Friday, December 30, 2011

For Your Protection (by Karl Wiegers and Gary K. Evans)

As an independent consultant, you must provide for yourself and your family the health, life, and disability insurance that W-2 employees get from their employers. You must also obtain coverage to protect your business practice. Insurance is a significant expense, but it's mandatory—you're conducting a business, not playing a game of chance. Coverage and exclusions vary widely, so shop around and make detailed comparisons of the coverage of each type of policy. You're tempting fate and gambling with your home, livelihood, and future if you don't consider at least the six types of insurance described in this post. Remember, nothing posted in this blog constitutes legal advice; check with your insurance agent to understand your coverage needs.

Business Liability: This affords protection against liability if you cause harm or damage while engaged in business activities. You should never even consider walking onto a client's location if you do not have liability coverage. If you hit a client's employee with your car in the parking lot, or if you trip over a power cord and send a workstation crashing to the floor, you'll want some financial protection. Your personal automotive or umbrella liability insurance might not cover you in such a case. Even it provides coverage, the limits might not be adequate to protect your business. Consider coverage of at least $1 million per incident, with $2 million general aggregate coverage.

Clients sometimes request to be listed as a named insured on your liability insurance policy. This is easily accomplished with a phone call to your insurance agent. It's a minor nuisance. I'm willing to do this because it's easy and it lets me throw the client a bone while I'm negotiating other contract terms that I care more about.

Business Property: This type of policy covers losses you might suffer to your business property, such as electrical damage, a dropped laptop, theft, and so on. If you operate your business from your home, your homeowner's insurance policy may or may not provide coverage if equipment or materials that you use in your business are destroyed, say, in a fire. I (Karl) obtain both business liability and business property coverages through State Farm, where I also have my automobile, homeowners, and other personal insurance policies. Depending on what coverage limits and deductibles you have for business liability and property insurance, the premiums should be in the range of two or three hundred dollars per year.

I did have to file a claim under my business property policy once. My laptop experienced a static discharge that killed the mouse buttons. The computer couldn't be repaired. My State Farm agent said to buy a new computer and send him the bill. They immediately reimbursed me for the cost of the replacement computer, less my $100 deductible. That one incident made up for many years paying premiums for these coverages.

Professional Liability: This category of coverage is also called errors and omissions insurance. This is basically malpractice insurance to protect you against liability caused by negligence or a mistake on your part that causes financial or bodily harm or loss to a client or customer. Certain types of consulting services are more likely to need E&O coverage than others. You might consider an E&O policy if your business includes designing, developing, testing, or certifying products for your clients. Talk with a lawyer about this one.

I (Karl) have never carried E&O insurance. I do not directly create software or software-containing products that my clients use themselves or sell to their clients. I primarily provide advisory and training services, although for certain clients I have also created process-related documents such as templates for key project deliverables, process descriptions, and the like. My consulting and training agreements include a limitation of liability clause, which indicates that I am not responsible if the client experiences any loss or lack of benefit from the services or products I deliver. My intent here is to avoid having the client sue me if the client complains that a class was no good just because, say, the students didn't apply any of the practices I taught them. So far, no client has ever asked for a refund and I haven't been sued. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Life: If you're single, make sure you have enough life insurance to bury yourself. If you have a family, carry enough to protect them for the years you would have provided for them if you had survived. Too little insurance means your spouse may have to go to work or get a second job to provide replacement income for your children's education or other necessities. To determine how much you really need, explore available commercial and shareware programs and insurance calculators on the Internet. Term policies are cheapest for younger workers, but a whole-life policy may be more appropriate if you have trouble saving money on your own, as it builds up cash value over time.

Health: Though it's a necessity, health insurance frightens many people contemplating the move to independence. But it may not be such a scary proposition. It can be prohibitively expensive or even unavailable if you (or your family members) have a history of medical problems. But if you're healthy, have few pre-existing conditions, and are able to self-insure by carrying a large deductible, the premiums might not be outrageous. Again, costs and coverage plans vary widely. If you're self-employed, your health insurance premiums are generally tax-deductible, subject to certain limitations.

You skip this one at your peril. Nasty things can happen even if you’re young and healthy, and being a road warrior increases the chance of an accident. I (Karl) slipped on some ice-covered steps in Dallas (!) in December of 2000 and fell, tearing two of the rotator cuff muscles in my right shoulder. I’m very dominantly right-handed—my left arm exists mainly for visual symmetry—so this was not a fun injury. Fortunately, I didn’t need surgery, but had quite a bit of physical therapy. Had I not had health insurance, this could have been an even more unpleasant experience.

Consider setting up a Health Savings Account if you have a high-deductible health insurance policy. The HSA allows you to set aside several thousand tax-deductible dollars per year in a special bank account. You can use this account to pay out-of-pocket medical expenses, such as deductibles, prescriptions, and even over-the-counter medications. The HSA makes those out-of-pocket expenses tax deductible as well.

Disability Income: Everybody knows that carrying life insurance to protect your family when you die is worth considering. However, you have a much higher probability of becoming disabled than of dying in any given year. Statistically speaking, a healthy 35-year-old who works in an office has a greater than twenty percent chance of becoming disabled for three months or longer during his or her working career. Disability income insurance provides you with some income if you become disabled and are unable to work. Shop around and talk with many different agents and providers, because many insurers no longer offer this type of insurance, and the coverage that is available comes in various flavors. Disability insurance policies obtained through professional organizations, such as the IEEE, are likely to be cheaper than buying an individual policy directly from an insurance company, but may not offer as many options. It's always a trade-off.

Becoming disabled without having disability insurance means that you'll have no life insurance payoff (you're still alive) and you're a cost liability (you still have to be fed, bathed, cared for, rehabilitated and so on). Coverage is based on your current income, so plan to review your coverage once a year as your income changes. Note that in the United States, your disability insurance payments typically stop when you reach the age of eligibility for full Social Security retirement benefits—but your disability remains.

As with all insurance, you hope you never have to cash in, because that means something bad happened. But bad things do happen. Karl has a close friend who was a highly regarded software consultant. At age 47 he suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident while driving home from a consulting gig, thanks to an idiot talking on a cell phone (please don't talk on your cell phone or text while driving). Now 60, Norm has not worked since that accident and will never work again. He told me that having private disability insurance has made the difference between him being able to continue living in his house and living under a bridge.

By the way, if you are finding these blog posts useful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund. Click here for more information about Norm's situation. Every dollar helps. Thanks!

A Useful Tip: Client contracts often require you to carry certain insurance coverages. These are nearly always negotiable, though; see the post titled ”Everything’s Negotiable”. A fellow consultant once gave Gary some great advice on insurance in general. Whenever a client insisted that he carry some obscure type of insurance, he would negotiate that the client pay for it for the duration of the project. Then it would be factored into the overall cost structure.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Tips for Writing for Magazines and Websites

A lot of software magazines were published in the 90s and early 2000s. Now there aren't as many. But there are plenty of websites that publish articles on every aspect of software development and project management. Writing for publication is a good way for consultants to gain visibility for their ideas and expertise. Since 1984, I've written about 170 articles for more than twenty software magazines and websites. Working with so many different editors has given me a good feel for how to prepare articles for publication.

