Stories about Software


Consulting Skills You Need, Without the Vague Platitudes

Let’s take a break from the heretofore linear nature of the developer to consultant series.  I’d been writing this as if it were a book.  But it’s not a book (yet).  So today, appropos of little, I offer my thoughts on essential consulting skills.

Now, before you object with, “I just want to be a software developer,” read this post about why every developer should also be a consultant.  If you want your career to consist of more than having project managers order you around, you’ll need these skills.  They’re essential skills for consultants, but they’ll help your career either way.

I poked around a little to see what others had to say on this subject.  If you google “consulting skills” you’ll find advice that comes in two flavors.

  1. “Here are some skills you need to convince Gigantic, Ubiquitous, & Inevitable Consulting, Inc. to hire you as an entry level consultant.”
  2. “Here are some skills you need as a consultant, like being nice and having curiosity.”

Let me briefly address these things before I offer my obviously different take on the matter.

I Have No Idea What To Tell You about Consulting for Massive Consulting Shops

What does it take to work at one of these huge agencies?  Dunno.  I’ve never done it.

So if you’re looking for interview advice ahead of your phone screen with McKinsey or PWC, you’re probably barking up the wrong tree.  Will these skills help you in general?  Yeah.  I don’t see how they couldn’t.

But this advice is about how to succeed with your own, specialized practice.  It’s not going to help you get an entry-level, salaried consultant position.

No Vague Platitudes Here, Just Consulting Skills

Let’s be clear on something.  “Be nice” isn’t a skill.  “Enthusiasm” and “curiosity” aren’t skills.  These are all more or less personality traits.

But I’m not objecting based on semantics as much as I am on the basis of effectiveness.  In the “every developer should be a consultant post,” I laid plain the definition of consulting.  It means you provide expert advice in exchange for money.

Now, does being nice help with that?  Or curious?  Yes, of course it does.  But so do a lot of other things, too, in a vague way.  Decent hygiene, taking notes, and not showing up drunk are also helpful.  But these aren’t skills, and they’re not specific to succeeding with a consulting practice.  Most of this is just table stakes for existing in the corporate world.

So I’m making a point here to leave out ‘skills’ that are too vague to help, like “good EQ” or “leadership” or whatever.  Instead, I’m going to list some very specific things that you can actually practice.  And I’ll list them in rough order of when they help in a gig, from discovery to wrap-up.

That said, let’s get specific.

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Learn from My Mistakes: Applied Positioning and Specialty Lessons

I’ve talked a lot about how not to position yourself lately.  Last week, I suggested you not do it by tech stack of framework or whatever.  And before that, I suggested you not do it by being a laborer.  In general, I’ve talked a lot about positioning lately.

But all of the talk has been pretty abstract.  Let’s switch it up today and get concrete.

Up to this point, I’ve thrown out off-the-cuff examples, like becoming “the build expert” or something.  Some of you have asked for more tangible, specific examples.  And I can actually think of no better way to offer those examples than by wandering through my own career, looking for them.

Of course, I didn’t figure all this stuff out until quite recently.  So these are all “road not taken” kind of examples, and that’s why I’m titling this post “learn from my mistakes.”  Here are all the times that current Erik would have told past Erik to recognize opportunity knocking.

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Tech Stack, Framework, Library or API: How Not to Specialize

Today, I’m going to keep plugging away with another mid-week post in the developer to consultant series.  To recap, I’ve talked recently about how you need to start by figuring out your positioning and then about how that positioning should orient around problem solving instead of laboring.  Today, I’m going to build on that momentum.  I’m going to talk about the positioning mistake you’re almost certainly going to make and how to avoid it.

The Positioning Mistake

You’re going to try to position yourself around a tech or tech stack.  “I help people with blockchain” or “I’m a Ruby on Rails performance expert.”  Now, this isn’t as bad as the generalist career approach, to be sure.  But it’s really not where you want to go, either.

I’ll get to why in a moment.

But first, let me just say that it’s completely understandable why you gravitate toward this.  Our industry pushes you that way with an aircraft carrier’s worth of momentum.  You should be a generalist and compete with 18,000,000 other programmers to be “the best” and get hired at SiliconPrestigeTech.  Not for you?  Well, fine.  Then get better than everyone else at some tiny piece of technical real estate.  Everything in your experience pushes you this way.

Indulge me for a moment.  I’m going to force one of my parables on you to demonstrate the absurdity of this situation.  And then I hope this will serve as your compass to navigate your way out of the generalist quagmire.

I once wrote a post about what it would be like if contractors behaved like programmers.  This is going to be a bit like that, but doctors are knowledge workers, so it illustrates the point a bit better.  And I’m going to emphasize a different set of specifics.

Walter White, His Doctor Recruiter, and His Doctor Manager

My wife and I have been watching Breaking Bad again over the last month.  It’s not a spoiler if I tell you that the main protagonist, Walter White, receives a cancer diagnosis (it’s the premise of the show).  Lung cancer, and an aggressive form at that.  So let’s imagine Walter in a world where doctors acted like programmers.

The first thing that Walter would need to do is to hire two people for his “diagnose and treat my cancer” project.  These would include a doctor recruiter and a doctor manager.  The doctor manager would sit with Walt, listen to his symptoms, and lay out a roadmap of what comes next.  Now, this doctor manager “isn’t medical” so he would need to enlist doctors to perform the actual diagnosis.  But he’s “medical adjacent” enough to at least know which doctors to call.

Of course, he’s too busy and important to make those calls, so he enlists the doctor recruiter to do that, explaining that he needs someone with at least 7 years of CT scan, 5 years of X-Ray, 6 years Sputum Cytology, 4 years of Biopsy, with strong Bedside Manner skills a plus.

