Episode 21 – Consultants

Topics: Consultants, Hiring a Consultant

Websites and Citations:
Escape Pod
Pseudo Pod
Pod Castle
The Credibility Gap by Renee Oricchio
Theme Music: Five Star Fall, Mercurial Girl, Magnatune.com

Talking Traffic Episode 21 – Consultants

Hello and welcome to Talking Traffic episode 21. Today is Monday April 28, 2008. My name is Bill Ruhsam and you’re not going to get a very transportation-specific podcast today. Today, I’ve decided, is about rambling. Thankfully, it’s my podcast and I am both producer and editor, so I can do whatever I choose! This podcast is also recorded a bit differently. You’ll probably notice less distortion in my voice. I am speaking into a microphone owned and operated by Steve Eley, the man behind Escape Pod, the world’s premier science-fiction audio magazine. I was asked to record a story for one of Escape Pod’s spin offs, Podcastle, and to do it justice I wanted to use a better recording rig than my $40 Logitech headset. So, while I’m here, why not record Talking Traffic? Thanks Steve! If you like science fiction stories, you must run, not walk, to escapepod.org and subscribe. Stop listening to me and go. Now. You should also listen to the horror story podcast, Pseudopod, which is under the same umbrella as Escape Pod. And, Podcastle.org, which my voice will be featured on soon, is for fantasy short stories. Podcastle is in its first month, having debuted on April 1st, so you’re in time to catch it from the beginning. I’m a particular fan of the first two stories in the run. I’m not sure when the story I’m reading will be up, but it will be sometime after May 1st.

Anyway, on to today’s rambling transportation topic which is that most diabolical and untrustworthy creature, the consultant. Ah, the Consultant. Is there any creature so reviled?

While researching this topic, I was poking around Google and found a lot of discussions, mostly of the negative variety, about consultants. The majority of the discussions revolved around people who were hired to be job efficiency experts or software consultants. There is apparently a lot of bad karma going around, as evidenced by the movie Office Space, which is one of the funniest films in recent times, if my opinion counts for anything. Consultants are lampooned and denigrated, not entirely without reason. It takes an experienced project manager to walk into an unfamiliar place and deliver the product that the customer wants on time and on budget. It’s easy for a company to hire a stranger who waltzes in, screws things up, and then leaves. The difficulty is the phrase “product that the customer wants”. Sometimes, the customers don’t have a good grasp of what they want and if the consultant who is hired to do the work doesn’t educate them at the very beginning and clearly lay out a work plan and the anticipated end point, things can get hairy very quickly. You’ll have the customer expecting something vague and nebulous (but pretty!) and the consultant trying to deliver a product that seems to have moving goalposts.

My job is less hairy than that. It’s generally well defined and laid out and there is a wealth of historical experience so most people know what to expect out of a project. Not that we don’t have our set of fun when it comes to scope creep, where the customer assumes we’re going to do certain things and we have to (politely) point out that we weren’t contracted to do that.

Another perceived problem with consultants is that they (we) make huge amounts of money just by showing up. While it’s true that I would make a lower annual salary if I worked for the public agencies that we normally contract with, I don’t exactly go home and cook on a stove heated by burning hundred dollar bills. There is a disconnect when a person working for (say) a Department of Transportation who is making a hourly wage of 30 dollars, which equates to a 60 thousand dollar per year salary, see’s a billing rate from a consultant that is in the $110 an hour range. Their first thought is “MY GOD! That dude is making 220,000 dollars a year!” and everything goes downhill from there. Unfortunately, (REALLY unfortunately, because I’d love to be pulling down that kind of money) it doesn’t work like that. Don’t forget that most consultants work for companies that have offices and health plans and executives. That 110 dollars an hour has to go to paying the engineer, the federal taxes, the rent, the heat, the water, paying the salary of that executive who doesn’t bill out to projects, and don’t’ forget that companies like to show a profit. Maybe 30% of the billing rate goes to the person who is submitting the timesheet. So that’s why consultants aren’t milking you for your hard earned money, they’re just trying to make a living. And besides, the whole reason you’re hiring them is for expertise or to temporarily bump up your staff, right? I mean, otherwise, you’d do the same work in house.

