Dan Needles: Consulting – The Good, the bad, the ugly

Inside Look Comments (0)


Dan NeedlesLife isn’t fair.

I think this reality was as daunting to me then as it is to my teenager today. As a young consultant do we ever work less than a 70 hour week? No, because the professional services manager doesn’t want to bother the sales team with a change order to extended the scope of work.  And as a young consultant we have no clue that the process even exists. At this stage of our career, life is seen through a younger and much greener lens and the ignorance of youth makes us satisfied to be an enabler/mediator in the drama triangle. In that triangle we label all sales folk as perpetrators of evil, all customers as victims, and of course we are the shameless rescuer – not realizing it is us that keeps the drama triangle or rather wheel spinning and our customer re-victimized.

So we happily spend our late Saturday night polishing a configuration file and adding an Appendix to a document that no one will ever read. But we are content in “being right” because there is an off change that someday someone as anal and conscientious as us may take a gander instead of charging the customer to forklift remove and replace.

Of course that never happens. In the end, the reality is we are no better than the bright and cheery voice answering the phone when we get transferred to an offshore support center. Like them, our role is about compliance, not doing anything useful, much less doing the right thing. But that is for the post series – Secret Conspiracies and Jedi Mind Tricks that allows you to create your own headless conspiracy and take over the world.

One day early in my career broke me from my self-righteous trance and taught me that presentation (i.e. sales) cannot be ignored especially as a consultant. I remember a specific event. That event produced the novel TERMINAL CONNECTION that is available for free download May 8th-9th.

The dot com boom made me do it – that and youth. At least that is what I tell myself now. Over a decade ago, chased by greed and ambition, I jumped blindly like a lemming from C programming into Network consulting.

Young and naïve, I landed my first gig under a director of a government agency. He asked for an honest appraisal of his technical support group. Determined to make a strong impression, I burned a 70 hour week to find the answer: a series of layoffs had decimated their client base. Now his group only supported their own equipment. Elated, I told the director that his people could be redistributed with no impact to the agency. In return the director delivered my first lesson. Not only was my gig terminated, but the entire contract, all ten consultants, were let go.

I was crushed. Though obvious now, I couldn’t see my mistake. Luckily, I worked in the people’s republic of California at the time and not my adopted state of Texas or my most recent home of Washington. My consulting firm couldn’t lay me off. Instead they banished me to the wastelands of the Bay Area – a two hundred mile commute. I was told to baby sit a quiet NOC during the graveyard shift.

Whispers in the hall gave 8 to 1 odds that I would quit by Friday. (And yes money did change hands – you know who you are 😉 But my firm made a strategic mistake. They forgot how little they paid me as an exploited, young and naïve consultant. The expense for one day’s commute miles was $65 tax free dollars or something like $2,000 California taxed dollars. I didn’t give up. I worked harder. The client moved me to the day shift.

My resurrection caught the attention of Mr. Damiano. Twenty years my senior, Damiano had a cult like following at the consulting firm. Over coffee he asked, “Why didn’t you just quit?”

“The miles,” I said.

His seasoned nose caught my drift immediately. His eyes lit up. “Let their trust grow before you break it,” he advised before walking off.

What did that mean? I didn’t know that I had entered the first phase of God mode – the client knew I was good and trusted me to do it. Despite my ignorance, the conversation left me feeling sick, like the after affects of eating a hotdog. I swallowed hard and pushed the discussion out of my thoughts and the slimy film into my stomach.

I won the clients praise through hard work and long hours. Mr. Damiano would visit my desk periodically and offer advice, “Don’t work so hard. Appearance is more important than substance.” Only later did I understand these truths.

On my final day he lingered a bit longer than usual. “What have you learned?”

As it happened, I was working on my final status report. I scanned it and rambled off a dozen approaches and tools I used to fix various issues.

He laughed. “Parlor tricks.”

I smiled politely.

Damiano frowned. “You did three things: wait, reboot, and condemn issues to the help desk.”

