You don’t need standup

Notice: Below represents PERSONAL beliefs of palmerj3 (Engineering lead at Spotify) about agile and team organization. Your results may vary.

I recently became a technical product manager at work and this puts me in charge of a team of engineers for the first time. Up until January I was a developer who was upset at how many meetings I had.

So I ran an experiment for the last six months which consisted of a few new behaviors:

  1. No stand-ups
  2. No planning at regular intervals
  3. No retros
  4. All meetings are optional

This may sound extreme. But there is some logic to this madness.

I wanted the team to know I trusted them. To know that it’s ok to tackle tech debt, explore, and work at their own pace. I laid out the goals for the quarter and trusted that the work would get done. Then I got the fuck out of the way.

Would you believe it: work got done. A lot of it.

We were an extremely productive team that responded to change and nailed every goal we set out to.

But before we go into detail about why this experiment worked, let’s see how a typical agile team operates.

A typical agile team

We’re going to create a fictitious team called the SuperAgileRockstars.

SuperAgileRockstars do weekly sprints.

So every Monday they spend an hour planning the work for the week. They meet every morning at 10am for standup where each team member says what they did yesterday, what they are doing today, if tasks are blocked, and give announcements. At the end of the week they spend an hour doing a retrospective where they discuss what went right, what went wrong, and create tasks to address these issues.

It sounds pretty logical, right?

How can this paradise of productivity be broken? Let’s see.

  1. Trello (or whatever you use) has to be kept in sync with what’s discussed in these meetings. It often isn’t. As the team grows this becomes even more complicated.
  2. Stand-ups ENCOURAGE plans to change daily. Lack of consistency is a great way to ruin developer flow.
  3. Standup forces every team member to be productive at a set place and a set time
  4. Extroverts thrive at stand-ups, planning, and retros. It’s no wonder that tech debt is such a common problem. Developers shouldn’t have to PUSH for tech debt to be addressed. Teams should operate at a sustainable pace.
  5. Why do we encourage problems to be discussed once a week? We should address them immediately, not just at retros.
  6. Sprints encourage iterative development. This sounds really good to people like me who strongly advocate small, concise, pull requests over long-living feature branches. But it’s not the same thing. Sprints encourage features over tech debt. How often have you had to advocate spending an entire sprint tackling tech debt?

What would happen if we didn’t plan every week, didn’t do retros, and didn’t do standup?

Stop doing standup

Standup has always bothered me. It usually serves to interrupt developers, make them feel pressured to prioritize features over tech debt, and has been known to last longer than 1/2 hour.

The natural side effects of not doing standup are:

  1. Developers communicate more
  2. Your team becomes more remote-friendly
  3. Tech debt gets addressed
  4. Developers feel more in control and less stressed
  5. Developers know you trust them and that you have their back

At Spotify my role is a technical product manager. It’s my role to “steer the ship” (e.g. decide what we work on). If I’m changing my mind about this on a daily basis that’s problematic. If the entire organization changes its mind on a daily basis then it’s my job to fix that.

The reality is: I’ve told my bosses what we’ll deliver by the end of the quarter and I would rather trust that my team know what’s required to get there and be creative along the way.

I want to give them as much freedom as possible to get shit done.

Feel like taking a day off to work on open source? Fuck yeah.

Feel like working on something completely different for a few days? Have fun.

Think our tech debt is out of hand so you want to spend some time fixing it up? We are best friends now.

I know you’re going to get us to our goals and who am I to tell you every single day, “well the highest priority item on the backlog is x,y,z”.

Fuck that noise.

Stop planning every sprint

Planning on a regular basis is another thing that has always bothered me. It’s rare, in my experience, that things change so drastically that the entire team needs to get together and figure things out. But if there is an emergency then by all means call a meeting and communicate that shit. That said, I’m not against planning, I’m against planning on an interval.

So what do things look like if we don’t plan every week or two:

  1. Developers are trusted to be working on the correct things
  2. Developers aren’t interrupted nearly as much so things get done
  3. Backlog is used as a priority queue of work to be done
  4. Tasks are added to the backlog as needed, continuously
  5. Blockers are communicated right away
  6. Planning happens when plans change. Meeting fatigue is reduced and the team knows this was a last resort and is important

Stop doing retros

Say you’re in a relationship and it’s going amazing. You should totally start going to couples therapy once a week, right?

