Thursday, July 19, 2012

It’s a Matter of Policy (part 2/2)

In the first article in this series I described some of the business rules or policies I’ve adopted for my consulting and training company, Process Impact, over the years. That article presented several policies I have regarding traveling. In this concluding article I share some additional policies regarding finances and client relations. I’ve mentioned some of these in earlier posts so I won’t elaborate on them in detail here.

On Finances


One of the first things I learned about consulting was to Set my price so I’m happy whether the client says yes or no. I’ll ask a higher fee if I’m not that interested in doing the job (like teaching the same two-day class for the 182nd time—literally!) or if the travel required is excessive or inconvenient. I’ll ask less if the destination is someplace I want to go anyway, if the opportunity sounds like a novel consulting engagement, or if it's a class I don't get to teach very often. Most of the time that high price scares the client away, If not, then I’ll grin and bear it and cash the check. One consultant I know was invited to travel from the east coast of the United States to Japan to deliver a half-day presentation. Not wanting to spend that much time traveling for such a short gig, he requested an outrageous fee and first-class airfare. The client agreed; off he went.

I also Quote an all-up fee that includes my expenses. This way I don’t have to provide receipts (potentially subject to client frowning and debate) for travel and lodging expenses, books, printing handouts, and the like. This policy has greatly simplified my invoicing. It also permits me to Request payment at the time of the event with a new client because I can submit the invoice in advance. I adopted that practice after having countless invoices get lost in clients’ accounting systems. This reduces my aggravation level and saves me the time of chasing down late payments. I also do not let clients get away with their occasional attempts to give themselves a discount for payment within 10 days. My terms are net 30 days (45 days for some clients), with no discount for early payment.

Another consulting colleague insists that New overseas clients must pay half the fee in advance. This is a good idea in case you have any concerns at all about whether you’re going to get paid, in what currency, in what form, and when. A Canadian friend recently told me that he suffered a significant loss because of changing currency exchange rates thanks to an American client company that waited months to pay him.

I’ve had a few problems with overseas customers who ordered products from my website but never paid the invoice. This small percentage of rip-off artists forced me to adopt the policy that Customers outside the United States must pay for products in advance. When the money comes in, the product goes out.

Just this past week I had an experience that caused me to contemplate a new business policy. I recently delivered a webinar at the invitation of a small company that sells certain software development tools. My invoice wasn’t paid on time. That’s not terribly unusual, but when I followed up I learned that the company had just closed and gone into receivership. I am never going to get paid. So now I need to consider whether to ask small companies with potentially shaky finances to pay me in advance for any work I perform for them.

Early in my consulting career I was invited to speak at a meeting of a local professional society. The contact person asked me what my fee would be. Not having encountered this situation before I wasn’t sure what to request. After I thought about it, though, I concluded that I Do not charge a speaking fee to give a presentation at a local professional organization. Delivering such presentations is a way for me to contribute to my profession as well as being a marketing and networking opportunity. Conversely, I Do not provide services to a company for free. If I’m delivering value to a company’s employees through a presentation or consulting, I’m entitled to be compensated for that value.

On Client Relations


Professional and personal integrity being important to me, I will Never misrepresent the work I’m performing for a client. A prospective client once asked me to state in my consulting agreement that I would be providing certain services. In actuality, though, he wanted me to do something different. He asked me to lie because he didn’t think his management would approve funding for the service he really wanted me to perform. I said thanks but no thanks. I don’t want to work for a company under false pretenses.

A client who hires a consultant for the first time is taking a risk. What if the consultant doesn't have as much experience as he claims and doesn't provide good advice? What if he's not a good presenter and the students don't find the class interesting or useful? I once brought a well-known consultant and speaker in to a company where I worked to teach a one-day class. She was very entertaining but provided little useful content, stimulated no class discussion, incorporated not a single exercise or practice activity in the class, and provided us with no reference materials to take away. The class evaluations were mediocre; we never brought her back in. To help my clients reach a comfort level with hiring me, I always Provide a money-back guarantee. My goal is for every client to feel that they would happily work with me again. Fortunately, no client has ever asked for a refund, but I'm fully prepared to reduce the fee if they don't feel they got their money's worth.

Periodically I receive e-mails or phone calls from people who have read one of my books or heard a presentation and want some advice about their situation. I’m always happy to Answer the first question for free. Sometimes this reply leads to an ongoing dialogue, but of course it’s not feasible to provide unlimited free consulting to everyone who writes to me. Therefore, if the person who contacted me has more questions, I will offer an off-site consulting agreement so that we can continue the discussion at my usual hourly consulting rate. Most of the time that terminates the discussion. Occasionally, though, it has led to an interesting short-term consulting engagement. (As an aside, I do always try to provide a substantive response to the initial question, so I’m frankly surprised at how seldom the questioners even say thank you. That seems rather rude.)

Once in a while a fellow software consultant will point a prospective client in my direction. I’m always grateful for these opportunities, but years ago I decided that I Neither pay or accept referral or finder’s fees for these kinds of connections. I figure that it averages out over time, because I am also happy to pass along such referrals myself. This is because of my policy that I Don’t take on engagements for which I am not a good fit. If someone can do a better job for the client than I can for a particular service, that’s who the client should hire. This policy notwithstanding, I do engage in business relationships with various companies to resell my products, teach my courses under license, or sell their products through an affiliate program. That’s a different kind of deal for which revenue-sharing is appropriate.

So there you have some of the policies that I’ve adopted during my fifteen years as a consultant and trainer. What are your own business rules? Please share any policies that you have found to work for you by posting comments on this article.

(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, July 12, 2012

It’s a Matter of Policy (part 1/2)

Every organization operates according to a set of business rules, whether explicitly documented or merely integrated into the culture’s oral tradition. You should adopt a set of business rules, or policies, for your consulting practice, too. In this two-part series I will share some of the operating policies and principles I’ve accumulated for my one-person consulting and training company, Process Impact. These might or might not apply to your business, but I encourage you to consciously formulate your own analogous policies.

On Traveling


One characteristic of consulting and training is that you usually have to go where the work is. This isn’t always true, thanks to virtual consulting and webinar technology. Most of the time, though, you can expect to have to travel to client sites. Early in my consulting career I had no idea how much work I was going to get, so I happily accepted every opportunity that came along. I was fortunate to get traction with the business quickly. The result was that I was doing a LOT of traveling. Before long, I adopted the policy that I Don’t travel during more than three weeks out of each month. This doesn’t mean that I was gone three-quarters of the time, just that I might travel one or more days during three out of every four weeks. It’s important to set time aside at home to get caught up, maintain relationships with friends and family, develop new training material, write articles and books, and even relax and enjoy yourself. This policy also has helped keep me healthy. I know two consultants who became ill and couldn’t fully recover for several months because their travel commitments were so exhausting. The only thing worse than traveling a lot is traveling while you’re sick. So leave time for yourself.

Along that same line, I find it very tiring to teach more than two days in a row. It’s hard to be witty and charming, both on your feet and on your toes for seven or eight hours day after day. Therefore, if a client asks me to teach two sessions of a two-day class, I Take Wednesday off between a pair of two-day training sessions. I might do some sightseeing, visit friends in the area, or take in a movie. My voice, my feet, and my disposition all benefit from the refreshing break. Of course, I don’t charge the client for my expenses or time on the day off.

Anyone who travels a lot has had the joy of being stranded overnight (or longer) in an airport or a nearby hotel. It happens, whether due to bad weather, mechanical problems, missed connections, or terrorist acts. I was stuck at a client site far from home for several days after 9/11. Another consultant friend was trapped in Rochester, New York, for more than two days because of just one canceled flight, because there was simply no space on numerous later flights to accommodate the affected passengers. I don't worry much about such delays on my way home, but it can be disastrous on your journey to a gig. Therefore, I Never take the last flight of the day to a client site. I'd rather arrive several hours early than to miss the engagement because I'm in an airport hotel a thousand miles away.

I’ve done some international travel, going to Europe a couple of times and taking several trips to Australia and New Zealand. This led me to my next traveling policy: Only fly across an ocean in business class or better. Yes, it’s expensive, and no, you don’t get there any faster. But it certainly is a lot more comfortable. I arrive at my distant destination better rested and ready to work. I build the fees for the business class airfare into the price quotes that I provide to my overseas clients. If they are unwilling to pay the cost, that’s no problem—I just thank them for their inquiry and stay home.

I have a consultant friend who thrives on international travel. He and his wife are real outdoorsy people who love to rough it and explore exotic locations. They really suck the marrow out of life. (I tried to suck the marrow out of life once, but I chipped a tooth on the bone.) Ken has decided to Spend one extra day sightseeing for each time zone change. So if Ken goes to China or India, he takes along his wife and they spend several extra days touring, hiking, camping, or whatever. This is not a bad way to see the world if you can afford the time and cost.

