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The (Not So) Glamorous Life of a Consultant

By: on January 26, 2011 in Advice, Consulting, The Road

If you’re a fan or child of the 80s, you probably know Prince protégé Shelia E’s song “The Glamorous Life”.

Sheila E and I have nothing in common despite what you may think. Sure, we’re both attractive people (tongue firmly in cheek), but that’s about where it ends. Over the years I wish I had a dime for every time I have heard this statement from friends, clients, and family:
“You must have a blast and get to see such interesting places since you’re on the road all the time!”

What got me thinking about writing this blog post was that statement because I was working last night in an office with one other person until about 1:10 AM here in Redmond (I’ll give you one guess which company). I’m loving the work I’m doing, but in an empty office with one other person in the wee hours of the morning? Boy, that just defines glamorous, don’t you think?

So I’m going to have a bit of fun here dealing with some of the the myths and truths about being a consultant on the road, and give you some tips for being on the road. I really do love what I do for a living and the people I work with and meet, but there are harsh realities.

Myth: Life on the Road is a Non-Stop Par-tay
It isn’t for me. Maybe it is for some who can manage to make big bucks and not do any work. I know some folks like that, sadly. I’m not that guy. I work hard to earn a living. Being self employed and having no staff, I’m doing everything (billing, the work itself, promotion, community work such as speaking at SQL Saturdays, etc.). I don’t have a normal 9 to 5, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. That said, when you’re on the road and not home, it can be even more challenging.

First and foremost, most of you commute to work every day. Whether you drive, walk, take public transportation, etc. An airplane is, in essence, just a flying bus. My commute may be longer and involve hotel rooms and per diem, but it’s not that much different than what you do except you’re not at home. If you approach it from that angle, what I do may make more sense. Maybe not.

Unless I take time before or after, I generally don’t get to sightsee in cities. Some quite honestly there’s not much to do that way, but that’s not the point. When I’m on the road it’s basically an airport-hotel-workplace-dinner loop. Sometimes I’ll have a chance to look for a used CD store or something (assuming it’ll be open after I get out of work). Maybe there will even be a concert or a baseball game, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. Often times I’ve got more work to do back in the hotel AFTER I leave the worksite, so even if I technically had the time, I don’t. I know, I know. The little violins are playing for me. I’m not complaining at all – I’m just giving you the reality.

Do I have fun on the road? You bet. It’s not all airplanes, rental cars, and take out food.  Not everywhere, but there are places where I can have a bit of fun or work things around the engagement. For example, when I did some training in Singapore in 2009, I spent a few days in Tokyo before it and a few days in Hong Kong after. Cost-wise, it didn’t add much if anything to my airfare. I didn’t pass the cost of hotel and food in Tokyo or Hong Kong onto my customer (that’s the right thing to do), but doing the before/after had ulterior motives besides vacation:

1. Going to Tokyo first and adjusting to the time zone difference (even though there was an additional one from Tokyo to Singapore) on my own time is a great move. By the time I got to the client, I was fine. There’s nothing worse than having a nearly 24 hour day by the time you account for all of the airport stuff and having to just be perky the next day and deliver training. I am better off for it, and so is the work I deliver to the client.
2. Doing a stop over in Hong Kong had a somewhat similar effect: I eased myself out of Asia. Seems silly, right? Well, what I didn’t want to do was finish working and that night or early the next day fly for 24 hours. No thanks. I needed to decompress a little bit.

Clients are usually pretty reasonable about these types of things and have never had an issue as long as you keep costs reasonable and talk to them. Never assume.

Conferences like PASS are usually a lot more fun,with events and quite a bit of hanging out and schmoozing even if you don’t drink. Those are more of the party atmosphere you may think of on the road … but it’s not exactly work in the traditional sense.

Myth: Your time is your own and everyone accommodates your schedule
I wish! If you go into an office every day, do you control your day? Maybe in some ways, but in general, the answer is no. When I’m working for a client, I’m not unlike you: if they’ve got a schedule, I’m working along with it. I may have input or have some ownership of parts, but I generally can’t dictate every aspect of it. Customer likes to start their day at 8AM? Guess where you’ll be at 8AM? You got it – in their office.

When I’m doing remote work such as content development usually my time is much more flexible and it’s deadlines I’m working towards. That’s usually one of the few time exceptions.

