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I’m not the most expensive consultant I know.  In fact, I’ve recently hired not one, but two separate consultants that charged $1,000 per hour.

But remarkably similar

Not actually my plumber.

One evening, Erika reported that the kitchen sink disposal wasn’t working.  I walked in and did what any geek would do – I rebooted it.  I flipped the electric switch on and off, and when that failed to resuscitate it, I guessed there was a circuit breaker on the bottom of it.  Indeed there was, so I hit that button, but still nothing happened.

Now I’m not Bob Vila, but I understand the basics of mechanical repair.  I knew the disposal operated by spinning sharp blades at high speed, and that if something got jammed in the blades, they’d stop working.  I unplugged the electric cables, stuck a screwdriver in there, and said encouraging words.  Still no workie.  I even put my hand into the drain (I know, I know) and it didn’t feel anything like what I expected.

I gave up.  I hit Yelp, looked for the highest-rated local plumber, and called him.

Me: “My kitchen disposal stopped working.  I hit the switch, I reset the circuit breaker, and it’s not moving.”

Plumber: “Do you have the key?”

Me: “The what?”

Plumber: “Never mind.  After this I’ve got another job near you, and I’ll call you when I’m done with that.”

A couple of hours later, he called from the front door of my high-rise.  I went downstairs to let him in, and I noticed something odd.  His partner sat out in the van, not bothering to come in, and the plumber himself wasn’t carrying anything at all.

He went straight to the disposal, pulled out some kind of multitool from his pocket, and plugged it into the bottom of the disposal.  He put way, way, way more force into it than I would have done, and in a matter of seconds, the tool spun freely.  He reset the circuit breaker, plugged it back in, and voila – all done.  He ran a few loads of ice through the drain to make sure it was working.

Plumber: “Are you happy with the service and the result?”

Me: “Hell yeah.”

Plumber: “Alright, that’ll be $100.”

It took me longer to write the check out than it did for him to fix the disposal.  As I walked him out, I checked the clock and realized the whole service call took four minutes.

$1,000/Hour Consultant #2: My Exterminator

My new exterminator did me a similar favor last week.  He spent less than ten minutes waltzing through my condo, spraying the baseboards and the window frames.  As he went along, he pointed out areas where my caulk had dried up and retreated, leaving big openings for bugs.  “Go to Home Depot, get some clear caulk, and go right over the top of all your old stuff.  You’ll never need to call me again.  I don’t even need to spray if you don’t want me to.  Everybody in this building has that same problem.”

I thought for a moment.  “You knew this when I called you and gave you my address, didn’t you?” I said with a grin.

He smiled and nodded, and I wrote him a check for $150.  “I’ll tell you a secret – it’s not just your building, but every one of ‘em built by this developer.  You’re all my clients sooner or later.”

Why They’re Worth the Money

Especially not for you.Some people might get angry that a professional breezed in, fixed something in seconds, and then charged a lot of money.  Not me – I was absolutely ecstatic because the plumber and the exterminator made it seem so effortless.  They knew exactly what the problem was, came armed with the solution, and didn’t waste anyone’s time.

Just because someone makes a task look easy doesn’t mean the task is easy for you and me.  I’ve struggled with even the most basic home repairs, and I just shake my head when a pro comes in with specialized knowledge.  Yes, I could have Googled for how to free a stuck disposal, but I didn’t have my disposal’s special wrench key.  Even if I’d have bought the key, I wouldn’t know how much force to use, and I would have given up long before it worked.  I would have gone on to other troubleshooting steps, and probably ended up replacing the whole disposal, thereby making a huge mess in the kitchen.  I’d have lost hours and probably some blood.

When I waltz into a SQL Server, SAN, or virtualization implementation that is just flat out busted, I know how the DBAs and sysadmins feel.  I feel that same way when my plumber comes in and fixes everything quickly.  I feel guilty, because as A Guy, I feel like I should know how to do this stuff.  I think that if I was being paid to be the Man of the House, I’d be fired.  I’m good enough to do the general stuff, but when something specialized breaks, I’m way out of my comfort zone.  I can struggle for days to fix it, or I can just call in a pro.  Sometimes money is the best way to solve these problems.

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  1. It’s not about the time spent, but the quality of service.