Knowing Your Audience


If rule number one for effective writing is "know your subject," rule number two certainly is "know your audience." Before you submit an article for publication, think carefully about what kind of people read that periodical or visit that website. Read previously published articles so you have an idea of what topics, content, and writing styles appeal to the readers and—just as important—to the editor. Are the articles highly technical in nature, perhaps including code fragments or research data? Or are they written in a conversational and informal style? Are figures, diagrams, or tables commonly used,? Are most of the articles how-to tutorials, or opinionated essays, or reports of trends in the computing industry, or what? Do the authors incorporate much humor in their pieces? How long are the articles on average? Are the articles broken up into sections with subheadings? It's a good idea to make sure that your article will fit nicely with the content that people expect to find in a particular periodical or website. You might be able to get a lot of this information in the periodical's writer's (or submission) guidelines.

Fitting In


I work hard at trying to make my submissions look like a natural fit for a particular magazine. For instance, I always try to get a sense of how many words the editor wants. Magazine articles typically range from 2,000 to 4,000 words in length. Articles intended for website publication are generally shorter, perhaps 700 to 1,500 words. If an editor asks me for 2,000 words, that's what he gets. If you submit a 3,000-word article, it simply won't fit in the space the editor has in mind for it. The most likely outcomes are either rejection or substantial editing if he likes your story but needs something shorter. In rare cases you might persuade the editor to run a longer article as a series of shorter pieces, but don't count on it. (As a side note, a figure is generally counted as 200 words.)

Through some amazingly good fortune, I have managed to publish every written piece that I have ever submitted for publication. Sometimes it took me several tries. If the first periodical rejected my submission, I would modify the article to fit in with the next one to which I submitted it. On a few occasions, it took me up to four attempts before my piece was accepted for publication, but eventually I succeeded.

It's not always necessary to submit a full manuscript. If you have an idea for an article, float it past an editor who you think might find it interesting and see if you get a nibble. If no one is interested, maybe you don't need to spend the time writing and polishing the piece. One year, I outlined a series of nine possible articles for one magazine editor. After we agreed on the topics, I began writing them at my convenience. The more you understand about the readership the magazine is targeting, the easier it is to get a proposal accepted.

Delighting the Editor


My philosophy is to make the editor's job easy. I want the editor to immediately sense that my submission feels right for his publication and audience. That's why I try to make my manuscript conform to the publication's house style as closely as I can. As an example, if it is not customary for the publication to have sections titled Introduction or Conclusion, then my submission won't contain them either. It's an old dictum that in an article or a presentation you "tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them." That's not a bad policy, but you can do that without having sections explicitly (and mundanely) titled Introduction and Conclusion.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I've always had the impression that the less work an editor has to do to turn your submission into a published article, the more favorably inclined he will be toward you in the future. For each of my professional interactions—an article, a book, a presentation, a consulting gig—my goal is for the other party to think, "I'd be happy to work with Karl again." Making an article require as little editing as possible is one step toward this outcome. Of course, it's also essential to actually deliver what you promised or were expected to deliver!

If you really want to get on an editor's bad side, missing deadlines will do it. Magazines come out at fixed intervals and websites have to deliver a stream of fresh content; they aren't going to wait for your late article. I take great pride in having never missed a deadline for delivering articles, conference presentation materials, or book manuscripts. Not everyone is like this, though. More than one frantic editor has called me to ask if I can plug a hole in the magazine because some other contributor didn't deliver when promised. Editors will come back to you if they know they can count on you to deliver on time. Emergencies do arise, so if you find that you cannot meet a writing commitment, tell the affected parties as soon as possible so they can adapt.

Dangling the Bait


Editors also appreciate catchy titles and intriguing opening paragraphs. These are often the places that editors need to work on to make an article fit the magazine's style or format. Often, the editor will replace the title the author supplies, so don't get overly attached to your initial title.

A clever title initiates the connection between author and audience. Some of my article titles promise a certain number of tidbits of wisdom: 7 deadly sins, 10 traps to avoid, 21 success tips. Other titles are intended to make the reader ask, "Hmm, I wonder what this is about?" Some examples are:
  • "See You in Court" (about an engagement I had as an expert consultant for a party in a lawsuit)
  • "When Telepathy Won't Do" (key practices in requirements engineering)
  • "Know Your Enemy" (a tutorial on software risk management)
  • "Just Too Much to Do" (described a project prioritization spreadsheet tool)
  • "Stop Promising Miracles" (about a project estimation technique)
Try to come up with a title that both accurately reflects what you're presenting—truth in advertising is important—and piques the reader's interest in just a few words.

Setting the Hook


I work hard on the opening paragraph for each article. You have a very short window in which to grab the reader's attention. If you don't engage readers with the first paragraph, it doesn't matter what you say in the rest of the article; they likely won't read it. Busy people aren't likely to forge ahead, patiently hoping the article gets interesting at some point. Make your opening catchy enough that a reader can't help but keep going. I often start with something that will get the reader nodding in agreement with me from the outset, such as an indication that I feel the reader's pain and frustration:
 
Software managers sometimes assume that every skilled programmer is also proficient at interviewing customers and writing requirements specifications, without any training, resources or coaching. This isn't a reasonable assumption. Like testing, estimation and project management, requirements engineering has its own skill set and body of knowledge.
Once readers get the idea that you can provide them with some benefit, then you can reel them in and wow them with your wisdom.

You Have Arrived!

If you establish a reputation for writing high-quality material, delivering it on time, and stimulating reader interest, a magazine editor might even offer you a column. I remember how excited I was in 1986 when I received an invitation to write a tutorial column on assembly language programming for an Atari computer magazine. I could write about anything I wanted, knowing that it would be published, and that I would have a sustained income stream to boot. That was a lot of fun.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

What Are You Worth?

One of the first things you'll have to do as an independent consultant is determine what to charge for various products and services. There really isn't a guidebook for setting prices. It's very much a matter of what the market will bear. As with most services, the more experience you have and the better your reputation, the more you can charge. Many of the consultants I've known over the years charge less than they could probably get away with. It's hard to know how much you can command until you push the limits.

The best advice I ever got on setting prices came from a great book by Gerald Weinberg called The Secrets of Consulting: A Guide to Giving & Getting Advice Successfully. Weinberg's Principle of Least Regret states "Set the price so you won't regret it either way." In other words, set your price so you're happy whether the client says yes or no. I keep this principle in mind every time I quote a price to a client for a prospective engagement.

For instance, I have one course that I have taught, mostly in two-day format, 181 times in the past fifteen years. That is, I have spent nearly one full year of my life presenting this material! It is not interesting to me anymore, although it is still in demand. If a client asks me to teach this course now, I really would rather not do it. Therefore, I will ask for more money to teach that course than for another course that's more interesting to me. If the client accepts my outrageous offer, fine—I'll be there. I'll do the best job I possibly can, smiling all the way to the bank. But if the client decides my fee is too high, no worries—I'm happy to stay home. I might quote a lower price if the engagement is local or involves travel to someplace I would like to go anyway, perhaps to visit friends or do some wine tasting or sightseeing. So I have a base daily training fee, but then I adjust it based on numerous factors for a given situation.

Weinberg's principle has been valuable for me when setting prices. It also served as a good way to regulate how many commitments I made during those days when I was fortunate enough to receive lots of inquiries. If you're hungrier, you might be tempted to charge less to boost your chances of landing the gig. During the rich times, though, you can quote higher fees to make sure you don't exhaust yourself by accepting every possible opportunity that comes along. It's all a matter of balancing your supply of time (and interest) with customers’ demands for services.

