Consultants Aren’t People, and Other Fallacies

A long time ago, in a suburb far, far away, I was a solo consultant, making my way in the world doing fun technical stuff. It wasn’t an easy life, but it had its attractions, and few dangers or so I thought. The solo consultant’s only natural predators are other consultants and CFOs who are always looking to stretch payment and cut headcount.

In this long-gone time, I was sitting pretty having just completed a two month contract. All I needed was the check. After farting around for far too long, I’d finally gotten my invoice in the queue and I wasn’t worried. Until I got a call from the friend who’d sold me into the contract. The company was in trouble. Deep trouble. If I wanted to get paid, I needed to get up there.

When I got there, I met the friend, and the new CFO who I realized had been brought in to wind down the company. This guy, who owed me nothing, pulled a check from the bottom of a big pile and handed it to me.

This will clear, if you can get the CEO’s signature on it.

I took a deep breath.  I am not a leg breaker but I really like getting paid.  Thirty minutes later, a very surprised CEO got a call.

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I’m sitting in a car outside your house. I have the check you guys wrote me but there’s no signature on it. Could you come outside and sign this for me?

Not knowing that I have a peaceful nature and all the muscle tone of a jellyfish, he hurried out and sheepishly signed my check. I ran to the bank and cashed it.  “Yes, I’ll take that all in cash please”.  Two days later, the sheriff padlocked the doors as the company went Chapter 7. A week later, I used that money to buy a new car for cash.

As I said, the new CFO owed me nothing. But he looked at the mess this company had become, saw that I was going to lose almost 20% of my annual gross out of it and he took care of me. I’ve never gotten to repay that favor and probably never will, but I also never forgot it.

In the intervening years I’ve had occasion to use contractors and remembering that episode, I’ve always been hard on them in only one respect. Get your invoices in. I don’t have to do it, and various CEOs have wished that I wouldn’t.  But I do and a couple of times along the way it’s paid off in a guy walking away with one or two more weeks of money than he would have gotten otherwise.

It’s the same with permanents as I covered back here. Over the years there have been a handful of employees who have done great work for me and I’ve almost never been able to pay them market rate, so you take care of them in other ways. I take care of everyone who works for me, but the performers – I will do anything for them. That’s kind of the deal, everyone who’s done good work for me has moved my career, and that’s what I owe them.

It’s the little things …

… that make the difference between good/fun and not-so-good/not-so-fun.

Terminology for example. (Oy, here he goes again on the name thing!) There are a fair number of things that have to be named when you’re trying to make something from nothing.  The company, the product, individual projects, components, workflow states and transitions, interfaces, even the term you use to describe customers (guest, client …).  They all have to be named.  And as close readers of this blog know (Hi Mom!) the first name you pick for something usually sucks.  Which means that not only does everything have to be named, it usually also has to be renamed.

When product (and seriously it’s always those guys leading the renaming charge) decides to rename something it takes a while for the terminology to work its way through the org, whether your company is 4 people or 400.  For some things, in some organizations, you never really flush out the old name.  The dual names then become a form of low-level, everyday friction.  C’est la guerre, right?  Well, no, it’s not.

I was forced to think about this by a stark counter-example.  I was sitting in a meeting one day, not paying much attention when I realized that we’d been talking for awhile and all three people from one particular group had nailed the just-changed-yesterday name for the product in question every single time.  The rest of us were all over the map.  It stuck in my head as a data point that probably meant something.

bossPersonally, I was always bad at this and tended to hang on to the old names.  I’m not very good at remembering people’s names so why should it be any different for things?  But when I thought about it, I realized that I didn’t hang on to old names for things because I couldn’t remember the new ones, at least not most of the time.  It was because I thought that renaming things was stupid and I was annoyed and often had “the juice” politically to get away with hanging on to the old name.  Passive aggression at its finest.

Very occasionally I see product people get annoyed by this phenomenon, but I’ve never seen anyone take it seriously.  From the product side of the house I suspect that this inability to make a name-change and have it stick quickly is a low-level irritant that decreases their effectiveness and quality of life, but never rises to the level of “I have to do something about this”.  It’s one of those things that leaves you pissed off but you’re not really sure why.  Well now you know why – you’ve been passively aggressed.

When you’re building a team and trying to get some momentum this is one of the little things you can watch, and use to prevent problems you’d otherwise have to ‘fix’ later, probably by firing someone’s sorry ass.  Somebody who consistently uses old terminology is actually arguing with your right to name things.  He’s saying “you’re not the boss of me”.  Fix him now, or fire him later.

For my part, hereby resolved – the next time I’m leading a crew, this is one of the things I’ll be paying attention to, for myself and for the crew.  Perhaps I’ll make a point of explaining it up-front. Or now that I recognize the root of the issue maybe I’ll just jump on anyone who’s not with the program.  Fair warning.  And to all the product people in my past – my bad.