We'll be wrapping up this series next month with some final thoughts from our team. But this month we want to discuss some of the tools and techniques consultants use to make them better, as well as those things they've learned, from experience, are a waste of time.
If you haven't figured it out yet, life is a continual learning experience. And this is so true in the consulting business, particularly when you need to keep up on the latest techniques to not only save yourself time in your work, but to make sure you can stay above the competition.
Last month we looked at mistakes and big accomplishments. Most of those answers were fairly personal, which makes it a little hard to do an overall analysis about what the major factors were. The way a person learns can also be an individual sport. In that regard, Rob Bovey offers these words of wisdom...
The situations in which people learn best are so distinctly personal
that what works for one person may be completely unsuited to another. For
example, my personal criteria for a successful learning experience relies
heavily on the concept of imparting the maximum amount of knowledge in the
least amount of time (best described as "drinking from a fire hose").
When I say "the least amount of time", I do not mean to minimize the
effort required to learn new skills. This effort is almost always
considerable. What I look for in learning opportunities are methods of
learning that not only fit my personality, but also allow me to learn the
material in the shortest possible time, but no shorter, where "short" can
mean one week or one year depending on the subject.
Keep in mind that learning any new technology is simply the beginning of
a long road towards mastery. If you initially learn something, using any
method of your choice, but then fail to immediately apply that knowledge to
real-world situations, you will quickly forget most of what you've learned.
It is imperative that you not only find the method of learning that best
fits your personality, but also time your learning so you don't try to learn
things you aren't ready to apply.
With that, let's take a look at this month's issue...learning. We asked our team to talk about things they may have found as a waste of their time versus what they have found to be useful in the learning process...be it tools, books, software, techniques, sites, and so on.
Question 1: Tell us about those things that you now feel were time wasters, as you were/are working to improve yourself as a better consultant.
What's been a dud? Fortunately there have been few really low points, and
nothing I can think of as worthless tools I wasted time on. (Except for one
client, who was a pretty worthless tool himself.)
Meetings can be by far the biggest time-sucking useless endeavors known to man. The first thing you need to learn is that if it isn't in writing, it never happened. So every meeting needs to have an agenda and real action items that stem from it. Anything that is discussed needs to subsquently be documented in some way. Plus, you should always call and confirm all meeting appointments. There is nothing more annoying and a bigger waste of time than being stood up. If you are working from home and have to go somewhere to attend client meetings, gang up all meetings and errands on one day, so you don't waste a lot of time in your car. Driving is not billable time.
In the corporate world, the biggest waste of time is the weekly staff meeting. I found that very few have ever been valuable and that is largely because people don't understand how to properly conduct them to make them useful. Most of these types of meetings allow people to provide random comments about their project status and goals for the week, but good records are not kept that hold those people accountable for their previous comments.
These meetings should have less rambling and more meat. Get to the point and use the time efficiently. Keep good records with details of what has been said and what plans are in place for all projects. Then plan to be held accountable for your work...or lack thereof...from the previous week. And if you're not ready for a meeting...reschedule it. Don't waste my time just because it is scheduled on the calendar each week.
And don't plan them for first thing Monday morning! Have you ever seen anyone ready to go Monday morning? Everyone is just faking their way through the meeting trying to recover from the weekend! Weekly meetings should be held on Wednesdays. This provides solid information about how the week is going because your staff is deeply involved in it. And yet, it also leaves time within the week to change plans should the meeting results show that resources need to be juggled a bit..
Web-based learning - I compare this to watching television, although it's really even worse than that because the web has nowhere near the bandwidth of TV. It's slow paced and either poorly interactive or completely non-interactive.
Training seminars - Although there are many excellent, sincere and dedicated trainers out there, their numbers seem to be dwarfed by poorly prepared, unqualified, fly-by-night trainers. Therefore the quality is often poor. And even a good trainer has to tailor the material so the least advanced attendees can follow along, resulting in these classes covering too little material in too much time.
The best time waster I ever experience was a Flash class I took a few years ago. The teacher was so terrible, I learned nothing new by the end of the week; in fact I think I was more confused after the class than I was going in. I and several of the other students complained, but none of us got a refund. Turns out the teacher was a hack, and didn't even have a decent Flash website to recommend themselves. Ever since then, whenever possible, I find out about refund policys and really check the credentials of the person teaching the class.
I'm not big on professional certifications, although I'm sure some
people may be.
Bad? I don't really know since any learning could be useful, sooner or later.