Of course not. So why the fuck are we doing retros every week or every month?

Furthermore, why are we waiting until retros to discuss problems or to give praise?

What do things look like when we stop doing retros:

  1. Developers aren’t interrupted and get shit done
  2. Problems are addressed sooner
  3. Stickies and sharpies are returned and we buy lunch instead

Here’s some questions I know you’re wanting to ask

“How will I know what to work on?”

Good: Pick an item from the backlog.

Better: The backlog is prioritized and you pick the highest priority item from the backlog.

Best: You work on tech debt or open source because you need a mental health day.

“What do I do if I’m blocked?”

Good: Pick a different item from the backlog.

Better: Create a “blocked” column in trello, move the task there, then pick a different item from the backlog.

Best: Put the task in the “blocked” column, pick a different item from the backlog, and drop a message in slack letting the team know it’s blocked.

“How will I track the progress?”

Good: Ask the team. Don’t ask every day.

Better: Keep the backlog up-to-date & relevant. Fucking look at Trello.

Best: Communicate to the team if anything high priority is happening. Otherwise trust that work is getting done until that trust is broken. Casually get updates every so often over lunch and/or beers.

“Hold on. We totally handle tech debt and we do stand-ups!”

Awesome!

You must have vocal developers who are willing to push for tech debt to be addressed and management that deeply cares about engineering quality.

The reality is that most companies don’t operate this way and even your company is likely not a great environment for introverts.

Conclusion

Effective teams question everything. They also trust each other. They also get a lot of shit done.

This article is my attempt to question what’s become the default behavior of agile teams. Daily stand-ups, weekly/bi-weekly planning, and weekly/bi-weekly retros. We didn’t even discuss estimation either.

My advice for all teams is to not start by complicating things.

Stand-ups, planning, and retros are a tool and you should be putting a lot of thought into what tools you use.

How To Become a DevOps Engineer In Six Months or Less

“Empty highway road in through a colorful desert” by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

NOTE: This is Part 1 of a multi-part series.

Part 2 is here.

Target Audience

Are you a developer looking to shift your career towards a more DevOps model?

Are you are a classically trained Ops person and you would like to get a feeling of what this whole DevOps thing is all about?

Or are you neither, and simply looking for a career change and have no idea where to start? If so, read on!

Finally, if you have been doing this DevOps thing for years now, you might still find this useful as a validation of where we are and where this is going.

What’s This, Now?

First, what is DevOps?

You can google the definitions and wade through all that buzzword extravaganza but know that most are embarrassingly long word salads stuffed into giant run-on sentences. (See what I did here?)

So, I’ll save you the clicks and distill it down:

DevOps is a way to deliver software with shared pain and responsibility.

That’s it.

OK, but what does that mean?

It means that traditionally, the developers (people who create software) had incentives that were vastly different from operations (people who run software.)

For example, as a developer, I want to create as many new features as fast as possible. After all, this is my job and that’s what customers demand!

However, if I’m an ops person, then I want as few new features as possible because every new feature is a change and change is risky.

As a result of this misalignment of incentives, DevOps was born.

DevOps attempts to fuse development and operations (DevOps, get it?) into one group. The idea is that one group will now share both the pain and the responsibility (and presumably, the rewards) of creating, deploying, and generating revenue from customer-facing software.

Now, purists will tell you know that there is no such thing as a “DevOps Engineer”. “DevOps is a culture, not a role,” they will tell you.

Yeah, yeah. They are technically correct (the worst kind of correct!) but as it so often happens, the term has morphed beyond its original meaning.

Now, being a DevOps Engineer is something like “Systems Engineer 2.0.”

In other words, somebody who understands the Software Development Lifecycle and brings software engineering tools and processes to solve classic operations challenges.

DevOps ultimately means building digital pipelines that take code from a developer’s laptop all the way to revenue generating prod awesomeness!

That’s what it’s all about!

Also note that as a career choice, the whole DevOps space is highly compensated, with almost every company either “doing DevOps” or claiming to do so.

Regardless of where the companies are, the overall DevOps job opportunities are plentiful, offering fun, meaningful employment for years to come.

NOTE: Be wary of companies hiring for a “DevOps team” or a “DevOps department.” Strictly speaking, such things should not exist because ultimately, DevOps is all about the culture and a way of delivering sofware, not a new team or department to be staffed up.

