The Sweet Spot
On software development, engineering leadership, machine learning and all things shiny.

Consider consulting

What career move will give you maximal exposure to technologies, industries, and orgs? Why you should consider a stint in consulting as part of your career path.

When you think of a software engineering career path, you may default to the idea that you can climb the career ladder at various product companies and corporations, working directly with stakeholders and leadership to ship products to customers. The types of companies you might consider are early/mid/late-stage startups, established enterprises or Big Tech companies.

What you may not have considered, however, is how a stint in consulting can accelerate your learning curve and teach you lessons that can multiply your effectiveness across any engineering organization you join later in your career.

Now you may have a stereotype of a consultant - maybe of a management consultant that flies out to clients five days out of the week and works 80 hour weeks and lives out of suitcase and makes PowerPoint presentations all day. If life as a suit doesn’t seem appetizing, that’s okay. That’s not the consulting I’m talking about!

I spent four years working as a developer at a XP software consultancy shop and… really loved my time there.

What’s software consulting?

Software consulting is defined by working with a client on a short-to-medium-lived project that has a digital deliverable - a software platform, an updated platform capability, or an MVP to show to first customers.

Consulting may consist of process deliverables - I’ve been on many a project with the entrenched old guard in some industry realizing that the new upstarts are eating their lunch with software - and that they’d better get along with the innovation. That means teaching folks Agile process, or product management.

Now I can’t claim to know everything about consulting, as my experience is limited to one consultancy in my career. However, I can say that it was a huge springboard for my career because it increased my exposure to people and organizations. The following are some of my learnings and takeaways from my time:

1. The hardest problems are people problems

You can always make a tech problem work. It’s the people problems that are the hardest. From stubborn and resistant developers who need to be wooed to your side, or to surprise stakeholders surprising you right before ship date. The keys to project success are almost never at the execution layer.

As a consultant, you will learn to very quickly read the room and understand where the power structures are. There’s the account manager, who’s stuck their neck out to really get your team in the door. There’s the VP eng, who is somewhat skeptical of your team, but who needs to be shown results. This is no different from inside the walls of a product company, where teams need to know where and through whom the power flows - and properly seek to manage that relationship.

2. Relationships are the key (as is lunch)

As a consultant, you are an outsider and often met with skepticism if not outright hostility. Finding ways to build trust and rapport with your client partners (read: grumpy engineers or skeptical directors) are super important. To that end, it was important to show my face in the office(s) as much as possible to see. Making small talk was key, or grabbing lunch with the team.

As a consultant, you are always grabbing lunch with people. At a product company, you too will learn that it’s important to build bridges and relationships with the stakeholders and collaborators on your team and outside.

3. Even if you think you’re the smartest person in the room, be flexible and humble

Many of us are hired for our domain expertise or Thought Leadership(tm), which would seem to naturally imply that consultants have a lot of power or sway in what can or should be done. After all, they are expensive!

But wait! That also means consultants are often seen as a threat. After all, who has to maintain the codebase after these consultants build their thing into it? You can never roll in and assume that you have the permission of the entire team to build a new system/introduce a new process/launch a new product the way you think should be done.

Even though we held strongly to our product development principles, we would sometimes bend to the customers’ whims because we understood that not all the time, one-size-fits all. So if the client balks at writing tests a certain way, or if they really don’t want to name the class that name, or if they have really weird preferences around line breaks and indentation - we let it go.

4. Don’t chase the shiny (too hard)

In consulting, the pace of learning is exhilarating. One month you’re working on a kubernetes migration for a Fortune 500 company, the next month you’re dipping your toes in the latest React library, and the next you’re building an iOS app for a stealth startup (oh, and some coworker keeps talking about OCaml or Haskell or something). It’s easy to get caught up in the temptation to choose the latest shiny for everything you build.

My advice - Choose Boring Technology. More specifically, use the “innovation tokens” mentioned in Dan McKinley’s article and choose one (or maybe two) fun, new things to use. Don’t dump the innovation tax on your clients and customers. This is hard to choose into. At a product company, this will be important to learn as well as you learn to identify the tradeoffs of choosing The New and Shiny versus the stability of Boring Tech. At a product company, you are also responsible for long-term maintenance of your systems, so this lesson may emerge no matter what.

5. Use your energy thoughtfully - and rest

Billing hourly had the result of forcing me to think about where and what I allocated my hours to, every day. My consultancy had a rule to never bill more than 8 hours / day, and thankfully it was modeled from the top that we really would sign off at the end of the day1. You’re forced to really work on the most important things - pushing your product counterpart to ruthlessly prioritize only the most important things. Then you sign off and you just don’t work at night. No emails.

Quite honestly, this is something I really find hard to do nowadays I’m at a product company. It’s not easy to put down the computer and not answer emails2.

6. Pairs are a pleasure

Gosh, I loved pairing. I know that I’m a weird outlier. But I picked up so many technologies, architecture pointers, vim shortcuts, and other random things from all the pairs I had over the years. I was fortunate to really enjoy my coworkers, and by far, this was my biggest growth multiplier in my technical skills.

Now I’m back in Big Company life, I’m known as the engineer who keeps scheduling time to pair with teammates or folks on different teams. It’s the best way to learn a new domain or system, and to also build trust with the person you’re working with.

7. The importance of business development and sales

As a developer, I naturally shy away from the sales and business development process. As a principal engineer in the consultancy, I was often tasked to go on sales meetings with prospective clients to be the face of engineering and also to vet client systems. I gained newfound appreciation for our partners and business development staff and learned ways to properly put value on the process and art of software development. And even though lots of these BD trips ended up without an agreement, it gave me opportunities to meet staff at other companies and get a little window into how they worked.


So that’s my little spiel about how helpful my consulting background has been now that I’m at a larger company.

By the way - Gerald Weinberg said all this stuff better in Secrets of Consulting. It’s a great read - no matter if you’re in consulting or not!

  1. This must have been more of a high-end software consultancy thing, as we were more of a boutique firm with name recognition. Projects were structured in terms of time & materials, so we never had pressure to work nights and weekends to ship X by Y date (opting instead to cut scope). This let us rest easy at night. 

  2. Then there’s the matter of being on call, which is pretty rare in consulting. Geez… I miss that. 

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