Question 2: Tell us about those things that you found to be very valuable to you and help/helped you become a better consultant.
Jon Peltier ...
What's made me better? The Internet, Google, somehow being awarded the
MVP and gaining access to some really smart people. I've always known how to
find answers; pre-Internet, I was always in the library or talking with
whatever "experts" I could. Now I've become adept with keywords so I can
find stuff the first time, and I can usually remember where I found
something, or what obscure directory I copied it to. I have picked up a few
titles on Excel and VB, too, but I don't really rely on them too heavily.
Aside from the technology, i.e., the ability to do the required tasks, I've
also gotten good advice from my fellow consultants. This is often along the
lines of how to be better at business: marketing, networking, following up.
The advice I have appreciated most was being told that, contrary to many
peoples' belief, specialization is a good thing. If you have a specialty,
you're good at it, you like it, and there's a market for it, then you've
struck gold. You've found your niche.
Rob Bovey ...
1) Books combined with hands-on practice - This is by far the best learning method for me. I can dive in at a level that's as advanced as I want and cover as much ground as I want as quickly as I want. When I inevitably run into something I just can't figure out on my own I turn to choice #2.
2) The newsgroups - The newsgroups are full of experts in every conceivable area of technology who are willing to answer your questions for free. When you use the newsgroups, however, do yourself and everyone else a favor and come prepared. You need to ask a very specific question and provide enough supporting detail so that people can figure out what it is you want to know. Refine your question into the simplest possible repro case. Don't ask people on the newsgroups to write an application for you unless you're willing to pay for it.
Chris Hanscom ...
The Good - You can have all the tools, all the knowledge of your technology or field of expertise, and all the reference books but you still don't have a true business. The one thing that opened my eyes to running a business and how to really start organizing things was the book The E Myth. I highly recommend anyone that is thinking of running a business or anyone already running a business to read The E Myth. Now that takes care of the general business side.
As far as the development side of my business most of the learning comes from Google. It may sound funny but there is just such a huge, vast collection of websites to learn from. Its amazing that anytime I come across something that I need to learn all I have to do is go to Google and start searching.
No matter what you learn, what books you read, what tools you think are great never stop expanding your arsenal. Always be searching for the better tool, the better way of doing something.
My Best Stuff (small sample):
- The E Myth - Great book on running a business.
- The Great Software List - I personally respect this guys opinions on software. When looking for something I start here.
- Color Wheel Pro - Color is the base of all designs and this makes it that much easier.
- Mz Tools - One of, if not the, best add-on for Visual Basic.
- VB Net - The best collection of Visual Basic code around.
- VB Accelerator - Open source and powerful VB code.
Alex Dybenko ...
For me newsgroups - is a great learning resource. Even while now I know about Access almost everything - any time I can learn some user experience, so I can tell my customers about such issue. So this is a great learning resource. Recently I joined MVP academy for VB.NET andASP.NET courses - I found it very useful for myself such kind of learning, such course gives a good start.
David Horowitz ...
Good, Helpful Stuff:
- Documentation provided with the tools you're using. Read them!
- Manufacturer's Phone Support
- The F1 Key - Help!
- The object browser in VBA (The F2 Key)
Read other people's code any chance you get.
One book I read suggested that the first 90% of the time spent on a
project should be on analysis, specification and design, leaving the last 10% for coding, since that's all you'll need if you do all that work up front.
Learn as much as you can about soliciting clients, collecting money and managing money. Use QuickBooks and an accountant.
Realize you are a salesperson now in addition to a technologist, so
learn as much as you can about soliciting clients and selling, reading
books with titles such as How to Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive by Harvey Mackay and Selling for People Who Hate to Sell by Brigid McGrath Massie.
Realize that you are now your own collection agent. Do whatever you can
to collect your money, get it up front, get credit card numbers, take
PayPal, get a FedEx account and give your account numbers to your clients so they can send you checks overnight, whatever you need to do to get your money.
Realize that you are now your own bookkeeper! Get QuickBooks. And get a professional accountant. And consider getting someone in once a month to do your books so you don't have to.
Consider incorporating your business - the tax benefits are well worth the extra accounting fees.
Get yourself a lawyer, someone you can call on when you need to prepare and review contracts. I couldn't do half of what I do as easily if I didn't have a lawyer available to work with my contracts.
Build up a collection of contract templates that you can use when you need to - non-disclosure agreements, non-circumvention agreements, non-solicitation agreements, non-compete agreements, etc.
Get friendly with some other consultants that you can bounce ideas off of, that you can bring in when you need extra help, and that can send you projects when they're over-booked.