Disclaimer

Now, let’s put the glass of Kool-Aid aside for a moment and consider the following.

Have you heard the old adage, “there are no junior DevOps engineers?”

If not, please know it is a popular trope on Reddit and StackOverflow. But what does that mean?

Simply put, it means that it takes many years of experience, combined with a solid understanding of tools, to eventually become a truly effective Senior DevOps practitioner. And sadly, there is no shortcut for experience.

So, this is not an attempt to cheat the system — I don’t think that’s actually possible to pretend to be a Senior DevOps Engineer with a few months of experience. Solid understanding of the rapidly changing tools and methodologies takes years to master and there is no getting around that.

However! There is a roughly agreed upon (trendy, if you will) menu of tools and concepts that most companies use and that is what the article is all about!

Again, tools are different from skills, so while you are learning the tools, make sure you don’t neglect your skills (interviewing, networking, written communication, troubleshooting, etc.)

Most importantly, don’t lose track of what we are after — building a fully automated digital pipeline that takes ideas and turns them into revenue generating pieces of code.

That is the single, most important take-away from this entire article!

Enough Talk, Where Do I Start?

Below is your roadmap.

Master the following and you can safely and honestly call yourself a DevOps Engineer! Or a Cloud Engineer if you detest the “DevOps” title.

The map below represents mine (and probably the majority of folks working in this space) idea of what a competent DevOps Engineer should know. That said, it is only an opinion and there will certainly be dissenting voices. That is OK! We are not after perfection here, we are after a solid foundation upon which to build.

NOTE: You are meant to traverse this breadth-first, layer by layer. Start (and continue!) with the foundation first. Learn the technologies in blue first (Linux|Python|AWS), then if time permits or job market demands, go after the purple stuff (Golang|Google Cloud).

DevOps Foundational Knowledge

Again, go after the first layer in every pillar. Then, time permitting, go after the second layer to add depth to your expertise.

Once you have the Foundation layer reasonably figured out, move onto the real-world set of skills:

Real-world skills

NOTE: What’s notably missing from the pipeline above is Test. That’s intentional — writing unit, integration, and acceptance tests is not easy and traditionally falls on the shoulders of developers. The “Test” phase omission is intentional, since the goal of this roadmap is rapid intake of new skills and tools. Lack of testing expertise is judged by the author to be an insignificant barrier to a proper DevOps employment.

Also, please remember, we are not after learning a whole bunch of unrelated techno-babble here. We are after a solid understanding of tools that taken together, tell a single, coherent story.

That story is end-to-end process automation — a digital pipeline that moves bits around in an assembly line-like fashion.

Moreover, you don’t want to learn a bunch of tools and stop. Tools change rapidly, concepts much less so. Therefore, what you want to do is use the tools as learning proxies for the higher level concepts.

OK, let’s dig in a little deeper!

Foundational Knowledge

Under the top line labeled “Foundation” you will see the skills that every DevOps Engineer must master.

Here, you will see three industry-dominant pillars: operating system, programming language, public cloud. These things are not going to be something that you can learn really quickly, check them off the list and move on. These are going to be skills that you must acquire and keep sharp on a continuous basis, to stay relevant and up to date with what is going on.

Let’s go through them one by one.

Linux: where everything runs. Now, can you be an awesome DevOps practitioner and stay entirely within the Microsoft ecosystem? Of course, you can! There’s no law that mandates Linux for everything.

However! Please know that while all the DevOps-y things can certainly be done with Windows, it is far more painful and the job opportunities are far fewer. For now, you can safely assume that one cannot become a true DevOps professional without knowing Linux. Therefore, Linux is what you must learn and keep learning.

Honestly, the best way to do it is to just install Linux (Fedora or Ubuntu) at home and use that as much as you can. You will break things, you will get stuck and then you will have to fix it all and in the process, you will learn Linux!

For reference, in North America, the Red Hat variants are more prevalent. Therefore, it makes sense to start with Fedora or CentOS. If you are wondering whether you should get the KDE or Gnome edition, get KDE. That’s what Linus Torvalds uses. 🙂

Python: the dominant back-end language these days. Easy to get started with, widely used. Bonus: Python is very prevalent in the AI/Machine Learning space, so if you ever want to transition to yet another hot field, you’ll be all set!

