Thursday, February 23, 2012

You Say You Want to Write a Book? (Part 1/2)

Consultants are the kind of people who like to share what they know (usually at a reasonable price), so many consultants get the notion of writing a book. They might have already been speaking at conferences, delivering courses, and writing articles or blogs; a book is the logical next step.

I've met numerous people who said they were writing a book, thought they were writing a book, planned to write a book, or hoped to write a book. Most of them never do. As one example, I met a consultant in 1996 who told me he was co-authoring a book with another experienced writer. Periodically over the years he has said that they were still working on their project. However, they've never finished their opus.

Most of the people I know who never quite finished a book didn't treat it like a project. At least in my experience, writing a book takes a lot of time. If you're serious about getting it done, you have to elevate it to a suitable priority in your work queue. This often means turning down paying work to free up time to devote to the book. This is a tough decision to have to make for many consultants. You also need to instill discipline into your writing approach. I know one author who sets aside several hours every single morning, starting about 5 a.m., to write. I’ve never been that dedicated, but whenever I decide to write a book, I do carve out the necessary time to get it done.

If you see a book in your future, think about why you want to write it. Certainly, having books to your credit looks good on a resume. Writing books gives you credibility and visibility in your industry. It's also fun and exciting to be able to tell people about "my book." I get a lot of personal fulfillment and pride from having written multiple books (seven so far), particularly when people tell me they found them useful and interesting. Perhaps you want to write a book that you can include with classes you teach, or to give away as a marketing tool to promote your company's services. Whatever your reason, keep it in mind and in focus as you structure the book and explore publishing alternatives, just as you manage the vision and scope of a software project.

Sometimes you just feel that you just have to write a book to tell a story you wish to share. That was the case both with my first software book and with my most recent book, a memoir of life lessons titled Pearls from Sand: How Small Encounters Lead to Powerful Lessons. I described this feeling to another aspiring author about ten years ago. I said, "There was a book inside of me that just had to get out." He stared at me as though I came from another planet. I guess he hadn't experienced that same emotion, although he professed a desire to write a book himself. I never learned what his motivation was, though.

I knew quite early in my software career that I wanted to write a book, but I wasn’t sure what to write about. A little book-writing safety tip: having a topic in mind is a good starting point. Two events converged to lead me to my first book, Creating a Software Engineering Culture, which was published in 1996. First, I had written an article by that same title for Software Development magazine. More e-mails poured in after that one article than for all the other articles I've ever written—combined. "Hmmm," I said to myself, "perhaps there's something there." Second, I happened to win a door prize at a conference presentation at about the same time, which was a copy of the speaker's book on software management. As I was reading the book on the airplane home, I said to myself, "I can write a better book than this." So I did. But it wasn't easy.

Where do you learn how to write a book? Nothing I studied in high school, college, or graduate school prepared me for writing a book, other than what I learned from writing my PhD thesis in organic chemistry. So, I really had no idea what I was doing when I embarked on Book #1. My inexperience showed in the original manuscript. One reason I'm writing these posts is to help the aspiring author avoid struggling as much as I did for lack of a mentor.

At a meeting of the Editorial Board for the journal IEEE Software one year, I sat down with two other highly experienced authors and compared notes. Among the three of us, we had published something like eleven books by that time. We discovered that we all took different approaches to book-writing. I prefer to work from an outline that will meet my objectives for the project, which I then flesh out chapter by chapter (not necessarily in sequence). One of the other authors said, "When I conceived [Book X], I didn't know exactly where I was going with it, so I just started writing and watched what happened." That free-form approach wouldn't work for me, but it served this respected author well on the innovative topic he was trailblazing. You’ll need to figure out what writing method will work best for each of your own book projects.

(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, February 16, 2012

On Intellectual Property (Part 2/2)

Protecting Your Property


I've had both amusing and dismaying experiences in which people have misappropriated my intellectual property. Let me share some of those experiences with you so you can be alert for similar problems with your own creations.

I once read an article about the technique of software inspection in a respected software journal. The author was a man of unimpeachable integrity, a titan of the software industry whom I admire greatly. Someone else, who I didn’t know, had written a two-page sidebar in the article that presented an overview of software peer reviews. As I read the sidebar, I found myself agreeing with what it said. Then I realized why: I wrote it!

This sidebar was a condensation and paraphrasing of an article I had published in a different magazine in 1995. However, the author of the sidebar didn't cite my article and didn't have permission from either me or the magazine for this adaptation. I easily convinced the journal's editor of the similarities between my article and the sidebar. The editor issued a clarification and apology in the next issue of the journal. I also wrote to the author of the sidebar, but she never replied. Had the author contacted me and asked about presenting this summary, with due credit given to the original source, I would have said fine. Instead, she simply took my material, rephrased it somewhat, and presented it as her own. That's not fine.

