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.

1. Predict Prospects’ Pains before they Tell You About Them and Close the Deal

Imagine this situation.  You’re talking to a prospect looking for strategic advice for commissioning software.  They introduce your prospective role this way.

We’re hoping that you can help us pick a good partner for this project.  And we can’t afford another mistake.  We’ve already sunk considerable money into a first attempt at this that failed, in spite of the vendor seeming like a good mix of affordable and competent.

Now, let’s say you’ve done some homework on this company.  But you’ve also seen this before, a lot.  Here’s your response.

I understand.  I see this sort of thing a lot.  I’m guessing you don’t have any deep technical expertise on staff, so you did an RFP and listened to proposals with a range of prices attached.  The top of the line ones gave you some sticker shock, so you deliberated and wound up picking the second least expensive one — an offshore firm.  With each payment you made, you got further and further behind as you seemed to argue over every screen and requirement.  Until, finally you pulled the plug.  Something like that?

If their next words are, “wow…. you actually kind of nailed it,” they’re going to hire you and not call anyone else.  Learning to map your previous experience to educated guesses about the current situation is powerful.  And, best of all, it’s not a deal-breaker if you don’t guess every last detail accurately.

2. Re-framing/Restating Problems Eliminates Misunderstandings

Here’s another skill that will come in handy during discovery and early on, though this is useful at all stages of an engagement, too.  It’s a simple consultants’ trick of restating what you’ve heard in your own words.

This comes in handy when you’re not sure you understand what someone has told you.  Just saying “what?” or asking them to repeat because you don’t understand can make you seem vaguely obtuse.  Instead, meet them halfway by attempting to restate the issue and letting them correct you where you misunderstood.

For instance, let’s say  you hear this.

Every time we do another version of the software, there are all these JIRAs that happen and it looks terrible.

That’s a lot to unpack, and it requires inferences on your part.  What’s a JIRA?  Is “do another version” releasing the software?

Consulting skills to the rescue.  You can reply with:

Let me restate this to make sure I understand.  You’re saying that each time you release software, users start to report a lot of bugs and defects?  And the fact that each release creates these defects is making you look bad?

Either they’ll be happy you understand and say, “yes, exactly,” or they’ll correct you.  Either way, you’ll have a more precise understanding.

And, best of all, you really don’t need clients to practice this skill.  Hone it in all areas of your life.

3. Org Chart Awareness Lets You Gracefully Manage Client Office Politics

Here’s another skill you can practice anytime.  It may seem daunting, but you can actually get uncannily good at this.  When you meet a group of people in a corporate setting, practice deducing their respective org chart relationships.

In other words, if you go out to lunch with a group of people from a different department or from a customer, learn to figure out who the boss is based solely on how they interact.  Then expand that.  Is Alice Bob’s boss, or maybe even Bob’s boss’s boss?  Or are they peers?  Dotted line relationship?

Believe it or not, with practice, you can start making pretty good educated guesses.  And this is invaluable in a consulting context.

It helps you avoid subtle blunders and to keep your buyer in mind always.  If Alice is going to sign your contracts, and Bob is an obnoxious malcontent that reports to her, you’d do well to avoid enthusiastically agreeing with Bob over Alice in a meeting, even when you do agree with Bob over Alice.

Intuitively understanding both the org chart and its implications lets you gracefully navigate the various mines office politics place in your path as an outside consultant.

4. Learn Never to Need to Hear the Same Thing Twice to Impress Throughout an Engagement

If you’re a laborer, companies will put up with a fair number of conversational faux pas as long as you deliver the labor.  But when people pay you (usually more) for expert advice, they raise the bar on these things.

Having to tell someone the same thing twice is annoying.  It annoys all of us.  Imagine hiring a plumber to fix your toilet and him asking you three different times whether you’d been flushing paper towels.  By the third time, you’d be exasperated.  “I’ve already told you twice, NO!”