You know all those little bars of soaps that hotels give you? I don’t let them go to waste. Instead I Collect hotel soaps and shampoos and donate them to a homeless shelter. I know some people think it’s unethical to “steal” soap you didn’t use. I view the soap as part of what I’m paying for the hotel room, so it bothers me not one whit to take it with me. Over the years I’ve given hundreds of little bars of soap and bottles of shampoo to people who need them more than I do.

Some years ago I figured out an interesting traveling trick: I learned how to Leverage frequent flier programs against each other. At the time I had second-tier premium frequent flyer status on just one airline. I wrote to a second airline that flew on some of the same routes and invited them to match my premium status on the first airline. They didn’t bump me up two frequent-flier levels, but they did bump me up one. “Hmmm,” I said to myself, “that was easy.” The next year I tried it again—it worked again. Then I mailed a copy of my new premium card on Airline #2 to Airline #3 and made them the same offer. Again, they took my bait.

I was able to pull this scheme off for several years, parlaying premium status on one airline into others and enjoying the ensuing benefits. It cost me nothing more than a few letters and stamps. There was nothing underhanded about this—I was simply presenting each airline with a business offer. One year, I actually held premium frequent flyer status on four airlines without having earned any of them. The scheme didn’t always work, and lately I don’t have premium status on any airline because I don’t fly very much anymore. It certainly was nice while it lasted, though. Let me know if this works for you.

What are your own policies regarding business travel? Please share them with comments on this post. In part two of this series I’ll share some additional Process Impact policies regarding finances and client relations.

(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, July 6, 2012

Selling Your Proposal When You’re Not in the Room (contributed by Michael Boyette)

Michael Boyette is the executive editor of the Rapid Learning Institute’s Selling Essentials elearning site and editor of the Top Sales Dog Blog. He’s also managed marketing and PR programs for DuPont, Tyco Electronics, and US Healthcare. Contact Michael via email at topsalesdog@rapidlearninginstitute.com.

Just about anyone who has worked as an independent consultant knows how it feels when your contact says, “We’ll discuss your proposal and let you know what we decide.” After all your hard work and preparation, you’re locked out of the meeting that matters most. What if people have questions that only you can answer? What if your contact misunderstands what you proposed? What if he or she wilts at the first objection, more worried about staying on the boss’s good side than getting business for you?

For example, let’s suppose you’ve been working with Jennifer, the VP of marketing, on a proposal to enhance the company’s website. Jennifer has assured you repeatedly that she’s the sole decision maker. But now she lets you know—for the first time—that she has to take your proposal before her management team for review and approval.

Of course, you’ll want to see if you can attend (perhaps by phone or Skype) to answer any questions the management team may have. But don’t be surprised if Jennifer says it wouldn’t be appropriate for you to attend. At that point, your best strategy is to make sure that Jennifer has (1) the desire and (2) the ability to be a strong advocate for you and your proposal. If either element is missing, you’re not likely to win. So begin by finding out what Jennifer really thinks of your proposal. Don’t succumb to wishful thinking. If Jennifer is anything less than 100% committed, you need to know why and address her doubts before she walks into that meeting.

Once you’re sure Jennifer’s on board, ask her to walk you through the decision-making process so that you and she together can identify and address any potential obstacles or objections. You might say, “Jennifer, I completely understand why the team will want to have this discussion without me there. So I’d like your help to be sure everyone has the information they’ll need to make a good decision.”

Ask whether any members of the management team usually look for specific information before they reach a decision. Go through each member of the team one by one. For example, Jennifer may tell you that decisions are often delayed because the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) needs time to review the numbers. If so, offer to provide your budgets, projections, and other financial information in advance of the meeting so that the CFO can prepare. Or let’s say Jennifer tells you that the Chief Operating Officer (COO) is likely to have concerns about the amount of time your proposal would take to implement and how it will affect ongoing operations. If that’s the case, you may want to suggest that you, Jennifer, and the COO have a call before the meeting to discuss those specific concerns.

Next, analyze the decision-making process point by point. What are the hot buttons? Where are the land mines? What are potential showstoppers? Here are some questions you can ask during your analysis of the buying decision:
  • Which team members have the most influence over the outcome?
  • What is each step in the decision-making process?
  • What are some likely reasons the decision might be delayed?
  • What questions or objections often come up in these discussions?
  • When the team has said no to a proposal like this in the past, what derailed it?
  • When the team has said yes, what made it happen?
  • Who tends to dominate discussions?
  • How will the decision be arrived at: majority vote, consensus, or some other mechanism? Does any individual have veto authority?
  • What happens next? Will the CEO want to review the decision, or is it final?
  • Is price likely to come up at the beginning or end of the discussion? How big a factor will it be?
Your goal is to do everything you can to help Jennifer act as your advocate in her meeting. Granted, that’s a nontraditional role for your buyer. But if she seems uncomfortable doing it for you, it probably means you have to back up and make sure she really is as committed to your proposal as she said.

Working through this process with your prospect won’t always guarantee a sale, of course. The meeting may still go the wrong way, often for reasons that have little to do with you or your proposal. But by following these suggestions, you’ll have done everything you can to anticipate objections and influence the outcome—even though you’re not in the meeting itself.

(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!)

Monday, June 25, 2012

Modes of Consulting: What’s Your Preference? (part 2/2)

Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting defined three types of roles a consultant could play when working with clients: expert, pair-of-hands, and collaborative. In the first article of this series I addressed some aspects of working in the expert role. This article explores the other two classes of consultant roles.

When working in the pair-of-hands mode, the consultant is providing a service that the client might be able to perform himself but for which doesn’t have sufficient staff or time available. The client defines the need and sets the project boundaries and expectations. The consultant then goes off and performs the work largely on his own, with the client contact assessing the deliverables to ensure they are complete and satisfactory. Some companies, for instance, hire an experienced business analyst on a contract basis for a specific software development project. The consultant comes into the organization and performs the traditional BA role of identifying users, eliciting requirements, writing specifications, and so forth. This is a kind of short-term staff augmentation engagement for a specific objective.

In the collaborative mode, the outside consultant joins forces with members of the client organization to work on the project or solve the problem together. In contrast to the more independent work that characterizes the pair-of-hands mode, the collaborative mode involves frequent interactions between consultant and client to identify solutions, set priorities, make decisions, and create deliverables jointly. As an analogy, you could think of co-authoring a book as being a collaborative engagement, whereas hiring a ghostwriter to craft your memoirs would be a pair-of-hands type of engagement.

I have done a great deal of work for one client I’ll call Jack over more than ten years. Jack leads the software center of excellence in a large product-development company. Much of my work for Jack has been off-site consulting work in either the collaborative or pair-of-hands mode. A lot of the pair-of-hands work involves developing process descriptions, templates, and other work aids. Jack is sufficiently knowledgeable and experienced to do this kind of work himself. but he simply doesn’t have the time or staff to do it in a timely fashion. Therefore, he outsources the activity to me. Jack carefully reviews whatever I create and we iterate on it until he finds the final product acceptable. For the most part, though, Jack simply delegates the work to me, relying on my domain knowledge and our previous agreement of format and structure for such documents to feel confident that he’ll get a product that made him happy.

Frankly, I haven’t always been totally comfortable producing process-related deliverables in this pair-of-hands mode. I trust my experience and ability to create sensible process documents, so that’s not the issue. Instead, I am sometimes concerned about how readily the people in the client organization will accept process materials—or any other artifacts—created by an outside third party. I saw evidence of this problem when I was employed at Kodak years ago. Certain departments would hire consulting companies to create templates or other process documents for them, but sometimes practitioners would resist using those items. The artifacts were created by people who didn’t know the organization well. Sometimes they weren’t a great fit for what the client teams needed or expected. I’ve always worried about this reaction when doing similar work for Jack, but it hasn’t turned out to be much of a problem in practice. Nonetheless, my philosophy is that process-related deliverables are best created in a collaborative mode between a highly experienced consultant and members of the client organization. This helps the client staff buy into the new artifacts.

My consulting agreements with Jack always include a general description of the type of services I will be performing and a list of deliverables. Most of the time this works fine. In fact, we generally have a good mind meld and need very little planning documentation. I understand what he’s asking for and can accomplish the objective independently without demanding a lot of his time. Sometimes, though, Jack asks me to do something novel. Neither of us has a clear idea at the outset of exactly what the desired outcome is. In those cases, I ask him to write a short vision statement using a keyword template described in Chapter 5 of my book Software Requirements. Jack usually grumbles a bit about the vision statement because I'm asking him to think carefully about just what he wants out of this project. That’s hard! But then he works through the keyword template and always comes up with a clear one-paragraph statement that works wonders in keeping us focused on our mutual objective. I highly recommend asking your client to write such a vision statement anytime the nature or goals of the consulting engagement are too fuzzy at the beginning.

