25 Lessons I Learned Doing Consulting Assignments

In the last few years I was involved in multiple consulting assignments. In this short post I have shared key lessons that I have learnt on how to better handle and manage consulting assignments.

  1. Don’t give feedback early. Your job for most of the time is to listen.
  2. Start documenting from the first day. Collect artifacts, screenshots, code snippet whatever that might help
  3. Invest time in creating standard templates that you can use for documenting discussions
  4. Ask questions that are open-ended. Don’t let people get away with a simple yes or no.
  5. Make sure you get access to the code base and other software development tools on the first day.
  6. Do the simple possible things. Can I build this application on my machine?
  7. Keep asking why. Ask the same questions multiple times to different people over time. You will get complete picture over time.
  8. Spend a day with the people on the ground. Don’t just hear from the client architect.
  9. Keep consulting assignment duration to max 3 weeks.
  10. Keep SoW in mind. Keep deliverables at max to 5
  11. Don’t put anything in the SoW that you don’t understand or client wants you to add
  12. Ideal team size for a 3 week consulting assignment is 3. Two technical architects and one functional
  13. Learn the basics of customer product domain. Do research on similar products. See if you can find videos or articles on technical details
  14. Spend the first day setting clear expectation. By the end of day 1 you should know the success criteria for the assignment.
  15. Make sure you consider time spent to create report is part of the assignment
  16. Keep 30 mins to an hour every day to clear doubts of the previous day
  17. Keep half day in a week to document any missing piece or clear any doubts
  18. Understand your limitations as a consultant. Don’t get into slippery territories
  19. Know you are valuable. Have self belief. This comes from knowledge and experience.
  20. Dress well. I hate to say it matters.
  21. Don’t get uneasy early because of unreasonable client or difficult conversations. Give time to yourself. After first few days things start becoming relatively easy.
  22. Don’t assume client does not know what’s wrong. People working in the organization know what’s wrong. You have to find what’s wrong quickly and then start moving in the direction of finding solution.
  23. One of the consultant task is to make things visible.
  24. Quickly figure out company politics. Don’t take any sides. Be neutral.
  25. There will be people much smarter than you. Respect them.

LIL #1: Lessons I Learnt This Week

I have a habit of writing daily journal where in I go over my day and write any life lessons I learnt (LIL) that day. This helps me build useful mental models on how to better handle specific situations in future. From this week, I plan to document and share these learning on my blog. I hope others will also find them useful.

This week I learnt following three lessons.

Continue reading “LIL #1: Lessons I Learnt This Week”

Allow Yourself To Be Bored — Part 1

A couple of weeks back during my weekend morning walk to the neighbourhood park, like most people, I had put on my headphones. I was walking, lost in my favorite playlist, when someone tapped on my shoulder and asked me a question that why people of my age have headphones plugged into their ears. I candidly answered, Because it is boring. Continue reading “Allow Yourself To Be Bored — Part 1”

Always Be Reading

I became a software engineer by chance. I was offered a job by a software organization during my campus interviews. I took it. And I became a software engineer.

Because I had pursued bachelors in Mechanical engineering, there was little learned about computer science in four years of my undergraduate course. My only interaction with it was during the first semester, where one of the subjects was C programming language. As far as I remember I enjoyed programming a lot. After entering the job, it took me a couple of years to figure out how I can succeed in the professional world. I realized that my magic formula to do good in professional and personal life is Always Be Reading.

In this post, I will share my thoughts on having a beginner mindset and continuously improve yourself to live a meaningful and fulfilling life.
Continue reading “Always Be Reading”

Learn To Say No

Time and again I end up discussing about importance of saying No with my friends and colleagues. I believe that yes should not be the answer to most requests that comes our way. Still, most of us end up saying yes out of obligation or just to be accepted and part of the crowd.

Yes has no meaning if we never say No.

Saying No to most of the choices help me focus on few things. There is no point in becoming jack of all traits and master of none. This is a lesson that I have learnt after wasting many years playing with many things.

Why we say Yes?

There are many social and psychological reasons why saying yes is much more easier than saying No.

  1. You want to oblige to people so that you don’t hurt their feelings.
  2. You don’t want to be excluded from social group.
  3. You don’t want to be alone.
  4. You don’t want to disrespect your elders.
  5. You don’t want to hurt anybody’s feeling.
  6. You don’t have guts to face the truth.
  7. You don’t want to explain your rationale behind saying No.

Saying No Makes You Say Real Yes

When you don’t do something, you have option to do something else. Richie Norton beautifully articulated in his quote

Say no to everything, so you can say yes to the one thing.