    I’d much rather pay an expert in one’s given field to complete my job correctly in 2 minutes, than someone less experienced (or just less good!) to do the same thing in 2 days.

    I’m inpatient, and want things done fast, efficiently, an effectively.

    That’s why I always see the same accountant every year.

  2. I had a similar situation with my 61″ Samsung TV. A Fan went out and nobody could tell me what model it was.

    The “expert”, who certainly didn’t seem like one, wanted to charge me $200+ to come over and replace the fan. He indicated he didn’t know the model either but would show up with several and switch it out.

    I did it myself and found the fan on the internet. Actual cost was $20. I took pics of it and intend to blog about it for others with the same problem.

    It cost me more time and was inconvenient but was ultimately rewarding because I learned something.

  3. I completed a full week assignment before lunch of the first day once in NYC. I actually lost money…

    People that work for someone else don’t understand the idea of costs involved behind the service provision.

    I am always blown away when I hear people who work for someone else lament that they can’t learn new skills because their boss won’t send them to training or purchase training materials for them.

    When a consultant shows up onsite, they have invested a LOT financially (both tangibly and intangibly) to bring you the solution they provide to your specific situation. If you could have gotten your problem solved cheaper, you would have (or should have). Prices are ultimately what the market will bear. Neither side of the equation in a transaction operates out of charity.

  4. “Just because someone makes a task look easy doesn’t mean the task is easy for you and me”–damn straight! I watch our devs give demos and they take less than a minute and each step just flows into the next. Then I try to do something using the same exact workflow and it ends up taking an hour, with many many curses and calls for help involved.
    I comfort myself with the fact that I am better at communicating in 140 characters than they are.

  5. Money… and a healthy dose of humility. What is best for my customer may involve me engaging someone better versed in an area than I am or simply a second set of eyes to see what I missed. If I’m not willing to make that call, then I am part of the problem.

    • This is true, and only leads to a decrease in profit and poor service provision.

      I was onsite at a client in NYC through a very well known global consultancy and the previous contractor was brought in at a well below market rate because the client demanded a lower price.

      That contractor had no clue what he was doing and literally walked off the job site without telling anyone and left the client angry and the global consultancy left with no option but to pay another contractor handsomely to complete the assignment – which thankfully, was me.

      :-)

  6. Nice punch dialogue Brent. Yes, money is the best way to solve the problems with specialized people.

  7. He fixed your disposal with an Allen wrench. You can pick up a whole set of varying sizes for about $10 at any hardware store.

    Just pop it into the fitting on the bottom and twist the crap out of it. I ended up taping the right one to the side of the disposal so I didn’t have to go rooting around in the garage every time I needed it.

    • Abe – generally speaking, when I “twist the crap out of” something around the house, I end up with a *much* bigger repair bill than $100. Those aren’t a safe set of instructions to give a guy. ;-)

  8. You know the real kicker about the “key” for the disposal?

    On every one that I’ve owned, it is simply an allen wrench (those 6 sided L shaped tools you typically get with furniture that you assemble yourself) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hex_key

    You just need the right size (the multi tool was probably a set of various size allen wrenches, or perhaps he jammed a flat head of the correct width in there if it was a variety of tools).

    It is one of those things you’ll only ever pay for once, then you know a $5 set of allen wrenches is a good thing to have around. Luckily for me, the first time I observed this was in a townhouse where the disposal was covered by the building maintenance, so I learned it for free.

  9. Brent,

    Great anecdotes on knowing when to DIY and when to call in a pro.

    It also reminds me of the story of Columbus and the egg:

    http://www.mainlesson.com/display.php?author=baldwin&book=thirty&story=columbus

    With the punch line: Sure it’s easy – once someone shows you how!

    Scott R.

  10. Good story! Thanks for sharing. I would only say, I agree that money can solve almost anything. In many cases, even if I can do something myself, measuring the time, toll and energy makes me rethink the value of a dollar.

    Recently, I moved, and even though we paid $800 dollars for movers – hey there was no way I’m moving the piano myself! – I still did the yeoman’s share of boxes, “special boxes” that would only be entrusted to me (I feel so special, even though I couldn’t walk for a day :O) I would’ve paid another few hundred to finish the job! But wifey thinks “Man of the House” must do everything by oneself.