On another occasion I was sitting with a friend at a conference. The speaker was talking about some aspect of software requirements. He showed a slide and said, "I'm not sure where I found this." My friend grinned at me and said, "I think I know." The slide was pulled out of one of my training courses. This was curious, because I had never taught that course at the speaker's company, so I'm not sure how he got it. After the talk, I told him where that slide came from. He apologized, but I told him he could go ahead and use it if he added a reference to the source.

I keep an eye on how my intellectual property is misused not because of ego, of making sure that I always get full "credit" for anything I've ever said or written. Instead, it's a matter of making sure that the intellectual property from which I earn a living remains my property. Very recently, I discovered copies of one of my magazine articles posted on three other websites. On one, no author was listed, implying that the owner of the web site wrote the piece. I called the web site owner and he agreed to add my name as the author. On the other two sites, different people had put their own names as author, although the article was lifted nearly verbatim from my site. I find these kinds of violations periodically. It’s quite irritating to have other people claim my work as their own.

Some years ago I received an e-mail from a woman I didn't know, asking if my Software Requirements book was now in the public domain. It was not. She had spotted an article that clearly was cribbed from my requirements book, which wasn’t mentioned. I contacted the author and discovered that this was the first of three articles, indeed drawn from my book, without citation and without permission. The author was not an American. He told me that summarizing another author's work like this is considered a compliment in his country. I told him it was considered plagiarism in the United States. It was too late to withdraw part two of the series from the publication cycle, but we got my name listed as a co-author for part three, along with the reference to my book. I'm not trying to be mean here, but I do have to protect the material that I have created—with considerable effort—so that the ownership, and revenues ensuing therefrom, remain mine.

Here's another interesting example of misappropriation. Several years ago I discovered a website from another country that had reposted numerous articles published in Software Development magazine, including several of mine. One problem was that the people who created this website had not obtained permission from the publisher of Software Development or the authors of the individual articles to post these articles. Another problem was that they had moved the original author's name to the fine print at the end of each article, putting someone else's name at the top so it looked like this other person wrote it. I worked with the original magazine’s publisher to get that website to halt this unethical practice. I've also found numerous discussion boards in which people freely distribute electronic copies of copyrighted books, including mine. This is unethical, illegal, and far too common.

The Funniest Case


For many years, I've made document templates, checklists, and other process materials available for downloading from the Process Impact Goodies web page. Some years ago I stumbled onto another consultant's site that had a similar set of downloadable items. Too similar, in fact. The boilerplate text on his page was lifted verbatim from my Goodies page, and about half of the items he had available for downloading also were from my page. (Copyscape.com is a website that lets you search for text copied from your web site.) He did identify these items as being mine, but he hadn't asked me for permission to use them in this fashion.

When I contacted the consultant to inquire about this situation, he ignored me. I tried again. This time he replied but pushed back against my request that he remove my materials from his site. The guy said, "You don't have to be a [rude term] about it." Oh, great, I thought: name-calling escalation. He takes my material without permission and I'm the [rude term]? Ultimately, he apologized for that comment and complied with my request.

The funny part? This dude's company name included the word "maverick," and he had a dictionary definition of maverick at the top of each page on his web site: "someone who exhibits great independence in thought and action." Uh-huh.

(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, February 9, 2012

On Intellectual Property (Part 1/2)

As a consultant, speaker, and writer, you will be creating valuable intellectual property. You should protect that intellectual property, because it's how you earn your living. The flip side is to make sure that you properly respect intellectual property belonging to other people. Most people I know are sensible, honest, and fair when it comes to these matters. Sadly, though, a few are not. In these two posts I will explore certain aspects of intellectual property rights and courtesies. Let me reiterate that nothing I say here constitutes legal advice. Also, intellectual property laws may vary from country to country.

Citing the Work of Others


Perhaps it's because of my background as a research scientist, but I think it's important to credit other sources in books and articles. Citing other authors and their publications accomplishes two objectives. First, it gives credit to those who have done previous work in the area. I incorporated what I learned from them into my own thinking and creations; therefore, I should acknowledge their contribution. Second, citing other sources gives the interested reader places to go for more detail, supporting evidence for my positions, or even dissenting opinions. I look askance at technical books that contain no references. It's unusual for an individual to invent an entire new domain of study entirely on his own. Omitting references implies that the author is claiming credit for all of the material presented.

