The Nomadic Developer: Surviving and Thriving in the World of Technology Consulting [NOOK Book]


Learn the Real Secrets of Succeeding as a Software or IT Consultant in Any Economic Climate!


Despite economic cycles, the idea of using technology to make a company more efficient and competitive—or perhaps even reach a new market— is appealing to all but the most desperate and cash-starved companies. More and more often, those companies look to technology consultants to fulfill their needs.


There are real advantages to being a ...

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The Nomadic Developer: Surviving and Thriving in the World of Technology Consulting

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Learn the Real Secrets of Succeeding as a Software or IT Consultant in Any Economic Climate!


Despite economic cycles, the idea of using technology to make a company more efficient and competitive—or perhaps even reach a new market— is appealing to all but the most desperate and cash-starved companies. More and more often, those companies look to technology consultants to fulfill their needs.


There are real advantages to being a consultant. You make contacts with a lot of different people; you get exposure to many industries; and most important, unlike a software developer in the IT department for a brick-and-mortar company, as a technology consultant, you are the profit center…so long as you are billing.


Consulting can be hugely rewarding—but it’s easy to fail if you are unprepared. To succeed, you need a mentor who knows the lay of the land. Aaron Erickson is your mentor, and this is your guidebook.


Erickson has done it all—from Practice Leadership to the lowest level project work. In The Nomadic Developer, he brings together his hardwon insights on becoming successful and achieving success through tough times and relentless change. You’ll find 100% practical advice and real experiences—his own and annotations from those in the trenches. In addition, renowned consultants—such as David Chappell, Bruce Eckel, Deborah Kurata, and Ted Neward—share some of their hard-earned lessons.


With this useful guidebook, you can


  • Objectively assess whether the consultant’s life makes sense for you
  • Break into the business and build a career path that works
  • Avoid the Seven Deadly Firms by identifying unscrupulous technology consultancies and avoiding their traps and pitfalls
  • Understand the business models and mechanics that virtually all consulting firms use
  • Master secret consulting success tips that are typically left unstated or overlooked
  • Gain a competitive advantage by adding more value than your competitors
  • Continue your professional development so you stay billable even during bad times
  • Profit from both fixed-bid and time-and-materials projects
  • Build a personal brand that improves your resiliency no matter what happens
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780321606419
  • Publisher: Pearson Education
  • Publication date: 5/19/2009
  • Series: Microsoft Technologies Series
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 408
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Aaron Erickson is a veteran technology consultant, writer, and technical evangelist with Magenic Technologies, based out of Chicago. He has spent the majority of his career catering to the individual needs of companies of all sizes. His strategic consulting focus has been centered around delivering high-value solutions that break new technological ground and bringing added value to both up-and-coming clients, as well as those who are already established.


For the past 16 years, Aaron has worked with leading-edge companies, providing prescriptive guidance to both the knowledge workers—those who actually produce the software—as well as the management side of the business, including CEOs, CTOs, and other executive staff. His experience has led him to do business with a variety of clients across financial services, supply chain, and insurance, vertical industries. His consulting mantra in recent years has been technology matters, but business results matter more.


Aaron is frequently invited to speak at events such as TechEd, VSLive, and .NET user groups on topics ranging from the highly technical (F#, C#, LINQ, and Functional Programming), to more business-focused topics that open the floor to an exchange of ideas, best practices, and observations about the specialized world of technology consulting.


Aaron has been a Microsoft MVP since 2007. He has written for .NET Developers Journal and InformIT. He blogs at both as well as for Magenic at Readers can follow him on Twitter at

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Table of Contents

About the Author     xiii

About the Annotators     xv

Acknowledgments     xix

Foreword     xxi

Preface     xxv


Chapter 1: Why Consulting?     1

Chapter 2: The Seven Deadly Firms     27

Chapter 3: How Technology Consulting Firms Work     59

Chapter 4: Getting In: Ten Unstated Traits That Technology Consulting Firms Look For     97

Chapter 5: What You Need to Ask Before You Join a Technology Consulting Firm     125

Chapter 6: Surviving     157

Chapter 7: Thriving     181

Chapter 8: Your Career Path     207

Chapter 9: Avoiding Career-Limiting Moves     231

Chapter 10: Is Consulting Right for You?     259

Chapter 11: An Anthology of Sage Advice     273

Appendix A: Consultopia: The Ideal Consulting Firm     311

Appendix B: A Consulting Lexicon     325


Index     343

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The Nomadic DeveloperThe Nomadic DeveloperPreface

Sorry, I beg to differ—Information Technology does matter!