In some cases, it makes sense to combine the expert and collaborator consulting modes. A client recently hired me for an extended off-site engagement that was just such a hybrid. This large financial services company wished to implement peer reviews as part of its architectural governance process. A manager at the company was familiar with my book Peer Reviews in Software so he engaged me to help. The clients relied on my twenty-plus years of reviewing experience to advise them on how to adapt and incorporate peer reviews to be effective in their environment for a specific set of work products and issues.

One member of the client’s staff and I worked closely together on this project to define the process and develop several hours of eLearning presentations to train their staff in the new approach. The client drafted the slides and key talking points for the presentations, then I fleshed out the script with a more detailed narrative. I have a lot of experience giving presentations and developing eLearning training so I could contribute to improving the slides for a more effective presentation. I also recorded the scripts and generated the eLearning presentations, since I was already set up to do that. This was a fine example of collaboration, with a consultant and a client employee working side-by-side (albeit remotely in this instance) to generate effective work products that were better than either participant could have created alone. It was also educational and enjoyable for both of us.

I can only look back to my own experiences to reflect on the times when I have worked in an expert, collaborative, or pair-of-hands mode with a client. I don’t have any idea what the distribution of these kinds of engagements is among the software consulting domain in general. What has your experience been? Do you mostly come in as an outside expert to fix a problem? Or do you get involved with more participative activities, working jointly with a client to get something done? If you’ve worked in several of these engagement modes, which of the roles do you find most rewarding? And if you are a client who has worked with a consultant in one or more of these modes, which types of interactions did you find to be the most effective?

I enjoy the collaborative type of activities the most. It’s fun to work with smart people who know what they’re doing. One thing I’ve felt lacking in my career as an independent consultant is the opportunity to kick ideas around with other people, scribble on a whiteboard together, get review feedback on deliverables I’ve created, and put our heads together to come up with better ideas and solutions. That’s probably why I enjoy the collaborative engagements; they help fill that gap in my professional activities. These kinds of engagements are good learning opportunities as well. They always leave me better prepared for the next engagement, with a broader base of knowledge and experience to synthesize when I confront the next thorny challenge.

I recommend that you keep these different consulting modes in mind when future client engagement opportunities arise. Understanding your own preferences will help you select those gigs that are likely to be most enjoyable and fulfilling. It’s also a good idea to match the consulting mode with the needs of a specific project. Your client might ask to hire you to perform some work in a pair-of-hands mode, but your assessment of the project might lead you to conclude that a collaborative engagement would be more effective. Shaping the engagement’s parameters to yield the most satisfactory outcome is part of your responsibility as an independent consultant.

(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, June 21, 2012

Modes of Consulting: What’s Your Preference? (part 1/2)

In his classic book Flawless Consulting, Peter Block described three types of roles that consultants might take on: expert, pair-of-hands, and collaborator. Each of these represents a different type of interaction when working with clients and a different type of reward or satisfaction for the consultant. In these two articles I will describe some of my experiences with these different types of consulting engagements. Please share your own experiences by submitting comments to these blog posts.

Outside Looking In


As an expert, you’re working with a client who has a problem and wants you to fix it. I’m working in the expert role when a client brings me into do some training, perform a process assessment, or review some project deliverables or process materials. More than one client has told me, “You’re here because the pain has become too great.” The organization typically is suffering from problems resulting from ineffective practices and processes in some domain, and they hired me to help them rectify those problems. I cannot actually fix the problems in their organization. I can assess the current reality, identify areas ripe for improvement, help identify root causes that lead to the pain, provide the clients with knowledge that can help, and propose a roadmap for implementing that knowledge. But it’s up to the managers and practitioners in the organization itself to implement those actions.

I’ve found that when I perform a process assessment, whether formal and structured with a written report or simply by providing feedback based on informal discussions, I rarely tell clients things they don’t already know. For the most part, my clients are aware of their pain points. However, they might not be able to get senior management to take the matter seriously or to provide the necessary resources to address the issues. It’s not unusual for a manager who brings me in to say, “Please tell these other guys what I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to tell them for six months. They’ll listen to you.” For reasons I’ve never understood, it seems to be more acceptable to have an outside expert come in and make the same observations and proposals that some in-house people already have made. It helps that a consultant is independent of the local organizational politics and isn’t caught up in the history of “the way we’ve always done things before.” The outside expert has the perspective of having worked with numerous other organizations and observing patterns of both ineffective and effective practices in the industry.

Some of the most fun I’ve had in the expert consulting mode involved sitting in a room at a client site for a day while a procession of people came in to talk about various random problems they were facing. I never knew what kind of question was going to come up next. It might be about getting customers engaged in requirements discussions, dealing with configuration management issues, or generating better estimates for project planning. I found these all-too-infrequent types of engagements stimulating and challenging. I really had to think on my feet to quickly understand the situation and try to come up with suggestions that were likely to be effective.

I've done a great deal of consulting that involved reviewing process or project deliverables (most commonly requirements documents) for clients to point out errors and provide recommendations for improvement. I'm functioning as an outside expert in this sort of engagement. After having reviewed dozens of requirements specifications over the years, I have a good idea of what constitutes a good one and what sort of problems to look for. This body of experience allows me to efficiently examine a client’s requirements spec and spot many improvement opportunities. Of course, I can't confirm that the document contains the correct requirements for the project because I wasn't involved with defining the need, interviewing customers, or otherwise eliciting requirements. But I'm very good at spotting other kinds of problems that someone with less experience in writing requirements might not detect.

One more way in which you might work in the expert consulting mode is as an expert witness in a lawsuit. I had this experience just once. The project involved a vendor of a package software solution and a customer organization that had purchased the package and hired the vendor to perform some customizations and data migrations. One of the parties in the lawsuit hired me to try to determine the factors that contributed to the project failing abysmally. After studying numerous project documents, I concluded that the party whose attorney had hired me was responsible for a lot of the problems. The attorney read my report, said thank you, paid me, and that was the end of that. I heard later that the parties had reached a settlement, so I never had to testify. This consulting engagement led to an article titled “See You In Court,” in which I shared some advice about making such outsourcing projects more successful. I know numerous consultants who make a very good living working as expert witnesses. The expertise these consultants gained from years of industry observation and participation serves them well.

The Idea Man


I view my responsibility as an expert consultant as providing ideas, ideas that will help a client solve a problem or build software faster and better. Some solution ideas are better than others, so I try to generate a lot of them. For every ten ideas I come up with, I figure that about two will be ridiculous, two might not be very effective or won’t suit the culture, three will be obvious, two will be clever and novel to the client, and one will be brilliant. So I need to produce enough ideas to get a nice handful of solid hits in those last two categories.

I use a mental test to provide a reality check on any advice I propose in consulting discussions or when I write a formal process recommendation report. First, I consider whether the actions I'm suggesting have a high probability of actually solving the client’s problem. That is, my proposal must be effective. And second, I ask myself if the client could actually implement my suggestions if he chooses to do so. That is, what I'm proposing must be both pragmatic and appropriate for the client's culture and situation. Each practice that I have in mind must pass both of these reality checks before I pass it along to the client. The last thing I want to do is give my clients advice that wouldn’t help them, isn’t realistically feasible, or might do more harm than good.

Roadblocks


Perhaps the biggest source of resistance to input from an outside expert are NIH and NAH syndromes. NIH means “not invented here.” The solution proposed by an outside expert can be rejected because the affected practitioners didn’t create the solution themselves, so they don’t necessarily buy into it or trust it. NAH means “not applicable here.” I’ve often heard the claim “we’re different” from clients who weren’t interested in trying my recommendations. They thought that whatever I was suggesting might work in other places but certainly not in their environment. While organizations and cultures do come in a variety of flavors, there are also a lot of similarities between them. For example, I think nearly all software-developing organizations can follow basically the same change control process. Citing NIH or NAH as a reason not to accept the consultant’s recommendations is often just a sign of resistance against change in general.

And Then What Happened?


One of the frustrating things about working with a client as an outside expert consultant or trainer is that I rarely learn what happens after I leave. Unless the client has engaged me for some ongoing consulting, it’s totally up to the organization to decide how best to apply the training or recommendations I presented. Of course, I hope they will maximize their return on investment in the engagement, but if they just keep on doing whatever it was they did before I did my bit they’ll get an ROI of zero. There’s no way to find out what happened unless the client is willing to share that information with me.

Occasionally, I have received some feedback about the outcome after I taught a class. One time I had a student in a public seminar who had taken a requirements class from me about a year earlier. He said that now they have product champions serving as key user representatives for all of their projects, something I strongly recommend. This approach was really helping their projects be more successful. Such anecdotes help validate that I am presenting ideas and practices that in fact are pragmatic and can lead to better results in the hands of organizations that implement them and learn how to make them work.