I do a lot of work with people all around the world in various time zones, so that also becomes a concern. You may be taking con calls after 6PM. Such is life as a consultant.

Whatever religion you are, you’ve got days you do not work. I know I have days every year where I will not work for some of the holidays I celebrate. Even if you’re an athiest, you want to take some time off (I do as well! I like vacation.). When a customer wants work and pings  you, you’re either available or you’re not. It’s just that simple. Sometimes you just need to say no. That’s the way it is. Accept it and move on. I know you’re the smartest, brightest, most important, all-knowing, expert in your field who may or may not be a MVP, MCM, or Windows/SQL/Cluster/Virtualization/Whatever deity, but the world doesn’t revolve around you.

Truth: Maintaining relationships and taking part in life back home is hard.
I’m sure most of you enjoy some form of human contact, and have family, friends, significant others, etc. If you’re on the road a lot, it can try some of those. Technology is a wonderful thing, be it e-mail, Skype, webcams … you name it. But it’s not the same as hugging your kid if you’ve got one. (I don’t, but I understand.) That is hard for some, and probably even harder for their loved ones. That right there will make some think twice about this job choice. They could throw all the money in the world at you, but if you’re unhappy, why do it? Just saying.

Some consultants stick to more local clients. There’s nothing wrong with that and you can probably go home at night. I’m of the opinion you go where the work is. I live just outside of Boston, yet I can count the number of clients I’ve had there on one hand. That’s the reality. That means every year I’m easily on the road at a minimum 1/3 of my year if you count travel days. (I’m not even factoring in vacation where I would be away, too.) That’s a lot of time and you need to weigh the impact of that on your own life as well as those you care about.

The reality is that when I’m on the road (which in truth comes in fits and spurts; I could be on the road solid for nearly 3 months and off for one – it’s not predictable), I may not see some of my friends or family for weeks or months at a time. Heck I may not even talk to them. I have good friends where we just don’t connect more than every half a year or so. You may not be ok with that. If you’re not, this is NOT the life for you.

If you’ve read any of my blog posts, you may have figured out that music is a big part of my life. I can’t really be in a band that meets frequently since I’m not around all the time, but I do manage to get my playing time in. I play in a local big band that meets bi-weekly, and when I’m not there, they get a sub. Luckily I’ve been able to be there more often than not, but you have to fight to maintain a work-life balance when you’re on the road. No one is going to hand it to you on a silver platter.

Truth: Have a good accountant as well as a good lawyer (when you need to use one)
This one is simple. A good accountant will keep you honest, and is invaluable when you need to do things like pay estimated taxes. A good accountant will give you practical advice and warn you when you may be heading down the wrong path. I had many discussions with my accountant before I took the plunge and went independent. To this day, he has not steered me wrong and has dealt with one or two things I could not have on my own. You are probably smart with computers and your area of expertise, but you may not be a financial whiz. Spend the money.

You won’t need a lawyer all the time, but having a good one when you need one is another thing that may cost some money, but worth it in the end. You may be an IT genius, but can you read a legal contract and understand all of its implications? If you need to have it modified, can you do so? I don’t know many consultants with a law degree. I had a situation recently where I went back and forth with a client before we signed the contract because I wanted to protect my IP and they wanted to protect theirs. Had I signed the contract as I first received it, not only would I have basically signed my IP away, but they’d own any future revisions. Sorry, not happening.

One of the biggest things about consulting  to me is this : you have to grow a set of stones and be able to walk away from potential work if it will hurt you long term (reputation, financially, etc.) or if you know the work is just bad news.A big part of this is understanding the paperwork you are signing. Money can’t be your only motivation … at least I hope so. Have some pride.

Truth: Have some cash reserves
I’m not set for life or have unlimited funds. However, if you’re going to be a consultant, you need some money. First, most customers are great and pay for the work you deliver in a timely fashion. Not all do. If you’re just getting started, can you afford to wait 15, 30,45, 90, or more days for payment? Probably not. This is why you need to have some money saved up and always have a bit of cash around. Rent and bills don’t get paid with IOUs and love.

Also, you’ll need to float your expenses up front. This can get expensive. For example, you may rack up a big airfare bill for working overseas, but you may not be able to bill until the work is complete (depending on how the customer wants to be billed). Can you afford that? If not, you are in the wrong line of work.

