The Successful Consulting Series is a set of articles that are being written to both, help decisions on joining the consulting field and also, help existing consultants in their professional development initiatives. Please visit, “Successful Consulting Series” for a full listing of each part in this series.
One of the hardest barriers to get beyond in consulting, and technology, is the task of not overcomplicating a situation and thus causing a stressful situation. In better terms, “Freaking out!” This topic spills into almost every type of job, not just consulting, but fulltime employment in any field. Why this is a part of this series on consulting is, when it comes to consulting, this can have a large impact on being successful. Fulltime employment lends itself, in most cases, to lengthened time and more resources for projects. Consulting adds a layer of difficulty to a project or statement of work that requires time to be managed more effectively and efficiently. The problem with the “freak out factor” is time spent thinking about the stress and leading into overcomplicating the situation.
Let’s break things down into distinct topics and then pull them together to see how one, relates to the other; over complication and Stress.
It's just a computer connected to another computer. Some are connected a little differently and some are just a little bigger. Some have one piece, some have a few more. That's it! Simplifying them clears the view of how they work and how to make them work better.
The above quote has a lot of merit to it. Computing has evolved farther than I’d expect a lot have thought it would. We still face the same challenges with computing and technology that we always have; system communications on unlike platforms and so on. Although those challenges exist, they are simply challenges in an equation, and we have choices to make on how we manage them. In reality, even when a mainframe was the big beastly monster filling half the building, the same fundamental situation existed with a few moving pieces added to the stream.
Look at SQL Server Partitioning. The concept of partitioning is truly a simple one but can be quickly overcomplicated. Partitioning functions off metadata and divides data into units. Partitioning consists of components such as functions, partition schemes, alignment concepts and so on. Coming into a situation as a consultant with a statement of work that requires you to design a proper partitioning setup for a VLDB (very large database) should be looked at first, with simplicity. What should not happen is an immediate stressful mindset that starts overcomplicating the task at hand. Let’s look at two scenarios; one successful and one a potential failure.
Joe the SQL Server Consultant is put on the SOW to handle the partitioning task and is given 40 hours. Although Joe has never used partitioning, he is the only SQL Server resource available and is assigned. Joe accepts, no choice, and walks away extremely nervous about the situation. What runs through Joe’s head is far too much and down the wrong path.
1) Joe freaks immediately. “I need to learn partitioning in hours or we lose this client.”
2) Joe frantically starts researching partitioning
3) Joe embeds partitioning in his head as a massive task with a month’s worth of training needed
4) Joe starts reading and absorbing the first few articles he hits and moves to the client information
5) Joe copies/pastes a bunch of partitioning code from a blog and throws it on the client data
6) Joe gets an error. The stress compounds.
7) Joe is on the 3rd day and has nothing documented and has several errors while trying to setup partitioning.
8) Joe asks for more time.
Joe has a lot of concerns here. The number one problem isn’t the concept of partitioning, but the fact that Joe first becomes stressed and doesn’t make a plan to attack the situation. Yes, Joe needs to learn partitioning basics and concepts fairly quickly, but that is already a part of the consulting field. Consultants are required to have the ability to take on a technology and utilize the resources around them to manage it functionally, timely and effectively. Truly, that is the making of a successful consultant. While Joe is walking away from the sales person that put him on the SOW, a plan should be formed in his head - one that doesn’t involve stress. Stress leads to over complication. While partitioning does have a lot of design and utilization decisions to it, these answers are readily available and given a simplified plan to obtain the knowledge, the task can be successful.
Looking at this differently
1) Joe reviews all the client information, data structures and objectives.
2) Joe walks away from the assignment deciding the stages that need to be taken
- Utilize Microsoft documentation to learn the basics of partitioning
- Search for articles on designs and utilizing partitioning correctly
- Verify the articles and the authors with more searches
- Search the company for other consultants that know partitioning and have implemented it. Email, call or IM them for some guidance and quick tips.
- Document them all in the form of personal notes.
3) Day two, Joe sets up a lab on his machine and tries partitioning.
- Joe reviews notes from all the resources he has utilized and decides if the client can effectively use partitioning.
4) Day three, Joe sets up a local test of partitioning on the client’s data (or remote access depending on the access and NDA of the client…let’s not go too deep).
5) Joe has two days left but the plan has held true so far. He now knows many pitfalls to partitioning and where utilizing it has failed. He quickly learns RIGHT and LEFT ranges and, given the client’s schema, knows exactly how it fits.
6) Joe goes into day four confident as he’s simplified the entire task of partitioning down to strategic key points from both the technology and the client’s needs.
There is one part of both of these methods of going into the client’s needs and the SOW; Joe either freaks out or takes it on with a managed plan.
Other key points that are done in the second scenario are the facts that Joe utilized the resources around him. Joe also had a plan before running to the internet to read and follow the first few articles that came from his searches. What this did was not only provide answers required and the skills gained but, grew Joe’s confidence in the ability to manage the task. Essentially, this happened by simplifying the task and managing to gain the knowledge by thinking that partitioning is just another situation, feature or way of connecting one source to another. Truly, it is, like most problems faced . Partitioning just takes a different path to accomplish the task. That path may or may not be more efficient but in the mindset of it, thinking this way lowers the level of stress that can quickly cause failure in a task.
Stress – The Freak out Factor
This article, nor any other article, can teach you how to control stress. What it can do is set up a situation and discussion that shows you how stress can cause failures in tasks. By discussing how stress can cause failure as a consultant, we can make it a factor in the overall objectives that should be controlled.
Stress is always a factor. Everyone gets stressed out at times. The level of stress simply may not be as high with certain tasks as others. The way we control stress is a factor in our ability, as consultants, to still meet our goals for a client, and determine how successful we will be. Controlling stress is something that each individual forms a method for managing. For example, ignoring it is my method. Throwing stress to the curb while it still exists is actually a great way to manage it for some people. While a situation may be so stressful it is leaning on the glass and ready to break, ignoring it to a degree and pushing forward with the plan devised can be extremely effective.
The point on all of this is, controlling stress isn’t a teachable art. What we can teach is methods for controlling it. Although each method evolves for each consultant, finding that method for yourself is the key. Knowing you must find it will be the first step and lead to better decisions and limited situations where the stress leads into overcomplicating a situation to the point it becomes a failure before it really gets started.
Teaching or mentoring someone how to control stress is an extremely hard task, but not an impossible one. If you are mentoring someone and stress is an obvious problem, work with methods that helped you, as the mentor, to find the other consultant’s method for controlling it. As with stress, the mindset of over complicating situations is also a hardship to mentor and teach someone to control. A tried and true method is to make a managed plan and stick to it as it evolves into a method that both, simplifies tasks and inevitably, lowers stressful situations from the tasks that must be successfully accomplished.