Have you ever worked in the expert mode as a consultant? What sort of activities did you perform in this mode? How did you like it, compared to other types of consulting interactions you have had? Please share your experiences by commenting on this blog post. In the next article, I will take a look at the two other modes of consulting: pair-of-hands and collaborator.

(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, June 14, 2012

Participating in Professional Organizations

Perhaps it's because I began my career as a research scientist, but I've always thought it was important to join and participate in the activities of professional societies. Over the years I have been a member of the American Chemical Society, Association for Computing Machinery, IEEE, IEEE Computer Society, American Society for Quality, and others. Participating in such organizations helps promote professionalism and distribute knowledge among the members. Meetings provide opportunities for networking, which can lead to employment possibilities both for independent consultants and for those seeking regular jobs. You can also make new friends.

Since I became an author and speaker in the software arena, I have received many invitations to speak at local, national, and international meetings of various professional organizations (just got one today, in fact). These include the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA), Project Management Institute (PMI), IEEE, various software process improvement networks (SPINs) around the country, and so on. Speaking at organizations like this, particularly at local meetings, is a great way for me to try out new material. I can practice a new keynote presentation in a friendly environment before I have to deliver it to hundreds of people. I've also delivered many webinars for such organizations from the comfort of my own office, thereby extending my visibility and impact beyond those who could attend a particular conference or meeting.

I view these presentations both as a way to contribute to my professional community and also as a marketing tool. Earlier in my career, presentations at local professional organization meetings did generate quite a few training and consulting opportunities. I'm always happy to do those kinds of presentations, and I never charge a speaking fee for them. However, I do have to have some reason to be in the area to make it financially feasible for me to participate. The people at some organizations seem puzzled when I explain that it's not feasible for me to fly across the country to give a short talk and then fly home again, without compensation, even if they reimburse my travel expenses. The argument that "it will be great visibility for you and might lead to some training opportunities" doesn't motivate me anymore. The fact is, it's been some years since professional society talks have led to paying work.

When travel is involved, I try to arrange these presentations to piggyback on some work I'm already doing in the vicinity. Sometimes the professional group has contacts with a local training company that can arrange for me to deliver a public, open-enrollment seminar. This covers my expenses, generates some revenue for me, and lets me take an extra day to speak at the professional group meeting. I did that in 2011 in Ohio; it worked out great. Because I'm not being paid for the presentation at the professional group meeting, I'm not shy about promoting my books, eLearning training courses, and other products and services. Maybe some attendees will buy one of my books afterward and tell their friends about it.

(As an aside, although I don’t charge a fee to speak at local professional organization meetings, I never give corporate presentations for free. My feeling is that if I'm delivering some value to the company and its employees, I'm entitled to be compensated for that value. If a company sees that they can get me to speak for free, they're unlikely to agree to my usual fees if they do want to bring me back for another engagement. For example, I didn't bite when a company in Atlanta, Georgia, asked me to travel there from my home in Portland, Oregon, to deliver a one-hour brown-bag lunch presentation for free. But, hey, I always appreciate being invited!)

Numerous professional organizations have established certification programs. These include:
  • Project Management Professional (PMP) from the PMI
  • Certified Business Analysis Professional (CBAP) from the IIBA
  • Certified Software Development Professional (CSDP) from the IEEE Computer Society
  • Software Quality Engineer from the American Society for Quality
These professional certifications typically are earned through a combination of education, work experience, and passing an examination based on an body of knowledge established for the discipline. Whole cottage industries have grown up to provide exam preparation training. Unfortunately, in some cases this leads to “teaching to the test” as opposed to necessarily helping the candidate to acquire the right set of knowledge and skills to enhance his job performance. Ideally, these objectives are congruent, but I’m not sure that is always the case.

You might consider whether having one of these abbreviations following your name would enhance your professional credentials and make you look more appealing to prospective clients or employers. I’ve always had great respect for adults who went back to school or engaged in focused self-study to obtain advanced degrees or professional certifications in their fields. This shows a real commitment to continuous learning and growth of one’s knowledge, skills, and capabilities. (I don’t hold any of these certifications myself; the only letters I can put after my name are “MS” and “PhD” and those were in organic chemistry.) Some people seem to collect certifications, accumulating a long string of abbreviations appended to their signatures. It looks impressive, but spending a lot of time studying to get certified isn’t necessarily the same thing as gaining a lot of practical, hands-on experience in the field.

If you are, or hope to become, an independent consultant, I encourage you to join relevant professional organizations and attend their local meetings. I always enjoy meeting the people who participate in these sessions. Sometimes there's pizza or cookies. In some cases I've established contacts and relationships that have persisted over the years. The networking opportunities might indeed help you generate some visibility and possibly some consulting leads. If you are already established in the industry, then appearing at such events is a goodwill gesture that helps enhance your reputation as a constructive contributor to the community and all-around nice person. That's not a bad image to maintain.

(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, June 7, 2012

The Challenges and Adjustments of Remote Consulting (contributed by Joan Davis)

Joan Davis (www.theVirtualBA.com) is known as the “Virtual Business Analyst.” With over twenty years solving complex insurance process and systems design issues, she has turned her attention to the practices and tools that create an effective meeting space for distributed teams. Joan provides consulting to clients who want to create engaging group experiences that improve communication and processes for global projects.

It’s a miracle that I get work at all. When my neighbors in Maine learn that I conduct virtual meetings for a living they look at me quizzically and then look away. Phone conversations with prospective clients include long pauses when they find out I’ll be working pretty much from home. There’s some awkward e-mailing of contracts and statement of work revisions. Somewhere along the way to agreement, there’s an introductory long-distance conversation with key stakeholders; usually I must prove my stuff in this one virtual meeting. That’s just to get to the point where we start working together at a distance.

Yet I’m making some small headway, and I’m encouraged when Karl tells me he’s operated remotely for years. When I moved here a few years ago, my location forced a transition completely away from traditional on-site consulting. Since then, my work as a virtual business analyst and facilitator has had its ups and downs. There’s a certain expectation in my field that workshops will be facilitated from the front of a roomful of people. Maybe in your own consulting work you feel the same resistance about your activities being done off-site and away from the clients. I’ve adapted my face-to-face consulting approach and now specialize in virtual collaboration. I welcome this opportunity to share what I’m learning along the way. Whether you work remotely or you’re on-site partnered with a distributed team, these practices could improve your virtual collaboration efforts.

Facing the Challenges


Working off-site you face a special blend of risks. The challenges have to do with assumptions about the critical nature of face time for the consulting partnership:

Relationship Building. Working at a distance prohibits coffee breaks together or meeting up socially after work, so how do you build those important alliances?
Communication Strategy. As an outpost worker you must make sure you don’t fall off the grid, out of sight and out of touch. How will you ensure you’re in the loop? How will you share information without deluging each other’s inbox?
Common Understanding. One of your greatest attributes as a consultant is sensing the client’s reactions and being able to read between the lines. Without the benefit of body language and other visual cues, how will you ensure clarity on all sides?
Team Engagement. With your team members in multiple locations, what steps can you take to ensure there is a rich, conversational, and continuous collaboration on the work that matters the most?

Five Strategies for Mastering Remote Engagement


The virtual collaboration message I give my customers is one of large group innovation and cost savings. To forge my way in this professional space, I’ve had to transform the way I interact with clients and project teams. Here are five strategies I use to address the challenges of virtual collaboration.

1. Open Communication Channels: Adding a personal touch

I found that some amazing bonds originate with actions as small as initiating a one-on-one call or a Skype video chat. Arrange time with each of your co-workers just to get to know them better. You’ll be rewarded with fresh insights and with someone new in your corner, a tremendous asset for the virtual worker.

Once you’ve connected personally, finding the right tactic to stay in touch is important to the health of your working relationships. Respect schedules and communication preferences, while being responsive to changing needs. When dealing with global communications, give additional consideration to differences in technology access, culture, and time zones.

My consulting engagements are now guided by a virtual communications strategy that my distributed team carves out together. It frames how we will conduct our key project interactions: exchange of critical information; reporting of autonomous activities; and timely awareness of changes. For example I like to share my work-in-progress regularly. With the inherent lag time of asynchronous communications, I allow more time for a review cycle and seek feedback earlier than I did when working on-site. I prefer a pull rather than a push model for my stakeholders to stay informed, posting information updates to an on-line workspace rather than e-mailing a status update.

2. Asynchronous Thinking: Individual inputs and agreements over time

My tendency is to use live meetings as the hub of all collaborative activity. The groundwork of “inputs” is well established before the synchronous (live) part of the collaboration. Time together should not be wasted on sharing information that could have been done in advance. Asynchronous methods—Wikis, discussion threads, surveys, etc.—work well for collecting feedback and comments. With 95% of the groundwork already done going into a meeting, my virtual collaborators can focus on the one or two key issues that are best resolved through real-time interaction. When we exit the live meeting a new asynchronous round begins.