—My response to Nicholas G. Carr’s seminal Harvard Business Review article, “IT Doesn’t Matter”

Technology work—making companies, governments, and other organizations leverage information to work more effectively and reach more markets—is one of the most exciting places in which to scratch out a living. In one day, a really good practicing doctor might deliver a couple dozen babies. A technology practitioner, on the other hand, might write an algorithm that matches advertisements to searches that leads to billions of dollars of profits (and with these profits, jobs for tens of thousands of people) for not only the company that employed the developer who wrote the algorithm, but thousands of other companies that are smart enough to leverage the service of the company that employs the developer who wrote the algorithm. Although certainly not an accomplishment on the scale of delivering life, creating that much economic value and productivity—enough to feed an entire small nation—is certainly a significant contribution to society!

To put it another way, there is nothing more powerful or potentially game changing (and sometimes, more disruptive) than information technology in the hands of smart, innovative, and disciplined people. There are examples we are familiar with as consumers—everything from email to calendars to tools to manage budgets like MS Money and Quicken. They are just the tip of the iceberg, though; most large companies use some sort of technology to do everything fromunderstanding their customers, trading securities, balancing the books, performing medical diagnoses, underwriting insurance, controlling spacecraft, controlling your car, designing energy-efficient power grids, and doing dozens upon dozens of other things that companies—not to mention, society at large—literally depend on every single day.

In other words, technology touches, in some way, shape, or form, almost every decision, every action, and every strategy a modern enterprise might undertake. A good friend of mine, technology strategy consultant Michael Hugos, has an expression: “Technology, by automating the routine, allows knowledge workers to concentrate on the exceptional conditions, leading to a more responsive, more capable enterprise.” From that standpoint, it is hard to see any company on the face of the earth that could not be made better and more efficient through the use of technology. The only limiting factor becomes the limits of creativity (finding solutions), the limits of our expertise, and the limits of our discipline (developing solutions).

Of course, with respect to Mr. Carr and his assertion regarding information technology in the May 2003 issue of Harvard Business Review, he is almost right: Information technology devoid of people doesn’t matter. What does matter is innovative application of information technology by people, which is the entire point of the business of technology consulting.Creativity, Expertise, and Discipline

The three elements that really need to be mixed to create useful technology solutions are, ironically enough, hardly about technology at all. Technology is just a mechanism by which these three primary elements—creativity, expertise, and discipline, which exist in people—can be transformed into business results.

Of course, these three elements are really the keys to being successful anywhere. The issue really is that, in the context of a company, being good at all three is hard because they apply to all things. A car company can typically have creativity and expertise as it relates to building cars because that is where the company’s investment and passion are. The same is true for most other areas of expertise, including technology. The reason we have technology consulting companies is so that we can create a community of technology professionals dedicated to using their creativity, expertise, and discipline to produce great technology solutions for clients. Having such a community of professionals, where success of the community is not dependent on success of something they don’t directly control (as it would be in a car company because a car company sells cars, not technology), is the chief reason why technology consulting companies exist.What This Book Is About

This book is about technology consulting companies and how a technology professional might be successful working for one. It is the collected wisdom drawn from not just my own mistakes (which are legion), but mistakes of others who have been kind enough to share their experiences in this book as well (their insights appear as shaded sidebars embedded in the text). Of course, you can’t have a careers book without a happy ending, so we talk about and celebrate successes alongside our failures. But as everyone knows after a few years, failure is frequently a much better teacher than success!

Consider this book something of a career guide that maps out how most firms work, covers the kinds of employers to avoid, and provides some sample career paths beyond the career paths you would normally think about in a technology company. I have aimed to provide a good mixture of advice and realism, mixed with a bit of inspiration and unconventional advice, so you don’t confuse this book with something that might be written by one of those folks you watch during 3 a.m. infomercials when you have job-worry insomnia and someone is telling you “Rah, rah, power of positive thinking.”Why I Wrote This Book

Technology consulting is a business that globally employs well over three million people. To put it in perspective, more than 1 in every 2,000 humans alive today work in technology consulting. If all the world’s technology consultants lived in one city, it would have a population roughly on par with the city where I live and work, Chicago, Illinois. I would add that such a mystical city would be a great place indeed—if you could get past all the pizza and Mountain Dew consumed there. (Hey, let’s admit it, some stereotypes are true!)