When I launched my independent consulting career some years ago, I set my prices based on what I saw other experienced consultants were charging. Back then I charged $1,500 a day for consulting and $2,500 a day for training. I figured that training was a higher-leverage activity. The client received more value per day for my services; therefore, I was entitled to more compensation. Over the years, those rates went up. But I still know some established consultants who are charging only maybe $1,500 a day to deliver training. In my view, they are underpricing their services. Obviously, you'll get paid less if you're working through a parent company that contracts out your services or an agency that finds jobs for you. They're working on your behalf and are entitled to their slice.

There is a school of thought that says the higher your price, the greater the perception of value to the prospective client. Therefore, you will get more work if you charge more. Sometimes this strategy works, at least up to a point. I do have some colleagues who said that when they raised their training rates, they did land more gigs. Obviously, though, there's an upper cap beyond which the market is no longer interested and prospective clients will seek lower-priced options. As more competitors enter your domain, this will also exert downward price pressure.

I observed this in the field of software requirements engineering. I got into the game relatively early, with a well-received book and numerous articles and presentations in this area. I was able to establish fairly significant training fees. However, as more and more people wrote books about requirements and developed their own training materials, requirements training became more of a commodity. I couldn't command the same fees and still be competitive, although certain clients did want me personally to teach the class. It's all about what the market will bear.

Partway through my career I also began offering a service of off-site consulting at an hourly rate that works out to less than my usual daily on-site consulting rate. This way I can provide useful services to clients who perhaps don't want to spend a lot of money, have small questions or projects, just want me to review some documents for them, or want a little coaching on specific topics. In fact, most of my consulting work over the past several years has been done in this off-site fashion. I don't have to travel, I can work in my pajamas if I wish, and I can work however many hours per day I want so long as I meet the client's deadlines. I've even done large-scale and long-term engagements like this for remote clients, which has worked out well for everyone.

I suggest you base your price for a specific engagement on the value you're providing to the client. If I'm delivering a presentation with an unlimited audience, that provides more value to the client than a class whose attendance is restricted. If I'm helping one person with some project questions, I will probably provide less value than if I'm developing, say, a new requirements process to be deployed across the company's development organization.

It's important to keep in mind the objective of a win-win outcome. Most of the time, a client and a consultant can agree upon a fee structure that satisfies all of the participants and seems fair to all of them. If you can't, walk away from the engagement.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Consultants as Legitimate Leaders: The Goldilocks Approach (contributed by Jeanette Pigeon)

Jeanette Pigeon, President and CEO at www.aBetterBA.com, is a certified business analyst professional who has worked in government, healthcare, higher education, and marketing industries and is a business analyst leadership subject matter expert. Contact her at jeanette@aBetterBA.com.

Today, many people are protesting a perceived lack of legitimate leadership in private industry and government. By “legitimate leadership,” I mean power that is exercised fairly and is based on a relationship of trust between a leader and followers. Followers grant this leadership of power and authority because they believe an individual exhibits the confidence, competence, and consistency of behavior and communication to lead and create win-win outcomes. A leader is a guide whose ideas are the paths for a group to follow to a shared goal or outcome in a collaborative way.

As a consultant, you may have wondered how you can effectively lead a team of professionals during the short tenure of your contract assignment. Because you are an outsider to the organization and have a limited amount of time to complete a project, you need to establish yourself quickly as a capable leader who can win over the hearts and minds of others. They need to see you as a confident and highly competent guide who knows the path for them to follow, reinforced through consistency of behavior and communication, and built upon a foundation of trust. The question is how to quickly build this trust. Do you try to satisfy everyone by being overly friendly and flexible, or do you aggressively assert your dominance so everyone knows who's in charge? I recommend you use a Goldilocks approach: not too weak, yet not too strong. You want to take the approach that is just right.

As in the Brothers Grimm’s tale of Goldilocks, legitimate leadership is earned using a just-right approach. Being too weak or too strong will not earn you legitimate leadership, develop team cohesion, or motivate others to pursue a common goal to reach successful outcomes. These approaches are one-sided, and neither establishes a trusting relationship. To build trust, you must practice the “3 Cs” of legitimate leadership: Confidence, Competence, and Consistency of behavior and communication. Practicing the “3 Cs” will help you establish and maintain a relationship of mutual trust to create win-win outcomes. Let's consider each of these approaches and their efficacy in creating legitimate leadership.

Too Weak


You attempt to build trust by trying to satisfy everyone and are unable to articulate a common path. You appear to have no sense of direction, a flip-flopper with no consistent vision. When you speak, you are inarticulate or inconsistent about the team's goals or how they achieve those goals. You try to be nice to your team members and give them as much time and leeway as they want, which might conflict with what your project actually needs to succeed. Your stakeholders don't see substantive progress, so their expectations are not met. As a result, you create a leadership vacuum.

In a leadership vacuum, one or more team members may rise up and become implicit leaders of the team, undermining your leadership authority. When working in a matrix organization or with a newly formed team, members don’t collaborate, and some may constantly test your authority over the team. In the process of trying to accommodate everyone individually, you satisfy no one and don't appear to be a competent leader of a fully-functioning team. Your confidence in the face of these obvious capability and trust gaps make you appear to be out of touch and ineffective as a leader.

Too Strong


You dominate the team members and stakeholders and create a dictatorship. Team members are dragged down a path that is fraught with difficulty, delays, and failed projects. Stakeholders and team members become intimidated and won't open up to you and tell you the truth. Instead of establishing a trusting relationship with your people, you achieve the opposite.

Leading others through fear and intimidation is never effective when collaboration is your goal. You ignore the organizational culture and hierarchy, and reject or fail to solicit input from others. People resent you and what you are trying to achieve. The results can include a failure to follow your lead and even sabotage. Although you may appear to the stakeholders as a competent subject matter expert, you don't appear effective as a leader, so you don't earn the trust or legitimate leadership of your team or your stakeholders.

Just Right


You've taken the time to meet with key members of your team and other stakeholders. You've established a bond with each of them as a person and as a professional. You are sensitive to their needs and desires, and you have set appropriate expectations about working together and what will be achieved. You maintain an open door policy, encourage questions and ideas, and work openly to address concerns and mitigate risk. If issues arise, you seek to resolve them fairly and face-to-face, without creating added tension or causing others to become defensive. You walk the talk and roll up your sleeves, working alongside your team when needed. Your team is cohesive and understands how to engage you and what you expect of them. They are not afraid to seek your counsel and will let you know if issues arise before you are aware of them. Morale is high; people put in the extra effort without being asked. Stakeholders are satisfied and appreciate how efficiently and effectively your team performs.

Legitimate leadership is the reward of those who build a relationship of trust and exhibit the “3 Cs”: Confidence of leadership, Competence as a SME, and Consistency of behavior and communication. Using the just-right approach to legitimate leadership will allow you to more easily assert the leadership role amongst your team and stakeholders, enjoying the collaborative synergy that results. You effectively set and maintain effective leadership. Your team and their stakeholders will enjoy working with you, satisfied in having achieved the stated goals. This win-win outcome will translate into a long and professionally fulfilling consulting career.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Out of One, Many

When I began speaking at software conferences, I wondered whether I had to develop a new presentation each time I spoke. Some people I knew thought this was necessary. But I quickly learned that it was not. In fact, I have delivered certain presentations more than two dozen times in various forums: conferences, professional society meetings, webinars, and corporations.