Allan’s Top 10 Tips for Surviving the Road
Here are some tips that have served me well over the years you may find useful, whether you are a fellow road warrior or an infrequent traveler.

10. Get a good pair of headphones
You’re going to be spending a lot of time in airports and on planes. You may not be as much into sound quality (or notice the difference) as I am. I’ve spent some stupid money over the years on headphones and in ears … and promply lose or destroy them over time on the road. I’m one of those people that hears a difference, and believes that BOSE = better sound through science (yuck). I’ll admit I’m a bit of a snob that way. (Disclaimer: I have heard the BOSE Quiet Comfort or whatever they are and the sound quality really was pretty bad compared to what I was using which cost me a little more, but not much more and didn’t have any funny noise canceling stuff which 9/10 times degrades sound quality.)

Whether or not you buy cans (or IEMs) that have some sort of active noise canceling, you want ones that can isolate sound on a plane. The drone can get annoying. You shouldn’t have to crank your portable music/video player or computer to 11 to drown it out (plus, it’s bad for your hearing). A good pair of IEMs should give you a good seal and block out noise. You don’t need to spend a million dollars, but chances are the $25 or less earbuds won’t do it, either. The headphones they give you on planes (or you can buy for $1) won’t cut it. Trust me. Spend a few shekels.

9. Status does matter
I always joke that I’m not sure if having status is a good thing or a bad thing because all it really says is “I’m on the road wayyyyyyyyyyyy too much.” I’ve had no trouble maintaining status for quite a few years now without the need for double qualifying nights and miles. It really is a double edged sword.

If you are on the road a lot, trying to attain status with your preferred hotel brand and airline can work in your favor. I’m not one of those mileage/hotel whores who will do things like mileage runs just to get the max points and such. That to me is a bit ridiculous. Here’s why status matters to me:

  • For hotels, you generally get access to the premium guest lounge if there is one. Sometimes it may be the only place to get free internet. Often times, you can grab a quick snack (if you can eat it, of course). That’s really handy if you get in late (say 9PM), the lounge is open until 10, and you just want a cookie or a drink. You can also usually get free breakfast there, too. I am not much of a breakfast person, so it’s not a huge benefit to me.
  • Not all hotels have free internet. If you’ve got status, chances are it is.
  • Sometimes you get room upgrades (nice but not usually necessary), or things like early check in, etc.
  • Priority check in lines at airport security and early boarding on planes. Ever see those poor souls on planes searching for a spot to place their bag? That won’t be you if you can get on earlier. Your bag won’t be gate checked.
  • Airlines often waive fees for things like bags for those with status, and you may have different baggage allowances.
  • You can pick your seats on the plane when you book and not have to play Russian Roulette at the airport the day you fly out. That is a distinct advantage for getting exit row seats or bulkhead rows where you will have extra leg room in coach. Yes, it matters even to us short folk!

8. Don’t alter your eating or lifestyle habits; do what you do at home (if possible).
I’ve always been a bit shorter than my friends (I’m a towering 5’6″) and have always been fairly thin (have had the same pants size for quite a few years now). A few years back, however, I packed on what had to be 20 pounds with the crap I was eating on the road while on a longer term engagement. I was up to about 165 lbs give or take. While it didn’t show, I felt horrible. I could feel the extra weight. It was a wake up call to me. I now eat like I do at home. I’ve cut back my intake of things like soda and how much I snack during the day with the stuff that’s not so good for you. It does matter.

Having special dietary needs, I am already a bit limited in where and what I can eat. I generally assume outside of major cities (and in some case, even major cities), I’m pretty hosed in finding food I can eat. That’s my reality. So if you’re gluten-free, vegan, etc., prepare to deal with that reality of the road. I’ll often go to a supermarket and cook for myself if I’m staying somewhere that has such facilities, or go to somewhere like Whole Foods to get food and especially snacks like fruit.

I’m not much of an exercise guy, but I will occasionally use a hotel gym. It’s free, and you can very easily get complacent and sedentary on the road. If you exercise at home, keep your routine as best as possible.

Bottom line is don’t let your health suffer on the road … it’s easy to go down that slippery slope. Crap in, crap out.

