antipaucity

fighting the lack of good ideas

traveling consultant cheat sheet

“Join the Navy and See the World!”*

Perhaps one of the most famous recruitment phrases ever established in the United States.

And it’s not at all dissimilar form what a lot of budding consultants think they are going to do when either joining a services organization, or starting their own business.

I have been fortunate in that I have gotten to “see the world” as a professional services engineer – at least a little.

What the recruitment phrase fails to mention is that while you may “see” the world, you [probably] won’t get to do much while you’re “seeing” it. I’ve been to or through nearly 60 airports in the last several years. I “saw” the coast of Japan a few times when going into and out of Narita. I’ve “seen” Las Vegas – from a couplefew thousand feet. I’ve “seen” Houston – from IAD. And so on and so forth.

The far more realistic view of what will happen is something like this:

  • get call Friday afternoon asking you to be onsite in <someplace> Monday morning
  • book flight, hotel, rental car (if appropriate)
  • make sure clothes are clean
  • do as much Saturday and/or Sunday as you can, since you’ll be gone for a week
  • fly out Sunday evening or Monday morning (I’ll talk about this later)
  • get rental car
  • check into hotel
  • go to customer site
    • work
    • eat
    • sleep
    • repeat
  • check out from hotel
  • return car
  • fly home
  • repeat all of above

As someone who has been doing a travel-based job for 7+ years now, let me share some of the things I have learned with you.

Basics

Loyalty programs

Sign up for airline frequent flyer programs. In the US, this means Delta, United, Southwest, and American Airlines.

Sign up for hotel rewards. Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, Wyndham.

Sign up for the car rental programs. Hertz, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Thrifty, Enterprise, National.

Stay “loyal”

So long as you are able, ie costs are reasonable, schedules are good, etc, stick with a single primary chain for each of the travel categories (airline, car, hotel). If you’re going to get status, might as well get it all with one place when possible.

Sign up for every promotion your loyalty partners make available. For example, I’m a United Guy (used to be a Delta Guy – but that’s a different story). I’m also a Hilton Guy (because Marriott hasn’t been as competitive (price, location) in the markets I’ve been to as they used to be). I have my Hilton HHonors Double Dip go to HHonors points and United miles. And I make sure ay time there is a promo to get more points or miles that I sign-up for it. If Hilton wants to give me an extra 5,000 United miles for every stay after the second between now and 31 August, why not take advantage of that?

Choose the best rewards – for you

Maybe you like traveling so much you want to have Avis points so you can get free car rentals on vacation. Personally, I find turning all my reward points into frequent flyer miles is my best option – renting a car for a week is almost always less expensive than paying for a flight – especially when my family goes somewhere on vacation.

Clothes

Every shirt and pair of pants I take when I go onsite are “no iron”. This saves time when you arrive. And you won’t have nearly as much time as you think you will, most of the time.

Get slip-on dress shoes. You will appreciate this most when going through airport security. But also if you have to go through security to get into customer buildings, etc.

Have an arrival and departure change of clothes that are comfortable – I like jeans and either a polo or comfortable t-shirt.

What about jackets? I like the lightest-weight jacket I can carry/wear: there will not be enough space on the plane for it, it’ll get hot in the airport, and you really only normally need it to walk from the airport to the rental car shuttle / counter, form the rental counter to the car, the car to the hotel, the hotel to the office, and all in reverse. You probably won’t need a parka for those types of activities.

Baggage

There’s a big conversation that surrounds this topic, but I’m going to tell you what works for me. First, check your main bag – it’ll accelerate your time to board, your time between flights (if you have one or more connections), and make it easier to get around the airport when you arrive (easier to use the bathroom, get a meal, etc). So save everyone headaches and check your main bag.

In your one carry-on – a laptop bag- you should have the following:

  • single change of clothes
  • snack & water bottle (empty, of course)
  • basic minimal toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, etc)
  • book (or Kindle, but I like a physical book – there’s never anything to have to turn off)
  • all required chargers (laptop, cell phone, mifi, etc)
  • portable battery backup like an EasyAcc Classic

Arriving and Departing

Day-of? Or night before?

This is almost entirely a personal preference: arriving day-of (eg Monday morning) can be good if you have a family, don’t mind getting up hyper early to get to the airport, and can functional well enough on little sleep.

Arriving night before (eg Sunday night) can be good because if you’re bumped or delayed on a flight, you have cushion before your customer expects to see you.

Either way, always try to check-into your hotel before going to your customer – if it’s an early-Monday arrival, change out of your travel clothes at the airport into work clothes, and have the hotel hold your bags for you.