Generalizing this insight, you should try to leverage the intellectual property you create as an independent consultant as many ways as you can. Let me give you a great example. Some years ago, a magazine invited me to write a short article, just 1,500 words, with "twenty or thirty quick project management tips" to plug a hole in their editorial calendar. So in an about an hour I banged out a short article titled "Secrets of Successful Project Management." Over the years I have built on this small starting point in numerous ways:
  • By adding some additional content, I created a one-hour presentation called "21 Project Management Success Tips," which I've delivered ten times at conferences and professional society meetings. This longer version of the paper was published in the proceedings of these conferences.
  • I created an eLearning webinar version of "21 Project Management Success Tips," which you can view for a modest fee.
  • "21 Project Management Success Tips" was incorporated in a compilation of software project management papers published by the IEEE Computer Society.
  • By covering another nine or ten topics, drilling down into some of them, and adding several practice activities, I expanded the short talk into a full-day seminar called "Project Management Best Practices," which I've presented twenty times at companies, government agencies, and conferences.
  • I created an eLearning version of "Project Management Best Practices," which is available for purchase as both single-user and site licenses.
  • I selected about three dozen slides from the "Project Management Best Practices" eLearning course and packaged them as the “5-Minute Manager eLearning Series”, quick-hitting micro-tutorials on focused topics for busy people who don’t need to take a whole course.
  • I wrote a series of articles amplifying certain of the project management tips, which were published in various magazines.
  • I collected several of these papers into my Project Initiation Handbook, which you can purchase for a very reasonable price.
  • I combined the contents of the "Project Initiation Handbook" with several other articles on project management and some new material, and published the result as a book titled Practical Project Initiation: A Handbook with Tools (Microsoft Press, 2007).
  • Going the other direction, I serialized certain chapters from Practical Project Initiation and republished them as articles on a project management-oriented website.
The moral of the story: as you create your own intellectual property in various formats, look for opportunities to leverage it into other forms, both increase your visibility and to generate revenue. If you publish an original article in a magazine or on a web site, make sure you retain the right to reuse the material in a future book or to resell it to other magazines for reprinting. My contracts for the articles I’ve written explicitly give me this right. If you publish a book with a traditional publisher, be sure the contract gives you the right to reprint content adapted from the book in other forms, such as magazine articles and blog posts. You might be able to combine your blog posts into eBooks and perhaps ultimately into a full book. (Be aware, though: a good book is rarely just a bunch of short pieces of writing stapled together. See upcoming posts for more about writing books.)

You do have to be careful about how you use materials that you write or create exclusively for a client. You do not own the rights to a work for hire: the client does. Therefore, you may not normally reuse or resell that material. On a few occasions, I have negotiated with a client to retain the right to reuse material I created for them, sometimes by cutting my fee, so that we have joint ownership. Such negotiations are perfectly fine, if it's agreeable to the client. I recommend that you get any statement of such agreement in writing to protect yourself in the future. The same holds true if you create presentations or write articles while you are working for another corporation. Make sure you clarify who owns the material. I had to do this when I was writing for publication while I worked at Kodak.

By the way, making your intellectual property available to customers in various forms is a tip I picked up from Alan Weiss's very useful books Money Talks and Million Dollar Consulting. Those books were worth every penny.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Writing Your Way to Success

It's a safe bet that consultants will have to do some writing. Much of the consulting work I’ve done has involved developing process-related materials for clients. I have created all manner of process descriptions, procedures, document templates, checklists, guidance documents, and other work aids. Other engagements have involved performing a process assessment that resulted in a written report of my observations, analysis, and recommendations. So the ability to communicate clearly, concisely, and effectively through the written word is an essential skill for many consultants. In this and several future posts I’ll share some things I've learned about writing.

As you gain experience and wisdom in a particular domain, you might wish to share what you've learned with others. I've written more than 150 articles on numerous software development, quality, and management topics, as well as more than twenty articles on chemistry and military history, of all things. Most of these articles were published by traditional print magazines, although more and more have appeared in recent years on websites. Most magazines will pay for articles; many websites will not. But remember, everything is negotiable (see last week’s blog post). If you have a good enough story to tell and enough credibility in the industry, you might be able to negotiate some payment from anyone who publishes your work. In general, you might get between $200 and $1000 per article, although the latter figure seems to be on the high side these days.

Eventually you might decide to write a book. That's a whole different prospect from writing a bunch of articles. Telling a story in a few thousand words on a focused topic isn't too hard; writing 60,000 to 100,000 words in a typical book takes mucho planning, time, and effort. Then there's the whole matter of getting the book published, negotiating contracts, promoting it, and all the rest. It ain't trivial.

I'll talk more about writing articles and books in future posts, but for now here’s one tidbit of wisdom I've acquired after writing seven books: think about whose writing you find particularly appealing and learn from them. You might have favorite authors who you find to be especially helpful, interesting, and enjoyable to read. Take the time to examine their work and assess why you like their writing. Then you can try to emulate some of those desirable characteristics in your own work.

I did this quite a few years ago. I realized that Steve McConnell was one of my favorite software authors (he's also a good friend). Steve has written numerous top-selling software books and is very highly regarded in the industry. When I thought about it, I realized that Steve used fairly short sentences in much of his writing, and he writes in a direct, conversational style. I also favor that informal writing style, although I confess to being somewhat long-winded by nature. My sentences can get wordy. I also tend to overuse adverbs, and I say "tend to" a lot. We all have our shortcomings.

Once I recognized what I like about Steve's writing, I tried to steer my own writing style in that direction. I use the statistics from Word's grammar checker (part of the spell check feature) to provide guidance. I find the grammar checking feature in Word worse than useless overall—I think it was programmed on Opposite Day—but I do like these statistics. The statistics report the average number of sentences per paragraph in the document, words per sentence, and characters per word. The number of characters per word should be around five when writing in English. I aim to keep the average words per sentence no higher than twenty, and preferably fewer. Shorter words, shorter sentences, and shorter paragraphs enhance readability.

The statistics report also shows several readability measures. The higher the Flesch Reading Ease index, the easier the document is to read (duh). I aim for at least 40. The lower the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, the easier the document is to read. I keep my technical writing at a grade level around twelve. For my nontechnical writing, I aim for a grade level between eight and nine. I also try to keep the number of passive sentences low. Sentences written in the active voice are more direct and easier to understand than passive-voice sentences.

If the statistics don't come out like I want after I've drafted an article or book chapter, I'll do some editing to simplify the material and increase the readability. By way of example, here are the statistics for this post:
  • 1188 words
  • Average of 6.6 sentences per paragraph (a little high)
  • Average of 15.5 words per sentence (fine)
  • Average of 4.8 characters per word (typical)
  • One percent passive sentences (fine)
  • Flesch Reading Ease of 57.9 (great)
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 8.8 (wonderful)
If these statistics are meaningful, you should find this post easy to read. I hope that's the case.