3. Facilitated Discussions: Leading and listening

As I work virtually with the team on more structured tasks, I consider my role to be facilitator of distributed dialogue—it doesn’t matter if there are two people or fifty in the conversation. Listening is an integral part of being a consultant, whether face-to-face or virtual. However, as a virtual team leader you must promote active listening: prompting, rephrasing, and using open-ended questions to ensure understanding. In the same physical room you might use a flipchart to track ideas and sticky notes to organize consensus-building activities. Consider how you will hold ideas in the light for discussion with a distributed group. You have many options to draw or take notes on-line in view of your live collaborators.

4. Uniform Experience: Activities balanced for local and remote participants

It’s perhaps most difficult to strike a balance with hybrid meetings, when some participants are sharing the same room while you and other outposts are participating remotely. To encourage everyone to participate from their own desks, I set up the meeting process to require keyboard interaction that will keep them engaged with the group activities. If that’s not possible and some participants will be face-to-face, just be sure to facilitate for the people that are remote, emphasizing verbal descriptions and calling on people by name.

5. Breakout Sessions: Live small group work sandwiched by large group dialogue

In a virtual meeting with larger groups, I rely on audio breakout sessions to ensure that everyone is engaged. Some teleconferencing tools enable private subgroup conversations with hosting features to customize groupings, drop in on conversations, and time the session. Set the stage with the full group of remote attendees to gain a sense of common purpose. Then charge subsets of participants with either the same or different tasks as appropriate, and off to work they go. At the designated time reconvene the full group to share results. By posing problems for small groups to solve, you get everyone to interact, and the pairing up creates an environment for building trust amongst distributed participants.

Collaboration Tools


I’ve compiled a list of many of the available tools that I’ve found helpful for virtual consulting and other forms of long-distance collaboration. The tools are grouped into categories by the goal you’re attempting to accomplish: co-authoring a shared document; anonymous text-based input collection; virtual team on-line community platform; scheduling across time zones; phone and web conferencing; virtual breakout sessions; and on-line whiteboard for live drawing. You can download this tool list from the supplemental content page for this blog.

Fulfilling the Consulting Promise


Virtual collaboration can bring success to widely dispersed groups who need to share ideas, knowledge, or project work, tapping into a global network of brainpower. My consulting portfolio now includes many communication techniques that help to engage and move virtual teams through a project. The way I influence change is to help the distributed team to reach agreement on actionable responses. Soon my clients come to accept that we really don’t have to be in the same room to work together, because facilitated virtual dialogue solidifies my effectiveness from afar. Hallelujah!

Questions for Readers


Gaining Rapport from Afar: It is the slow, giving process of relationship-building that may be the most elusive as you strive to work remotely. But it’s important, so you make the extra effort. When there’s an understanding of individual values and concerns you’re better able to address those drivers and reach consensus. Think about those times you’ve had to build trust and cooperation with co-workers who were in a different location. How did you get to know each other’s personalities?

Collaborating Effectively: With a distributed project you’re likely to have some people working in the same place, others in pods working as an off-site team, individuals operating from their telecommute home office, or any combination of these configurations. Is the collaborative experience the same in each of these settings?

(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!)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Make a List, Check It Twice

When I began giving presentations at software conferences in the early 1990s most speakers used plastic transparencies on an overhead projector for their visuals. Only a handful of speakers had begun using laptop computers with PowerPoint or other presentation software. I once presented a full-day tutorial at a local conference when I was living in Rochester, New York. I packed up my boxes of transparencies and headed to the conference site. In the middle of my talk, I noticed I was running out of transparencies faster than I was running out of time. Suddenly I realized that I had brought only two of the four boxes of transparencies I needed for this full-day class. Uh-oh. Kind of embarrassing.

Fortunately, the man who was running the conference saved my bacon. I had sent him an electronic version of my presentation in advance, which he had installed on his laptop. After lunch I was able to complete my presentation using his laptop in lieu of my missing transparencies, my first live PowerPoint experience.

That was a close call and I felt pretty foolish. I learned my lesson, though. From then on I have always used a checklist to prepare for my speaking and consulting engagements. I already had created a travel checklist, but since this was a local event with no travel involved, I didn’t bother to think carefully about what I needed to bring with me. I never made that mistake again.

My travel checklist has evolved over the years. I use it both for business and vacation travel. Different sections of the checklist remind me what to take along depending on which class I’m teaching. A separate section lists items I might take with me when I am driving somewhere instead of flying, like my stuffed teddy bear and my favorite pillow.(Just kidding about the teddy bear. Not kidding about the pillow.) I have a supplemental checklist for international travel that reminds me to bring my passport, visa, international driver’s license, power plug adapters, and so forth.

I am religious about using the checklist to plan my trip and pack my bags. It helps me take along the right amount and the right kind of clothing, all of my toiletries, the right frequent-flyer and car-rental cards, and the noise-canceling headphones that make long flights more bearable. It’s also convenient to have a record of everything that is in my suitcase, should it be eaten by the airline’s subterranean baggage-handling creatures. Thanks to these checklists, I have never reached a destination and discovered that I was missing my laser pointer or a pair of socks.

You might laugh at my little checklists, but I tell you, they work. When I described my travel checklist to a fellow software consultant, he chuckled, held up his index finger, and said, “My checklist has one thing on it: slides.” But then he told me about the time he attended a conference to deliver a half-day tutorial presentation, only to discover that he was scheduled to teach—but had not brought along slides for—a full day. Sounds like my colleague needs a better checklist.

You can see my current travel checklist at the supplemental materials page for this blog. That page also has several checklists graciously provided by consultant Mike Cohn. (Thanks for sharing these, Mike!) One is a comprehensive travel packing list, which is nicely organized into clothes, Dopp kit (what I call a toilet kit), gadgets, and others. A second list provides a comprehensive reminder of all the items needed for specific sorts of engagements. When you’re teaching a class that involves a variety of student activities, you surely don’t want to come up short on any of the necessary workbooks, cards, or other props. My classes are simpler than some of Mike’s, so I put all that information right on my main travel checklist.

A third list from Mike is a planning form for a specific client engagement that provides a place to organize all the necessary information. It’s easy to overlook some of these bits, to your peril. For instance, I always get the home and cell phone numbers for my primary contact at the client site in case I encounter travel difficulties on the way there. Mike’s engagement checklist has a place to record that useful information. Mike also shared some checklists that identify the things he needs to do to book a venue for a public class his company is presenting and also the items to take along when he’s giving a presentation at a professional organization. These are all on the supplemental materials page. I suspect that Mike’s events all run more smoothly thanks to these sorts of checklists.

In addition to checklists, I've developed an assortment of other forms that I use for various purposes in my consulting and training business. They are nothing fancy, but if you need similar forms for your work, feel free to download these from the supplemental page and tweak them to suit your purposes. One is a time-tracking form that I use for, well, tracking the time I spend doing off-site consulting at my home for a client. I often provide these kinds of services on an hourly basis. I need to keep track of how much time I spend each month on various activities so I can send the client an appropriate invoice. Perhaps this looks too lawyer-like to you. That's not the intent. I'm not trying to wring every penny I can out of the client, but I do need to have some kind of relatively accurate record. I always round the time in the client's favor, and if I ever have to do any rework because of a mistake I made, of course the client does not pay for that time.

Another form is for tracking events I have scheduled. There are many bits of information to keep track of, and there have been times in my career when I had numerous upcoming events pending or awaiting payment. I really don’t want to overlook anything associated with such activities. I use this form to note when I sent out my speaking agreement and when it was returned with a signature, as well as the dates I made my travel arrangements for airline flights, hotel reservations, and rental car. I can log the date I sent the course handout master to the client for duplication, and also when I ordered copies of one of my books to be sent to the client for the event. The form lets me note whether I have loaded all the necessary files onto my laptop and also onto a backup flash drive. (Sometimes I also put a backup copy of the presentation files on a hidden directory on my website; you can't have too many backups.) Finally, I record when I actually did the event, when I sent the invoice to the client, and when I received payment. Putting all of these items onto one page shows me at a quick glance where each of my business events stands.

You might think my checklists are a waste of time, just another example of unnecessary process overhead. You could be right. Let’s do an experiment. We’ll both pack for the same trip. I’ll use my travel checklist to help me, and you just do whatever you normally do to pack. We’ll see who runs out of underwear first.

(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, May 24, 2012

Hey, World, Here I Am! (contributed by Gary K. Evans)

Gary K. Evans (www.evanetics.com) spent 17 years as an independent consultant and trainer in object-oriented development and Agile processes. He is now working for a major financial institution in Enterprise Agile Process Enablement.

Marketing You!

