Sunday, July 29, 2007

Working Conditions that Prevent Consultant Misery

In my workshops, I always set aside time for consulting with participants on any situation they choose. In a recent Problem Solving Leadership workshop, I spent some of this time with Celia, a programmer working as a consultant/contractor. Because she questioned some of the company's business practices, Celia was deeply troubled by the implications of her latest contract offer. "What they want me to do for them will affect the lives of thousands or millions of people," she told me.

"That's not unusual," I said. "It's the nature of networked information systems."

"But my programming is invisible to them, and most of their customers won't know what's being done to them by the system–and that it's being done by me. That's too much power for me," she complained. "What can I do about it?"

Celia wasn't willing to accept those meaningless standard explanations: “That’s the way the computer must do it,” or the even more insidious, “That’s the way things are.”

I reminded her that some consultants in her situation salve their conscience by sabotaging their client's information systems in small ways. In many cases, it’s difficult to tell whether this is an conscious or unconscious reaction to their client's questionable practices. I've seen cases where I didn't doubt the subversion was conscious, but Celia wasn't interested in sabotage. "It's not in my nature," she said.

I then explained that at least she wasn't alone. Many consultants have complained to me that their current assignment holds no meaning. They don’t know what is being done with their work, or they do know and don’t approve. Their response is to stay on the job, draw the fee, and badmouth their client at every safe opportunity. Again, Celia said this wasn't her way.

I know lots of consultants like Celia, consultants who feel an enormous responsibility to the people whose lives will be impacted by their work. These people ask me, as did Celia, "If I don’t believe in what my client is doing, or I don’t understand it, then why should I be I working there? To draw a fat fee? If so, what does that make me?"

I offered Celia a set of principles I've always used when taking a new assignment, principles that have kept me out of certain kinds of troubles for many years:

1. I will not work for an organization whose goals are not consonant with my own beliefs.

2. I will not work on projects whose goals I do not understand, or cannot agree with.

3. Before becoming part of a project, I will first obtain agreement on what percentage of my time I can (and must) spend on continuing professional development, and what resources will be provided me for that purpose.

4. I will not work under measurement schemes that pit one person’s performance against another’s. Rather, I will cooperate totally to help others in the project achieve their full potential, as I expect them to help me do.

5. I will not accept work without understanding what is to be done, and why, nor will I pass work to others without their similar understanding.

6. All my work will always be open and available for critical comments (circumscribed, as appropriate, by real security considerations); and I will always stand ready to review the work of others in exchange for them returning the reviewing service to me on my work.

7. As long as the above conditions are met, I will devote myself in the utmost to achieving the goals of my project and the organization that has retained my services.

Sometimes, a manager trying to hire me is outraged at one of these conditions. That's unfortunate, but it's a sure indication of trouble later, if I make the mistake of accepting that assignment.

Over the years, I’ve found that consultants who ask these questions and set those conditions don’t wind up in assignments that make them miserable. Sometimes, when they ask them honestly, they leave their present position for somewhere else that makes them happier, even at a lower fee.

8 comments:

Dwayne said...

I am curious about number 3. Maybe I misunderstood, but if I am hiring you as a consultant, I expect you to do professional development before and after the consulting task. Not while I am paying you for consulting.

Please help me understand.

Gerald M. Weinberg said...

Dwayne,
Number 3 reads: "3. Before becoming part of a project, I will first obtain agreement on what percentage of my time I can (and must) spend on continuing professional development, and what resources will be provided me for that purpose."

The important part of this rule is not what you offer, but how clear you are on what you offer, or don't offer. If you tell me that you expect to provide nothing, then that is clear, and I can factor it into my decision. And price.

Maybe some examples will help, from before I had this rule:

- I needed a week's break to take a class. I was paying for the class, and didn't expect the client to pay, but they expected me to work with them continously, with no break for my own professional development. The class was offered only once a year, so if I missed it, I'd have to wait another year. I should have had a clear agreement in advance that I would be taking time off from their assignment for this and other classes.

- Another client expected me to learn a new and rather rare computer language. They knew in advance that I didn't know this language (virtually nobody did outside their organization), and they expected me to take a two-week class they were offering. That was okay, except they expected me to take the class on my own time and not bill them for it. This should have been clarified up front as part of the agreement.

Does that help?

Dwayne said...

Ah, okay, I understand much better now. Thank you. Those are some things I had not considered.

BrianSJ said...

The value of 'no bid' is greatly underestimated. Also, the only way you know you have a strategy is by knowing what you won't do. This is a good set of criteria for turning down work.

Computer Consulting Kit said...

One of the great things about going into business for yourself as a computer consultant is never having to settle for bad treatment from “bosses,” low pay, bad working environments and other things that can unfortunately become part of working for someone else. Freedom of choice is definitely one of the major reasons starting your own IT services business is so alluring.
I talk to a lot of people in the computer consulting industry about how to make the transition from a full-time job without losing too much sleep, your family and friends, other relationships, etc. (which can be hard to do for someone ambitiously going out to start something from scratch!). To that effect, I offer a lot of tips for IT consultants and technology professionals through my own Computer Consultants Secrets Blog. Thanks for doing the same!

Radha said...

I have a question about number 1. How easy/difficult is it to figure out the goals of an organization? Have you had cases where you accepted an assignment and realized that there were "gaps" between current reality and the goals stated at the start.

Love your books, BTW!

Radha Mukkai

Gerald M. Weinberg said...

Radha asked: How easy/difficult is it to figure out the goals of an organization? Have you had cases where you accepted an assignment and realized that there were "gaps" between current reality and the goals stated at the start?

Love your books, BTW!


First of all, thank you for telling me that you love my books. You warm my author heart.

All right, number 1 reads:

"1. I will not work for an organization whose goals are not consonant with my own beliefs."

Yes, I have misread an organization's goals, and also had the experience of an organization changing goals in midstream. It's always possible for these things to happen, so I'm always ready to shake hands and leave an assignment as soon as I realize their goals and mine are not compatible.

Over the years, I've grown better at assessing an organization's true goals (which are not always the same as their espoused goals), but after half a century, I'm still not perfect at it.

For one thing, an organization and its people often have many goals, and quite often some of the goals are incompatible with one another. So, I may find myself working at cross purposes with some of the people, while helping others. In those cases, I try to support the goals I believe in and steer away from the others. It's not easy.

Radha said...

Thank you!