If you have some sources that you want to cite in an article, learn how the periodical to which you are submitting it handles citations. Books typically list references at the end, sorted alphabetically by author, although sometimes each chapter will list the sources cited therein. A bibliography of sources for further reading on certain topics isn't the same as a list of references that you cited at specific points in your text. Be sure to check your references scrupulously for completeness and accuracy. I've seen many erroneous citations to my own publications: incorrect first name or middle initial, last name misspelled, inaccurate title, incorrect copyright date, and the like.

Fair Use


Sometimes you might wish to include material created by someone else in your own work. Of course, the first thing you have to do is to cite the original source. If you don't own the copyright to a work, then you also need to get permission from the copyright owner to reuse their material. The exception is if the amount of material that you wish to use lies within the domain of "fair use." You can read what the U.S. Copyright Office has to say about fair use. Incidentally, a copyright notice does not have to appear on the material for it to be considered copyrighted. Nor does the author have to register it with the U.S. Copyright Office. If you created it, you hold the copyright to it unless you've granted that copyright to some other party, as with a work made for hire, for which the employer is considered the legal author of the work.

Unfortunately, fair use is not cut and dried. As I understand it, in general it is permissible to include short quotations or excerpts ("short" being undefined) in your own work without explicit permission, provided that you cite the original source. However, if either a significant fraction of your work is derived from someone else's work, or if you are incorporating a significant portion of someone else's work into yours ("significant" being undefined), then you need permission from the copyright holder. If you include a complete table or figure from someone else's work into your book or article, you ought to request permission. But as the U.S. Copyright Office says: "The distinction between fair use and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or [musical] notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission."

It's also within the rights of the copyright holder to request a licensing fee for you to reuse their material. For instance, I paid a licensing fee to include a Dilbert comic in one of my books. The comic was a perfect fit, well worth the modest cost. Periodically, I receive requests from people to include content from my books, articles, or websites in something they are creating. Sometimes, what they're requesting lies within my understanding of fair use and it's no problem. If they wish to use it for academic purposes, I'm generally okay with that. I do try to be reasonable and fair. Other times, though, someone wants to incorporate a figure, a complete document template, or some other resource I've created in a book or training course they’ll be using for commercial purposes. I generally charge a small licensing fee in these cases. Sometimes that's okay with the person who made the request and we make a deal; other times they decide not to use my material after all. Either way is fine with me.

(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, February 2, 2012

The Consulting Lifestyle (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.

Why Be a Consultant?

Anyone who's flirting with "going independent" must consider a number of issues. Contracting isn't just regular employment without a boss—it's qualitatively different from a W-2 corporate position, and it’s not for everyone. When I considered going out on my own, the fundamental question I had to face was: Why do this? What inspires someone to walk away from the security of a W-2, salaried job? The answer varies with the individual. Some want more income or more control over their professional lives. Others are running from a bad corporate position, or seeking a challenging, exhausting world of untapped potential. Still others are forced into the choice by a layoff. Regardless, you should examine your motives ruthlessly.

Survey the field in which you wish to market your services and ask yourself if it can supply your financial needs. In 1999, the Y2K problem put COBOL and RPG programmers in high demand, and many with those skills jumped to contract or independent work. But by the end of 2001, it was the end of the road for many of those who had only these skills to bring to the market.

Be brutal in your self-examination. Remember, you never "work whenever you want to"—you work when work is around, because it might not be available when "you want to." Are you willing—or capable—of tackling the marketing, sales, billing, and office administration that must be done when you're the entire business? If the thought of cold calling gives you chills, perhaps you're not ready to take the plunge. Are you ready to be always looking for a job? Are you ready to accept each holiday or vacation period as unpaid days? Weigh the potential downside with serious consideration.

If you do decide to give consulting a fling, please do not burn your former employee relationships. You might despise the company you are leaving, but don't ever say so publicly, and that includes Facebook and Twitter. You may think your former managers are all idiots, but if you ever speak of them publicly, make sure you describe only what they did right. You can never know if you might someday need to rely on those very people to hire you or to act as a reference. In 1993 I was part of a layoff by NCR Corporation in the U.S. Five weeks later my first client was NCR-Canada, with whom I had had zero prior contact. You just never know what the future may bring. Keep it professional, never personal.