Amazon Web Services: Once again, it is impossible to become a seasoned DevOps professional without a solid understanding of how a public cloud works. And if knowledge of a cloud is what you are after, Amazon Web Services is the dominant player in this space, offering the richest set of tools to work with.

Is it possible to start with Google Cloud or Azure instead? Absolutely! But we are after the biggest bang for the buck here, so AWS is the safest play to make, at least in 2018.

You get a free tier to play with when you sign up for an account at AWS, so that is a good place to start.

Now, when you log into the AWS console, you are greeted with a simple, easy to understand menu of choices.

“Discovering yet another AWS feature I never knew about” by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

That was sarcasm. Good news is, you don’t need to know every single Amazon tech.

Start with the following: VPC, EC2, IAM, S3, CloudWatch, ELB (under the EC2 umbrella), and Security Groups. These things are plenty to get you started and every modern, cloud-enabled enterprise will be using these tools heavily.

AWS’ own training website is a good place to start.

I recommend you set aside 20–30 minutes daily to practice Python, Linux, and AWS.

NOTE: this will be in addition to the other stuff you will have to learn. Altogether, I estimate that spending an hour daily, five times a week is enough to give you a solid understanding of what is going on in the DevOps space within 6 months or less.

That’s it for the Foundational Layer!

In the subsequent articles, we will explore the next level of complexity: how to Configure, Version, Package, Deploy, Run, and Monitor software in a fully automated way!

How To Make $2000 A Week With Nothing But Your Laptop.

It sounds like a clickbait headline doesn’t it? Well, it’s not meant to be. Like every blog post I write, what you think I’m about to say is not what I’m actually going to say.

You think I’m going to tell you how to make money from affiliate marketing or blogging or an eCommerce store. I’m not. Sorry.

I see lots of headlines that talk about retiring and making money while you sleep. Whilst not impossible by all means, I think this dream is BS.

One of my close friends quit his job to chase this dream and learned a few key lessons:


It’s a lonely business.

He was doing road trips and jumping on Skype calls every day. He reported to no one and could manage his own day. He found something out that the Instagram posts didn’t tell him:

The laptop lifestyle can be a lonely business.

In my case, one of the best parts of my day is meeting new clients and hanging out with my colleagues at lunchtime. We have lots of banter and we know each other’s families really well.

You may make $2000 a week from your laptop, but you could also lose the best part about having a normal career which is the people.

As humans, we crave connection and for many, the laptop lifestyle is a life of software, calendars and notifications that provide a hit of dopamine.


You get lazy.

Another friend of mine built up a very successful blog. Then she got lazy and stopped adding new content. She stopped doing the very thing that made her the $2000 a week from her laptop.

She began reading fiction books every day and stopped adding value in other people’s lives. A lot of her income came from Google Adsense ads on her site which nowadays make a lot less money.

She went from fancy lunches to Footlong Subs.

Image Credit: Bristol Shopping Quarter

Don’t let the laptop lifestyle delude you from the fact that you have to find a way to add value in some way.

The $2000 a week is a measure of the value you’re adding.

Once you get complacent, you’re screwed.

You have to keep growing, learning and evolving otherwise you become stale, out of date and on your way to bankruptcy.

Discipline is key. If you choose the laptop lifestyle, then you need to remain disciplined. You might have a team helping you, but you still have to put in the work yourself.


If there’s no meaning behind it, you’ll feel worse than you did before.

Many people have made $2000 a week from their laptop only to figure out that selling widgets on a website, as an example, is meaningless.

It’s not about making $2000 a week; it’s about doing something you love.
If you can make $2000 a week at the same time doing something you love then awesome. Let’s have a party and celebrate — I’ll bring the wine.

Instead of focusing on the passive income, focus on why you’re doing it.

Pick a hobby like poker, personal development, cars, etc that you’d happily do for free. Create your blog, business, or influencer brand around that.

Doing things just for money (which I’ve done) is incredibly depressing. You feel like a robot with a creation date and an end date.

The whole point of the human experience is this:
• To serve others
• To enjoy the time you have
• To understand what love is

Making $2000 from your laptop every week is not the gateway drug to the good life. The good life exists in your own mind and you create it for yourself.
Living without meaning will only make you feel worse.

You’ll wake up with your laptop every day wondering why you’re doing it. It will leave you with more questions than answers.