7. Don’t always trust Mapquest/Google/Bing maps or GPS.
I think remember the first time I did a road trip and rented a car. I believe it was a trip out to Redmond in 1997 or 1998. I got lost going to the Courtyard in Bellevue (the one near campus, not the new one downtown which didn’t exist at that time). I had a map. In fact, in all of those early years I went to AAA here in the USA and got a map of my destination city, and before I left, I wrote out the instructions to where I needed to go. I took the map with me as well to get me out of jams, but quite honestly, that method worked well.

With the modern conveniences (full disclosure: I don’t own a GPS nor have I ever rented one; I hear horror stories from friends, though) of things like Google or Bing maps, you’d think it’d be better, right? Wrong. I’ve been to certain cities enough to look at the directions it spits out sometimes to scratch my head and wonder what the algorithm is even thinking.

I’ve been threatening to go back to real paper maps. I probably will.

So what that means is that you should always leave plenty of time to get to a customer site if you’ve never been there and you’re not familiar with the area and its traffic patterns. Unless your hotel is next to the work site and you can roll out of bed and get there, never assume leaving 15 minutes before you need to be there will get you there on time. Make a good first impression.

6. Hire a personal assistant or have people you trust to do some tasks back home when you’re not around.
This one is easier if you have a spouse or someone special in your life (which can mean just some really good friends, too). If you’re going to spend a good portion of your time on the road during the year, you may get things like packages, mail, etc. I try to hold my mail if I’m gone more than a few days and deal with things so I don’t get packages sent to me when I’m gone, but it happens. Find someone you trust and have them handle it. Heck, have things sent to their place.

Tonight it’s going to snow back home in the Boston area. Nothing I can do about that, but I hope I’ll either be able to dig out after I get back or someone will do it for me (maybe my landlord or a very good friend). THAT’S the reality of the road, especially if you’re a single person. If you’re not there or have someone do it, it’s not going to get done.

5. Lighten your load.
This one is multifaceted.

When I first went on the road,I always checked a bag and took way too much. That was back in the days when baggage fees were not even a consideration. Cost is now a factor for some (although if you have status on an airline, they generally waive most of the fees), but the truth is this: you don’t need half the crap you think you do. If I’m gone for a week, I just take a carry on suitcase. I have my essential toiletries, a pair or two of pants (and maybe a pair of jeans), probably a jacket (which I’m most likely wearing), some underwear, a few shirts, and not much else. You aren’t J-Lo on the road. You don’t need to change your outfit twice in a night for the paparazzi. Being agile is a good thing on the road.

Then we have what you carry in your backpack/laptop bag/paperweight/etc. I’ve seen some people who travel with every little cable, gadget, etc. under the sun. Do you really need it all? Probably not. I have my share of gadgets and don’t have 100% consolidation myself (still prefer a dedicated music player, for example). But you don’t need to take the contents of your entire office with you, either. Strike a balance. Ask yourself this question: what do I really use/need? I’m not out to impress anyone with the amount of crap I carry.

One thing I will advocate: eBooks are great. I had a Sony PRS-505 for years and just got the 950. Outside of takeoff and landing, I can use it and it saves a ton of room that physical books used to consume. Don’t get me wrong – I love real printed books, but my backpack is definitely lighter without taking a lot of books on the road with me, especially on longer trips.

I also have a back that isn’t the greatest after years of schlepping heavy backpacks (see last paragraph) and music equipment. My laptop is small and light, yet full powered. It’s expensive, but it helps a lot and I don’t walk around in pain because of it. I can also easily use it on a plane. Can you say that about your wonderful 17″ screen one? Probably not 🙂 My choice in laptops has everything to do with my health more than its size. Make sure you make the right tradeoffs. That 17″ brick may sound great in theory, but is it in practice?

4. Airline lounges are worth the money if you’re on the road a lot.
If you’re flying short hops (such as commuting from Boston to NYC using a shuttle), this one may not apply. But if you spend quite a lot of time in an airport, chances are you have a favorite airline. I do. We all have horror stories as to why we dislike one airline or another; I’m not here to argue the merits of one over the other.

Most of the airline clubs charge or you fly so much they give you access. Either way, you’re paying in one way or another. However, if you spend as much time in airports as I do, the free wi-fi (not always a given in all airports), the comfortable chairs, the snacks or drinks, clean bathrooms, showers, etc. may be worth it even if you just get to catch up on e-mail in a relatively quiet environment for 30 minutes before heading to your gate.