The whole point of writing is to communicate with your readers. Readers respond to writing that doesn't make them work hard to understand it. They love direct, simple tutorials that teach them techniques they can apply immediately. Readers appreciate clearly stated concepts, explanations, and opinions. Some authors write as though they want readers to know how smart they are. Nobody cares how smart you are. They just care if you're able to communicate useful information to them. Hence, my interest in using a simple and conversational writing style. When I was writing a series of tutorials on assembly language for an Atari computer magazine long ago, I met a man who said, "When I work through your articles, I feel like you are standing there explaining them to me." That was great to hear, because it was exactly what I was trying to accomplish.

As you develop your writing style, you might think about what kind of compliments from an admiring reader would mean the most to you. Then you can develop a style that elicits that sort of feedback. Just this week, a reader commented on one of my blog posts: “I always enjoy your articles as they provide so much insight and information in a simple and interesting way. I find that your books are also very user-friendly and practical.” This comment delighted me: “simple, interesting, user-friendly, and practical” was music to my ears. It's one thing to inspire people with ideas, but I'm most interested in giving busy practitioners both useful techniques and the motivation to apply them.

I was educated as a scientist. The first substantial document I wrote was a PhD thesis in physical organic chemistry titled "Kinetics and Mechanism of Lithium Aluminum Hydride Reductions of Ketones." (What could be more fascinating than that? Actually, it was pretty cool.) Scientists neither write nor speak like normal people. When I began writing on topics other than science, it took me quite a while to un-learn how scientists write, to revamp my writing style to be more accessible. I think I've largely succeeded. One of the best compliments I ever got on my writing was when someone said, "You don't write like you have a PhD." I was most pleased.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Everything's Negotiable

Throughout my career, I have used a simple speaking agreement or consulting agreement to record all the details of each engagement. I'll talk more about these agreements in a future post. Most of the time this simple form works fine. Occasionally, though, I will get some pushback from the client on specific terms in the agreement. And once in a while, the client's legal department gets in on the action and sends me a massive document to sign.

People naturally write contracts biased in their own favor, so you need to read anything you get from a client very carefully. And it's good to remember that almost all of the terms can be negotiated if you aren't happy with them. In fact, I'm in the midst of such a negotiation this very day. So far, this client is proving quite accommodating of the changes I'm requesting. For instance, the client’s standard services contract demanded that I take a drug test, something I’ve encountered only once before. I replied that I don’t take drugs and I don’t take drug tests. The client dropped the requirement. Sometimes you just have to ask.

In this post I describe some typical categories where you might need to do some negotiation with a client.

Fees: The most obvious negotiable term is the fee you're charging for your services. Frankly, I’ve found that clients don't challenge this as frequently as you might expect. I have standard rates that I quote for certain services, but there's some flexibility in them. For instance, I'll offer a nice discount if a client wants to acquire a site license for some of my eLearning training courses in addition to having me present a live seminar. I'll also drop the price if the client wants a combination of consulting and training services, or to have me present multiple classes during the same trip. Similarly, I offer a bundle discount if someone buys multiple products at the same time.

Once, a prospective client asked for a discount of several thousand dollars off a two-day training course simply because my quote exceeded her budget. She just wanted me to knock the price down because I'm such a nice guy. Sorry, I'm not that nice. I wasn't willing to do the job for the price she suggested, and we never were able to come to an agreement. Sometimes that's the way negotiations turn out.

Cancellation Fee: My speaking agreement always include a cancellation or rescheduling fee. Some clients balk at this. My premise is that, when I sign the agreement, I am committing a certain number of days for the client event, plus preparation and travel time. Should the client decide to change the agreed-upon date or to cancel the event entirely, it's unlikely that I can rebook that time slot with another client on short notice. If I purchase a nonrefundable airline ticket, changing the dates or canceling will cost me some money.

Therefore, I ask the client to make a similar commitment to me in the form of agreeing to pay me twenty or twenty-five percent of the price as a cancellation or rescheduling fee. Sometimes we negotiate a lower such fee. Or, we might put some time bounds around it. Maybe no payment is due if I can reschedule at no cost to me or if they cancel at least X weeks prior to the event. But I always insist on a cancellation fee. If the client isn't willing to sign up for that, we don't make a deal.

I had one client who tried waiting until immediately prior to the scheduled event to sign the speaking agreement, to minimize the likelihood of having to cancel or reschedule and thereby incur a fee. However, my policy is to not commit specific dates to an event until I receive the signed speaking agreement. I felt no qualms about giving that client’s desired date to another who was willing to make the commitment. I didn't appreciate the game of schedule chicken this client was playing with me. That gig fell through, also.

Usage Rights: The consulting service contracts that some corporations use attempt to claim unreasonable rights for the presentation materials used in a training course. They might stipulate that the client has the right to use the course materials in any way they wish, simply because I presented the course once at their company. This right could extend to unlimited distribution of the material throughout the company, teaching the class themselves within or outside their company using those materials, or even licensing my courseware to other companies. This is the first clause that I remove from every such service contract. My clients do not have the right to use my training materials for any purpose other than the courses I am presenting, unless we execute a separate licensing agreement. I’ve never had any problem getting this clause removed.

Video Recording: Occasionally, a client wishes to record my presentation and show it to other people throughout their company. Obviously, this represents a lost opportunity for me, because they might use the video rather than hiring me to come in and teach another class.

I am not totally averse to video recording. If the session I’m presenting was open to anyone in the company who wanted to come, it's fine with me for them to record it for anyone who could not physically attend the live session. Usually, though, my training courses are capped at a certain number of attendees for the agreed-upon fee. If they want to make the material available to other people, such as through videoconferencing or videotape, I will generally permit this but charge them extra for the privilege.

Insurance: Contracts coming out of the legal department generally contain clauses about the various types of insurance the consultant is expected to provide. If you have multiple employees, you might be expected to provide worker's compensation insurance coverage, but to my knowledge (and remember, this is not legal advice), sole proprietors are exempt from workers comp. I do carry business liability insurance, which offers some protection if, say, I injure a student with my laser pointer or damage some property with my car. However, the coverage amounts stipulated in the contract often are higher than I carry, so I negotiate to lower those coverage expectations. This has never been a problem for me when I point it out to the client's legal department.

I do not carry professional malpractice (errors and omissions) insurance, although some companies request that. Clients have always been willing to remove that requirement when I point out that I don't carry it and that I don't need E&O coverage for the sorts of engagement I typically perform.

Other Expenses: Today, for the first time in my career, a client required that I undergo a criminal background investigation. I have no objection to that, so long as they don't find all my secret offshore bank accounts or the yachts, but they wanted to charge me $49.79 for the privilege. I was able to persuade the client to cover this cost. They also might want to pull a credit report on me. Also fine (if peculiar), except that I have freezes on my credit reports with TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax—the three major credit reporting agencies—as protection against identity theft. If this client wants a credit report, I have to pay $10 per agency to unfreeze my account and $10 more to refreeze it. I asked the client to pay for that, also, but they decided they didn’t need to do a credit check after all.

Each party involved in a negotiation is striving to adjust the outcome in their favor, but they should also respect their counterpart's legitimate needs. We all have limits to our flexibility. If the people with whom we're negotiating insist on finalizing the terms beyond our tolerance limits, we won't reach a mutually acceptable outcome. You don't win every negotiation, but you might be able to do better than you expect just by asking.