“Think about the meaning part first before you run away and chase the Instagram fairies with your laptop”

Image Credit: Creating Fae Fashion

There’s not a lot of security.

Shit can go wrong quickly. In my friend’s case, he had three key clients that made up his online business and one of them left. He went from $2000 a week to $500 a week in the blink of an eye.

“As quick as you can make $100k you can lose it too”

This dream life of working from your laptop can quickly turn around if you’re not careful. That’s not a reason to not try it for yourself, but it’s a harsh lesson that many who crave this lifestyle don’t understand.


Will making $2000 a week matter in the long-run?

No, because then you’ll just want $4000 a week. The game of numbers on a screen never ends. We always crave more when it comes to money.

When you die, will your $2000 a week business be carved on your tombstone? Will people mention your $2000 a week at your funeral?

No, they won’t. People will remember who you are and what you taught them.

Focus on teaching people something and leaving a legacy that matters.

The $2000 a week is neither here nor there.

How To Become A Consultant

There is certainly something attractive about a consulting gig. Being your own boss. Setting your own hours. Wowing your clients with your brilliant insights. And, unlike startup entrepreneurship, there is no venture capital to raise or boards to report to. It’s the life!

But how do you get started? And, more importantly, how do you sustain yourself doing consulting for a living?

I am often asked for advice about how to be a full time consultant, by close friends and new acquaintances alike. Not just how to freelance (though, that is part of the puzzle). How to make an actual business out of consulting.

I have been consulting a long time. In fact, I have consulted for about 14 of the total 18.5 years that I have been in the tech scene: 2 years as a freelance web developer, 9 years running my own web shop, 1 year as a senior consultant at an agency, and now solo consulting again for the last 2 years under the Startup Patterns brand. So, while I have had full time roles in many startups and a few large companies along the way, consulting is kind of this default position I can take whenever I am not sure what my next move should be.

I recently had one of these advice sessions with a buddy, and he was kind enough to give me his notes from the meeting, suggesting that maybe I write it up as a new blog post. Here it is.

It Takes Time

As with all career shifts, you cannot expect to be successful overnight. For reasons that will become apparent through the sections below, to really get good at consulting and to build a reputation of being so, you will have to work hard and be patient.

If you quit your day job right now, and start working on building a full time consulting operation, expect to be under-employed for at least 6 months to a year while you design your service offering and hunt for your first anchor clients.

And you will have to quit. Just like startups, no one can do this seriously working only nights and weekends. So, don’t jump in until you have enough money in the bank to support yourself for at least 6 months.

Start As Narrowly As You Can

Consulting has a natural hierarchy built into it. The more senior you get, the more general advice you can give. But when you’re just starting, you are only hired for specific, and usually technical, problems.

That’s OK. Expect it to happen at first. You may want to be your clients go-to “Growth Strategist”, but they will probably only hire you to build them an analytics dashboard or to set up a few Facebook ads. You have to earn their trust before anyone will hand you the responsibility of “strategist”.

Start working in an extremely narrow niche that you know very well. Gradually, you can work your way out into adjacent subject areas on your way to being more of a generalist. Most consultants get business through referrals more than other channels, so you want to be known as the key person to call for that specific problem area.

Know Your Client’s Pain Intimately

In your specific niche there is a client pain. If there is no pain, there is no reason to hire you, so there certainly had better be pain.

It is your job to completely and thoroughly understand the context for that pain, and all of the possible causes, and to have a ready-made solution for addressing it. Maybe you’ll need to do some kind of assessment work first in order to diagnose the problem. That’s fine. Just make sure you’re really equipped to solve the client’s problem before you issue a proposal.

If you discover a client problem that isn’t within your niche, it can be tempting to take on the project anyway because you need the money. Don’t do it. Instead, refer the client to another consultant who specializes in the area. In the long run, your reputation will grow as someone who can be helpful with referrals even if there is no money in it for you. That’s much better than trying to take the job anyway, and then doing a less-than-stellar job because it’s not your focus.

Networking And Referrals Are Critical

We hear a lot about the importance of networking these days. For a consultant, this is not to be understated. It’s a very good possibility that you will get a significant amount of your work — once successful — from referrals. That means you need to devote a significant portion of your time to getting out and meeting new people and building that network.

