Archive for the ‘Consulting’ Category

Do I have the technical skills to be a consultant?

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009 Nigel Jones

My previous post on being a consultant addressed the issue of how to market yourself. Today I’ll look at something a little more prosaic – how can you tell if you have the necessary technical skills to be a consultant? This post was motivated by an email I received from Victor Johns who basically asked the aforementioned question.

Before I answer this question, I should note that while technical skills are essential to being a successful consultant, they are by no means sufficient. I’ll leave it to another day to discuss the sales and business skills required to run a consulting business.

Anyway – on to the answer. Well my first and rather sardonic observation is that you don’t need to be technically competent at all. Just about every engineer I have ever met has unfortunately experienced the case of the clueless consultant – that is someone that does more harm than good. While these individuals do of course exist, they are by no means ‘successful’ as they have to spend an inordinate amount of time winning new business as no one ever hires them a second time.

If we ignore the aforementioned clueless consultant, then I think my answer depends a bit on what sort of consultant do you want to be? Some consultants are specialists and others are generalists. If you are a specialist, then essentially you are marketing yourself as the ‘go to guy’ in a narrow field. A good example might be Bluetooth. If you are promoting yourself as a Bluetooth expert then you had better know pretty much all there is to know about Bluetooth. However, what about the majority of consultants who are more generalists? In their case absolute knowledge is not as important as the ability to learn fast and to apply skills learned in one field to the field they are currently in. The reason I say this is because no sensible client will expect you to know ‘everything’ needed to do a particular job. Rather they expect that you have the fundamental skills upon which you can rapidly build in order to solve the problem. It’s for this reason that my ideal project is one with 30% ‘new stuff’. That is I know exactly how to do 70% of the project, whereas the remaining 30% will require me to learn new tools / skills.

This of course brings up the issue of how does one stay up to date? While there are many ways of doing this, I find textbooks to offer the best bang for the buck. Simply put, a $100 text book that saves me an hour on a project is a good investment. One that saves me a day is an outstanding investment. It’s for this reason that I have a stellar technical library.

As a parting comment I’ll note that we have all run into the occasional engineer who ‘knows’ they know it all – while actually being pedestrian. In my experience it’s the engineers that have a lot of confidence in their ability – but still realize that they can’t hope to ‘know it all’ that ultimately will succeed in this business. I’m talking about you Victor!

First do no harm …

Monday, February 2nd, 2009 Nigel Jones

One of the pleasures of working for myself is that it allows me to experiment with some rather non-traditional approaches to the whole concept of ‘work’. In fact, looking back at some of my postings, here, here and here it’s clear that this is a recurring theme in my writing. I mention this because a number of years ago I instituted the policy of

Two idiotic mistakes and I quit.

What exactly is this you ask? Well over the years I have noticed that I have days in which rather than progressing on problems, I actually regress, often by huge amounts. I do stupid things such as apply power with the wrong polarity to a board, or I design a circuit that will evidently never work. If I make two of these bone headed mistakes in quick succession, I take it as a clear indicator that my head really isn’t where it needs to be – and I quit for the day.

Now, back when I was an employee, I simply had no choice other than to continue ‘working’, even though I knew full well that I’d be doing my employer a favor if I did nothing more than sit in the corner for the rest of the day. Today, I simply walk away and return to the problem the next day.

It would be an unusual manager who recognized that these days occur – and encouraged his staff to ‘quit’ when they did. I’m sure for many managers, this concept is too radical. However, if Engineers are indeed professionals, then we could do worse than adopt the abbreviated form of the Hippocratic oath given in the title to this posting.


So you want to be a consultant…

Saturday, December 20th, 2008 Nigel Jones

In the lede to this blog, I stated that I’d from time to time be commenting on the trials and tribulations of being a consultant in the embedded systems world. Well, today is my first post on this topic, so I thought I’d address the question I get asked most of the time ‘How do you market your business’?

Well, the trite answer is that in general I don’t! The bulk of my work comes from repeat clients. I have one client that I’ve been doing work for for nearly twenty years, another for about seventeen years, and a third for nearly ten years. In short, I’m a very big believer in keeping my existing clients rather than developing new ones all the time. Obviously this isn’t very helpful for someone that is thinking about striking out on their own and is wondering how to sign up a client or three.

My main suggestion if this describes you, is to approach previous employers / managers. If you are really good (and it helps a lot if you are) then previous managers will be extremely interested to hear that you are available for consulting work. Why do I say this? Well look at it from their perspective – here is a talented person that knows their products / procedures / tools who is available to come in and help out in overloaded situations. Thus the next time senior management is demanding that something gets done faster, it’s an easy sell for your ex-manager to suggest bringing you in to help meet the deadline.

Incidentally, this especially applies to companies that have just had layoffs (even if you were one of those that got cut). When companies have a layoff, they typically overdo it. As a result, important projects grind to a halt and only get moving again when more help is brought in. Now typically for political / legal reasons a company cannot layoff people and then hire different ones. It can however hire ‘temporary help’ – and that’s where you the consultant come in. Thus if you have just been laid off and think it’s time to strike out on your own, I strongly suggest that the first person you call to offer your services is the person that laid you off.

Incidentally, I cannot stress enough the importance of face – face or at least voice – voice contact. Sending a card or an email will almost certainly result in the approach going no where. If the thought of ‘warm calling’ makes you break out in a sweat, then the chances are you just aren’t cut out for having your own business.

What about other techniques such as advertising? I have never gone this route but I know people that have with some success. Be warned however that advertising can be expensive and can be too successful. I say this because the only thing worse than not having enough work is having too much!

How important is a good website? Well I used to think it was largely irrelevant (and my website reflects this attitude. I’ve been promising myself for a year to get it updated). However, I know of several cases where it has been extremely important in bringing in new business. I would caution you though that spending your time and money on a website is no substitute for making the telephone calls.

What about the social networking sites, such as ‘Linked In’ or ‘Plaxo’? These can be helpful if you want to track down all those folks you used to work with who might want to hire you. They are easy to use and low cost / free. Incidentally, don’t feel awkward about contacting someone you have lost touch with. Although it might be a little strange socially, it’s well worth it to both of you if a fruitful business relationship develops.

Finally, what about the myriad of technical recruiting agencies out there? I have never done any work through them. I have interacted with them, and have found a huge variability in their ethics. Personally, I’d avoid the big companies (which are nothing but key word matchers) and work with the smaller, one man companies. Notwithstanding this, if you’re relying on these folks to bring you work then you are being passive rather than proactive. Not recommended!

Next time I post on consulting, I’ll address some other important issues. But for now, just remember that a consultant without clients is like a (fill in your own analogy here). Thus the first step in becoming a consultant is getting a client. Only then is the other stuff important.

Follow up to my last post

Thank you to all of you that encouraged others to come and read this blog. I saw a very nice uptick in my readership last week for which I am most grateful.


Encrypted email and NDAs

Tuesday, September 19th, 2006 Nigel Jones

Being a consultant, I do business with a lot of different companies – nearly all of which require a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) to be executed. Most of these NDA’s require me to protect the company’s intellectual property as if it was my own. So far so good. Once the NDA has been executed however, I’m continually amazed at how often I get sent schematics, source code, technical documents, projects plans etc as attachments to unencrypted email. I send out my digital signature (public key) on all my emails, so it’s a trivial step for people to send me encrypted mail. It makes me wonder how many trade secrets are being lost every year simply because the default is to send out email as plain text. Shouldn’t your company insist that all email be encrypted and that all external vendors provide them with public keys before any sensitive communication take place?