When you’re looking for a consultant, the first thing you have to know is what you need them to do. They’re supposed to fill a need that you cannot, whether it is expertise that you don’t have, or don’t have time to learn, or temporary staffing for a short term project. You have to know what you need. Did I mention that you have to know what you need? That’s very important. The second thing you have to do is hire a reputable firm or person. Again, through my googling, I realize that I violate 3 of the 6 reasons to distrust a consultant listed by Renee Oricchio at the Inc dot Technology, Business Bytes Byline (which I’ve linked to in the show notes). The article is called “The Credibility Gap” and lists six ways to tell if someone is a consultant. A consultant:

– has a blog.
– has self-published a book.
– has a web site.
– hosts a podcast.
– has a byline on loads of articles written all over the Internet; none of which were for pay, but merely to serve the purpose of providing some web site with a bevy of free content that they were more than happy to accept with little concern over the writer’s legitimate professional expertise.
– and/or is a certified coach credentialed by an organization no one has ever heard of before

I’m guilty of having a Blog, hosting a podcast, and writing a website, although given that I do those three things all in one location, I think I’m clear. Seriously, Renee has a finger on a lot of good advice for examining a hired gun before doing the actual hiring. The advice boils down to a lot of the same things you’d do when hiring anyone, for anything. For example, you would check references or ask questions designed to see if the person ACTUALLY KNOWS ANYTHING beyond sound bites. A good way to determine that is see if they are registered as a professional whatever; given the number of professions that states feel the need to regulate nowadays, it is likely that there is an agency keeping track of the person you want to hire. If you’re looking for a transportation consultant, they had better have a professional engineer’s license or a good reason why not. You can ask them for a list of former projects that they have worked on. When getting references, make sure you talk directly with the people this consultant has provided work to in the past.

If you’re in the market for outside expertise, the proverbial person from out of town with a briefcase, I recommend googling the phrase “hiring a consultant” and doing some reading. It will save you time and heartache.

Now that I’ve finished shooting holes in the structure of the world which pays my salary, I will say that I do not personally know any unethical consultants. The problems that arise are not usually because of malfeasance or negligence but from miscommunication. Remember earlier when I said sometimes, the customers don’t have a good grasp of what they want and things can get hairy very quickly? Well that’s usually the product of a customer who just knows they need “something” and a consultant willing to take on work no matter how vague the project is. EVERYONE is helped when the project is very specifically defined, almost down to how many pens will be needed to keep notes with. If you’re the customer, know what you need. If you’re the consultant, make sure the customer knows what they need. There it is, in a nutshell.

*I* am currently a consultant, and despite the podcast, I hardly claim to be an expert in the vast realm of all things transportation. I’ve podcasted about the generalities of a lot of things relating to signals and accessibility and signing and funding mechanisms, etc. I would not accept work in a lot of those areas for the simple fact that I do not know enough to do the job. There are parts of the transportation slash traffic field where I have no problem pushing myself forward as an expert, but please don’t assume that because I talk about it on this Podcast that I know all there is to know. I’ve mentioned before that I’m glossing over a lot of detail on my topics here because I want to keep it broad and general, plus not bog it down with unneeded technical detail. This podcast isn’t for traffic engineers, it’s for people who are NOT traffic engineers, and I don’t think you’re really going to care about how to program a 270 signal cabinet.

That’s it. I’m done rambling. Remember to check out Escape Pod .org if you have any interest in science fiction. It’s my first, and still favorite, podcast to listen to. And when you’re done with Escape pod, you can check out pseudopod.org and podcastle.org for horror and fantasy short fiction.

This podcast is distributed under a creative commons 3.0 attribution non commercial no derivatives license, which means that while you can give it away to people, evil consultants are not allowed to use it to make money. If you like what you heard, send an email to bill at talking traffic.org. If you didn’t like what you heard, send an email to bill at talking traffic.org. Or you can always leave a comment on the show notes at www.talkingtraffic.org.

The music you hear is by Five Star Fall and can be found at Magnatune.com. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time. Have a great week.

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