You work on tasks that you truly believe in. You go out with people you want to spend your time with. You behave the way you are. You are not faking or putting a mask to be liked by other people.

Saying No Simplifies Life

Life is a mess these days with so many options to choose from and so many things to say. We are living in a world of information overload so we have to limit ourselves to few things to make it easy for us to digest and not get influenced. You start making right choices evaluating all the options you have and picking something you truly believes in.

Say No Without Having To Explain Yourself

Stephanie Lahart summed up very well

Let today mark a new beginning for you. Give yourself permission to say NO without feeling guilty, mean, or selfish. Anybody who gets upset and/or expects you to say YES all of the time clearly doesn’t have your best interest at heart. Always remember: You have a right to say NO without having to explain yourself. Be at peace with your decisions.

Saying No does not mean you are selfish

When you start saying No, people will start perceiving you as a selfish person. I don’t think caring about your needs and time is selfish. Even if it is considered selfish it is for your own good. If you can’t do good to yourself, you can’t do go with others as well. Suzette Hinton put it beautifully in following lines:

We must say no to what, in our heart, we don’t want. We must say “no” to doing things out of obligation, thereby cheating those important to us of the purest expression of our love. We must say no to treating ourselves, our health, our needs as not as important as someone else’s. We must say no.

Even Steve Jobs Believe In Saying No

Be a Rock Star at Work

Yesterday, I started reading The Greatness Guide book by Robin Sharma and one of the important lessons he shared is Be a Rock Star at Work. This looks obvious but if you ask yourself honestly you will be surprised how many times you failed to live up to your own expectations. We all want to do best at our workplaces but fail to make an impact or do justice to our work. This could be because you don’t enjoy your work or your workplace sucks. At the end, we end up just being mediocre rather than achieving to our full potential. We waste a hell lot of time in office politics or tea time gossips that pollute our mind so much that we don’t give our 100% at work. Our mind is always occupied by so many other thoughts that we never do justice to our work. This is a very important lesson as work is what defines us and provide meaning to our life. When you go back home after office day you should be satisfied that you gave your 100% to the problem at hand.

7 Habits I Wish Every (Junior) Programmer Should Have

Over the last 11 years as a programmer, I have made some habits that have helped me in my day to day work. In the process, these habits have successfully translated into productivity and they have made me more organized.
I consider these as essential habits that every programmer should have, but I find them missing especially in junior developers. In my case, I was fortunate enough to be mentored by my seniors, who taught me these basic stuff. In this blog, I will share 7 habits that must be inculcated to become an effective programmer.

Habit 1: Spend time to organize stuff

As a software developer, we have to work with many files like installers, project sources, documents,etc. Make a directory layout with a separate directory for each topic. For example, I put all the softwares in the tools directory, project source code in the dev directory, and technical books or documentation goes to the books directory. Inside each directory, there are sub-directories for different sub-topics. Below you can see a directory layout that I use on my machine.

| — books
| | — java
| | — javascript
| | — mobile
| ` — react
| — dev
| | — office
| | — opensource
| | — personal
| ` — tmp
` — tools
| — browser
| — editors
| — ide
` — vms

Habit 2: Use version control for everything

Make sure you put all the projects in a version control system. You can use it for taking backups or for storing revisions of your software projects. I use Git along with Github for all my projects both personal and official. I have a Github repository called writings where I store my blogs, articles, or a random list of things. Couple of years back, I wrote one book. I used Git to store my book artifacts including content, images, invoices, source code etc. Using a version control helped me in analyzing my writing habits. For example, the Github repository contribution graph shown below clearly shows my writing flow during that period.

Habit 3: Invest in books

Gone are those days when we can survive with our limited skills. But, nowadays we must keep ourselves updated with latest technologies. I find books as the best medium to learn. Whenever someone asks me how to learn a specific topic or how I learned, then I recommend them a couple of books. The immediate question that I am asked is Do you have a PDF for the book? or Can you refer me to the location from where I can download it for free?. My answer to them is Always invest in your learning. Buy an original book be it an ebook or a paperback. When you invest your money, you make an effort to read.

Habit 4: Don’t fear the command-line

Most junior programmers fear the black screen i.e. terminal. They are always looking for the GUI tools that they can use instead of poking with the command-line. I have met many developers who are unaware of the most basic commands of their terminals. What I have learned over the years is, you spend more time in the terminal than on any other tool. Even learning the basics of the command-line can take you very far. There are tasks that can be performed more quickly with command-line tools than any GUI tool. For example remote SSH. Also, you can automate stuff by putting commands in a script easily. Every developer should try to at least learn the basic commands like cp, mv, find, grep, ps. One reason why beginners find command-line difficult to use is, they are overwhelmed by the help offered by man pages. It contains so much information that most of the time you don’t understand what to do. I have recently discovered a very helpful node.js module tldr that gives just enough information one needs to know to use a command. An example is shown below.