Finding work isn't the same as waiting for work to find you. A business plan of "Make lots of money" isn't a plan—it's a wish, not unlike "Win the lottery and retire." To become a successful consultant, you must have a plan. Think hard about what you do best, and build on your strengths. If you're uncomfortable around strangers or can't articulate in fifteen seconds the value you will bring to the client, attempting to be a lone-wolf 1099 is rather unrealistic. If you're not interested in marketing, bookkeeping, or the many other non-technical tasks required to run even a one-person business, plan on hiring—that means paying—someone to do these for you.

To find work, you must actively seek it out. This means marketing yourself. But don't limit yourself always to the same channels; your options will change over time. When I started out, my first client literally fell into my lap. I had invested fifteen years working for a well-known computer company until I received my severance notice, along with one-third of the other employees in my facility. I hit the ground running, looking for a W-2 job, but I was overqualified for every position I interviewed for. Then a New York company heard about the layoff and contacted me because I had the skills they needed.

For my next three or four engagements, I found work primarily through third-party groups who marketed me. On every engagement, I met people and cultivated relationships. In a short time, those relationships became a marketing channel as I began obtaining work from word-of-mouth recommendations. By expanding my base from just programming and design to teaching object-oriented technology, I aligned myself with several large OO consulting and training companies. When consulting positions were sparse, my training work served as a safety net. And, after teaching various OO courses (of varying quality) marketed by these companies, my dissatisfaction with them led me to start writing and marketing my own courses.

Next, I attempted cold-call marketing, with limited success. At the end of 1998, I made a conscious decision to try a more aggressive marketing plan, so I created a website. Then I started speaking at professional conferences. In 1999, I began writing magazine articles on object technology and OO software development and modeling tools. Then I had the privilege of being asked to serve as a judge for the prestigious Jolt Awards for software productivity, a position I have now held for eleven years. And two years ago I started a second business to produce a commercial software product for people who want to manage their nutrition and health.

My point is this: you must continually step out of your comfort zone. I'm not really kidding when I say that I'm now in my comfort zone only when I'm out of my comfort zone.

Dealing with Third-Party Placement

If you're an independent consultant, this doesn't mean you'll always have to find your own clients. Especially in the beginning of your independent career, you might find ready-made opportunities through third-party placement or system integration groups. Some of my best work experiences have come in this way. They handle the marketing, cold calls, payroll, and other details; I do the technology. The only downside? They get paid from my pay.

Don't fall into the trap of whining about this, however. Recognize that the third party you're working through has to make money, too. After all, they are doing the marketing, bookkeeping, payroll, and so on. Should you care what margin they are making from you? My position is simple: I have no right to know the margin and I don't care what it is. If I decide to work at $45 or $75 per hour and discover that the placement group is charging $125 per hour for me, so what? If $45 or $75 per hour meets my goals, I'm satisfied. Grousing over someone else's margin is bad public relations, earning you the label of malcontent. Then you won't get any more work through that group.

Negotiate, never demand. Keep your eyes and ears open, and if you learn what the third party is charging for you, just sit on that information until the next contract renewal or project. Concentrate on what you must do to make yourself worth $100 per hour, and let the placement group worry how to pass on the increase to the client. That's what they’re getting paid to do. As you gain industry visibility and credibility, you might find that more prospective clients begin to contact you directly about providing services to them. When this happens, you'll rely less on third-party companies and contractors to find work for you

Independent consulting is a way of working that has become common in many industries. It seems destined to increase as our economy continues to mutate into integrated, electronic cottage service industries. It has tremendous reward potential, and just as much downside. You can slice and dice your independence almost any way you wish, but you must also take care of business. If you really think you want to be independent, carefully count the costs, get prepared, and charge ahead. It could well change your life forever.

(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, May 17, 2012

So You Want to Publish Your Book (part 4/4)

Self-Publishing


It used to be that self-publishing a book was essentially an admission of defeat, acknowledging your inability to find a real publisher. Maybe that's why self-publishing companies were called vanity presses. Today, though, self-publishing is a viable option for many authors. Yes, it probably still means that you couldn't find a traditional publisher. However, numerous tools and options are available, and it is possible—though not likely—to achieve commercial success.

A Case Study


I can't describe the self-publishing business in great detail, but I have self-published one book. It was a special situation. When I was a child, my family lived in Europe for three years because my father was in the United States Air Force. We did a lot of sightseeing in Western Europe during the early 1960s. My parents wrote up notebooks about our adventures, complete with photographs, which became treasured family keepsakes. For my mother’s eighty-fifth birthday in 2011, my siblings and I decided to publish all of these notebooks together as an actual book. You should have seen the expression on Mom's face when we gave her the book. How often does someone present you with a book with your name as the author and you didn't see it coming?

So at least I've gone through the self-publishing experience once. I used CreateSpace, which is Amazon.com’s self-publishing service. It went surprisingly smoothly and was a valuable learning experience for me, in many respects. We aren't attempting to sell this book commercially, so I have no idea how well that would have worked in practice. Of course, that is an option with CreateSpace: you can have your book listed on Amazon.com immediately. These books are printed on demand, so you no longer need to stockpile—and perhaps ultimately discard—hundreds or thousands of copies from a big press run. With print on demand, when someone orders a copy, the publisher manufactures a copy and sends it to the buyer. They look just like regular books, although it's often easy to spot self-published books because of the minimalist cover design and interior layout from many do-it-yourselfers.

CreateSpace offers a wide range of publishing options. I took the simplest extreme. I did the cover design (“full cover wrap” = back cover + spine + front cover) and the interior design (both new experiences for me), and simply uploaded the resulting PDF files to CreateSpace.com. CreateSpace staff reviewed my files and concluded they would print satisfactorily, so I ordered a proof copy. I made a couple of small corrections in the cover layout, and my sharp-eyed sister spotted several content errors with a final proofread. I uploaded the corrected files, and again they passed scrutiny. I ordered a second proof copy, and we were done. The entire process cost just $63.34:

  • $10.00 dollars for an ISBN, so the book could be published using my own publishing imprint, Agent Q Bookworks, rather than showing CreateSpace as the publisher.
  • $39.00 as an account upgrade fee that cuts the cost of books I purchase approximately in half. This plan also increases your royalties if you’re selling the books through Amazon.com. CreateSpace has since replaced this Pro Plan option with another pricing scheme.
  • $3.58 plus $3.59 shipping for each of the two proof copies.
  • My mother's reaction: priceless.

This seems pretty cheap to me. I can purchase all the additional copies I want from CreateSpace for $3.58 each plus shipping.

So that is one self-publishing extreme, doing absolutely everything yourself. It was an awful lot of work, but this was a labor of love and, as I said, a great learning experience. I never imagined I would be scanning in eighty-three 50-year-old photographs and retouching them.

CreateSpace offers a range of other services if you’re not willing or able to do it all yourself. You can pay CreateSpace to help with cover design, interior design, copyediting, marketing and promotion, and distribution, in just about any combination, for prices ranging from a few hundred dollars up to several thousand dollars. Of course, even having a lovely new paperback available through major book distribution channels is no guarantee that a bookstore will elect to stock your book. There's not a lot you can do to influence that outcome, so far as I know.

I'm not pushing CreateSpace over other self-publishing alternatives. It's simply the one with which I've had some personal experience. Other self-pub companies include Lulu, AuthorHouse, DogEar, Booklocker, and many more. You will probably also want to generate electronic copies of your book to be used in various e-book readers. SmashWords specializes in e-books.

Self-Promotion


Regardless of which self-publishing route you choose, there’s one thing that everyone who has self-published a book agrees on: you have to be prepared to promote, promote, promote your book. Some people seem to feel that "If you print it, they will come." It's more accurate to say that, "If you print it and tell them about it, they might come." In fact, even if you go with a traditional publisher, you need to plan to spend a lot of time and energy on promotion and marketing. There are many websites devoted to tips for marketing your self-published book, so I'll let you pursue those on your own when you're ready. You can read numerous glowing testimonials from people who sold hundreds of thousands of copies of their self-published book and made a lot of money. The reality, though, is that this is highly unlikely to happen with your book. Sorry. But I wish you the best of luck!

(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, May 10, 2012

So You Want to Publish Your Book (part 3/4)

The previous two parts in this series (part 1, part 2) addressed targeting your book for an appropriate marketplace niche, creating your elevator pitch, choosing a publisher, and drafting a proposal. In this article I'll discuss some aspects of the book contract and give you some tips about staying on track during the writing process so you can actually deliver on time. This leads to a sense of relief for both the author and the publisher.

The Contract


If your attempt to convince a publisher that your manuscript would be a valuable addition to their lineup succeeds, congratulations! You've passed the first hurdle. The publisher will then present you with a lengthy contract that itemizes every aspect of the publishing agreement, more than you ever imagined possible. Naturally, publishers write these contracts in their own best interest, but you'll find that you can negotiate on many terms that might be uncomfortable for you.

