Consulting Lines: “Would you mind driving?”

We nicknamed one of our favorite project managers “The Bus Driver.”  She didn’t throw people under the bus herself, but she ran over many a reputation.  If you didn’t know what you were doing, you didn’t want to be anywhere near her bus route, because she wasn’t hitting the brakes on her project for any reason whatsoever.  I loved her to death because she was predictable, and I knew what I was doing.

Like a Bad Gantt Chart
Like a Bad Gantt Chart

If somebody I didn’t like wanted to implement a bad database solution on one of The Bus Driver’s projects, I was more than happy to hand them a set of car keys and point them toward her bus route. This week in my Consulting Lines series, I’m sharing that technique.

The Situation: Second-Guessing Micro-Managers

I’m blessed to be at a point in my life where people don’t usually stand over my shoulder and bark orders, but every now and then, it still happens.  It happened a whole lot more when I was a production DBA, though, and one technique has served me well through the years.

Sometimes people read a magazine article or a blog post about something, and they bring it up as an absolute authority – even though they’ve never actually done it themselves.  In the midst of a heated discussion about a problem, they’ll whip out the buzzword and expect you to make the magic happen.  This doesn’t just happen with managers, either – I’ve had developers throw SQL Server features at me as if they’re as easy as flipping a switch, and expect me to implement crazy things instantly.

The conversation goes something like:

Me: “We can’t get security auditing working on the new cluster.  I’ve tried every trick I know, and I’m fresh out.”

Them: “All you have to do is implement Gatekeeper.”

Me: “Gatekeeper never works right on clusters.  It crashes whenever there’s a node failover.”

Did you hear something?
Did you hear something?

Them: “It works fine – you just have to close the back door.  Angela Bennett blogs about it all the time.”

Me: “OK, would you mind driving?”

What That Line Does

Like the first line in my Consulting Lines series, this line focuses attention back on the person asking for the work.  It doesn’t directly say they don’t know what they’re talking about, but at the same time, it puts the onus on them to deliver the goods.  This line isn’t just about taking their word for the solution – it’s about them doing the work.  If they believe so much in that solution, then they should be able to perform it themselves.

One warning about this line: it works best when delivered in front of a group with everybody’s manager listening in (or The Bus Driver.)  If you let someone else drive, implement a change, and then it doesn’t work, you’re the one who’s responsible.  You have to make sure everybody in your group understands that the other guy’s in charge of what’s about to happen – be it a good result or a bad result.  Don’t deliver this line as if you’re about to throw somebody under the bus, but rather deliver it in the style of a student who’s eager to learn.  (You *are* eager to learn, aren’t you?)

This line keeps me humble because the other person might indeed know what they’re talking about.  In consulting, I’m forced to constantly work with complete strangers, and I have no idea what their real skill level is.  I’m really bad at judging people, so I try to give everybody the maximum credit until proven otherwise.  I might think there’s no way to get Gatekeeper working, but maybe – just maybe – I’m wrong and they’re right.  This line finds out the real answer.

Back up and try it again.
Back up and try it again.

Career-limiting versions of this line include:

  • “Put up or shut up.”
  • “No way am I gonna sign my name on a solution like that.”
  • “If you say so.”

What Happens Next: The Easy Way

Them: “What do you mean?”

Me: “It sounds like you’re on to something, and that you’ve done it before.  Would you mind driving the keyboard and mouse, and I’ll watch?  I could really stand to learn how that works.”

Them: “Uh, I’ve never done it.  I’ve just read blogs about it.  I wouldn’t really be comfortable driving.”

Me: “Ah, okay – that makes two of us!”

And then shut up.  Don’t rub it in, just identify yourself with the other guy and put yourself on his team.  He can’t fight as easily when you put yourself on his level.  If you’re delivering this line in front of a group, now’s the chance for the manager to step in and bring things back to your original question.

What Happens Next: The Hard Way

We need to work on our conflict resolution.
We need to work on our conflict resolution.

This line can produce some explosive results, but in the right scenario, that’s actually a good thing.  If the other guy reacts in an angry, confrontational way, channel your inner Columbo.  The other guy believes they know more than you do, and you want to paint them as the solution, not the problem.

Them: “Why would I drive?  That’s not my job – it’s yours.”

Me: “<sigh> Yeah, and I’ve tried that several times and I just can’t make it work.  I know you’ve gotta be really busy, but I could really use your help here.  Do you have any friends we can bring in who’ve done this?”

Them: “No!  Don’t you?”

Me: “Yeah, I’m really active in the local user group, and I’ve pinged my friends who do this stuff, and they all said the same thing – Gatekeeper is a mess on clusters.  If you can make it work, it’d save us from calling in a consultant.”

Turn to the manager and shrug.  At this point, we’ve established that:

  • The Other Guy doesn’t know anybody else he can bring in to do it.
  • Your local free contacts can’t do it.
  • The Other Guy implies that he can do it, but he doesn’t have enough time.
  • There’s only one other solution – calling in a consultant.  (That might not even be true, but by throwing it into the last sentence, you set it up as the default solution.)