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If You Want to Matter in the Software Industry, Stop Being a Laborer

Alright, first things first.  I’m going to do a bit of housekeeping.  My apologies for the sluggish performance of the site lately, and the occasional 500 errors you may have noticed.  My hosting company’s physical machine has been having some issues and they’re trying to figure out whether they can fix it in-situ or whether I need to take an outage while they migrate me to another machine.  Also, my apologies for missing reader question Monday.

Fate has conspired to sentence me to a couple of poor nights of sleep in a row.  So I don’t really have the energy for a rant.  Instead, I’m going to go the more zen route and continue with the “developer to consultant” series.  Today, I’m going to focus on the mindset shift you need in order to go this route.  You need to stop being a laborer.

The Phases of Problem Solving

In a post where I first mentioned this idea of guidance on how to transform yourself into a consultant, I referred to the phases of problem solving.  Roughly speaking, these are the following.

  • Diagnosis of a problem.
  • Prescription of a therapy.
  • Application of the therapy.
  • Re-application/maintenance of the therapy.

When you’re sick, you go to the doctor.  The doctor furnishes a diagnosis and writes you a prescription, and then exits the equation.  An unskilled laborer (i.e. you) then applies the therapy of taking the pills.

A similar concept applies in other sorts of knowledge work.  A lawyer, for instance, figures out which precedents to cite and then hands it over to a law clerk to write up or to an admin to make copies.  Or take a tax accountant.  The accountant herself figures out whether you should file as an S-Corp or pass through the taxes and then turns the paper work over to a less skilled assistant.  You get the idea.

But to tell you how this relates to us and to software, I don’t want to compare us to these people.  I want to compare us to an arch-criminal.

Winston Wolf, Master Consultant

In the movie Pulp Fiction, a couple of gangsters named Jules and Vincent are driving with another guy, Marvin in the backseat.  Gesturing with his gun during conversation, Vincent accidentally blows Marvin’s head off, creating quite a horror show in the car, right in the middle of a public roadway in broad daylight.

Vincent and Jules, hardened criminals though they may be, panic and duck into a nearby associate’s house, and call their boss who sends his “cleaner” — one Winston Wolf.  Wolf is a consultant.  You can watch the (graphic) scene here if you want, but suffice it to say Wolf helps.  He quickly and efficiently sizes up the situation, diagnoses all problems, and lays out a solution.  He then dispatches Vincent and Jules to execute the details of the solution (“apply the therapy”.)

Despite some grousing from Vincent, who doesn’t like being told what to do, Jules and Vincent oblige, and they set about the grotesque tasks of cleaning viscera out of the car, placing liners over the seats, etc.

In this episode, Wolf’s diagnoses and prescription are valuable.  The cleaning/scrubbing/etc tasks of execution are important, but only valuable because of the circumstances.  Without Winston, Vincent and Jules go to jail.  Without Vincent and Jules, someone else could always do the labor.

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Positioning Strategy for the Aspiring Consultant

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post in which I announced a new flavor of posts for DaedTech.  I was going to do this as a book or video product, but I tired of analysis paralysis.  So I’ve decided to just start teaching anyone reading the tricks to becoming a consultant. (Follow along with a new category).  This is the second post in that series, and it concerns your positioning strategy.

Figuring out your positioning strategy should be the very next thing on your list after figuring out that all software developers should become consultants.

If you just said, “wait, my what?” don’t worry — I’ll get to that.  But first, a bit of tough love.  I have a tactical rant lined up before I can get back to being helpful and upbeat.  It’s for your own good.

The Harsh Truth about Your Current Positioning Strategy

If I ever turn this “from developer to consultant” series into a book or something, I’m not sure if this post from last week will make it or not.  It’s not specifically related, but I’m going to build on it here today.

The Craftsman Positioning Problem

In that post, I talked mainly about our industry’s bemusing fetishizing of medieval craft guilds, and about how letting yourself get sucked into that trap hurts your career.  Toward the bottom of the post, if you’ll recall, I began to talk about positioning.

When you position yourself as a “craftsman,” you’re boasting about superior quality, but competing with cheaper prices.  People who do this fail to understand why people pay them.  But, in all honesty, self-described craftsmen aren’t even the worst at this.  The entire journeyman idealist set gets it badly wrong.

The Broader Developer Positioning Problem

Don't sacrifice your positioning strategy to code-jousting sites, as illustrated by this joust-ready knight.

We as software developers, enabled by opportunists around us, cheerfully ignore the real reason that people pay for us.  It’s fun for us.  We go to sites that let us “joust” or “duel” or “ninja each other” for badges and tokens and stuff, demonstrating that we can write a sorting algorithm 0.01% faster than the runner up.  And then we think that’s our value proposition to employers.

“Why should I hire you?” a non-technical hiring manager might ask.  And you might respond, with something that, in his brain, translates to, “I keyboarded in the stuff with the things and it was 4 nanoseconds faster than the what’s-it by the other guy.”  And then you think that helped you land a job.

If you make $100,000 per year, you might look at a “more senior” developer making $130,000 per year and assume that she’s 30% more awesome than you.  If you suddenly discover that she only knows 4 GOF design patterns off the top of her head to your 14, you might then start railing about the injustice of it all.  The industry meritocracy has failed!  (But not systematically and in a way that invalidates algorithm jousts — just totally in this one isolated case!)

Here’s the thing, though.  To your employer, assuming the employer is larger than “tiny” your two salaries are an inconsequential rounding error.  $100K is $50/hour and $130K is $65/hour and both of those rates line up with low end US contractor talent or good offshore talent, if they’re looking for geographic arbitrage.

They’re not hiring you because you’re “better” at code jousting.  They’re hiring you because you’re the fungible person with the desired citizenship/work status that the interview process spat out the other side.

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