Ideally, these are people in your target niche market. Or they are people who also service that market but offer complimentary services, rather then directly competing with you. Make sure that you have a clear pitch or value proposition to share with these people when they inevitably ask that classic question, “so, what do you do?” Don’t just sit there blubbering incoherently. Tell them who your clients are, what their pain is, and how you help alleviate it.

And don’t forget to also ask them what they need? Can you refer anyone to them? Can you help them find some resource or opportunity? Don’t just be a taker. Get known in your network for being a pay-it-forward type of person.

Expect to spend 20% of your working time to just networking (or public speaking, content creation, and other activities that connect you with your possible clients).

Never Take Your Eyes Off The Pipeline

As a consultant, you need to always, always, always keep your eyes on your next project. Early on in my consulting career I repeatedly made the same mistake. A large contracting gig would come up, one that required 40 hours per week, let’s say. It seemed like good work at good rates, so I took it. But then I was so busy that I didn’t have anything else lined up when the contract finally ended.

Unfortunately, if you’re working 40 hours per week, you have no time to continue to do the 20% of your time devoted to networking mentioned above. In addition to networking, you need to spend about another 20% of your time just doing business development.

By business development, I mean all of the effort required, once you actually find a prospective client, to meet with them and understand their needs, prepare and submit a proposal, and negotiate a contract. It usually takes a lot of time (if it doesn’t, something is probably off). None of that is billable time. So, you have to make sure you have bandwidth for it. And make sure you’re billing enough hours with existing clients to cover for that time.

Anchor With A Big Client, But Beware

Speaking of which, it can be tempting to take on one big client. Indeed, from a short-term financial perspective it can be great. But beware the trap of getting tied to one big client, which I wrote about elsewhere.

Paradoxically, having one or two big, reliable “anchor” clients is always nice if you can keep it balanced. Just make sure that you constrain those projects to less than half of your total billable time (not your total work time). Leave the rest of your time open for servicing other smaller newer clients that come along.

Charge More Than You Ever Thought You Could

You’re probably starting to do some math in your head. So let’s talk rates. You’ve probably surmised that I recommend only billing 60% of your total work time to clients, because you need the other 40% for networking and business development. So, if you’re like most of us, we’re talking maybe 20 hours of work in a week. That means you had better charge a rate that makes it possible for you to survive at 80 (20 hours / week x 4 weeks in a month) hours per month. Calculate that rate for yourself, and then maybe tack on another 30% for safety.

How the hell do you charge that much?! Relax. I am sure it seems like a lot of money if you’re used to working in a salaried position. But keep in mind that your tenure with your client is limited, so it’s not usually based on annual labor costs. Further, don’t forget that your employer has to pay fully-loaded costs for their employees, including benefits, facilities, PTO, and other overhead. Not to mention employer contribution of taxes. After all that is added up, consulting rates don’t seem that bad by comparison.

But taking it one step further, what if you don’t have a rate at all? What if, instead, you simply charged a project fee? Then it doesn’t matter what your hourly rate is — you no longer have one. In fact, for clients, it’s usually beneficial to have a single project with a known cost than an open ended relationship with some hourly consultant. Consider how you can solve your client’s pain reliably in a fixed cost way. That will help you immensely in the long term.

The only catch to this “value-based pricing” approach is to make sure that you can deliver on that business outcome for the fixed cost that you promised. It will probably take some time for you to figure that out, so it’s OK to work hourly until you do.

Your Competition Is The Recruiter

You may think that your competition is other consultants. But most of the time it is between hiring you as a consultant or not hiring a consultant at all.

Companies strongly prefer to solve their problems with in-house talent (talent they are already paying) if possible. For them to even consider bringing in outside expertise, there must be a truly painful problem (see above) and one that no-one inside the company has the particular expertise to solve.

Therefore, your biggest competition is really the recruiting team. If you are selling something that is easily gained by hiring a “growth hacker” or “data scientist”, you may be in trouble. Make sure that your value proposition is not something that can be easily handled by expanding the client’s hiring program to include your skill set.

Turn Your Service Into A Product

Consultant can be a dirty word in some contexts. The reason for this is long and complicated, but it comes down to the idea that usually consultants embrace problems that are hard to understand and harder to solve. And that means, in the client’s mind, an open-ended contract or retainer with variable outcomes.