Sue Jenkins ...
One of my favorite things to do as a consultant is to learn new things to improve my skills. I love taking classes, reading trade magazines, and talking to other designers about projects. Recently I started teaching Dreamweaver classes. Not only does teaching improve my skills, but in each class envariably students ask me about things I didn't know about and I get to searching to find the answer. The whole process is very invigorating!
Another thing that really helps me is to be fully present in the moment, whatever I'm doing. That focus allows me to concentrate better and save time by being centered on the task at hand.
Arvin Meyer ...
I spend a significant portion of my consulting career working for other consultants. The one trait I notice with the most successful of them is that they ask enough questions and listen carefully to the answers. By success, I'm not talking about how much money they make, I am talking about how successful they are at solving their clients' problems. Too many of them are really nothing more than glib salespersons with a little IT experience. The good ones not only satisfy their clients, but they spur additional work.
The one book that helped me was "The IT Consultant" by Rick Freedman ISBN:0-7879-5173-0
It concentrates on client relationship skills, and taught me more by what it didn't say, as what it did. It's real value was forcing me to think about the business process and how I wanted to model the manner in which I did business. I consider my responsibility to be one of advocacy, not one of bully or bullsh*t artist. Too many consultants try to control the client. I try to guide them. The business is, after all, theirs to win or lose. If I haven't been convincing, then I accede to their wishes and do the best I can with the resources they give me.
Susan Daffron ...
As a consultant, it's a given that you'll be reading and learning about whatever technologies you use. Most consultants are techno-nerds who want to do that anyway. Where a lot of consultants fail is in taking the time to learn about marketing and business as well. Nothing happens until somebody sells something, so as a consultant, you need to take the time to learn how to market yourself and your services or you won't be in business very long.
Along the same lines, you need to get out of your nerdy little bubble and talk to people. The more time you spend with people understanding their problems, the more likely you are to come up with good solutions. A lot of customers don't care and don't want to know about the technology you use. But many consultants get so wrapped up in the technology, they lose sight of the big picture, which is solving their clients' problems.
So I'd have to say that in the last 10 years of being a consultant, the most valuable thing I've learned is to just shut up and listen to my clients.
Dian Chapman ...
When I first started getting into consulting work, it was somewhat overwhelming as I was learning all that I had to do, learn, and know. Then I read a book called Don't Sweat The Small Stuff. So much in there sounded familiar to me regarding the stresses I was fighting. All my life I've said Life is too important to be taken seriously. Yet, here I was putting so much pressure on myself that I wasn't enjoying it. This book helped me bring it all back into perspective!
Impressed with Richard Carlson's Don't Sweat book, I checked into his background more and found another book that looked interesting: Don't Worry, Make Money. I read and I can honestly say that my consulting career took off after I read it and started relaxing even more about all the little things. Granted, I'm detail oriented, so I still do sweat those in a project, but my mind had been so cluttered with little worries that I wasn't able to see the forest for the trees. Once I learned to relax and go with the flow, the flow got stronger. (Yes, that's a good thing.<g>)
So things started to roll, but then I realized that I was starting to stress out again because there was so much going on. I've always been a fairly organized person, but I needed to kick this skill into fifth gear. I discovered David Allen's book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Not only did he write the book in a down-to-earth manner, his ideas of how to get your act together made a lot of sense. I put his ideas into practice and felt much more organized almost immediately.
Later I found his second book that takes the ideas from the first book and provides you with lots of even more realistic scenarios about what we do wrong when trying to get control of our papers and ToDo lists and how to fix those problems. This second book, Ready for Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Work and Life, is still on my nightstand and I review it regularly to keep on track.
I also signed up for his monthly newsletter that seems to show up just when I'm falling back into old habits of trying to keep everything in my head, rather than writing it down and getting it organized...which frees my brain to think of even better stuff. You can find out more at his web site: http://www.davidco.com.
Other books that I've found useful are...
Finally, the most valuable tool you have is your own computer! Find your area of expertise and then make your computer dance with your skills. And keep improving your skills by studying newsgroups and learning more and more about the technical end of your expertise. One of the best ways to keep up with problem solving is to hang out in user groups and participate by providing your support to others. There's nothing like solving a wide variety of problems every day for others to keep your own skills sharp.
I run several support groups of my own where I've been lucky enough to attract some terrific people with great skills who know the value and satisfaction of helping others. You can find a list of my groups, as well as other groups I help support, here: http://www.mousetrax.com/resources.html.