The Consulting Dilemma

As a “consultant” (I can’t find a better word, maybe “programmer for hire”) my role is to go and work with other companies on software development (coding) or software process or both. The companies that I’ve done work for have varied in both ability and desire to embrace change or my input. In some cases I’ve been treated like a valuable friend, enthusiastically embracing the suggestions and have been fantastic to work with. Sadly, in many cases the opposite is true.
I currently work with ThoughtWorks, and we pride ourselves on our recruitment process, and the people we attract. As a result, I get to hang around with some of the smartest people I have ever met, or worked with. As a group of people we are culturally aligned, and whether or not you agree with the Agile/XP approach, or what ThoughtWorks does, we tend to have common interests. I’m sure the same is true if you work for ObjectMentor, or Accenture or IBM-GSA. You are attracted to the organisation because you share some common interest. These vary from cool technical challenges, to enormous salary expectations, or any other random reason.
As a consultant you don’t (generally) get to pick and choose your assignments, and this is where the dilemma occurs. Consulting companies make money by having their staff billable (well, duh!) so 75%+ of the time we’re out earning $$$ for our respective organisations. And the companies that most need help are the ones that tend to hire consultants. They generally need help because they are unable or unwilling to attract talented staff, or are in such a hole that they need some additional expertise to help them out.
For me this is how the dilemma manifests itself, I love working with my colleagues because we share the same world view, but as a consultant, I end up working with companies that I would never, ever in my life apply to work for.
And the reason I don’t want to work there is not because the people or the organisations are intrinsically bad, evil or wrong, but because we don’t share the same values. I like to solve business problems, I like to work with the business and talk to them about what is going wrong and then communicate openly and honestly to them about how I can solve it. I then like to solve problems in the more appropriate manner, which is normally writing good clean code, with appropriate testing and resulting in a codebase I can be proud of.
And the cool thing is that at some places where I feel like strangling people, my colleagues in other organisations would really find it peaceful and well within their enjoyment zones. This isn’t a complaint about customers, that’s just stupid. This is a commentary about how working as a consultant, you’re just about guaranteed to not work with people that share your values, or your culture.
So, what are we to do ? Do consulting companies always struggle with this ? Are there long term consultants who’d like to share their secrets for dealing with the “mismatches” ? Is it just one of those challenges ? Surely not everybody just sucks it up and deals with it. Life is far too short to work at places that suck. Should consulting companies be more choosy about our customers ?

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12 thoughts on “The Consulting Dilemma

  1. At least you go in as a consultant, and not as a contractor. 🙂 As a consultant, you typically charge enough that the management are willing to listen to you, the way they often don’t listen to their own staff. As a contractor, you’re just another body to throw at the pile of work.
    Dilbertesque, but true.
    One key point to remember: the client is coming to you because they know they have a problem or a weakness.

  2. > I end up working with companies that I would never, ever in my life apply to work for…
    I’m in the same line of work and reached a similar conclusion. I’ve mostly been called in when things have already gone wrong. On the other hand, would the kind of company I’d work for want to hire a consultant? Knowing that consultant’s are ‘tainted’ with experience at bad companies only? Plus, would they be willing to the premium pay that Consultants get used to for working in bad situations?

  3. ThoughtWorks vs. Great Hackers

    Tongue somewhat-in-cheek: apparently ThoughtWorks doesn’t hire great hackers.
    “Working on nasty little problems makes you stupid. Good hackers avoid it for the same reason models avoid cheeseburgers… make the following deal

  4. Interesting post, Jon. Obviously, as you point out, consultants are hired to help organisations solve problems that they can’t solve on their own.
    This may sound trite, but I think the consulting challenge boils down to finding ways you can steer the customer towards the solution. It’s often more about building relationships with people in the customer organisation than preaching to them about how they should go about processes or software design, etc.
    Anyway, have fun!

  5. I agree with your main statement! And I find it cool someone states this. It’s the first time I read such an interesting point of view about consulting.
    I am on the payroll of a consulting and implementation company. To be honest, it’s more about implementation if taking the allocation of time into account. But our staff is spread over the whole country, only meeting each other at official events (like just before x-mas).
    What I like about consulting, and I’m sure you could agree upon this (given that you are willing to accept the “risks” correlated with the following) is:
    Go out to a customer, where in many cases the people there don’t know half of that what you are able to realize. Do your work in time or even cut down the spent time by 50%. And use some of the delta time for realizing your own goals: study technical documents of your choice, browse communities and newsletters of your interest, write articles etc.
    Sometimes, don’t forget to influence the project schedule, if possible. I don’t think this is commonly seen as weired. In my eyes, it is partly a cool job being a consultant. You have so much freedom. But fortunately I am stationary from time to time. I would not love to travel around and live in hotels three years long in a row.
    Tell me your opinion about this!