For more on effective negotiation, I highly recommend Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton. This book provides excellent advice on how to successfully negotiate from an understanding of each party's interests, rather than by debating immovable positions.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Be Prepared for the Unexpected (contributed by Claudia Dencker)

My career has taken many twists and turns and has been filled with amazing opportunities and successes, as well as its share of disappointments. While I am now an employee of Stanford University, I spent the bulk of my career as an independent consultant. And there is truly no better career.

Many authors have written about the business of consulting, such as how to set yourself up legally, financially, and with the tax authorities. But that's the easy part, because you are in control. You take action, you get results. Where many consultants, business people, and even job candidates fail is in securing the gig, securing the sale, securing the job. Without a consulting assignment, you won't be able to start or maintain your status as an independent consultant.

This post and others will take you through what I believe are the most important aspects of consulting: establishing a relationship and maintaining that relationship, thereby securing repeat business. Many of the lessons in these posts can also be applied to interviewing for a job for regular employment.

I have a non-technical background. But, I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time when the economy was expanding. I left Hewlett-Packard in 1983 as a software quality engineer with little prospect for advancement unless I got an MBA. The job offer I received from a small start-up in Santa Clara, California, was a compelling step towards realizing the long-held dream of running my own business. This company, a contract software testing house, taught me the necessary skills to take my first step into consulting. I learned the great importance of salesmanship from two masters, one a long-standing salesman and the other a recent graduate from San Jose State who came to sales naturally.

Before I tell you just what I learned, let me relate a story. Years into my independent consulting career, I was trying to secure some business with a medical device company in San Jose, California. I had already made contact with the decision maker. As part of his qualification process, he wanted me to meet some of the key team members before making a commitment. I agreed and we set a date.

On the day of the appointment, thinking that I would only be meeting with two or three people, I drove to the site. It was a stunning day with bright sunshine, blue sky and a cool breeze blowing through the South Bay, a good omen for the day. As usual, I dressed in business attire and took along some company brochures and business cards in my briefcase, confident that I had a solid chance of landing the job after meeting with a few people. Imagine my surprise when I entered the conference room and saw twenty people sitting around a large table all waiting to meet me. I took a deep breath, smiled at everyone, and relaxed. This would not be a typical session.

The people around the table introduced themselves. Then came the first question: "Tell us about your services." For those of you interviewing for a job, this is the same question as, "Tell us about yourself." I had practiced my pitch many times before in similar settings, in written materials, and through presentations, so I launched into a description of my services. This took about five minutes, as I had pared it to the essentials. I didn't want to talk too much about myself. I wanted to learn from the potential customers what they were looking for, what their pain points were, and how I could help. Only two or three attendees asked questions; everyone else sat and listened. I kept my answers short and to the point, being sure to answer only the question that was asked and nothing more. I even let the occasional silence set in.

Towards the end of the meeting, someone asked another common question, "How much is it going to cost?" I responded with my usual answer: "Let me review your specifications, and I'll put together a cost for you quickly." I had learned years ago to avoid giving off-the-cuff estimates. The goal of my meeting with the twenty participants was to get to the next step in the sales cycle. Off-the-cuff cost estimates can slam doors.

The meeting ended when I had gathered all the information I needed to finalize and cost the proposal and to be assured of its success. I had spent much of the meeting listening to the customer, not rushing my answers, and, when I did speak, keeping answers on point. I tried to keep the customer talking as much as possible.

As I left, I informed everyone that I was very interested. "I want your business," I said. "It would be pleasure doing business with you and your team." I'm happy to say that I landed the job. To this day, I still don't know why there were twenty people in the room, as I worked with only one of them.

So what had I learned from the two sales masters that helped me land this contract? Here are the primary lessons:
  • Listen, listen, listen. Have the customers tell you what their pain points are—don't assume that you already know. Keep the customers talking and elaborating on their situation. This will help you to form an air-tight response to their needs.
  • Only answer the question that was asked. Do not elaborate or expand unnecessarily.
  • Be prepared for the unexpected (like a much larger interviewing group than you expected).
And some other lessons:
  • Avoid ball-parking the cost of your services off the top of your head. Even cost ranges can be booby traps unless they are ridiculously wide, and then everyone will recognize that. This will work against you.
  • Be sure to tell the customer that you want their business. In an unexpected way, it is flattering to the customer and of course, important to you. Your career as an independent consultant starts with that first sale.
I also learned to relax in those face-to-face meetings; they can be fun.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Kind of Business Plan

When I began my consulting career I didn’t have an explicit business plan. I hadn’t set particular goals for myself, let alone devised a strategy for achieving those goals. I just thought I’d see what happened and how my new career shaped up. I don’t necessarily recommend this strategy, although it worked out okay in my case.

Once I got established, I did think more about how I wanted my consulting career to evolve. I came up with a sort of rudimentary business objective: earn a nice living while I’m asleep. While that’s not a true business plan, that objective did force the question of, “How are you going to do that?” As an independent consultant with no employees, every penny of revenue I generated came through my own efforts. So the trick was to figure out how to generate as much income as possible with as little effort as possible. That is, to look for sources of unearned income. I came up with several techniques for creating ongoing revenue streams after some initial investment of effort.

You can get some great ideas about passive income from a fine book by Alan Weiss called Money Talks: How to Make $1 Million as a Speaker. I’ve never made a million dollars in a year, but my investment in this book certainly paid off. Weiss wrote another useful book titled Million Dollar Consulting: The Professional’s Guide to Growing a Practice. I recommend both of these to both aspiring and experienced consultants.

Book Royalties: Book royalties are a gift that keeps on giving, with some caveats. First, you actually need to write the book. This is not trivial. I will talk more about writing books in later posts. Second, it has to be a good book. Ideally, it will get good reviews and people will come to recognize the contribution it makes to the software practitioner. Third, the book should fill an important niche in the software literature. For several of my books, I identified perceived gaps in the literature and attempted to plug them, with generally good success. It’s best if the domain you’re writing about doesn’t have tons of competitive titles. Fourth, people need to know about the book, which generally means going with an established publisher instead of self-publishing. You won’t get as much money per copy that way, but you will probably sell more copies. And fifth, it works best if you write a book that has a long shelf life, not one that deals with the latest software fad or with a technology that will be obsolete in a couple of years.

Most technical books don’t sell zillions of copies. You’re probably not going to be able to live on your book royalties. I do know a few people who make more than $100,000 a year from software book royalties, although I’ve never approached that lofty pinnacle. Nonetheless, the royalties add up.

Licensing: Most of my work through Process Impact has involved delivering training. The revenue stream from doing training yourself is linear: if you teach two classes, you make twice as much money as if you taught one class. If you want to increase the income-to-effort ratio, you need to disrupt this linear relationship. One option is to hire other people to teach classes for you and split the revenue. I tried a different approach. For many years I have licensed my courseware to other companies, either to teach internally to their own staff or to deliver classes to their own clients or through public seminars. Licensing has worked out well for me.

