code, and yes the process was complex, but it could of course be automated. What really stood in the way was a very resistant engineer who currently owned the process.

As much of the Sandy recovery continues, Devops can learn real lessons from the hurricane.

The CTO for his part concurred, having had trouble communicating with the engineer himself, and really not liking him much. He then appointed a proper project manager to oversee redoing the publish process from scratch.

A Plea for Cooperation

If I were to do it all again, for my part I’d sniff out the people dynamics more carefully. It’s often the case the companies have the engineering talent in house to solve a particular problem, but not the will or knowledge to put it into play.

Is your business growing? Having trouble scaling? Here’s how we do a performance review. It’s the first step on your way to hyper growth.

To managers & CTOs I’d encourage where possible to look for people, process and communication issues. Try to ferret out when something is an engineering problem, or whether it is one of people, silos and territory.

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You're Too Young To Be My Boss

About a year ago I engaged with a firm to do some operations work on their site. They provided services to colleges and universities.

When they first reached out to me, they were rather quick to respond to my proposal. They seemed to think the quote was very reasonable. I also did some due diligence of my own, checking the guy’s profile on the about page. I noticed he was 25, rather young, but I didn’t think much else of it.

We discussed whether they wanted fixed hours. Since those would limit my availability we both agreed a more flexible approach made sense. This worked well for me as I tend to shift and schedule time liberally, so I can be efficient & flexible with clients, but still have a life too.

Trouble Brewing

As we began to interact the first week, I sensed something amiss. My thought was that the first week you work with a client, they feel you out. They see how you work, when you work, how much gets done and so forth. This provides a benchmark with which to measure you. If either party is unhappy with how things are going, they discuss and make adjustments accordingly.

What was happening in this case was the guy started pestering me. I began to get incessant messages on instant messenger asking for updates. I had none. I explained that I would contact him as things were completed, or if I had questions.

This was only two days into the project. I’d barely gained access to the servers!

The Fever Pitch

After discussing my concerns on the phone, the gentleman kind of glossed them over. From there the pestering continued. I explained that I could not be available to him any hour of the day, while the engagement only provided for one half of a week. This began to interrupt me from other client work, so I had to signoff of instant messenger. Not good.

The Pot Boils Over

We spoke again on Monday briefly, and decided to connect the following day. From there the pestering began anew, and I began to lose my patience. I insisted that we speak on the phone before work would continue. I felt the problem was deteriorating and discussing over text would only make things worse.

He emailed me back as I was then offline. In his email he ordered me to come online. While he sat in a meeting, he explained, he could not take a call! Nevertheless he insisted we resolve it during the meeting. Distracted no less.

[quote]It was then that I started receiving text messages on my personal mobile phone from the guy, pestering me to get online so we could resolve our communication problem! You can’t make this stuff up![/quote]

The Fallout

Eventually we did both get on the phone, and I explained I had reached wits end. After only ten short days of working together, we had both set strong precedents and they were obviously not compatible. He asked if I would stay on longer, and reconsider working together, and I said I would think about it.

I chose not to dig a deeper hole, and let him know I wouldn’t be invoicing for previous the weeks work.

The Lessons

o beware age differences – in our case an 18 year gap
o pay attention to management styles – self-starters don’t need micromanaging
o be patient & keep communicating
o allow for an exit strategy that is amenable to both parties

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Consulting essentials: Managing & Completing Engagements

This is the second in a series of three articles on Consulting Essentials.
Read the previous post, Consulting essentials: Getting the business

Communicating well and knowing when to step in or stand back is the linchpin of successful consulting.
Some people have natural charm. If you’re one of these people you’ll find consulting is definitely for you. You’ll use that skill all the time as each new client brings a half dozen or a dozen new people to interact with.

If it doesn’t come easily, practice practice practice. Try to get out of your own head space, and hear what troubles your client, and what big business challenges worry them.

Be ready to help but don’t try to be the hero


A decade ago I worked for an Internet startup. They were having serious performance problems which was slowing down the site, and turning users away. When digging into the systems I found serious security issues besides the performance ones, and got distracted trying to wrap up those lest someone break in and destroy or steal their business assets. Communicating the situation to the client, they looked aghast. After explaining the situation to them, they understood the risks and explained that the current priorities were to get users back online.

The technical problems I saw may not have been aligned with the business priorities. Your job is to make your client happy. Provide your professional opinion and advice whenever and wherever your skills come into play, but let them run their own business.

If you’re focusing on one area, and you discover other problems or things that may need resolving going forward, bring this to the attention of the client. Allow them to prioritize for themselves. It’s their business not yours. Your job is to give your professional opinion, raise concerns that you see, but most importantly solve problems they want you to solve.

Project Your Personality

Smile a lot and listen to people. Make sure you’re talking less than half the time. When you first engage with a client, they should be speaking more like two-thirds of the time. You want to get in the habit of listening, and stepping in your clients shoes. You want to understand their pain, their business concerns and how to satisfy them.

Manage Time Efficiently

Get things done. Everybody talks about it, but not everyone does it. I personally avoid all the faddish tools for this, and use a simple checklist. Focus on the task at hand. Give yourself a doable list of tasks each day, and check them off as you go. Try hard to avoid working on things not on that list. The last point relates back to the principle of solving only the problems that you’ve been asked to solve.

Communicate Successes & Progress

In many engagements you’ll come upon struggles and get blocked by situations that seem intransigent. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to communicate with the client during these situations. Don’t get stuck thinking it will make you look weak. Communicating with the client has a number of surprising advantages.

For one sometimes they’ll have a solution, such as a different angle on the business problem, or insight and details that just simplify the problem you think you thought needed to be solved.

Second, it allows the client to adjust schedules in advance if something will take a little longer. You’d be surprised how often a client will sympathize with a difficult problem.

Lastly, involving the client intimately allows them to enjoy the triumph when you solve the problem. This helps morale, communicates more about what it is you do day-to-day and how you work through a problem. And overall it helps them appreciate the intrinsic value you’re providing.