  6. Jon Eaves describes the consulting dilemma

    Jon Eaves describes what he refers to as the consulting dilemma, that is, the fact that as a consultant you are usually brought in to work with companies that you wouldn’t ever choose to work for and often in the worst of circumstances (the project has…

  7. This is a great post mate, and as ever you’re insights are enlightening. I can’t help but throw a fairly obvious (and pretty thoughtless) cliche your way though; “You get the customers you deserve”.
    On the shop floor, the cultural dynamic at Thoughtworks is enviable. But what about the rest of the organisation? What kind of people are attracting these businesses to your organisation? What dynamic – at a business development and business management level – attracts the kind of customers that you get?
    I’ve not had a long career, but recently I’ve worked with some interesting people who’ve decided that it’s not worth the hassle engaging clients who aren’t interested in the solutions / services that you’re able to provide them. Despite the fact that you may have already won their ‘business’ – whatever that means. Businesses of all shapes and sizes, more often than not, engage a company on price over any cultural offering they have; you’re there to make something work that’s broken, not get all thoughtful about their business. A kind of corporate close mindedness emerges.
    Alternatively, you stated in your post that you like to solve business problems. I know full well that this is not what you meant, but I’ll put it out there anyway; sometimes (not all the time) we’re engaged to work with companies that have ‘problems’ which are different from the ones that we’re asked to solve. More often that not, as developers attempting to solve functional business problems, we wind up immersed in political (for want of a better word) business problems.
    Just some shootin’ from the hip. Love your work.

  8. I had this running through my head the other day.
    I like working at a product development company because I have direct input into the culture, values and decision making. But then some people believe that product development is dead 😉
    I have some questions similar to Travo’s: does your sales team select businesses that are interested in your values and culture as well as your technical expertise? Or do you get sold on technical expertise alone?
    – Chris

  9. Wow. Hoisted on my own petard, by not one, but two posts. I should stop being so opinionated in the company of people with long memories.
    This particular blog entry wasn’t based entirely on my experiences, but from observing comments from other friends (and bloggers) who also work in similar positions.
    In short, at TW, we do try and select our customers based on fit. But, many times reality intervenes and the fit isn’t always as good as we hope.

  10. Many times I simply walk away from a “fire” because management is unwilling or unable to see that their business in “on fire,” i.e., in serious trouble.
    When the QA Manager (and a principal in the company) makes the following two unilateral and dogmatic statements within several minutes of each other, what would you do?
    1. We have just signed a three-year contract for deliveries to a major firm, and their specs were so tight compared to our present design and customer base, -that we expect to be seeing 30 to 35% returns this next year. We’re going to build a 1200 sq. foot Rework Facility.
    2. We’re looking for a Six-Sigma guy to handle quality for us. Maybe a Green Belt or a Black Belt. Can you do Statistical Process Control?

  11. Let me say that I have recently resigned from Accenture… yes, one of the world’s leading management firms… and you know what I did not enjoy working for them.
    Let me first say that Accenture looks very appealing from the outside… very proffesional… after all their claim is “high performance delivered”. They do deliver this high performance by mostly overworking their staff.
    One of the good/bad things about the organization is that is has many young people. Its good because you have many people your age. Its bad because most of these people are just starting their careers and are willing to sacrifice everything for it. They have no families to go home and most people there have very little time to date. So… they stay back, work long hours… This is where the really bad part comes in… you must stay back late even if you have no work… or you are seen as a slacker. As all the people are rated against each other, there is this need to not stand out. So people just stay back for the hell of it.
    Now Accenture has some really good parts too… like the pay if you get an interstate assignment… it nearly doubles it. You do get to travel a lot and work with many organizations. And yes, some of the people you meet are absolutly amazing. Unfortunatly most of these amazing people are doing work way below what they’re really capable of.
    In summary I’m glad that i worked for a consulting company early in my career… as i would never want to work for a consulting firm again.

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