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Mistakes To Avoid as a First-Time Tech Consultant

Allan Siongco // February 8, 2018
Industry

You just joined a consulting firm for the first time ever and you’re eager to make an impact. After all, the reason you decided to give consulting a try is because you love:

  • learning and working with new technologies
  • solving challenging problems
  • making things more efficient and organized

You might be a new technology professional ready to prove yourself or a highly-experienced one ready to share your passion and knowledge with the world. Either way, you’re ambitious so you immediately begin spitting out ideas left and right to your client.

In your head you daydream everyone falling in love with all your ideas. You’re the knight in shining armor here to save the day and everyone is singing “for he’s a jolly good fellow!” and reveling in your glory.

But… Poooooof! Your dream bubble is busted and you wake up to reality. Things don’t go quite as planned. If you’re lucky, everyone just ignores your idea(s). If you’re not lucky then you ruffle quite a few feathers and potentially get perceived as a know-it-all. In case it’s not clear, this is not a good way to start off your street cred.

And if for whatever reason all the moons align for your misfortune, you get pulled aside by the client and reprimanded for your actions.

"The irony is even though you may have the right intentions, you can fall into the trap of giving the wrong impressions if you’re not careful."

You’re probably asking yourself: “What the heck just happened?”

From your perception, you had good intentions and you were just excited to help out. How did it all go wrong?

I certainly can’t account for every scenario that could have happened but I can share a few common situations that might have led to your doom.

Your Ideas Have Nothing to Do With Their Current Priorities

The thing about bringing in an outsider to help is that they have a fresh perspective on things. Unfortunately, the bad thing about bringing in an outsider is also the fact that they have a fresh perspective on things — as in, they’re too new to understand what’s consuming so much of everyone’s attention.

If a company is reaching out to a consulting firm for help, it’s because there’s something that’s a pain in their butt right now and they want it to go away. That’s what they brought you in for: to help make a painful problem (that you don’t quite have the full grasp of yet) go away.

You probably have noticed some inefficiencies here and there while you were being on-boarded — it’s part of a consultant’s personality after all. Perhaps the issues should get some attention and you have genuinely good ideas on how to fix them. But the truth is: no one cares; at least not right now.

All businesses have lots of fires to put out. At this moment you’re being brought in to help put out the biggest ones, but you’re bringing attention to smaller ones.

Think about this: if you were asked to help put out a literal house fire and you are giving advice about getting rid of things around the house that could potentially attract termites, you’re probably going to get a “WTF” response. Sure termite damage can be expensive, but at this point I’m thinking the literal house fire is the bigger concern.

It’s not that you should stop coming up with ideas. It’s more about the fact that you should save them for later when everyone is done fighting the biggest flames. If you want to make an impact in this situation, identify what the client feels is the biggest figurative fire and focus on helping to fix that instead.

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You Are Nobody

Before you dove into the world of consulting, you may have been well-liked and respected at your previous company. You were known as a person who was always willing to help out anyone in need. Maybe you were the person everyone went to whenever they needed answers. You gave great advice and people were extremely receptive to it. To top if off, maybe you joked around and knew how to make people laugh.

It’s easy to forget that it took time to establish that kind of status and those types of relationships at your previous company. When you have a new client (your first or not), you are starting from scratch. From zero. Nil. Null.

You are nobody at the new company.

People don’t know you; they don’t know how you are or what you’ve accomplished. Your jovial attitude may have been funny before, but someone not familiar with you can easily have the perception that you don’t take your job seriously.

You may have a tremendous amount of success and experience behind you. But at this company, you are just a nobody — a nothing burger — giving unsolicited criticism over things that doesn’t matter to anyone right now.

It’s easy to forget all this when you're eager and ambitious, but remember to

  1. give people time to get to know you and adjust to your personality
  2. be humble and modest because no one knows or cares about what you’ve done before

Most people don’t like being told how to do something better, specially from a nobody.

You Don’t Have All The Facts

Maybe you noticed how messy the codebase is and you thought to yourself “zOMG, how can anyone write code like this?”. You might assume that they don’t have a good code review process in place and you come up with ideas on implementing one.

You assume that something needs to be fixed, but maybe the truth is you just don’t have all the facts. It could be that they actually do have a pretty good code review in place, it’s just that the code you’re looking at was unfortunately inherited from an offshore company the owners decided to use a long time ago.

Maybe you don’t like or agree with some process A that’s in place and that you think process B is better and that they should switch to it. But the fact is, they may have already tried process B several times and found that it just wasn’t working for them for reasons you don’t yet understand.

You may think that the manager you just met seems a little absent-minded and somewhat unorganized. Little do you know that you came in a time when one of their close family members is going through serious health issues and they’re trying their best to maintain their professional life.

It’s easy to forget that there’s so many things that could have happened before. From your perspective, the beginning of time started when you were hired. The reality is, your client’s world started way before you got there. You don’t know the history of their universe; don’t assume that you have all the facts.

Should I Just Be Quiet Then?

Yes and no. When you first start somewhere, I definitely recommend spending time just listening, observing, and asking questions. Focus on identifying what your client perceives to be their biggest problem(s) and establish a base level of trust and respect by helping them through it.

Tread lightly on additional advice until a good relationship is established. In fact I would go as far to say that you shouldn’t give your opinions unless specifically asked. Even so, keep it concise. If you have a lot to say on the topic, ration the information in small chunks and wait for them to keep pursuing the rest.

If you really feel that you have a good grasp of their priorities and you have an idea that’s critical to their success, you can give advice hidden in the form questions rather than a commanding statement. For example, instead of saying “You need to use trunk based development to avoid the hassle of merge conflicts”, you can ask leading questions in the following manner:

How do you feel about the recent string of merge conflict issues?

If they don’t have any thoughts about it, stop here. If they feel it’s been a problem, ask the next question.

What kind of things have you tried to fix it?

If they have come up with a solution, but haven’t had time to implement it, offer your help. If they don’t have a solution at all, offer your solution in the form of a question.

What do you think of trunk based development?

If it piques their interest, continue talking about the topic in small chunks and let them pursue more.

As you can see, this process tries not to assume anything. Before offering a solution, it tries to gather facts and explores the history of the problem and solutions attempted. In the end, it accomplishes a few of things:

  1. you build trust and respect by showing curiosity and concern for their problems
  2. they are pursuing the information out of their own interest, instead of being told to do something they don’t care about
  3. you end up giving better advice because you have uncovered more facts to consider before offering a solution

Right Intentions, Wrong Impressions

Whether you’re new to the industry or an experienced professional, it’s easy to make the mistake of being overzealous in an attempt to make an impact at a new company.

When you’re ambitious and/or have some accomplishments behind you, it feels natural for most people to have a desire to share their knowledge. The irony is even though you may have the right intentions, you can fall into the trap of giving the wrong impressions if you’re not careful.

People don’t like changes and people don’t like being told what to do. Ease into the new project and maybe — just maybe — one day you’ll still get a chance to be that knight in shining armor. But first, pay your dues (again).

This article was originally posted on Medium.com. Check out more of Allan's posts here.

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