$ tldr zip
Package and compress (archive) files into zip file.
- Package and compress multiple directories and files:
zip -r compressed.zip /path/to/dir1 /path/to/dir2 /path/to/file
- Add files to an existing zip file:
zip compressed.zip path/to/file
- Remove unwanted files from an existing zip file:
zip -d compressed.zip “foo/*.tmp”

Also, I find Conquering the Command Line book by Mark Bates as a very good introduction to most commands that we need to know.

Habit 5: Master your IDE(tools)

A good craftsman always master his tools. This should be true for us programmers too. Knowing the shortcuts of your editor or IDE can make you productive and help you in writing less code. Developers should know refactoring shortcuts like extracting a method or renaming stuff. When you use shortcuts a lot, then actions like formatting a code becomes ingrained. You don’t even have to think about it,you automatically do the right stuff. IDE like IntelliJ and Eclipse have one shortcut that can give you a list of all other shortcuts. For IntelliJ it is CMD+Shift+A on Mac or Ctrl+Shift+A on Windows. Always keep a cheatsheet of your favorite tool handy.

Habit 6: Write and share everyday learning

We all learn something new each day. It could be a new command, a shortcut, a new tool, a new language feature or something new in your web framework. Start sharing what you have learned today with the world by posting a small blog post or creating a Github repository where you can keep all your tips. I started blogging in 2009 and it has been one of the best decisions of my life. Had I not, I don’t think I would have become a technology evangelist and later ended up writing a book. Yesterday, I found a very cool project by Josh Branchaud called TIL Today I learned. Josh is maintaining this repo for last one year and has collected more than 300 tips that he had learned. A very cool idea indeed!!

Habit 7: Watch conference videos

One habit that I introduced early in my professional career is to watch technology conference videos on Infoq. Most of the conferences post their videos either on Youtube or Vimeo. Watching good programmers can not only help you in understanding a topic, but it can also motivate you to learn and become like them. Good programmers talk very passionately and I swear that is infectious. Most of the technology videos are also hands-on so you can learn how they use their tools or other day to day things that are not part of the topic. Often, my reading list comes from these good programmers.

I consider the above points as good habits that developers should adopt. They have helped me a lot.

If there is no opportunity then create one…

In 2005, I joined a company as a trainee programmer right after finishing my college. I did Mechanical engineering(2001-2005), but during the campus placement I was placed in a software company so I ended up in the IT industry. I had no programming experience when I started my first programming job. I know it sounds weird, but many Indian software programmers start with a limited programming knowledge/experience.

My first year as a programmer was very rough. I spent most of the time looking at other people’s screen(pair programming) and trying to understand how I can fit myself into this world. It was demotivating and most of the time I felt like giving up. Programming is tough and when you don’t know where to start it becomes much more difficult. Before you Google something you need to know what you want to Google.

During my first year appraisal meeting, my manager asked what rating he should give me? Rating was from 1 to 5 where 1 being the highest and 5 being the lowest. He said he can’t give me 5 because I have not done anything wrong in the company. And, he can’t give me 1 or 2 because I have not done anything good in my daily work. So, the only two valid choices were 3 and 4. Then, he asked me why didn’t I perform well? My answer was,  “You didn’t give me any opportunity to work.” He responded, “Why didn’t you create one?” I didn’t say anything after that. He said that he will give me 3 rating like he had given to others in my team.

This 5-minute meeting had a profound impact on me. Since my first year, I have applied this many times. And, each time it worked!

Most of the time we don’t succeed because we don’t get out of our comfort zone and ask others for their help or opinion. We stick to our old ways of working and we never try to change our mindset.  Steve Jobs once said:

Most people don’t get those experiences because they never ask. I never find anybody that didn’t want to help me if asked them for help.

Around the same time, I also had these discussions with my father. My father has a lot of positive influence on my life. My dad once told me:

You can either succeed by being the best in your field or by becoming a people pleaser.

The problem was I had neither of those qualities. Knowing myself  I realized, I can’t be a people pleaser. So, the only way to succeed is to start learning. In last 10 years, I have tried spending couple of hours every day learning and honing my skills.

Currently, I am working on a year long blog series 52-technologies-in-2016 where I learn something new every week and write about it.