To put it another way, although definitive numbers are hard to find, the quantity of technology consultants and technology service professionals is comparable with that of many major professions such as accounting or law. However, although there are many books on how to run a law practice, how to advance in a law practice, not to mention television dramas and movies about the practice of law, and so forth, there are not many books on how a technology services practice is run.

The evidence of this, of course, is that because there is such a dearth of information, many people come into this business unprepared. To the budding technologist who finds himself or herself in the technology consulting business by accident, not understanding how a firm works can lead him or her to not only being taken advantage of, but to making scary career-limiting moves. For example, a firm might say, “We think consultants should rotate to new clients every nine months.” A consultant who is unaware of the real pitfalls of the business might request to be moved off a less-than-perfect client nine months into a project during a recession. This might lead to the request being granted but also leads to a layoff a few weeks later, when that person is sitting on the bench.

I know this because I, as a consultant, have made that mistake and many others. And I have friends and colleagues who have done the same.

Of course, the other main reason I wrote this book was, to be blunt, that as this book goes to press in 2009, there is a certain urgency and need for relevant career advice. Although economics is called “the dismal science” for a reason—one of which is the difficulty in predicting what will happen even with the best information—it’s important to have a conversation about the skills necessary to survive a downturn in the economy.Who This Book Is For

This book is designed for

  • Currently practicing technology consultants
  • Students entering the field of technology who are considering consulting as an option
  • People who work in technology for a “brick-and-mortar” (that is, nontechnology) company, who are considering switching to technology
  • Spouses of people in technology consulting, so they know what is driving their spouse nuts
  • Managers or owners of technology consulting firms who want to improve their companies
  • People with idle curiosity on the topic

Note that I am a software developer by trade, and some of the advice will seem suited toward that particular sector of the technology consulting business. That said, most of the advice can be translated easily to other areas of technology consulting, whether it is interaction design, infrastructure consulting, database consulting, product implementation, or the dozens of areas adjacent to software development consulting—the area where I live and breathe on a day-to-day basis as a practicing consultant myself.How to Read This Book

You can be thankful that this book is not like a novel, a la Lord of the Rings, where you will have no clue about what is going on if you don’t read Chapter 6. You can read most of the chapters in this book independently.

Chapter 1, “Why Consulting?,” provides you with a deeper understanding of why this industry exists and why you might consider working as a consultant. It is oriented toward those who might be considering technology consulting: people who have recently entered consulting and suddenly are having some sort of identity crisis or who otherwise want to understand the ontology of “why do I exist?” (in the occupational sense, not the “I think; therefore I am” sense).

Chapter 2, “The Seven Deadly Firms,” helps you understand some of the traps, pitfalls, and other problems you might encounter when looking at some of the more unscrupulous players in the technology consulting marketplace. The chapter defines a set of consulting “anti-patterns”; that is, common types of firms that, frankly, you should either avoid entirely or at least join with an understanding of exactly what you are getting yourself into. It is important to understand that although this chapter demonstrates a good number of these anti-patterns, the percentage of consulting firms that represent one or more of these patterns is less than 10 percent—a significant number to be sure, but not so high that it would bring the entire business model into question.

Chapter 3, “How Technology Consulting Firms Work,” gets to much more practical matters, explaining the details on how consulting firms work. Although independent consultants, consultants at small consulting firms, and consultants at large consulting firms may have slightly different nuances on these concepts, the general principles of utilization, backlog, revenue, and margin tend to hold, regardless of size. The purpose of this chapter is to explain these mechanics so that everyone who wants to know can understand how these concepts work.

Chapter 4, “Getting In: Ten Unstated Traits That Technology Consulting Firms Look For,” helps you understand what kinds of people consulting firms look for and, thus, how to break into this business. The chapter is all about practical tips for how to not only break into technology, but to specifically break into consulting. If you are looking for interview tips, this is probably the chapter to turn to.

Chapter 5, “What You Need to Ask Before You Join a Technology Consulting Firm,” is also about preparation for consulting, but with a different twist: It specifically prepares you to ask the questions you need to ask before you join. Yes, you are in charge of your own destiny! You need to prepare not only for interviews but, because this is a two-way street, actually working there! You need to always interview your employer, and the goal of Chapter 5 is to help in that endeavor.