You need to find ways to ensure that your client will receive a reliable positive outcome when they hire you, not just a pile of advice they may or may not use. The best way to do this is to package your consulting solutions into something that is as concrete as purchasing a product.

Turning your consulting service into a product can take many forms. But essentially, it means having a very clear context in which your package of services will operate, charging a consistent price for all of your packages, and having a repeatable, proven, and reliable process for executing your package.

The more you can reduce your client’s uncertainty around the outcomes of hiring you as a consultant, and packaging is one way, the more likely they are to be comfortable bringing you in to help.

Opportunity Is Out There

I’ve erected a lot of walls here. There are plenty of hurdles for you to jump over on your way to being a consultant. And, yes, I am doing that on purpose — not just because you’ll be competing with me! 🙂

There are many really terrible consultants out there, wasting client’s time. Some of them are extremely large operations, whose terrible work I have all to often found myself undoing. I don’t want you to just go out there and repeat what they are doing.

But if you really feel like you have something special to offer, that there is a problem area that you’re really passionate about, you can make this consulting thing work.

Good luck, and tell me how it goes!

10 Lessons for Freelancers, Contractors, and Consultants

Last summer, an opportunity for some contracted work came my way that I couldn’t turn down. I soon found myself working with a lawyer to set up an LLC, wading through paperwork and contract language, and figuring out how to buy healthcare.

Over the course of the following 9 months, I expanded what I was doing, taking on more projects. I have loved working for myself. Not enough people consider it an option. I would recommend it to anyone looking to learn more about their chosen industry, but more importantly learn about themselves and their work style.

I have learned a lot of lessons along the way. I share them here in hopes that others might consider freelancing or contracting as an option — and that, if they do, they can be prepared.

1. Get Organized

Working for yourself entails a lot of moving parts. You are your own CEO, General Counsel, admin, CFO, and so on. Fortunately, you also only have one employee to worry about — you.

Get a lawyer. Take the time to explain your goals to her. Invest time and money alike in a good working relationship with your lawyer early. Send her every single contract before you sign it.

Think through your accounting. Come March, you are going to have a headache of taxes to file. Keep good records: have a file for invoices, a document for expenses, and a drawer for receipts.

Spend time optimizing your own workflows. Think about where you want to work, when you will schedule meetings, and where those meetings will take place. Give yourself structure and build a support system as early as possible.

2. Hustle Hard

You are also in charge of your own marketing and business development. You need to source your own deals and projects to work on. This takes more time and energy than you might think.

Network. Start by trying to take every meeting that comes your way. As you become busier and find more direction, ruthlessly cut back on these — but in the early days, put yourself out there.

Come to those first meetings having researched the person or the company. Have concrete ideas and action items for how you can help. Share what you’ve been working on and thinking about.

3. Don’t Do Work For Free

Time is money. Particularly in consulting and contracting, you are directly converting your hours into your wages earned. Be protective of your time.

Knowing when to draw the line between pursuing a project to work with and starting on a formal engagement can be tricky. You obviously will need to demonstrate your value before you can expect a prospective partner to pay you, but you also can’t get caught doing too much work for free.

If you find yourself doing work for free, check in and make sure lines of communication are open about expectations and timeline.

4. Take Care of Yourself

When you are working independently, it’s easy for your days to become unstructured. Even if you are still productive and getting everything done, a lack of structure can cause you to forget some of the basic necessities…

Suddenly it’s 1pm. Your energy is dipping and every problem is just a little bit more annoying than it should be. You realize you haven’t eaten anything yet today.

This used to happen to me a lot. You’ve got to take care of yourself. And it’s not just remembering to fuel up. It is also about sleep and exercise.

Carry snacks with you. Stop for lunch. Set a time every night when you stop doing work. Block off periods in your calendar for workouts or down time. Whatever it is, stay just as disciplined about your health and sanity as you are about your work.

5. Find Support

You don’t realize how much you interact with and rely on coworkers until you don’t have them. Think of the time you caught your coworker’s eye in the middle of a meeting and suppressed a laugh. Or the time you texted your coworker at 7am upon waking up with a fever, asking him to cover for you in your big meeting at that afternoon.

You don’t get any of that anymore.

This is why it’s so important to find support — both in and out of your industry.

