mPulse

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Career Reform: Selling your Way Out of the Paper Bag

One of the things that all consultants have to accept is that selling is a part of the territory. Doesn't matter if you are a solopreneur or an associate consultant in 10,000 person firm, selling is an everyday occurrence.

Sounds like a cliché, but it's true. Everything a consultant does or says is part of their ongoing selling process. Skills and experience must constantly be sold to customers.

It's hard to sell, if you stop and think about it. You have to convince people, strangers, that you or your firm have the skills to solve the problem that the customer has identified, and to demonstrate that you can identify and solve problems that the customer may not know they have.

How do you do it? There is no easy answer. My experience is that selling customers is often not about the products or services themselves, but about selling the value and the solutions that your experience brings to the equation on top of the products or services. Selling is about believing that what you can do for the customer is beyond what they could achieve themselves, but which will make them far more successful than they would be on their own.

Selling Consulting services requires self-confidence, and a willingness to leave your ego at the door. What the customer thinks they need, and what they position with you or the sales team that they have been working with, are often only their tactical, short-term needs. Customers often are unwilling to accept the solution they really need. Sometimes, the consultant has to accept starting with the partial solution sale to get the customer to accept the larger problem.

Leaving your ego at the door makes accepting the initial compromise easier to accept. Good consultants see the short-term, tactical project as the way in. But if that's all that you are able to sell, then you may need to reflect on how you are positioning yourself.

Selling consulting is a process that is continuous, even with customers that you are already working with. Being a consultant means that you must always listen, observe, and sell. Reputation, relationships, and experience/skills only get you so far. Selling it, be it yourself or the solution the customer really needs, is what takes you the next step.

How do you sell consulting services? How do you sell yourself as a consultant?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Career Reform - From Analyst to Consultant

For many years my professional title has included the word "consultant", and with it the gravitas that comes with being able to use that term. In the cold, hard light of my early-40s, in all honesty I have say that I was not a consultant for most of that time: I was an analyst.

Analyst versus consultant. What's the difference?

In black and white terms, an analyst is a tactical consultant, with a specific set of skills and knowledge that can be used to solve a particular problem. And a consultant is...?

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. Inigo Montoya


Consultant is over-used and mis-used word. All the people I know who call themselves consultants are actually analysts, contractors, or skilled professionals who call themselves consultants for lack of a better term to describe what they do to pay the bills, and because putting Gun For Hire on a business card tends to attract the wrong clientele.

On the other end of the spectrum, consultant is more than a term to describe a person who works in a large consultancy or professional services firm (or as, Andrea Mulligan is working through in public, a professional service practice in a software or SaaS firm). A consultant comes to a customer with a set of skills that cannot be had just anywhere, be it in a programming language, GAAP restructuring, or, in my case, Web performance measurement and load testing.

A true consultant must be more than a skilled analysts who has chosen the freedom of working outside large companies, leaping from challenge to challenge. A consultant brings years of experience and a view of the larger world with them. In fact, many of the best consultants can't do what their analysts do for them (or maybe the consultant's skills are just too rusty) on a daily basis.

Analysts solve a specific problem. Consultants ensure that the problem never happens again.

Consultants put the problem that analysts solve into context.

For more than a decade, I have been an analyst, solving whatever thorny riddle is put in front of me using whatever tools and skills I could cobble together. Analysts don't have a lifetime career ahead of them, as their skill-set falls out of favor or is replaced by younger, more talented analysts.

Consultants take what they have learned during their analyst/apprentice days and convert that into a strategic view. Not simply How do we solve this problem? but Is this the right problem to solve? or How did we get to the point where we needed to solve this problem?

And, most importantly, Is the solution we're developing flexible enough to adapt to solve and prevent problems we can't even foresee now?

It's hard for someone like me who revels in solving the problems no one else can to let go and realize that the problem isn't everything. To realize that there are people out there who can do what I do as well as or better than I can.

Letting go of one thing means that you have to have something else to grab onto. I do not relish Wily Coyote moments: looking down to see the fall that's about to come.

So, at 42, I am stepping back to embrace a very new and different career question: What does it really mean to be a strong consultant?

It's not easy to shift gears, and drop into the career lane that I had avoided for so long, feeling it a trap. I now know that to survive and flourish, I have to understand how the business works, how practice/company goals are set and met, how to effectively sell professional service (something I am awful at a lot of the time), and how to position professional services within the SaaS model.

It is a somewhat disheartening realization that the 10 years I spent fighting becoming a strong consultant now have to be made up in a very short amount of time, but the games everyone remembers are those that are won from behind in overtime.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Smartphones: On Moving Back To Blackberry

A couple of weeks ago, I moved my mobile life back to a Blackberry Bold 9700 from T-Mobile after being on a Dash 3G  for the last 6 months.

It's like breathing air again.

Admittedly, I am not the typical modern smartphone user. I prefer a full keyboard over a touchscreen, and I still operate in a mainly text-based world. So the Blackberry is exactly what I need to get through my day. I get my work email fast, the GMail app is fantastic, and UMA is really an astounding thing.

When you compare the Bold 9700 to its predecessor in my life, it is like moving from a broken Windows 3.11 486DX to a new MacBook Pro. WinMo 6.5 is not a modern mobile platform and on the Dash 3G, it only gets worse.

It's not T-Mobile's fault that they have the Dash 3G. But I am glad it's not with me anymore.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Complexity of Web Performance

Helping a colleague this week, we uncovered some odd behavior with a site whose performance he was analyzing. Upon first glance, it was clear that this site had a performance issue - they had HTTP persistence disabled. Immediate red flag in the areas of network overhead and geographic latency.

Further digging exposed something more sinister. It seems that HTTP persistence was only disabled for browsers with MSIE in the user-agent string. Even if the user-agent string was just MSIE, HTTP persistence was off.

The customer was very forthcoming and sent us their standard httpd.conf file. This showed no sign of the standard (and frustrating) global disabling of persistence for Internet Explorer.

Finally, it came to us. The customer had provided a simple network diagram, and there, just before packets hit the Internet, was a Layer 7 firewall. How did we know the Layer 7 firewall was the likely cause? Because this device was also the one that provided compression for the content going out to customers.

A Layer 7 firewall happily rewrites HTTP headers to reflect the nature of the compressed content (content-length or transfer-encoding: chunked) and to add the gzip flag (accept-encoding:gzip). Since this device was already doing this, it was pretty clear to us that it also had a rule that disabled HTTP persistence for anything with MSIE in the user-agent string.

This was a fine example of the complexity of the modern Web application infrastructure. In effect, there were two groups with different ideas of how Internet Explorer should be handled at the network layer, and neither of them seems to have talked to the other.

When you have a Web performance problem, indulge in a thought experiment. Create an imaginary incoming Web request and try to see if you can follow it through all the systems it touches on your system. Put it on a whiteboard, a mindmap, whatever works.

Then invite the system architects and network engineers in and get them to fill in the gaps.

No doubt that will lead to the "ah ha!" moment. If nothing else, it's a good excuse to put pizza on the company card. But I have no doubt that you will walk away with a better understanding of your systems, which will make it easier for you to talk to all the people responsible for keeping your systems running.

TAKEAWAY: Just because the part of the Web application you work on is working fine, it may be affected by other components that are not tuned or configured for performance. Get to know the entire application at a high level.