3. International travel and work can be complex. Don’t assume you can waltz in and do what you want.
When you start out, you may not think you’ll ever leave your country. When I started doing consulting, I thought that. I was wrong.

The first thing you need to do is get a passport. Here in the USA, they are valid for 10 years. The one thing you need to do is ensure you stay on top of when it may expire. Why? Some countries are strict about not allowing entry if your passport is close to expiration.

Speaking of different countries, each has its own set of rules for various things besides if you can get in or not. First and foremost, you should check if the country you want to travel to requires you to have some sort of a visa to enter. Many countries do not, but some do. And there could be different rules of going there to work versus going there as a tourist. Canada is a great example. I’ve been through this a few times as a US citizen. I can’t just go and work there. You need to have the right papers otherwise it’s a big problem.

Also, you may have to pay local taxes to that country’s tax agency for the money you will earn (in addition to whatever it is you need to do). When I am going to do work overseas, I work with the people who are contracting me to help me through  that. When I worked in Singapore, they paid the government for my taxes and I made sure they sent me a receipt of that. I still had to declare whatever I actually took home on my taxes here in the USA, but I made damn well sure I was legal there, too.

2. Learn how to budget and estimate costs, and come close without going over during the engagement. Do not eat your expenses.
When you go onsite, it’s pretty much expected the client will have to pay your travel costs. My hourly rates or fixed cost engagements never include expenses. Those are ALWAYS billed at actual cost. I don’t break the bank as I work with the customer to ensure my expenses are reasonable, but as a consultant, you should never have to eat your own travel expenses for an engagement unless you want to build it in. This can work against you if a project goes long.

Once you’ve been on the road, you can get very good at estimating what it will cost you on the road per day/week/month. When I talk to customers, that estimate is part of the conversation. When I start to book travel, if things are not close, I make sure they are aware. With one customer of mine, I’m always within anywhere of $100 to $1000 under what we budgeted. Part of your job is managing that expectation.

1. Expect the unexpected
Anything can happen on the road. Forget your cel phone at home? Lose your cel phone? Rental car gets a flat? You get the idea. It happens. You need to really be able to roll with the punches and adapt. How many of you have done a demo for something like PASS and it blew up the night before and you have to reconfigure it? Well, that’s what I’m talking about. Assume it will happen and be happy when it doesn’t.

Being on the road you now deal with things like Mother Nature. For example, flying in the winter is always an adventure depending on where you are coming from/going to and what airports you need to go through if you have a connection. Flying through Chicago or places like Boston? Snow could delay or cancel your flights you booked months ago, or if you’re at your destination, you may be stuck there. I’ve been pretty lucky over the years. I think I’ve only been delayed or stranded a handful of times, and I was able to know in advance and get a room. However, realize if you had somewhere to be back home, you may not make it in time. That’s part of the deal of being on the road.

EDIT: One more for the road
1a. Have a comfortable pair of shoes and get ones easy to deal with at airport security points.
This is another “duh”, but I really mean it. Shoes that bother you are not good long term, especially if you have a lot of walking to do. Comfort is king. They don’t need to be ugly, as comfort used to mean that. Plenty of nice shoe manufacturers make good looking shoes with all kinds of good stuff.

Since you have to take your shoes off here in the USA when you go through airport security (thanks, TSA!), having slip ons is easiest.


6 Responses

  1. Tim Radney says:

    Very good read. I enjoyed reading about your adventures and tips. I don’t plan to do consulting anytime soon but it is nice to know it isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Best of luck to you in all your future gigs.

  2. B says:

    Nice job of presenting a lot of material. Should be required reading for new consultants.

  3. Kristine says:

    Allen,
    Lots of great stuff here, regardless of whether you’re independent or working for a large firm. I worked for a large firm for a number of years, and my boyfriend just made the switch after being independent for a long time so we relate to both perspectives.

    Your “Truths” are right on the money and I loved the travel tips – so true! We share many of the same ideas (mine are here: http://www.myconsultinglife.com/travel-tips-every-new-road-warrior-needs-to-know/)

    Thanks for a great post!

    Best,
    Kristine

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