I, Consultant

Consulting requires the right mindset and skills.

For novel ideas about building embedded systems (both hardware and firmware), join the 40,000+ engineers who subscribe to The Embedded Muse, a free biweekly newsletter. The Muse has no hype and no vendor PR. Click here to subscribe.

By Jack Ganssle

The retreat was held at a remote country site, situated on 200 acres of rolling farmland. A small army of plainclothes nuns ran the place, for three days buffering us from outside influences as our group wrestled with business issues affecting Howard County, where I live and work. No TV, no radio, and no phones insured our complete attention. OK - I admit to getting a continuous stream of email via a cell-phone hookup to the laptop, but the nuns never found out!

 Our bunch was composed of quite a variety of business folks, ranging from one-person accounting types to the head of the local hospital. I was the sole techie. The discussion focused on Change - with a capital "C" - and its impact on business. Somehow I simply assumed all of us were excited and invigorated by change; that we all relished creating it and profiting from its new opportunities.


 For the first time I finally understood the difference between high technology and the rest of the world. Fear pervades the non-techie world. Change means disaster. They struggle to find ways of coping with change instead of looking for ways of creating and nurturing it.

 Electronics companies, though, often resemble the anarchy of the 60s, even to the long hair and lack of respect for suits and convention. Everything we know today is wrong tomorrow, made obsolete by competition or by our relentless struggle to improve our products.

 Every November, urged on by my loyal readers (thanks, both of you), I write about the joys and challenges of being a consultant in the high tech world (confession: I gave up consulting some years ago). Though a tiny consulting outfit looks a lot, structurally, like a small accounting firm, surprisingly little of what conventional business does applies to the techie.

 Today, for instance, I end six years on the Board of the local chamber of commerce. For six years I was the token techie. The others - lawyers, accountants, payroll specialists - wanted desperately to include the electronics and bio-tech industries in the chamber's purview. They listened patiently to my suggestions, then resumed doing things "the way we've always done them", never understanding that radical change, implemented swiftly and constantly, is what keeps the high-tech industry humming. Hi tech gets a lot of admiring press, and the chamber wanted some of the glory and success, without ever being willing to take the risks.

 The chamber's old guard all sell locally. It's like a local food chain, each company marketing to the others. The technology business doesn't work that way. My business, for instance, sells coping normal">nothing locally. Our reach, even when we were very small, was and is global. My Howard County technology friends all operate similarly. We use the fruits of change - cheap air travel, email, Web, faxes, pagers, cell phones, voice mail - to extend our reach beyond driving distance.

 A very informal survey of consulting friends showed some correlation between being trapped in an old mind-set and living on the brink of bankruptcy. And so, with your indulgence, gentle reader, I'd like to talk about this change that so permeates our electronics way of life, and perhaps offer a few suggestions along the way.


A Historical Retrospective

It's fascinating to see how we've dealt with change historically. Did you know that Alfred Wegener proposed a theory of continental drift at the beginning of the century, yet was considered a crackpot until more evidence in the 60s convinced scientists that tectonics was indeed a fact of life? Albert Einstein got the Nobel prize for his explanation of the photoelectric effect, not for relativity - which was simply too controversial at the time. In a final ironic twist Einstein, who practically invented quantum mechanics with his Prize-winning theory, fought against it till his death.

 Science is often as resistant to change as are the rest of us.

 Yet we are sometimes perhaps a bit too adept at integrating new things into our lives. Reading Stillwell's biography I was struck by the fact that, by Pan Am clipper, in 1943 the Miami to India flight took 12 days. 12 days!  Flying was too expensive and too time consuming for most people. In fact, till recently travel in general was impossibly difficult. When my parents were growing up visiting Europe was only a dream they never expected to fulfill. Now, for us East-coasters, it's a mere six hours and $500 away.

 And yet, everyone moans about airport delays. A 30 minute wait elicits wails and threats of lawsuits. We're so acclimated to fast, efficient travel we've forgotten what a marvelous thing we do every time we land in a new town.

 The traditional romance of travel is practically gone when it's so cheap and easy. Only 70 years ago "travelers" gave well-attended lectures of their exploits to people mesmerized by the thought of distant places. Today's "traveler" is likely a tired businessperson who just wants to go home.

 Consider paper and books. Though only a few hundred Gutenberg Bibles were printed, 50 (mostly in very good condition) survive today. How may of Steven King's 500 million books will be around in half a millennium? Once books had immense value. Now they are disposable. 

If you visit London, be sure to see the antique book collection at the British Museum. On display you'll see thousand-year-old tomes, tediously copied by legions of monks working by candlelight. Across the street you may pick up the latest Times, and then quickly toss it in the bin, without a thought discarding a quarter million printed words on five pounds of paper.

 So, yes, we Westerners are quite adept at integrating change into our lives. It takes time and a compelling reason.

 The politicians debate how we'll get computers and Internet access into the classrooms - I think it's clearly a matter of time. As a society we will embrace this still very new technology.


The Net

The public has a perception of the Internet as one of the leading agents of change. Yet few understand what it's really all about. Thankfully there's little talk anymore of its potential as 500 channels of TV. Unfortunately, people view it as nothing more than email, Web surfing, and maybe a source of flames/info/endless discussion on 15,000 newsgroups. tool, view it as a super fax machine.

 I was fascinated to visit a Motorola plant in Israel where they design cellular phones. Software comes from Scotland. Production in Asia. Management in Texas. A network links them all together. This is the modern model of a technology business - even a one person consulting shop. Obtain resources where they best fit your needs. Use the Net to link them together.