I alternate between which is better for me to do based on how many connections I have, customer expectations (if you have a mandatory 0900 meeting Monday, and you flight won’t arrive til 0930, you have to come in Sunday night), time of year (weather considerations), etc.

What did I miss?

What would you add/change/tweak on this cheat sheet?


* I always though it should read, “Join the Navy and Sea the World”

finally starting to get some good docs amassed

I had a decent library of documentation, templates, hand-offs, slide decks, etc in my pre-Splunk consulting life (technically, I still have them).

It’s nice to be finally getting a decent collection to draw from for my customers in my post-automation consulting life.

they asked the right question

Let me compare the experience I wrote about yesterday to another I had the same year with the first customer I was ever sent to – HSBC.

Just a couple weeks after starting with ProServe in 2008, I was sent to Chicago to do a final PoC for HSBC. Someone else had done a PoC the previous year, but with HP’s acquisition of Opsware, HSBC (along with many other customers and potential customers) held-off on signing a purchase contract so they could bundle “everything” they wanted from HP under one big honking purchase order.

And due to changes in the underlying product architecture, HSBC wanted a fresh demo to play with for a little while before writing-in that line item into their PO.

Enter me. A freshly-minted consultant who hadn’t yet developed a solid cheat sheet. So fresh, I thought staying 20 minutes away in a Comfort Inn to save $12 a night was smart (it’s not – always stay as close to your customer as you can (that is within budget) when you’re traveling). But I digress.

After a set of unexpected flight delays, instead of being able to start Monday before lunch, I didn’t even get to meet the customer team until almost end-of-business Monday. Tuesday morning, my main contact met me at the door, escorted me into their lab, and introduced me to the “spare” hardware I’d be working on – a ~5-year-old Sun server running Solaris 10 (thankfully – they’d only just upgraded from Sun OS 9 on that machine a couple weeks before).

Like my main contact in Nutley later that year, my main contact at HSBC was an old hat Solaris admin – he’d been using and administering Sun equipment for nearly 20 years. Smart guy (but, unlike the guy in NJ that summer, he wasn’t a Sun fanboi purist).

The reason we were using retired (and, possibly, resurrected) hardware was because they didn’t trust one of the sales reps (who had since been fired) who made some pretty sweeping promises to them early on in the sales cycle. And, whomever had been in several months prior to do the first PoC had apparently complained bitterly about “having to use Sun”.

So they partially set me up to fail – but I was too dumb to realize it at the time…a perfect instance of the old phrase, “you can’t fool me, I’m too ignorant”.

I did have to suffer through slow network access (the NIC onboard “supported” 100Mbps … but it was flaky, so it had been down-throttled to just 10Mbps. To put this is a little context, that was slower than my home internet access – even then – 10 years ago!

Wednesday about lunchtime, the HSBC project manager for “HP automation initiatives” introduced herself and through our conversation, casually asked, “if you had your druthers, what kind of hardware would you install SA on to support our environment?”

So I answered what I’d use: each server in each SA Core (they were going to have 3) should have 16+ x86-64 CPUs, at least 32 GB RAM, and ample storage (at least 100 GB just for the install, let alone extra space which might be needed for the software and OS libraries). Oh. And it should be running RHEL – don’t use Solaris as the host OS for HPSA.

She pressed me to find out why I suggested this, and I told her, “because SA is written on Linux, and the ported to Solaris; every major issue SA has run into in the last few years regarding OS conflicts has happened on Sun hardware & OSes.”

A little while later, she thanked me for our conversation, thanked me for getting SA up and running so quickly (even on half decade out of date hardware, I had it installed and ready to demo to them in only a little over 1.5 days), which gave me time to go through its functionality, show-off some new things in 7.0 that hadn’t been possible (or as easy) in 6.1 (or 6.5, or 6.6), and even be told I could head out to the airport a little early on Thursday! Win-win-win all around.

Fast forward a few months.

I get a phone call from the engagement manager I’d worked with on the HSBC PoC week, and he asked me if I had a current passport. I told him, “yes,” and asked him why he wanted to know.

He then informed me that HSBC was getting ready to finalize a $12+ million dollar hardware, software, and services sale … but would only be buying SA if I was available to install it.

That’s cool – getting asked back is always a Good Thing™ … but what does that have to do with having a current passport? Bob elaborated: HSBC has a policy of vendors doing installs on site (not weird). And two of those “on site” locations were not in the US: one would be in London England, and the other in Hong Kong. “Would I be able to do that?”, he wanted to know.

“Yes. Yes, I would.”

“OK,” he said, “I’ll send travel dates and details in a few days.”