For example, royalties are often expressed in terms of two or more tiers. Each tier states the royalty as a certain percentage of gross receipts (which is far less per copy than the book’s retail price) on a certain number of copies sold (less copies returned). So you might be offered a three-tier structure, perhaps 12% on the first 10,000 copies, 15% on copies 10,001 through 20,000, and 17% on additional copies sold. (These numbers are just examples; your mileage may vary.)You can negotiate on both the royalty percentages and the tier breakpoints, if you wish. Just remember that you won’t win every negotiation.

I’ve read—and signed—a number of them, but I am no expert on publishing contracts. I refer you to Scott Meyers’s web page for some insights on the contract. If you haven't seen these sorts of things before, I highly recommend that you have an intellectual-property attorney, a literary agent, or someone else in the business take a look at your book contract and see if there's anything weird in there that you might want to adjust. For example, I like to get the copyright in my own name, not the publisher's name. Maybe this isn’t important, but it makes me feel good. Also, some of the contracts I’ve seen had a clause that gave the publisher the right of first refusal on my next book. I always ask to remove that clause, as I don’t want to have any restrictions on where I submit future books.

Be careful not to commit to a contract until you have a really clear idea of where you're going with the book and are confident you can deliver without killing yourself. I know one consultant who began writing his seminal work some years ago. It wasn't long, though, before he realized that he simply didn't have the bandwidth to devote to the book along with his other responsibilities and family life. He was exhausting himself with the effort. Wisely, he decided that the book was a lower priority for him and abandoned it. Later on, he did author and co-author several other books.

Another established author once told me that he was way behind deadline for delivering not one, but two book manuscripts. It wasn't clear that he expected to complete either one, although he had happily cashed the advance checks from the publisher. If you conclude that you aren’t going to be able to deliver the manuscript on schedule, let the publisher know as soon as possible so he can take appropriate corrective action. This might involve adjusting the schedule, having someone else finish the book, or abandoning the project entirely. And you really ought to return the advance if you're not going to finish the book.

The contract will make it clear who is responsible for doing what parts of the work on the project. For instance, the publisher will generally hire someone to create the index, although I know one author who always generates his own indexes. I've always provided my indexer with a list of suggested index terms, but my list is usually ignored. You have to look at the index carefully to make sure that it contains the terms that will help the interested reader find all the goodies contained in the book. If the index (or any other aspect of the book) isn’t useful, the reader is going to blame you, because your name is on the cover.

Staying on Track


I have a personal life philosophy to undercommit and overdeliver, which helps me avoid making iffy schedule commitments. This attitude serves me well when I’m working on a book project. It will probably take longer than you expect to write the book. And simply writing it isn't enough. I always line up about fifteen friends and colleagues to review the manuscript, chapter by chapter, before the publisher ever sees it (see “Four Eyes Are Better Than Two: Reviewing What You Write”). This adds more time to the process. Also, I'm usually aiming for a book of a particular length, so I need to monitor the size of the book as well as the status of each chapter as I'm writing.

To help my stay on top of all this, I set up a status tracking spreadsheet at the beginning of each book project. You can see an example of one of my status tracking spreadsheets at the page of supplemental materials for this blog. I admit it, I'm a high-resolution process weenie and I like data, so this level of tracking is comfortable and interesting for me. It might not make any sense for you at all.

My tracking spreadsheet contains three sections in separate worksheets:

Chapter Status: I list all the book elements that I need to create, including chapters, foreword (if any), preface, any introductions to individual parts of the book, references, author biography, and so forth. For each such element, I track the following dates: drafted; sent out for peer review; baselined; submitted to publisher; received after copy editing; returned to publisher with changes; page proofs received; my page proof comments returned to publisher; comments on final pages returned to publisher. I establish target dates for major milestones, such as sending out chapters for review and submitting them to the publisher, so I can see quickly whether I'm on schedule.

Review Status: I note the date that I sent each chapter out for review and the target date by which I wish to receive feedback. For each of my reviewers, I record the date that I received their comments on each chapter. I also make a notation as to how helpful their feedback was, on a scale from 0 (not useful at all) to +++ (saved my bacon). The pattern that results lets me know who the most valuable (and timely) reviewers are; I’ll probably invite them back next time.

Even though I don't have any trouble getting reviewers to volunteer to participate in my projects, I'm astonished at how many of them fail to return any feedback at all. They don't even explain why they aren’t reviewing what I send them. It's as though they dropped off the face of the earth. Weird. If you sign up to be a manuscript reviewer and then can’t contribute, for whatever reason, please have the courtesy to let the author know as early as possible.

Size Tracking: I generally target my books for a particular approximate length, based on what I think will best fit the market. If you're not doing this, then skip this paragraph. I estimate the length of each chapter in words, based on my outline, and I record the actual number of words in the draft version that goes out for review and the final version of each chapter. My spreadsheet calculates the cumulative number of words to date and charts the actual versus expected word count so I can see what the deviation is. Some books have wound up as much as twenty percent longer than I estimated, although I'm getting better at projecting lengths and writing to those targets. I agree, this is kind of high-resolution, but it helps me get the book done in the way that I'm really trying to. Being a research chemist by background, I'm a data kind of guy, so this is actually sort of fun for me. Peculiar, I know.

The final installment in this four-part series will take a look at another viable option for today’s book author: self-publishing.

(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, May 3, 2012

So You Want to Publish Your Book (part 2/4)

Choosing a Publisher


If you scan the spines of the software books in your office, you’ll likely see a number of publishers represented. As an author, you need to identify publishers who might be interested in your work and will do a good job of both producing the book and marketing it. Look for publishers who release titles that you like, both for their content and for their visual presentation. (Speaking of titles, don’t get too emotionally committed to your original book title. The publisher might prefer an alternative title for marketing purposes. That's happened to me several times, and not always to my liking.) Also, look for a publisher who might find your book to be a good addition to its line. Large publishers often have several book series on various themes, so you might target your book for inclusion in a particular series. For instance, several of my books are in the Microsoft Press Best Practices series. My book on software peer reviews is in Addison-Wesley's Information Technology series. If you can pitch your book to be a logical fit for a particular series, the series editor might be very receptive to your proposal.

Some of the biggest publishers in the software book business are Addison-Wesley, McGraw-Hill, Microsoft Press, O'Reilly, Prentice Hall, and Wiley. There are many others, of course. Dorset House has a long-standing reputation as a publisher of high-quality books. Pragmatic Bookshelf is a relatively new publisher that has quickly established an impressive lineup of titles, mostly on programming topics. There are pluses and minuses with both large and small publishers. If you're just starting out as an author, you might get more personal coaching and guidance from a smaller publisher. I certainly did from Dorset House, who published my Creating a Software Engineering Culture book in 1996.

To help you select a candidate publisher, you might contact some authors you know who have published with a particular company to see what their experiences were like. Even if you don't know the authors except by reputation, go ahead and write to them. You'll find that most software authors are nice folks who are happy to help an aspiring writer.

I have always dealt with publishers directly. I've never used an agent, nor have most of the other software book authors I know. Word-of-mouth referrals can be helpful to get you in the door. People sometimes approach me with book ideas and questions about publishers. If I know them and their project seems to have merit, I’m happy to introduce them to my contacts at the publishers I’ve worked with. I did seek an agent when I was trying to publish my memoir of life lessons, Pearls from Sand, because I had no visibility or contacts in the self-help publishing world. I didn’t end up with an agent after all, although one agent kindly did point me toward the publisher who ultimately accepted the book.

If you're dealing with a small publisher, your initial point of contact will likely be one of the principals of the company. When dealing with a larger publisher, you'll generally work first with an acquisitions editor. The AE is responsible for evaluating ideas and proposals and landing promising manuscripts for the publisher. Publishers need authors as much as authors need publishers, so don't be shy about approaching a publisher with your idea, proposal, outline, or manuscript.

Opinions vary as to whether it's appropriate to submit the same manuscript or proposal to multiple publishers concurrently. I think it's fine, so long as you don't get carried away. In other words, I think it's reasonable to submit your book concurrently to a few candidate publishers for whom you think it would be a good fit. However, I wouldn't broadcast it out to every publisher of software books in the universe at the same time, hoping for at least one hit.

The Proposal


You start with an idea, a possible title, and maybe an elevator pitch. If you want a publisher to give your idea due consideration, you’ll need to submit a full proposal. Once you've identified candidate publishers, you might be able to find templates or suggested outlines for their preferred proposal format at their websites. Alternatively, if you’ve spoken to an acquisitions editor or other contact person, they should be able to describe what they like to see in a proposal. If all else fails, there's some standard information you should include in your proposal, which I will describe here. If you visit the supplemental content page for this blog, you can see several of the proposals I submitted for various books I have written. I'm not saying they're the best proposals ever, but each of them did persuade a publisher to take the book.

