Consultancy, the downsides

People outside of my vocation always marvel at my “flexible” life-style and for a much fewer number the amount of money I make in an hour or a week when employed to a client or project. These things are definitely nice, another nice perk is that I’ve been exposed to a much larger breath of technologies, idea’s, people, and I am probably some sort of interview guru as I can usually reverse engineer what the goal of the interview is. Then there is the fact of life that if I am being called into a project, it’s not because I am some sort of genius code monkey but because the problem is pretty terrible. I might also be thrown under an undeserving bus, months down the road due to things completely out of my control. And lastly there is no future in being a consultant.

With interviews, things usually go poorly when prospective client’s don’t know what the hell their goals are for an interview. Or worse if they just have a bucket list they’re trying to check off. In the first case I’ve politely ended interviews ( as the interviewee ) when presented with “What’s the difference between a inner & outer join” ( for that one I usually draw two circles and shade in relevant sections to illustrate every variation ( left, right, inner, outer) and then told I am wrong. or asked to implement something really crazy like a b-tree on a whiteboard. In the first case this is a red flag that the company is a semi-hostile environment and the interviewer is probably trying to protect their incompetence and the second it begs the question “Would I need to implement my own b-tree logic, what other wheel is being reinvented here?” I’ve seen a lot of the first “No you’re wrongs” in my career so far and they’re completely opposite of the second where the interviewer has good intentions but fails to find out if the interviewee has critical thinking and problem solving skills.
The other problem of interviews is the bucket list interviews, especially depending on who is doing it. Usually its headhunter’s going down a line and are completely ignorant of how insane they sound when they ask questions like “Do you have 10+ years of experience with Ruby on Rails?” That one took me off guard so I asked “Which Rails? Version 2 or 3 and is that with 3’s asset generation system or what?” to which the headhunter had no answer. Then that also begs the question of what is the goal? Technically I have 6-7 years of experience with Rails as I was first introduced to it in 2006 and my last working experience was the start of 2013… but I haven’t used Rails 100% of the time in between. If had to guess I might have 4000 hours of Rails experience which is 6000 hours short of being a master of that ever changing landscape.

Being a consultant doesn’t mean you’re always going to find world challenging work either. For an unnamed client we will call Acme, I was called in because an adjacent department knew me and knew that I was their go to guy for making something that actually worked. A lot of things had gone wrong for Acme, their project manager turned out to be a liar that sat on his feet while a “lead” contractor watched netflix and pecked out some code occasionally. I’ve seen a lot of convoluted solutions in my career and each one is special. For Acme’s case the lead was very good at aesthetics but had never read a book on design patterns or done any business software before. If pressed, I’d say the system was some sort of reversed MVP pattern but with stored procedure style application code ( implemented in the application tier ). Further the system could only be talked to via XHR via a global anchor tag handler that took the anchor tag’s href, wrapped it in XML, and sent that to the server. The server then built the view up, calling injects along the way until it reached the end and sent that back as a two element httpbody document, the first half was javascript to be executed and the second was html. It would eval the javascript xml element and then insert/overwrite the contents of a browsers main view-able content. There was a lot of problems with this system but fortunately the “lead” had been sacked alongside the original PM just before I arrived. Another consultant and I sat down over dinner and after flipping a coin as to whether we were running away, we delegated out goals, the other guy was going to focus on adding new “features” to the system while I worked on figuring out how to refactor the system into a MVC pattern… or at least bring in some sort of simple model system to get rid of the functional procedures crap. We pulled that off. Meanwhile a third “Real” project flow consultant pulled some serious smoke & glitter magic tricks and claimed whatever credit for several 220 hour long months of “fixing” the application. He did all this after we threatened to gang up on him if he got in the way of the refactoring process.

Also even if I do everything right… things can still go badly down the road. For the prior dept at Acme, I built a simple little MVC application with a data bridge from a proprietary database the name of which I can’t remember. It worked and handed it off to someone that knew how it worked, how to maintain it, and life was good. A year and change later the maintainer got fired with prejudice for insulting some executive or along those lines. I say with prejudice because he didn’t do a hand off for the application and all of the documentation for the application disappeared alongside any backups. The replacement then went ahead and corrupted the only intact copy of the application’s database, breaking the application. They didn’t call me up until a week before it was needed again and then I sat through a fairly nasty conference call where people were blaming me for “There’s no documentation, no backups, and it doesn’t work.” In a fairly neutral voice I explained my rate had just tripled and oh by the way here’s a signed receipt by the person vilifying me showing him signing off that “A) Product meets expectations B) Documentation provided in digital and printed format” with a “will notify” consultant of preexisting clause so that I could fix any bugs for free. Even if they had agreed to 3x my normal rate, I am pretty sure pointing out that the relevant work manager was slandering me to cover his incompetence pretty much ended any chance of that dept being a client ever again. I’ve worked in hostile environments before ( people screaming at each other, on the job substance abuse, or micro-managers that are more concerned about covering their ass then actually doing something ) and it’s really not worth it to be there. Maybe 30-40% of all contract/consultant opportunities I see are like this and it never really ends well because it ultimately comes down that the man or woman that could actually fix the problem is just some well meaning person who’s afraid of conflict ( so what was a minor leak in a pipe becomes an insane tempest flood ).

Lastly, being a consultant/code monkey for hire has no future. It will take you down the road a little bit more, cover your bills for a time, and it’s actually got some good experiences but generally a consultant is there to solve a problem while a contractor is there to give the company an emergency release valve ( oh no, we’re running out of money FIRE the contractors!). If a problem is never solved then you’re a terrible consultant and if you’re a contractor for several years in a company…well why buy the cow when you already got the milk? Sure consultants can team up into a consultancy to try and make more money, but that doesn’t scale and becomes unbelievably risky as you grow larger. Furthermore it becomes some sort of pyramid scheme where the company stops hiring experienced engineers & developers and begins hiring student intern/junior engineers but selling them as senior engineers. If done right, the client might not even realize that they’re overpaying by 70% but there will be hell to pay if an auditor shows up one day to find out how things looked below the covers.