Obviously, you have to have content available that other people will find to be valuable. The content must be structured and packaged such that other people can easily learn to present it. Whenever I have developed a new course for my own use, I created detailed instructor notes and supporting information with the intent of licensing it. I’ve also licensed various bits of my other intellectual property for people to incorporate into their own products, courseware, and books, charging nominal fees for that. Just this week, I made $100 by licensing three pages of content to a training company. The total effort involved consisted of a brief email exchange and a fax.

eLearning Courses: After the attacks of 9/11, it occurred to me that people might be more reluctant to travel for training. Therefore, I began exploring ways to package some of my presentations in a CD- or web-based format so people could take my classes from the convenience of their own chair. After experimenting with different approaches, I settled on an eLearning format that closely emulates my live presentations. Certainly, there are various ways you can approach eLearning, but this seemed right for me because people enjoy my live classes and conference presentations. You can see what I came up with here. I also created on-demand webinar versions of several short conference presentations in this same eLearning format.

Over the years, I’ve sold hundreds of both single-user and corporate-wide site license versions of my eLearning courses. Creating the courses in the first place is a lot of work. After that, though, the delivery cost and effort is minimal and the profit margin substantial. The eLearning courses also make great train-the-trainer aids for people who license my instructor-led courseware.

eBooks: Some years ago I wrote several handbooks approximately 70 pages in length on various topics. Today these would be called eBooks. I have sold them as PDF downloads through my website, both as single-user copies and as site licenses that allow a company to distribute the handbooks throughout their organization. These handbooks are inexpensive, but they constitute a another small revenue stream that requires little effort on my part. You might be able to sell your eBooks through online retailers like Amazon.com. You can also create versions for use with various eBook readers, such as Kindle, Nook, and Kobo.

Other Products:
I’ve sold a variety of other products over the years through my website. None of them generate a lot of revenue, but it didn’t take a great deal of work to create them and the dollars continue to trickle in. Visit ProcessImpact.com to learn more about these various kinds of products.

Affiliate Programs: Another way to get free money is to sign up for an affiliate program. When visitors to your web site click through certain links to a vendor’s site and buy products there, you get some percentage as a commission. I’ve been a member of the Amazon Affiliates program for more than a decade. If you want to see how it works, click here. This link will take you to the Amazon.com page for my latest book, a memoir of life lessons called Pearls from Sand. Even if you don’t buy the book (what?!), you may then browse around Amazon to your heart’s content and buy lots of other stuff. I will receive a certain percentage of whatever you spend, and it costs you nothing. Go ahead, try it. Buy many things. Please. Do it again later on. Tell your friends about it. I’ll let you know how well it works.

Affiliate programs can work the other way, also. I’ve enlisted several companies to resell my eLearning courses, for instance. When one of their customers buys a course, we split the revenue. Everybody wins. Of course, not all affiliate programs yield benefits, but once set up, they provide one more way to make money while you sleep. Is this a great business plan, or what?

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Tips for Becoming a Confident Presenter

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but somewhere along the way I became a public speaker. I never took a speech class or participated in debate in school. I never attended Toastmasters or any other organization that helps you become comfortable speaking in front of an audience. Nonetheless, I’ve delivered nearly 600 presentations in the past twenty years and enjoyed just about all of them. These were all training classes and shorter presentations (conferences, professional meetings, webinars, etc.) on software development and management. Somehow, I have become comfortable presenting to audiences ranging from just a few people up to more than a thousand.

Most consultants will be called upon to give a presentation or teach a class from time to time. Speaking in public is one of the most terrifying experiences for most people. That’s understandable. Everyone is staring right at you, awaiting your words of wisdom. You feel exposed and vulnerable. It’s one thing to say something that sounds foolish in a private conversation; it’s quite a different matter to say it to dozens or hundreds or thousands. The potential for embarrassment is enormous. However, so is the potential for sharing important information that can influence many people in a positive way.

Just in case you, like so many other people, are scared by the idea of giving a presentation, in this post I share Karl’s Safety Tips for Confident Public Speaking. I think you’ll find that keeping these ideas in mind as you prepare for a talk will give you a lot more confidence. Maybe you’ll even have fun the next time you’re on stage.

Presentation Tip #1: No one knows what you’re going to say, so don’t worry if the words that come out of your mouth don’t exactly match the way you scripted, planned, or practiced the talk. Just keep going. This is very different from giving, say, a piano recital of a well-known musical composition, where someone in the audience is certain to detect a C that should have been a B.

Presentation Tip #2: You’re in control. You’re the one with the podium, the microphone, the projector, and the laser pointer. You’re the one who can ask the audience if they have any questions. You can terminate the discussion and move on whenever you like. It’s your show.

Presentation Tip #3: Even if you aren’t the world’s expert on the topic you’re presenting, you almost certainly know more about it than anyone else in the room. Otherwise, one of them would be speaking and you’d be listening. Keep this truth in mind to give you confidence in your material.

Presentation Tip #4: You rarely face a hostile audience. Most of the time, people are there because they want to hear what you have to say. This isn’t necessarily true if you’re dealing with a controversial issue or if you’re speaking at a political or government meeting of some kind. But if you’re delivering a factual presentation to a group of people who are attending of their own volition, they usually start out with an open and receptive attitude toward the speaker. After that, it’s up to you to hold their interest.

Presentation Tip #5: If you’re using slides, as in a PowerPoint presentation, never say “and on the next slide….” Maybe you don’t remember exactly what’s on the next slide, or perhaps you changed the sequence from the last time you gave the presentation. If you’re surprised by the slide that pops up, you would have to backtrack a bit after the lead-in you presented. Instead, just display the next slide in the sequence and talk about whatever is on it. In other words, it’s okay to fake it a little bit.

Presentation Tip #6: It’s fine to say “I don’t know” in response to a question if you aren’t sure how best to respond. That’s better than standing there silently because you can’t think of the right answer. It’s also better than making up some answer on the fly that might turn out to be wildly erroneous. Even better than a simple “I don’t know” is “I don’t know, but I’ll find out,” or “I’m not sure off the top of my head, so let me think about your question and get back to you with a more considered response.”

Presentation Tip #7: Keep an eye on the clock. If you see that you might run out of time before you cover everything you wanted to say, that’s your problem, not the audience’s problem. You might have to skip some material. That’s much better than holding captive a fidgeting audience who would like to move on with their lives or get to the next presentation at the conference. It’s usually okay to run a couple of minutes over your allotted time, but that’s it. With practice, you’ll get better at selectively deleting or condensing your planned material to bring the talk to a smooth close without having to Rolodex through twenty slides in the last five minutes—nobody likes that.

Presentation Tip #8: Be sure to talk about what you said you were going to talk about. I firmly believe in “truth in advertising,” so I try to write descriptions of my presentations that are accurate as well as inviting. The audience members have a right to know what to expect, and the speaker has a responsibility to deliver. I’ve attended more than one presentation where the content delivered didn’t fulfill the expectation set by the title and description. Let’s say the title of the talk is “Conjugating Verbs in Swahili,” but the material presented misses the mark. At the end of the talk, the speaker invites questions, and one attendee asks, “Were you going to say anything about conjugating verbs in Swahili?” The speaker is dumbfounded. She doesn’t know how to respond. She thinks that’s what she just spent an hour talking about, but she really didn’t. That’s an embarrassing position for any speaker to be in. I’ve seen it happen.

I find that these eight tips help keep me confident, comfortable, and poised when I’m speaking in public. I’ll bet they’ll help you, too.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Hanging Out the Shingle

I know a number of knowledgeable and talented people who declared themselves to be consultants but never got enough work to make a living at it. The message I got from these experiences was that it doesn’t matter how good you are if nobody knows you’re there. One man’s experience particularly sticks in my mind. I’ll call him Kevin.