    I actually thought I was pretty handy. Now I can show my wife this article ;P. “You see DBAs don’t have to know everything”

    Come on Brent, I’m sure you must have went in to a client with a PC problem, plugged it in, and charged a $1,000.00. LOL

  11. I tend to make similar decisions with EVERYTHING.

    For example, changing car oil is easy. However there are the extra trips to the store and back for the oil filter and disposal. Then the on-hand parts to do the job, like the pan to catch the oil. Oh, don’t forget the time, both driving extra for disposal reasons, and time to do the work.

    Even if I could do everything myself in 30 minutes, it is cheaper for me to let someone else do it for $20 or $30 while I sit in the waiting room on my iPad(tm) making more money than I’m spending.

    So it is always a balance between time vs money and trading time for money. Depending on how much a persons time is worth, tips the scale to outsource or DIY.

  12. Hey Brent,

    This is the reason I admire your blogs. Presentation and conveying the message irrespective of whether it is technical or non technical you are one of the best person to do. Thanks for nice blog and the story shated in Wiki pedia.

    Regards,
    Phani

  13. Very good post!! I can feel you pain and know exactly where you are coming from. I think many could relate as you do a job you become very proficent in that job and makes us new comers or lack of knowledge look silly. Glad you didn’t lose any fingers!!

  14. If you tolerated a few harmless insects, instead of wanting to destroy them, you could’ve saved 10 minutes and $150.

    Being so disconnected from nature can be expensive.

  15. fine!! I’ll take my bike in to the Honda shop and pay them to fix it, instead of spending hours upon hours of my own time tinkering with it!!

    good post!!!

  16. Great post. You pay them the big bucks because they are the experts and know what they are doing. :) I would rather save that time than mess it up even more and then have to call them up eventually.

  17. Great post. There really is something to be said for experts coming in and speeding the process along. Whenever I work with customers, I’m not looking to be embedded there forever. My thing is to help them get where they need to go, make sure they know what they need, and they can support themselves long term. I’m not looking to become an embedded leech. Whether I’m there for 8 hours or 8 weeks, my end goal is to ensure success. If I have to keep coming back to fix the same issue, I probably failed.

    Like you, my time is more valuable so like we help customers, I’ll have them do things like fix my car. Could I do it myself with some time invested learning it? I’m sure, but I’m also sure I’d miss a few things since I’m not an expert on it.

  18. These are all great posts. Now, to argue against myself in the previous post, sometimes it it worth it to spend a ton of amateur time to fix something rather than hire a pro.

    Spending a dollar to save a dime is foolish, and many people seem to do that. But at the same time, if I were out of work, or otherwise unable to bill for those ‘lost’ hours, then it is actually costing me a ton to hire someone else. In this case, it is expected that I spend 10h doing a 1h job because the 10h didn’t cost anything.

    Then again (one more flip side to flip), if the task is packing a parachute, I’m not going to do DIY even if I have 30h to watch youtube to see how others do it. Nope. Too important. My options would be: Spend countless years getting refined skills, hire a pro or DON’T JUMP. This, is actually how I see DBA tasks.

    So a balance is needed. So when should you hire a pro? ‘It depends’.

  19. IMHO, money can be made, but once time is passed it’s gone forever. However, there’ll be always rewards after hacking, breaking something and make it work.

    I guess it’s like opportunity cost. thanks for the post.

  20. Not sure your $1K/hr exterminator is really worth it. He might be an expert in killing bugs, but when he stepped out into offering advice about caulk I think he messed up. Anyone who has done DIY caulking has probably learned the hard way that caulk doesn’t stick to already-cured caulk. The failing old caulk will generally cause the fresh stuff to fail as well, and not provide the bug-proof seal you’re looking for.
    http://askville.amazon.com/caulk/AnswerViewer.do?requestId=55596636

    I guess the lesson here is not to ask your plumber how to rewire your bathroom. He might know a little about electrical codes in the bathroom, but ultimately the electrician is going to do the job right.

  21. 1) Thanks for this post, it was a real help this morning when my garbage disposal jammed. Without it I’d have completely forgotten about that way of fixing them or that I’ve got about a dozen of those wrenches sitting around collecting rust.

    2) I’ve always maintained that a true expert is someone who makes a task look like you could do it, even when you know you really couldn’t.

  22. Pingback: Administradores de banco de dados são “Encanadores” | Luis Gustavo Bugallo

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