And what if you move to consulting, and then realize this really is not for you? Always have a backup plan, as well as a backup bank account. As I discuss below, consulting affects everyone in a family or relationship. You might find that the stress of job search, continual job uncertainty, weeks away from home, living in hotels, and eating meals alone is too high a price to pay. It all takes a toll. A simple recommendation is to plan to spend six to twelve months building a consulting presence, while continuing to look for full-time work. If the job market is good you might find yourself able to fill your calendar with consulting work, and even capture some full-time offers as well. In the latter scenario, one approach I took was to offer my services to the potential employer on a contract basis for, say, three months, so we could "test drive" each other. This way I was building my consulting credentials and history, and they had already put their cards on the table that they thought I would make a valuable addition to their full-time staff.

Two of the facets I love most about consulting are the flexibility it offers and the creativity it allows. You just have to think of how you can construct a "win/win" both for your own goals, and for the company engaging you. Even if you decide that independent consulting is not to your taste or the work just doesn't materialize, consider joining a small consulting firm who needs your skills, or even returning to a fulltime employment position.

The notion that consulting isn't a job, but rather is a way of doing a job, came home to me when I read Alan Weiss's excellent book Million Dollar Consulting. Essentially, we must have a field in which to conduct our consulting. You can choose to align yourself with a product, a vendor, a technology, or a platform. But beyond those choices, you must also find a focus, which should become your personal mission statement. Without this, you'll never know when to say no to a job offer. And if you don't say no to the wrong engagement, you won't be available to say yes when the right one comes.

It's a Family Business

Unless you're a hermit, don't fool yourself: Consulting affects everyone in a family or close relationship. For 1099 contractors as well as W-2 employees, time away from home takes its toll, and in the expanding global marketplace, our industry requires more traveling than ever before. I recently looked at my Frequent Flyer balance with Delta: it's over 500,000 miles after cashing in several tens of thousands for family flight tickets. And this is only for Delta, which I have flown only four times in the last three years! I estimate I have logged very close to one million miles across all airlines in my seventeen years of consulting.

But even the grinding tedium of air travel does not compare to the stress that comes at the end of a contract when no other opportunity is present. Essentially, you're out of a job—again and again. The stress of finding clients, negotiating fees, terms, and schedules, and delivering what you promise can be a killer if you don't have confidence in your abilities and support from those closest to you.

All of this will take a physical toll also. I have been very active all my adult life: lifting weights and playing soccer. This physical activity has been crucial to my being able to maintain both my mental and physical well-being. Make time for yourself so you can be as healthy as possible, and strong enough to support your family even when you are not there with them. Karl has two consultant friends who both wound up sick for several months, unable to shake their ailments because they never had enough down time to rest between client commitments. Having work is great, but you need to take enough breaks to stay mentally and physically healthy.

Don't disappear into a distant town and become a vague memory for your loved ones. When I travel, I call home every single night to talk with my wife and my children so I can still have a presence at home. When my children were small, I helped them with homework over the phone. Math isn’t easy to do by voice alone. My wife would fax or email the kids’ assignment sheets to me, and I would go over the assignment with them, usually sending back examples of how to solve the problems. It would have been infinitely better to be sitting at the kitchen table with them, but I could not, so this was a creative alternative. It required more effort from me, but it helped them and kept us in touch. And that's the whole point.

If you work out of a home office and you have small children, you will face a very special challenge. When I started consulting my children were 7 and 1. My 7-year-old understood the signal of my office door: when Daddy's door is closed he is working and you should not interrupt him. He will come out later to play. But my 1-year-old knew no such restraint. When he heard me through the door typing, or talking on the telephone, all he knew was: Daddy's home…play time! It broke my heart—and his—for me to have to move him out of my office so I could work. For several years I resorted to setting up shop with my laptop in a local public library several days a week. It was there in a (really) little room that I wrote my Object-Oriented Analysis and Design course of more than 700 pages.

Another unanticipated possibility for the consultant working out of his or her home is that your spouse or partner really make not like having you hanging around all day. You think you are working, but your partner sees you interloping on what was private turf. "This is my kingdom during the day, when you should be at an office working!" And once your partner realizes you are at home, she won’t feel hesitant to ask you to fix the cord on the vacuum, invite you to drive to the hardware store to look at faucets, or generate any number of other innocent interruptions. But the interruptions do add up and sap your productivity. You might find yourself staring at a computer at 10 p.m., realizing you accomplished nothing that day on the project your client is paying you to complete.

Expect that your days will not go as smoothly as you hope, and accept that both you and your family will have to make some lifestyle changes and accommodations. Assess yourself and your loved ones honestly. If you do decide to take the plunge, be kind: make it hard on yourself, so it looks like a walk in the park from their point of view.

(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!)