Every Consultant Needs Three Things

Tired of workin’ for the man? Want to live the glamorous life of jet setting around from place to place, working on really challenging problems, and eating at foodie restaurants?  You just need three things.

1. A price.

Right now, people probably don’t put a value on your time.  You can’t exactly put up an hourly rate sign, but you can start to put in some gentle barriers to make sure people respect the worth of your time.

When I was a DBA and people walked into my cube asking me to do something, I pulled up my task list in RememberTheMilk.com.  The cool thing about RTM is that it even works on mobile devices, so I can access the exact same task list from anywhere.  I would show them the list and say:

“Here’s what I’m working on right now.  If I push these aside, see the names next to each request?  That’s the person who I’ve promised it to, and here’s the dates when they need it by.  Can you run interference for me and get them to delay the dates on theirs?”

Just that it's really, really good food.
Jeremiah and Kendra will work for food.

It worked magic – people suddenly understood that there was a cost to my time.  Often, they were even completely willing to pay that cost.  They’d put skin in the game by going to these other executives and bargaining for my time, and they’d be forced to use political favors in order to get what they wanted.  Even though I didn’t profit directly, there was still a new cost to my time, and I wasn’t the one paying the cost.  I stopped acting as the go-between – I left it up to the consumer to pay for my time.

Later on, I got gutsier with meeting invites I received, too.  I’d reply back (without accepting the invite) and say:

There’s not an agenda attached to this meeting invite.  Can you give me a quick rundown of the decisions that we need to make during this meeting?  I’d like to make sure I come prepared, and I might be able to get the work done even earlier.  If you’re not sure what will be discussed, I’ll need to skip the meeting – I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire right now.

When I did get the meeting agenda, I busted my hump to do whatever was required ahead of time, and I’d send it to the meeting holder and copy all of the attendees.  My goal was to give them whatever they wanted without actually having the meeting.  It worked wonders.

But if I didn’t get the answer I needed, I didn’t attend the meeting.  If somebody fired off an email to my boss and said, “Dammit, Brent’s presence is urgently required,” I had my boss trained well enough to ask, “For what deliverable?  He’s really busy.”

2. A service.

In the beginning of my IT career, my service offering was “fixer.”  When something expensive and technical was going to hell in a handbasket, I wanted to be the first number on everybody’s speed dial.  I specialized in reverse-engineering stuff I’d never seen before and figure out the root cause.

That worked great as a full time employee of small to midsize companies, but it doesn’t work for consulting.  To understand why, you have to know the difference between consultants and contractors.  Consultants advise you on what to do, and contractors do what you tell ’em.  If you’re a great fix-everything guy, you end up as a contractor there for the long term.  (There’s nothing wrong with contracting – but remember, this post is about consulting.)

No dice. Smart negotiator.
We tried to pay Jes with food and jazz hands, but…

Over time, I ended up specializing in turning around SQL Servers in bad shape.  If you had a SQL Server problem that nobody else could solve, I was your Winston Wolf.  I got even more specialized and focused on SQL Servers that used storage area networks (SANs) or VMware.  It’s good to have a generalist background, but if you focus your service really tightly, you can do an amazing job at that service.  This is especially true when you specialize in an expensive technology.  If you’re having SQL Server CPU usage problems on a 40-core server, and Enterprise Edition costs $7,000 per core, then my services look pretty darned cheap.

Often, I’m brought into shops where a few local generalist consultants have struggled with a problem for months.  I parachute in, use a few slick proprietary scripts and tools, and get right to the root of the problem in hours.  I’m able to do that because I just specialize on one product (SQL Server) and I know that product forwards and backwards.  It’s the same reason your general practitioner refers you to a specialist doctor when you’ve got ear/nose/throat or back problems – even though it’s all just the body, there’s specialized skills for different parts of it.

I don’t wanna fix the printer.  I wanna be the one guy who gets called in when there’s a specialized SQL Server problem – and that’s where the final piece comes together.

3. A reputation.

When people are having a problem, and your skills are the answer, you want them to immediately say to themselves, “Man, there’s only one guy we need to call, and I know exactly who he is.”  It takes a long, long time to build up that reputation.  If you don’t have it, you have to rely on advertising and marketing, and then you’re in competition with a big pile of other consultants who are doing the exact same thing.

She's a bit of a biter.
Ernie works for food, but she has the wrong kind of reputation.