Like my first break up, his words tore through me. I looked over my status report. The approaches were ingenious, the insights brilliant. Yet in most cases the problems disappeared on their own accord. For almost everything else, irrespective of the complex causes I discovered, the solution was to restart a service or reboot a server. The help desk got the remaining unsolved issues, never to be heard from again.

My phone rang. It was Kenneth. It was time for my exit interview. I didn’t bother printing out the status report. In Kenneth’s office, Mr. Damiano was already there. I relayed Mr. Damiano’s three golden rules to Kenneth and suggested that I stay a week to train his staff.

Kenneth doubled over laughing. Mr. Damiano, always the professional, mimicked him.

“I’m serious,” I said.

Mr. Damiano winked at me. “Sure you are.”

Kenneth extended a hand across his desk. “The truth is I don’t know what you do. I only know that I need to keep you another six months.”

Just like that, my contract was extended. I had entered the second phase of God mode and back into the realm of distrust. The customer didn’t even know what I did anymore, but they knew they needed me and as a result didn’t trust me to leave.

I waited until Kenneth and I were alone.

Kenneth read my expression and sighed. “What will it take to keep you here?”

As had happened with the expenses, my inner consultant stirred beneath my integrity. A childhood dream bubbled to the surface. “I want to write a novel.”

“As long as you show up and handle the escalated issues,” Kenneth said.

Over the course of two years I worked and reworked the novel. Every six months Kenneth extended the contract. Later that year Mr. Damiano’s contract ended. The consulting firm had negotiated a higher rate for me, so Kenneth didn’t have budget for Mr. Damiano.

When a router gig opened up, the sales team edited Damiano’s resume to include router experience. In a rare weak moment, Damiano told the client the truth during an interview – he had no router experience. He failed to nail the gig and the consulting firm forced him out a month later.

Before he left, I called him up. “I guess you don’t have the moral flexibility it takes to be a team player.”

He laughed and vowed we’d meet for coffee some day. But I never saw him again. We both knew he had nothing left to teach. The student had become the master.

At the end of the third year, I finished the novel. The double spaced, 12 point courier font stretched the tome to over 500 pages – a ream of paper. That night I stayed late and printed out twenty copies.

I couldn’t have picked a worse time. Mr. White, the division’s VP, was visiting from LA. At 8:50 PM Mr. White strolled up to me as I stood guard over the printer. I snatched up the pages off the output tray and added them to the waist high stack. More sheets streamed out.

Mr. White surveyed the scene. “Are you an employee?”

I shook my head. My knees felt weak. “Contractor.” The word came out feeble; it’s own admission of guilt. I was toast.

His face turned red.

I winced.

“Why can’t we hire folks like you?”

“Huh?”  My mouth dropped open. I couldn’t help it. What was wrong with him?

He pointed at the stack of novels. “You’ve stayed late to finish documentation.” He patted me on the back and exited the cubicle.

The next day I received accolades from Kenneth and Kenneth’s boss. They decided to reward my loyalty. They told me to work from home for the rest of the gig as I entered an unprecedented fourth year. I missed expensing the miles, but I found other freelance hobbies to reward me. By the fifth year all the systems I had worked on were obsolete. Yet the client remained convinced that I was vital to their business. It took a complete re-org and a new set of managers to figure out that I provided no value.

They summarily let me go with an email. I didn’t mind. I had completed a novel and hadn’t set foot on the campus for over 9 months. I might have lost my soul, but I had become a great consultant.

I did not stay lost. Eventually I worked for over 50 fortune 500 companies and government agencies and redeemed my soul many times over (or I hope so.) But that is for another story…

However the product of this story was the novel TERMINAL CONNECTION. It will be free for download May 8th and May 9 on Amazon or can be purchased in printed form on Amazon. I promise you it will be less “telling” the story of consulting but rather “showing” it, embellished with a struggle of superpowers, several murders, and other more interesting, that is, sales bits.

#careercurveballs

Pin It

» Inside Look » Dan Needles: Consulting – The...
On May 7, 2014
By
, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

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

« »