Once you've identified yourself and your position in the proposal, present a concise overview of the proposed book. Make it clear why the world desperately needs your book. Describe its major characteristics and the value proposition for the reader. Include a synopsis of the topics you intend to cover, either in narrative form or in the form of a high-level outline. The publisher doesn't necessarily need to see the full outline that you might have developed to help guide your writing, but he certainly wants to know your topics and how you anticipate organizing them. Estimate the final word count for the book and the approximate number of figures and tables you expect to include. By way of calibration, a 200-page software book probably contains around 60,000 to 65,000 words. My Software Requirements, 2nd Edition book is 150,000 words and 500 pages long. Figures are generally counted as 200 words each.

In another section you might call out the outstanding features of the book, including any hooks you've devised that would give the book a distinctive look, feel, and delivery of the information. If you plan to set up a complementary website with supplemental downloadable materials, describe that, too. The point of these sections is to convince the publisher that you have a uniquely valuable contribution to offer, and that you can deliver the content in a compelling way that readers will find accessible.

Publishers aren't in business just because they love books—they need to be able to sell whatever books they acquire, preferably lots of copies. Therefore, include a section on marketing information to help convince the publisher that this is a good business proposition. Describe any marketing hooks, ways the book can be positioned to particularly appeal to potential buyers. List the benefits readers would get. Summarize your understanding of the audience profile—the kind of people who would find this book irresistible—and estimate how many of them there are. Don't say, "Every software developer and project manager will want a copy of this book, so the potential market is at least two million copies." First, that isn't going to happen. Second, that doesn't help the publisher assess how to position the book in the marketplace.

An essential section of the proposal is to identify the competitive titles that are already on the market, as well as any books in the same space that you know are in preparation. For each competitive book, provide the title, authors, publisher, copyright date, page count, price, and a brief abstract. Describe how your book will complement, supplement, and (hopefully) be superior to the competition.

My book proposals include a section on the status of the work (“the Work” is how the publisher's contract will refer to your book). The publisher would like to reach a comfort level that you'll actually be able to deliver a usable manuscript on schedule. I know some people who write the entire book before approaching a publisher. I have never done that with my software books. Instead, I outline the book, and then I write a chapter or two to see how it feels and to get a sense for how the whole project might go. Then I can approach a publisher with confidence that I know what I'm talking about. In this section, I let the publisher know how much I've already written and my estimated schedule for delivering the rest of the content.

Include a section of author information with your full name, contact information, and professional biography. If you’ve published books previously, list their titles, publisher, year of publication, number of pages, ISBN, approximate sales, and any awards they might have received. Provide references to any articles, handbooks, or eBooks you have published. Even if you haven’t written a book before, publishers need to know whether you can string sentences together in a sensible way.

Along that line, publishers want to see samples of your writing. The general guideline is to submit two chapters that you’ve drafted, neither of which is the first chapter of the book. You want to let the publisher’s decision makers judge the quality and style of your writing. This will give the publisher an idea of how effectively you present material and also an idea of how much work it might take them to edit your manuscript into publishable form. If you haven’t written any chapters yet, make sure the publisher has easy access to some of your articles.

In the next article in this series, I’ll talk about the contracting process.

(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, April 26, 2012

So You Want to Publish Your Book (part 1/4)

Writing a book is one thing; making it available to the world is an entirely separate proposition. The world of book publishing has changed in recent years, as self-publishing and electronic books have skewed the economic value proposition for traditional publishers. While the new book author has other alternatives available, there are still numerous traditional publishers who look for good, marketable manuscripts. Once you've established a reputation as someone who can write books that sell, publishers are always happy to hear from you. Getting your foot in the door can be challenging, though. For this reason—and others—I'm eternally grateful to Wendy Eakin of Dorset House Publishing, who took a chance on a first-time author in 1995 and helped him craft a rather nice book, if I do say so myself.

In these four articles I will describe what I've learned about writing and publishing books. No doubt other authors have had different experiences. If you are such an author, please share your own experiences and suggestions through comments, or contact me about writing a guest post for this blog. I don't claim that this is the only way—or even the best way—to go about creating a book. It's just the approach I have taken for publishing six software development and management books, as well as a non-technical memoir of life lessons.

My friend Scott Meyers created an extensive web page that’s an excellent resource for the aspiring book author. Scott is a talented and prolific writer who is renowned for his expertise in the C++ programming language. He combined his own publishing experience with input from numerous other book authors into this page. If you're thinking of writing a technical book, read what Scott has to say carefully.

Even if you’re able to get a book written and published, you shouldn’t expect miracles. Don’t quit your job and buy that beach house, expecting book royalties to keep you in margaritas for the rest of your life. I don’t have any firm figures from the software industry, but here are my own heuristics. If your software book sells 5,000 copies, you should be pleased that you created something your colleagues find useful. If you sell 25,000 copies, you should be delighted. If you reach 100,000 copies with any book, you should be ecstatic. And if you sell more than that, you’re in a small but elite crowd of highly-respected authors. If any of you authors out there have different guidelines for judging “How’s my book doing?” please share your thoughts.

Targeting a Niche


I knew a consultant who envisioned publishing a comprehensive series of several books on a particular subdomain of software engineering. He had already drafted numerous volumes in the series, which he distributed during his training seminars. However, it's not easy to find a publisher who’s interested in releasing such an extensive series of books by one author in any specific niche. So far as I know, this consultant never did get any of these books published. It's rather a shame, because he had a lot of great material. I think he would have been better off to distill his vast quantity of material down into one or two focused, practical, and distinctive books in that area.

My writing approach has been to identify some area of software engineering that I felt was lacking an appropriate book and try to plug that gap. At the time I wrote the first edition of Software Requirements in 1999, just a few practical books on requirements engineering were available. None covered the breadth of requirements topics that I thought was essential, so I took a stab at it. A few years later, I realized that I had quite a bit of additional material, much of it developed in response to questions that people had asked me about requirements. That extra material eventually led to the second edition (what publishers call a “2E”) of Software Requirements in 2003. This edition was 60,000 words longer than the first; I guess I did have more to say on the topic.

As another example of plugging a hole in the literature, I've always been a strong proponent of software peer reviews and inspections. My own software work has been greatly improved by getting a little help from my friends through peer reviews. A decade ago there were several books in that niche already, but they were all hefty—350 to 450 pages—and they focused on the inspection technique, giving short shrift to other possible approaches for performing reviews. The topic just didn’t seem so complicated as to demand such long books. So, in 2001 I wrote Peer Reviews in Software: A Practical Guide. It was just 230 pages long, covered several review techniques besides inspection, and added some important content on review metrics and how to instill a review program into a software organization. I targeted this book at practitioners who were serious about software quality but might be daunted by a massive tome on inspection.

So, I suggest you aim your book at a niche that isn't already well covered in the existing literature for your domain. You can drill down into a specialized area, synthesize related topics into a comprehensive overview, improve on the existing books in a particular field, or invent something entirely new. A prospective publisher will assess how your proposal fits into a competitive marketplace. Something that's going head-to-head against numerous other similar titles (particularly from the same publisher) could be a tougher prospect than a book that stands alone. Publishers don't simply print interesting or well-written books; they need to publish books that sell or they go out of business.

The Elevator Pitch


You step into an elevator in a big hotel and press a button for the twenty-fourth floor. During the ride, you chat idly with the elevator's other occupant, who is heading for the nineteenth floor. Casually, you just happen to mention that you're writing a book. "Cool," says your fellow passenger. "What's it about?" You have perhaps thirty seconds to tell this prospective customer just enough about your book that he says as he exits, "That sounds interesting. I'll look for it when it comes out. Good luck."

This condensed summary of your book is called the elevator pitch or elevator story. The first time someone asked what my book was about, I confess that it rather stumped me. How do I distill the essence of a 400-page book into thirty seconds? This puzzlement was beneficial, though. It forced me to sit down and think carefully through just what my book was about and how I could explain that to even a normal (i.e., non-software) person concisely. That's a valuable exercise that I’ve applied to all of my subsequent books. With practice, your elevator pitch will roll right off your tongue whenever you encounter a possible reader.

I highly recommend that you devise your elevator pitch early in the writing process. It will help you keep your overriding objective and book themes in the front of your mind as you develop the contents. And if you have an initial phone conversation or e-mail exchange with a prospective publisher or agent, the elevator pitch is your first shot at piquing his interest. In the next article in this series I will address choosing a publisher and developing a compelling book proposal. Part 3 will address the contract and tracking your progress to meet your publishing deadlines. The final article describes my experience with self-publishing a book.

I've collected all of the blog posts about writing -- getting ideas, choosing a style, editing, proofreading, publishing, etc. -- into an eBook now available for just $5.00 at http://www.processimpact.com/handbooks.shtml#writing.

(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!)