Kevin is very bright and had considerable experience in the broad domain of software process improvement, so one day he left corporate America to become a consultant. However, Kevin made some mistakes getting started. He didn’t take the necessary actions to let prospective clients know that he was available and could be helpful to them. Kevin never created an official company name and never developed a website to market his services. He didn’t publish articles in software magazines or on websites. This is one way to get your name out there. Blogging is another useful technique, as is being an active contributor to blogs and discussion forums, such as those on LinkedIn. If people realize that you have good ideas and useful information to share, they might want to learn more about you and perhaps hire you.

Kevin did give a number of presentations at software conferences. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to realize that the types of short presentations and even full-day tutorials that one typically delivers at conferences do not necessarily have a good market in the commercial world. Even if you do get hired to come into a company to give a short talk, it won’t pay much, and there’s only a small chance that it will lead to longer-term engagements. Kevin also positioned himself in too narrow of a specialty, just a couple of subdomains of software process improvement. In my experience, few corporations bring in consultants to help with those particular areas, important though they are. The net result of all this was that Kevin never gained much traction as an independent consultant. Eventually, he had to go back into the corporate world to have a reliable income.

You can learn a lot from Kevin’s experiences as you chart your own path for independent consulting in the software world. Somehow, I was very fortunate. I always had all of the work I wanted to do when I was an active consultant. Maybe I just hit the sweet spot in terms of developing training materials, other resources, and expertise in areas that were in demand, such as requirements engineering and software quality. But I think I did take some of the right actions, too.
  • I thought long and hard about what to name my company. I didn’t want to call it just something like the Wiegers Consulting Group or Wiegers & Associates. You’d be amazed how many such-named companies have but a single employee—no group, no associates. After considerable contemplation, I realized that my goal was to have an impact on the processes that software organizations use to build their products, and for those processes to have an impact on the organization’s business success. Hence the name: Process Impact.

  • I created a website immediately, ProcessImpact.com. I confess that this site is rather dated and simple, but it has a lot of useful content, and I’ve always favored substance over fluff, function over form. I now have three additional websites: ProjectInitiation.com, KarlWiegers.com, and PearlsFromSand.com.

  • Building a website is a good starting point, but then you need to attract people to the site. Over the years, I posted increasing quantities of material, including articles I had written, document templates and other useful work aids, and so forth. This kind of “bait” clearly draws visitors. The most popular item on ProcessImpact.com, my software requirements specification template, is still downloaded nearly 20,000 times per month. This astonishes me.

  • I wrote many articles for numerous software magazines on a variety of topics: requirements, project management, people management, quality, metrics, process improvement, and so forth. I published up to ten articles per year early in my career. Publishing generates good visibility and establishes the author’s credentials in multiple areas of expertise.

  • I spoke at as many as six or eight conferences per year, often giving multiple presentations at each conference. This is a way to reach hundreds of people a year with your message. You know your career is progressing when conference producers invite you to submit papers, to sit on panels, and ultimately to give keynote presentations. As you gain visibility, you can get paid increasing amounts to give your presentations. And the conference fee is virtually always waived for speakers.

  • I gave quite a few presentations at meetings of professional organizations throughout the country. If you can find such organizations close to home, that raises your profile in your own community and presents the opportunity for generating local work.

  • I began writing books. As of now, I have published six books on software development and management, in addition to a nontechnical memoir of life lessons titled Pearls from Sand: How Small Encounters Lead to Powerful Lessons (PearlsFromSand.com). Having your name on a book gives you both visibility and credibility. This is not to say that I am the world’s expert on any particular topic. You only have to know a little more than the next guy to be helpful, though.
Doubtless it was the combination of these activities that helped generate awareness of my presence and capabilities in the software industry. As a result, I made a decent living as a consultant and trainer, and I never had to think about going back to work in a larger company.

Do you agree with my premise that it doesn’t matter how good you are if no one knows you’re there? If so, think about various ways you can let the world (or at least the part of the world that might give you money for your services) learn of your existence and talents. It might pay off.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Welcome to the Consulting Tips and Tricks Blog

I’ve been self-employed as a software development and management consultant since early 1998. I’m launching this blog to share some of the bits of wisdom I’ve learned since then, and to encourage others to share their own experiences and insights as well. These thoughts are in no particular order. They simply reflect some of the tips, practices, and tricks I’ve found to be useful over the years.

There are many types of consultants and consulting engagements. Although I’ve always called myself a consultant, in reality most of the work I’ve done has been training, so some of my tips are in the realm of making presentations. I’ve always worked through my own one-person company, Process Impact. (BTW, I’ve found that even in a one-person company, management is unreasonable and uninformed, and the staff are all lazy with bad attitudes.) Some consultants get work through agencies, or they are employed full-time by a company that contracts their consulting services out to clients. Because this blog is based on my own experiences while being self-employed, some of my suggestions may not apply to consultants who are employed by real companies. Nor am I addressing staff-augmentation contracting relationships in which companies hire individuals, who are often called “consultants,” to perform technical work. Feel free to contribute your own suggestions for these other kinds of consulting domains.

I should point out that nothing I suggest or describe should be construed as constituting legal advice. Also, you might find that things I've found to be valuable are an insanely bad fit for your situation, so it would be silly to take my advice. As with all such writings, your mileage may vary.

By way of background, let me tell you how I got started in consulting. I started as a research chemist at Kodak, moved into software development in 1984, and later managed a small software group. I began learning as much as I could about software process improvement through books, magazines, and conferences. Soon I found myself in demand to help other groups within Kodak with certain aspects of process improvement. Ultimately I took full-time positions leading process improvement efforts in Kodak's digital imaging technology areas and finally in their web development group, the people who bring you kodak.com.

In the early 1990s, I began giving presentations at conferences outside Kodak and writing magazine articles about various aspects of improving software development and management capabilities. In 1994 I received my first invitation to speak at another company about some of the software engineering work I’d been writing about. More such opportunities arose, thanks to my increasing visibility as a conference speaker and author. Soon I found myself providing consulting and training services for other companies on my vacation time, while I still worked full-time at Kodak. This was all done with Kodak's knowledge and approval. It was a safe way to begin my segue into a consulting career.

My first book, Creating a Software Engineering Culture, was published in 1996 while I was still at Kodak. Shortly thereafter, a well-known software consultant and author asked when I was going to leave Kodak and hang out a shingle as an independent consultant. Frankly, this seemed pretty risky to me, considering that I like to eat every day. But I decided to give it a shot. I formally launched Process Impact in December 1997, and a few months later I left Kodak to see how things might go on my own.

I learned several things right away. First, I was fortunate to get much more work than I thought it might. That was a relief, because many new consultants struggle to find sufficient employment. Second, I found that I really enjoy the flexibility of being self-employed. While at Kodak, I learned that I do not need to be managed and I do not like to be a manager, so self-employment has suited me well. Third, I learned that there's an awful lot to learn about being a self-employed consultant. I wish I had had a mentor to rely on for assistance. Perhaps this blog can serve as a useful resource for you if you're pursuing a similar career path.

If you have your own consulting tips to share, please add comments to the posts, or email me so we can talk about having you contribute a guest post.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)