I have been very lucky to have a network of a few close friends who work directly in my industry who have turned into my trusted confidants, my advisors, and my mentors. These people understand the field I work in. They know the players. They can make introductions and they can course correct me. They have been my biggest proponents and gentlest critics.

I have also had several incredible friends outside of my industry on speed-dial. For 9 months, they have put up with me pinging them urgent sanity-check questions or bouncing hair-brained ideas off of them. They have kept me balanced in more ways than they know.

6. Turn Off

On that note, it’s important to maintain balance in your life.

It’s easy when you are working for yourself to be “on” 24/7. It doesn’t help when the people you are working with are founders and entrepreneurs who also don’t turn off.

But this can result in you zooming in, closer and closer to the frame — to the point where you lose perspective and your work suffers.

Force yourself to turn off. Have balance and hobbies. Do things that make you stop thinking about work altogether. This might be a sport or athletic activity. It might be spending time with family and friends who have no idea what you do. It might be as simple as listening to music. Whatever it is, find it and do it. Your work will be better as a result.

7. Have Direction

This is one I wish I had figured out earlier. I love being a little bit all over the place, with my hands in several different projects. This, I thought, was one of the benefits of being a freelancer.

This is fine, but if you don’t have a narrow theme or focus you will find yourself context-switching constantly. There is a massive cognitive load that comes with context-switching. Don’t do this to yourself.

Pick a niche or a theme and become the go-to person for that one tiny thing. This will benefit your individual brand. It will enable you to feel like you have a consistent identity. Most of all, it will allow you to tap into the synergies between the various projects you are working on, rather than getting pulled in 5 different directions.

8. Say No

Once you are in the flow of work, say no. There is a change that will occur at some point when you are happy with the amount of work you have on your plate. Before you even reach this point, you have to start saying no all the time.

Say no to meetings.

Say no to that 11:30pm Skype call with the maybe-interesting project in Asia.

Say no to the 5:30am follow up phone call with the team in Europe.

Say no to people who want to pick your brain.

Definitely say no to conference invitations.

Say no to meetings with investors looking for dealflow.

Say no to the people trying to hire you.

Say no to projects you don’t immediately want to work with.

Contracting, even more than in other jobs, is the practice of transforming your time into money. In order to do this effectively, you have to say no a lot.

This is emotionally exhausting. You are constantly disappointing people. Be gentle with yourself.

9. Pay Tuition

When I worked in trading, there was a fable that went around. A junior kid had mistakenly bought 100 million bonds when he meant to sell. The position immediately went against him to the tune of a million dollars.

Head hanging, he followed his manager into a glass office. He apologized and said he understood that he should probably pack up his things. His manager raised her eyebrows and replied, “What are you talking about? I just paid a million dollars of tuition on you. You’ve learned the lesson. You’re never going to make that mistake again.”

When you work for yourself, you are paying your own tuition. Accept early that you are going to pay it all the time. You’ll pay it by going to meetings that don’t lead you anywhere. You’ll pay it by doing work you never get compensated for. You’ll pay it by misunderstanding the terms of an agreement. You’ll pay it by not having researched a project well enough before signing on.

Make mistakes. Pay tuition. Understand that it’s part of the process.

10. Own It

When you are working for yourself, most people don’t understand. You have to explain it a lot. This leads you to constantly question the decision.

Sometimes people are just genuinely curious. “But what does that mean? What do you actually do?” You will get this all the time.

Sometimes people have good intentions and are just trying to give you advice. “In order to grow your career, you should really be building something,” they will say. Or they might offer, “that’s not a good way to make money long term.” They’ll tell you that you should settle down and find full time work. Sometimes they are saying this because they are trying to hire you. Other times they are genuinely concerned. It doesn’t matter. It will send you into an existential spiral about what you are doing with your life.

It will become a voice inside your head that keeps you up at night. It might come from someone you really respected. It might come from people you used to work with. Their confusion, and your own self-doubt, will sting in a way you can’t prepare for.

You have to remember that you chose this path not because you didn’t have any options, but because you knew you could create even more options for yourself. You need to remember that the work you are doing is valuable and legitimate, even if many people don’t understand why you’ve chosen this path. You need to look back at who you were or what you were doing six months ago and remember how much you’ve shipped.

Own the fact that you work for yourself, that it’s not conventional, and that you are forging your own path. I can promise you one thing: you will learn a lot along the way.