As a consultant, your clients’ tolerance for this sort of thing is even lower.  They’ll start looking at you skeptically when they have to repeat themselves.

So work out a system to make sure they don’t.  Some combination of taking copious notes, restating important conclusions, and ending meetings by summarizing who should take what next steps will help.  But the exact system has to be one that works for you.

Luckily, like the other skills here, you can practice this anywhere.  Make it your goal never to have to hear the same information twice.

5. Keep a Poker Face to Avoid Things Getting Weird(er)

In my long travels doing IT management and strategy consulting, this has proven a vital skill.  As I’ve interviewed individual contributors and managers over the years, I’ve heard some truly amazing things.

  • People accusing their coworkers of showing up drunk.
  • Folks have told me that their bosses (the ones who hired me) should be fired.
  • Newbie manager excited at the prospect of firing people, as if on a game show.
  • Admissions, Peter Gibbons style, that people don’t do any actual work.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

If you’re not in management consulting, it might not get quite this absurd.  But I promise you that, at times, people will say amazing things to you.  You need to resist the impulse to laugh or stare at them with your mouth agape.

A poker face is a skill you can practice.  Take everything in stride as it comes to you, whether it’s amazing admissions, criticism from your buyer, or sabotage from people who don’t like the change you’re bringing.  Everyone around you should think, based on your demeanor, that you expected everything that is happening.

6. Draw Your Advice from a Very Large Tool Belt to Avoid Seeming Dogmatic

This advice is starting to take us into the wrap-up portion of engagements.  And this particular skill requires a lot of reading and investment in understanding your field.  Simply put, don’t be a one-trick pony.

Here’s how I’ve seen it play out when people do the opposite of what I’m advising.  People seem to have hammers and view all problems as nails.  For example, consider these situations.

  • Management consultants that read Patrick Lencioni and then have a business fable of his for all conceivable situations.
  • People that advise on Scrum/Agile transformations and whose advice all takes the form “in Scrum you’re supposed to X and you’re not doing X.”
  • Consultants that develop some kind of proprietary methodology or framework and then turn their consultancy into the sales arm of that methodology/framework.

Drawing on the wisdom of others is essential for any consultant.  By all means, give a client a Lencioni book or point out a gap in Scrum implementation when that’s a problem.  But make sure you draw from an extremely wide pool of references.

If the client just wanted a gap analysis between their process and Scrum, they’d just need to read the Scrum guide.  Likewise, they can buy Lencioni books.  They’re paying you for expertise in your niche, so make sure that expertise is varied and synthesized, rather than just parroted from a single authority.

7. Cultivate an Ability to Give Killer Presentations to Leave a Good Impression

I’ll close with a piece of advice regarding what generally happens at the end of an engagement: a presentation.  You like what I did there?

Typically a true consulting engagement (as opposed to delivery) ends with a presentation of findings, a road map, or a piece of advice.  This figures to be the client’s last standing impression of you (pending re-engagement, anyway).  So make it count.

You can practice presenting, of course, and I suggest you do so.  Get good at talking through a power point presentation or a small talk/Q&A session.  That’s going to be valuable, of course.  Use analogies and make sure you’re speaking appropriately to the audience in question, without diving into jargon that nobody understands.  They hire you to bring expert advice to bear, but also to make it understandable to them, at a non-expert level.

And don’t sleep on the written part of the presentation.  There’s a good chance that your buyer is going to take the assets you deliver and present them to someone else after you depart.

Practice, Practice, Practice

So there you have it.  Seven specific, tangible skills that will help your consulting game.  And not only will they help your consulting game, but also your career in general.

But part of my motivation for picking these is that you can practice all of these before you ever hang out your shingle.  It works if you’re freelancing or in a 9-5 job.  You can use these skills in those contexts as well, and they’ll benefit you there, too.

So practice them starting today.  Get good at them.  And then, if and when you ever decide to make a living purely as a consultant, you’ll have a significant head start on others trying to do the same.

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