You have to start building your reputation right now – and I don’t mean by blogging, I mean by your own coworkers.  When you walk into a meeting, are they excited to see you?  Do other departments call and ask for you by name?  Do they say, “We gotta get so-and-so in here because I just know she’ll take care of this once and for all.”

You can’t get this reputation by being a jerk.  You can’t be the one who has all kinds of rules and always says “NO!”  You have to understand the difference between positive and negative reinforcement, and you’ve gotta use the former way more than you use the latter.

Every coworker and manager you have – they’re your test clients.  Right now, they’re not paying anything at all for your services.  Use them as your test market by becoming an internal company consultant for SQL Server.  If you can get raving fans inside your company, you’ve got a chance at becoming a consultant.

Probably the best gauge of future consultancy success is to ask yourself, “If I quit this job tomorrow, and I offered my former users a contract with a price and a service, would they make budget room for me?”  Don’t think of asking your manager, because one of your manager’s jobs is to make you feel welcome and loved no matter how bad your personal skills are.  Think about the users.  They’ve got real budgets, real business needs, and real feelings that they’ve probably expressed to you.  If they’d gladly – excitedly – hand you their budget money, then you’re ready to take a shot.

If not, go buy the book Secrets of Consulting: A Guide to Giving and Getting Advice Successfully (or the Kindle version).

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10 Comments. Leave new

  • Well said, especially the first point about your time.

    For me, this really hit home when I setup my own personal Kanban board at work. I had a couple of long term projects, numerous bug fixes, and small projects that I was consistently being called in to work on, so setting up the board helped me, and helped my supervisor and director.

    When they’d walk into my cube, they could easily see what I was working on, plus it gave me the leverage to tell them “this is what you have me working on now, what can I drop off the active work list in order to make it happen”.

    I also wound up creating a “fire” column on my board for when that critical crash for that critical department occurred. Nothing could trump that without director approval, and it helped in a few situations. 8^D

  • Do you think its important to be a generalist first to be a great specialist, and for how long? Do you think there is value in doing some stretch work (even in a classroom or hobby setting) once you specialize?

    We’ve all seen the guy that gets stuck in one technology and doesn’t evolve. That’s my big fear with specializing. Combine that with me being happy as an employee, I think I’m ok personally with being the “fixer” at the moment.

    But on another level, I’m actively trying to generalize. I have a Windows Internals Study Group I started to go through Mark Russinovich’s book. I have no plans whatsoever on switching careers to writing hardware drivers, or infosec. However, the knowledge is useful to what I do in my day job. Procmon, the dependency walker profiler or even WinDbg are great troubleshooting tools of last resort when your product simply doesn’t give you a useful error message .in through its normal mechanisms is good.

    • I don’t think it’s important one way or another – for me, for the longest time, I had one goal: to be the best damn DBA I could be. Doing that meant learning everything involved with SQL Server – storage, virtualization, development, data modeling, etc. To some extent, I’m a generalist because I work with a lot of tools, but it’s all with one aim in mind.

  • Justin,

    I’m a believer in taking stock of your own strengths, your personality traits and your culture. We Asians are known for being generalists because it is part of our culture. The Japanese, for example, train their executives to be generalists to understand the business in the grand scheme of things. Americans are very good specialists because it is part of their culture. Understanding who you are is key to deciding between the options. And operating according to your own strengths makes it easier to focus.

    You are absolutely right about those specialists who don’t want to evolve. That’s a whole different story altogether. Whether you’re a generalist or a specialist, you need to constantly evolve because the world is constantly changing. Not evolving means risking extinction.

  • Great post Brent, and it seems my favorite posts are from the Consulting genre even though I work for “the man” (haha). The reputation section was great on how others perceive your value, and the book looks like a good read so I ordered it.

  • I downloaded the book and started reading it during my lunch break. I like how it makes you rethink how you intereact with people.

  • Great post Brent, I have a few good consulting books that I have a read over the years. I have seen this one on Amazon but I haven’t bought it yet. Maybe I’ll treat myself.

  • Great advice !!!

  • I see Mr. Weinberg has written a successor to the book you cited above.
    I’ll be interested in looking at it after I get through the first book as the previews offered look inviting. Not sure you or any of the other readers are aware of the second volume. It seems to have been published some 15 years later. Judging by the Amazon reviews, it’s either a bit more evolved or a step back.


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