Chapter 6, “Surviving,” is a timely piece for those who will work in consulting through a recession, which ironically, at the time of publication (2009), happens to be right now. The point of consulting is not just to survive, but to thrive. However, getting to that thriving part depends on surviving, and therefore, Chapter 6 presents a set of principles that helps you accomplish survival, even during challenging economic times.

Chapter 7, “Thriving,” is about specific strategies for advancing your career. It puts forth a foundation for understanding what separates mere survival (“I managed to get food for this winter”) from thriving (“I built a machine that makes me never have to worry about food again”). The goal of this chapter is to put forth the mindset of most of the consultants who achieve high levels of success.

Chapter 8, “Your Career Path,” describes the specific career paths that many consultants tend to take. Nobody starts out as an independent, CEO, or guru, but there are paths that various people have taken; and who knows, maybe the trails they blazed will work for you, too. (Yes, we know Bill Gates and perhaps a few others were exceptions here, but chances are they won’t read this book!)

Chapter 9, “Avoiding Career-Limiting Moves,” defines various career-limiting moves that, I hope, you will avoid after reading this chapter, whether you choose to work in consulting or any other field. This chapter describes a mix of well-known issues (such as “don’t date coworkers”) with more technology-oriented advice (such as “no gold-plating”).

After spending nine chapters talking about the mostly good points of consulting as a career, I owed you one that tries to talk you out of it. That is the point of Chapter 10, “Is Consulting Right for You?” It explains why you might want to not consider consulting as a career. I am the first to admit that this lifestyle isn’t for everyone, and this chapter explains various reasons why you would not want to be a technology consultant.

Chapter 11, “An Anthology of Sage Advice,” is an anthology of essays from experienced technology consultants who work in a variety of settings, in companies with a staff of one to a staff of several thousand. If you get bored reading my material, I encourage you to turn to the stories in Chapter 11, which easily provide as much wisdom on any single page as I could ever provide.

Last, I provide two appendixes: Appendix A, “Consultopia: The Ideal Consulting Firm,” is a work in the broader tradition of utopian writing—my own vision of the perfect consulting company. Note that this essay explains my own views on matters related to consulting and economics, so you should take it for what it is worth: the opinions of a humble technologist about matters that are probably beyond his normal area of expertise. That said, I think what I have accomplished in the appendix is thought-provoking as one of many possible goals we could try to reach as an industry. If you have goals in your own career that stretch beyond simply making money, I encourage you to take a careful look at some of the ideas in this appendix.

Appendix B, “A Consulting Lexicon,” is more about fun—a somewhat snarky guide to jargon you might hear as a consultant. Again note that, like a lot of things in this book, it is informed by my own experiences and prejudice (much like most writing is, for the record). It is inspired by the work of Eric S. Raymond and his work with the Jargon file, a work I read during my own formative years as a software professional. For years as a consultant, I dreamed about writing such a thing specific to consulting—a feat that Appendix B represents. I hope I have accomplished even a tiny fraction of what Mr. Raymond did.Authenticity

If anything, I have worked to write a book that provides good advice to consultants. As you read this book from start-to-finish, I fully expect you might find yourself with at least mixed feelings about consulting.

That, of course, is by design. I am a big fan of critical thinking. As a consultant, I want my colleagues to understand what they are getting into, what they should expect, and what they should not expect. I want you to know the good, the bad, and the ugly. This book gives you all three. Make no mistake; this is a great way to make a living. But it is no picnic, either. Frankly, neither is any other occupation. Ask an editor, teacher, firefighter, nurse, or CEO on Wall Street (okay, scratch the last one)—no job is really a pure path of bliss and happiness.

In other words, in the spirit of transparency (a big value of mine) when you read this book, expect to have mixed feelings from time to time. Some chapters spend more time talking you out of consulting than talking you into it. Indeed, my goal is to help you learn about consulting so that you can make good decisions about it. I happen to believe that, after the evidence is in, there is a good case for being a consultant, but ultimately, I would tell anyone that the decision to consult or not is a decision you need to make on your own, based on your own circumstances, goals, and aspirations.

Whether or not consulting is the path you choose, I hope you enjoy this book.

© Copyright Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

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