I hung up, then wondered if I’d said “yes” maybe a little too quickly: who gets asked to be the installation engineer who’s holding-up the finalization of a multi-million-dollar sale? Especially when I knew there were folks at least as qualified, if not much more so, available?

This was my first experience with being asked-back as a consultant (I’d been asked-for when I worked in Support, but that was very different).

And, ultimately, it’s what led to the single best services engagement I had for quite a while. And giving me a [partially] company-paid vacation to the UK. And getting my first stamps in my passport. And establishing a friendship with a customer contact in London who’ve I’ve stayed in touch with ever since.

All from not knowing the “project manager” was actually high-enough up in the HSBC management chain that her recommendations/requests for external personnel would be honored even on big contracts – and being truly honest with her when she asked what I viewed as a casual, throwaway question in a loud computer lab on a cool Wednesday afternoon in April.

The upshot is to always treat everyone you meet as “just another person” – whether a CEO or a janitor, they put their pants on the same way you do: one leg at a time.

time tracking is broken – and “hours” makes it worse

This recent Medium post irked me.

It’s by one of the creators / operators / owners of Hours, a “new” time-tracking and -reporting company.

The intro had such promise, because it is so true:

There is a reason why almost every time tracking service out there says it takes the pain out of time tracking. Time tracking stinks! For companies, unreliable time tracking is literally a multi-billion dollar a day problem. For employees, time tracking can be one of the worst parts of their job (hint: the two are related). You would think that by now someone would have come out with the ideal time tracking service that solves the fundamental problems.

But then Jeremy Olson explains how Hours is supposed to be better – completely missing the point that time tracking sucks: everything he outlines is already being done in some form by current time-tracking tools.

For billable work, such as what I do, a minimum billing increment is typically 1 hour. Which is stupid. Weekly billing for consulting makes worlds more sense – charging $187.50 per hour ($7,500 for 40 hours) plus travel and expenses is complicated (especially when T&E typically hit $2000-2500 every week (trust me, I’ve been doing this for most of a decade now)): charge $10,000 per week and be done with it. And, of course, that presumes you have the “discount” constant rate – you’re probably paying closer to $0.07/second (aka $250/hr) for a mid-tier technical consultant, and as much as $0.14/second ($500/hr) for a management or principal consultant.

$500/hr for a full week (and we consultants do our darnedest to make sure all of our time is utilized (aka “billable”)) is $20,000 per week. When you’re at the point of buying consulting time measured in hundreds or thousands of hours (as most engagements I am involved with are), “saving” an hour here or there is not a savings – being billed for four consultants for a total of 158 hours in one calendar week is not fundamentally any different from being billed for 160 hours (aka 4 full work weeks) – it’s a 1.25% difference; at most it’s a “savings” of $1000, and probably closer to just $300 or $400.

Even being billed for 38 hours from one consultant (plus T&E) is only a 5% savings over being billed for an entire week (plus T&E, so it’s probably more like a 2-3% savings, tops).

The problem Hours sets out to solve is the wrong problem: while there are some billable practitioners who truly need granular, partial-hour reckoning (lawyers working several “simple” actions at once, etc), the vast majority of salaried folks do NOT need to track their time more granularly than by the half day, and more likely only by the day or week (indeed, I’d say most salaried employees don’t really need to track their time at all – if they’re getting their work done, that should be all that matters) – which tools like Harvest handle very nicely (and, btw, which have an excellent mobile interface (including for expense reports), which blows the theory Olson tries to promulgate out of the water when he says, “[i]t baffles me that most major time tracking companies don’t invest more in mobile” – Harvest may not be a “mobile-first time tracking service”, but it is more than amply served in its mobile incarnation.

Is there a market for time-tracking outside the work place? Sure. Things like the Pomodoro Technique use timers and tracking to help optimize your day. But that market doesn’t need yet-another-time-tracking-app – which is all Hours appears to be.

What about the reporting end? I’ve seen reporting in Harvest, Footsteps, and many other tools – they all work (to a greater or lesser extent) the same, and they all produce relatively useful reports. Are Hours’ reports really “better”? Maybe – but it seems a tenuous claim to make, at best.

It seems like the Hours team could’ve spent their time either truly making time-tracking better, faster, easier, and less-invasive (as described in the article, Hours makes time tracking far more invasive than it should be).

But they didn’t.

Shame.

i’m not technical

I am. But not really.

To paraphrase my prelicensing class instructor, “95% of consulting is not technical work – it’s psychological”. 5% of consulting is delivery. The remainder is listening, empathizing, training, selling, encouraging, improving, and a whole bunch more gerunds.

I’m an unlicensed psychiatrist dabbling in technology -just call me Frasier Malone – the single person every consultant has to be (even though on Cheers they were two people).