 Consultants suffer from feast or famine syndrome. You work hard delivering a product, "forgetting" to market in the panic of getting the work done, and then starve till the next job turns up. Often the desperate marketing that follows brings in more work than you can possibly do. Develop a network (excuse the pun) of other consultants to pass excess work off to. Use the Net to find them, and to link them together.

 Done effectively, you may find them passing work your way during the next dry spell.

 Basic business theory tells us that the standard model of a consulting business is, well, awful. One person does everything, making growth (read "wealth") impossible. It's far better to have a cadre of people doing lots of work, with you skimming a bit off of each activity. "The E Myth" by Michael E. Gerber (1986, Harper Business, New York) is one of the best books about creating a business whose business is growth.

The Internet is infinite information, infinitely linked, to an infinite number of people. We're all adding to this sea of data, putting up Web sites with reckless (and thoughtless) abandon.

 I think a properly done Web site can be a magic way to market your product or service. I also think that it's a complete waste of time for most companies.

 Every bit of marketing or sales you do must make sense. It should conform to some rational plan with certain measurable goals. Ads, for instance: only an amateur runs a one-time ad. Tons of research, available in shelves of books at your library, make it clear that repetition is a critical component of successful advertising. Yet would-be entrepreneurs seem convinced that a single ad will create a storm of people knocking on their door.

 The same goes for the Web. A static site that gives a bit of information about your consulting activities, simply will not work. Web sites demand lots of attention. You must update it frequently. Provide interesting, compelling content.

 This goes back to the subject of change. The Web is a very dynamic medium that requires lots of tuning, experimenting, and work. A local pal, who has a very successful site, changes parts of the content once or twice a day - yet he has only a 4 person training company. (He also works 18 hours a day!) He's a very smart individual, who has developed a system for rapid maintenance of the site. His business also incidentally produces lots of information, which he habitually feeds to the Web.

 One opportunity is for the consultant that teams with unrelated companies. The fellow who wants work putting an RTOS in products would do well to ally himself with major RTOS vendors. Find unique applications and ideas. Publish these electronically, Make sure the vendor knows what you are doing, and be sure to communicate with them constantly. Teaming is a classic way of generating bi-directional lead flow. Create the perception that you are an expert - and thus in demand - by self-publishing useful app notes on the Net. People crave information. Veni Vedi Vici. Loosely translated, "They'll come, they'll see it, and you'll eventually win."

 If marketing is less than top priority, your Web site will likely suffer from inattention. Use the Web if your message is fascinating and well focused, and if you'll commit to its constant upkeep. Be wary of wasting time and money on it otherwise. A conventional print ad - run often!- may be more effective.

 I am a great believer in the Net when you've got a clear plan. If you listen to the media, though, you'll hear endless gripes about it. Recently the Washington Post ran a long piece about how all networks are a source of trouble. They break. Configuration problems abound.

 Hey, my lawnmower breaks down all the time, too. Though I could use a more reliable reel push-mower, I chose to get the advantages of the throaty testosterone roar of a gas engine that throws grass like a swirling gale, despite its need for mechanical attention.

 Someday corporations will recognize that one of the most critical positions in an organization is the Chief Information Officer. Today these people are network builders and MIS maintainers. Yawn. Information is the critical factor in marketing and supporting customers. Someone must be responsible for collecting, generating, maintaining, and disseminating it.

 Perhaps we're about to see the revenge of the liberal arts majors. That English Literature degree, and the communication skills that come with it, may one day be more valuable than a Phd in computer design.



I remember as a kid visiting my dad's office and being allowed to play with the latest technology of the day - the electric typewriter. My 9 year old came across a typewriter here a few years ago and asked what it was. After a little thought I replied it was like a word processor. "Oh", he replied, with the machine's context now fully understood.

 But change in business isn't new. In a biography of Alvin Clark, a famous telescope maker of the last century, I came across the statement "Nevertheless, until 1860, while establishing his optical business, Alvin continued to paint portraits for a livelihood." Photography had already been invented; twenty years later there were no portrait painters. 134 years ago job obsolescence due to technology was already a fact of life.

 The one constant are the reasons for being in business: make money and have fun. Know your goal, and then develop a written plan to get there.

 A business plan is the day-to-day guide to running the company. Many people create a business plan to placate the bank or to satisfy an advisor's insistent nagging. Far too many then file it in a drawer. A business plan doesn't need to be a hundred pages of well-crafted prose. An outline may be enough. It is important that it be in writing, and that the completed plan is something that you truly believe will bring you to your personal goals.

 The plan guides your day-to-day activities. Remember that it's not enough to do things right - you must do the right things. The plan lists those right things, with due dates, to help prod you along, and to serve as a reminder when a goal is getting late.

 Part of any reasonable plan is a realistic assessment of your businesses strengths and weaknesses. A one-person consulting company, for example, is probably weak at accounting and/or legal issues. Knowing your weaknesses you can recruit the right group of friends, advisors, employees, or outsiders.

 Just like a Web site, a business plan is a waste of effort if you don't use it regularly. At the very least refer to it monthly to extract that month's goals. Pour these into your Daytimer and make sure each one is accomplished on-time.

 Know where you want to go, develop a plan to get there, and then follow the plan. 


"Tyco's Star" - a supernova that was so brilliant it could be seen during the day - was generally not recorded in Europe, because of the Church's teachings that the heavens were immutable. How fascinating that people ignored the star, despite it's being a metaphorical optical two by four between the eyes! Ingrained prejudices often blind us to the obvious.

 Your consulting customers will look to you to be the expert in a rapidly evolving field. Be open to change. Expect it. Exploit it. Above all, have fun with it.