Ideally, the manager will challenge The Other Guy on his solution, and The Other Guy will back out somehow.  (Hey, he could have backed out easier earlier, but that’s his problem.)  Then you’ll get the help you want.

Oh, And About The Bus Driver

After working with The Bus Driver on a couple of projects, she figured out my trick.  She’d seen me graciously give the car keys to drunken idiots, and to geniuses.  She knew I recognized the limits of my own skills, and that I wasn’t necessarily the best judge of who should be driving.  She, on the other hand, had fantastic judgment skills about who was bluffing and who was good, so she started participating in my little trick.

When someone called me out on a project task and I suggested they should drive, she started jumping in right then and there.  If she thought the other person was capable, she’d nod at me, and she’d sweet-talk them into driving.  If she thought the other person was a blowhard who might endanger her bus project, she’d short-circuit the conversation right there.

“Shut up.  We’re doing it Brent’s way.  On to the next task.”

More of My Favorite Consulting Lines

Previous Post
Snowpocalypse Webcams in Chicago (Now offline)
Next Post
How to Ask Your Boss for Training Money

17 Comments. Leave new

  • Love the first picture. DC area represent!

    Seriously though, the safest thing to do on buses around here are to not get on them. Or walk near them.

    I really like this consulting line. I wish I had people to use it on here.

  • Great post. My take away from this is that whatever is going on, don’t take it personally and don’t let ego get in the way. There is another way to resolve the conflict.

    Situations like this have always frustrated me, because normally I do take it as an affront when someone who I’m pretty sure doesn’t have a solution decides to present an idea they personally have never implemented. This post gives me options on a better way to handle the situation. And it’s proof that this doesn’t just happen to me! =)

  • Nice!

    That art of allowing someone to save face is slowly fading away in our culture. It’s a shame too.

  • Brent,
    Love the concept, but most of the DBA’s I work with know their areas, so I’m usually getting that type of line from a developer, and our change management separation means I can’t hand them the keys literally. Have you done this from a project perspective as well as the physical changes, and what did you have to do differently?

    • Yep, I’ve done this from a project perspective, and the change management separation usually works in your favor. You have to look like the good guy – you have to say, “*I* want to hand you the keys. I’m not the problem here – we need to get the change management people involved.” Then it turns into a conversation between the developers and change management people. Let the developers explain their position, and then you say, “I’m not comfortable doing that myself.” There’s times change management processes don’t work, and there’s times they can be the bad guy for you. You have to learn to play good cop bad cop. 😀

  • Thanks for this series, Brent. One thing I love about your blog is that you don’t just cover the technical details of SQL Server. You give advice on how to further your career and personal development. Dealing with people is something most techies aren’t good with – hell, it’s why I got into computers in the first place! – so stuff like this helps immensely.

  • Curious as to where you would put this version of the line:
    “I’m from Missouri and you’ve got to show me”
    Career limiting or not?
    I’d put it somewhere in the middle
    … and I’d modify it to just “show me” not being from Missouri 🙂

    • Michael – ooo, tough question there. I would go with career-limiting, because unless you put exactly the right tone of voice into it, it comes across as disbelieving. The show-me thing usually reads as “prove it,” and that’s more confrontational.

  • Ameena Lalani
    February 2, 2011 7:13 pm

    Your advice hit the nail squarely. I am a DBA and although I am not in consulting business, I encounter similar issues at my work. Actually something happened today. It is little bit different topic and maybe you have covered it in one of your other consulting blogs.
    I wanted our IT guy to give us monthly report of what database backups made it to tape successfully. He was like I work with the company 10 years and nobody has ever asked to do this and if I do it for your group I have to do it for others. You have no idea I am by myself and have to manage 3 data centers and 250+ servers etc etc. I said okay this is the report that my manager likes to see and consider it a request from him. He said no way I cannot do it, I have my other priorities. I said you are not giving me any other options so I have to escalate. (I am with the company only 2 months). He says I can do it as a favor this time but you have to remember that you owe me one. I said if this is not part of your job and if you are not getting paid to do this than let me know and I can talk to my manager and maybe he can talk to your manager. In short, he produced the report and it only took him 10 minutes but the conversation on IM took almost an hour. I briefly described this to my manager (who is with company also 10 years) and he said that guy is difficult to handle and that he can’t believe that I achieved the result so quickly. So the lesson here for me is, sometimes not knowing personality helps you in negotiation. I like to know if you have to deal with something like this and how you did it?

    • Ameena – that’s great, I’m glad you got a successful result out of that. I have had to deal with things like this, and it’s beyond what I can address in a comment, but I’ll think about adding it to a future Consulting Lines post. Thanks!

  • Brent,
    Thanks for this series of blog posts, they are great.
    The only problem is that you keep giving away all of the secrets and they will stop being as effective.

  • I used this trick today – it works very nicely! Thanks for sharing.

  • HAHA,….Classic I tell you!!!!

  • make gantt chart online
    September 10, 2018 10:53 am

    Hi, it’s a nice website there. Thanks for this info


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.