Part of the Art of Consulting™ is conveying ROI in the right terms to your current audience. My job as an automation consultant, project manager, and team lead is to convince customers (at all levels) that the tools I’m there to deliver, configure, and utilize are not “taking their jobs away” (in the wrong sense of the term). Ideally, my customers not only see me as their Trusted Advisor, but as someone who has “been there, done that” just like they have, and that I truly am there to help them: to help them save time (for engineers), to save headcount (for managers), and to save money (for executives).

Good consultants are, in many ways, like bartenders – they listen to the problems their customers have, and hand them things they hope will help. Like a good bartender, you need to deliver what has been agreed to. And like a good bartender, you need to know when to tell your customer “that’s not the best option – try this instead”. And like a good bartender, you need to know when to tell your customer “no”.

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what to automate

I have been in the world of automation for quite a while. Specifically in the realms of server, datacenter, and cloud automation – but I’ve been interested and/or involved in other tasks that tend towards automation (even for a short period of time) for far longer than just my post-college time in the world of HPSA and its related ilk.

One of the first questions customers ask us when we arrive onsite (heck – even way back in the technical presales cycle) is NOT what can be automated, but rather what should we automate and/or what can we automate first.

Analyzing the environment and finding some prime, low-hanging fruit to target in an initial automation push is vital.

To quote Donald Knuth, “We should forget about small efficiencies, say about 97% of the time; premature optimization is the root of all evil.”

In the realm of automating, that means picking on tasks that, while the tools at hand can make quick work of them, are done so infrequently as to not warrant an immediate focus, since the ROI on infrequently-done tasks is not going to be readily seen* should be skipped.

This is part of where being a good architect comes to bear.

No.

That’s not true.

This is where being a good listener and collator comes to bear. In a future post I’ll talk more fully about the art of architecting – but for today’s topic, let’s focus on the true key personality traits you must display to get a successful project started, implemented, and running.

You need to listen. You do not need to “hear” – you need to process what is being said, ask it back, take notes, ask for clarifications, etc. In the counseling world, this is called “active listening“. In the rest of life, it’s called being an attentive, thoughtful, caring, intelligent, adult human being.

When you hear a customer say they have a real problem with some task or other (beware – managementspeak coming!) – ie, they have “pain points” in various places, ask about what those individual tasks are actually comprised of. Investigate what can be touched today, what can be planned-for tomorrow, and what needs to be tabled for a future engagement (for you architects and sales folks reading, this translates into “what can we sell them later – after this project is successful?” – how can we build and strengthen this relationship?).

Take these notes and conversations you have to your colleagues and tease-out coherent lines of attack. Collate all the notes form everyone involved into commonalities – what has everyone heard a customer say? What did only one guy hear? What order did each person hear them in?

After you’ve listened, after you’ve taken your notes, after you’ve powwowed with your colleagues – then comes the fun part of any engagement: the actual automation!

Bring your cleaned-up and trimmed-down notes back to the customer in an easily-digestible form, and give a solid plan for what we will do now, what we want to do soon, and what really needs to wait to be done til later. Put an N, S, or L next to each item on your list. – it’s a first-cut priority draft. Then ask your customer for how they view those tasks, and listen to what they say are their priorities (including “real” dates, if any exist). You may need to reorganize your list, but keeping it involved in all project discussions will show you’re truly paying attention to them.

And at the end of the day, everyone’s favorite topic is themselves. Always – even shy people want to hear themselves bragged-up, talked-about, promoted, and given attention.

When you showcase your individual focus and attention on your customer, it will show in their willingness to accept you into their closer rings of trust – their readiness to receive you as a “trusted advisor”, which is what you want to be for them: you want to be who they can talk to about problems they’re seeing in their environment (current or potential) so you can bring your expertise to bear on their issues.

The role of any consultant who wants to be more than a mere grunt is not so much technical or business acumen, but that of their business therapist and/or best friend. You want to be able to say with Frasier Crane, “I’m listening”. And you want them to know that you really are.

Some of the early steps you can take today to bring yourself there are to:

  • avoid electronic distraction in meetings
  • document everything you do for work
  • be detailed
  • know industry trends, what competitors are doing, etc
  • treat everyone you come in contact with at a customer as if they were the most important person there
  • anticipate what you may be asked, and where you want to go
  • never speak authoritatively about that which you do not know
  • learn – be a “Lifelong Learner”: the day you stop learning is the day you stop growing, and the day you stop being reliable to others

*Unless, of course, those infrequent tasks are only infrequent because they’re “hard”, and therefore automating them will yield a solid ROI by allowing them to be done more often