Approximation is both a life saver and a potential disaster !

My first job out of engineering college was at a Tire company . One night, a spindle needed to be replaced in a machine on the line to restart it . I used my deep knowledge of mechanical engineering and figured I needed a spindle with 28.8 CM diameter . Everyone around me had a good laugh at my expense . Turns out spindles come rounded in 5CM intervals . Also I need not have done any calculations – there was a simple chart posted on the machine that indicated what size was required 🙂

There is some irony in this story . I was very familiar with the theory of approximations in Mathematics while in college . Just that I was not smart enough to use the principle in real life scenarios .

My generation didn’t get to use a calculator in school – so by and large most people in my peer group can do mental math just fine . This unfortunately can’t be taken for granted any more and it pains me to watch massive confusion from cashiers and customers alike when I am waiting in line at a grocery or something . it’s not as if kids became any less smart – the educational system somehow derailed along the way .

Even amongst people who learned how to do mental math – approximating answers is not something that comes naturally when it comes to multiplication and division . This becomes a challenge both in personal life ( eg: what would I need to spend if I need new carpet for my house ) and at work ( eg: what percentage of customers might churn annually at current trajectory ) .

Say for example you need to find what is 17% of 58976 . The correct answer is 10025.92 for which most people will need a calculator to get to this precise level . But most decisions don’t need this level or precision – a close enough approximation is just fine .

One quick mental math is to round up and find 20% of 60000 . Which is 12000 – but since we have rounded up both sides , we should know how much to reduce from this to get a close enough approximation .

One possible next step is to find 15% of 60000 – which is still rounding up 58976 but rounding down 17% . That gives us 9000 .

Since 17 is closer to 15 than 20 – we can assume the final answer is closer to 9000 than to 12000 . The range between the two is still a big 3000 and we need to get somewhat closer for this approximation to be useful . How close though ? 17 is about one third the way from 15 and two thirds the way from 20 . So what does that tell us – it should be about one third the way between the answers for 15% and 20% which is 1000 (out of the range of 3000 between the two extremes we found) . Consequently the answer is 9000 + 1000 = 10000 !

The math is rarely the limiting factor in our ability to approximate . Worst case you can always go find a calculator and get the math work .

The limiting factor often is in how well we define the problem and it’s context . For example – if the math problem above was about paying taxes , IRS wouldn’t take it kindly if you approximated the math and paid less 🙂

Breaking down the problem into peace parts and making sure there is minimal overlap is where we usually struggle .

Let’s say we are trying to budget for new carpet. It’s not enough to approximate square feet and multiply by a price you find online – there are other issues at play like labor and transportation , cost of removal , sales tax etc . Then there is the issue of knowing how close your budget needs to be to what you will actually spend which is very specific to your situation . As a young immigrant couple of decades ago – I needed to know within 5% . Now I only need to know within say 20-% .

At work, this takes a whole another level of complexity . At its simplest level – we tend to over engineer for the short term , and completely under engineer for the long term . I have erred on this myself countless times . As numbers get bigger and the time frame increases – it gets really hard to make good approximations .

For example – a day has 24 hours , which is 86400 seconds . That means a week has 604800 seconds . So how many years will it take to spend 1 million seconds ? How about 1 billion seconds ? You will probably be surprised at how close you will approximate million versus billion .

It’s Sunday evening now and I am staring at a massive spreadsheet figuring out plans for 2023 – and making judgments on where I absolutely need bottoms up calculations with high accuracy and where a directionally correct top down approximation is perfectly fine .

The good thing is that my two wing men are standing by to help in whatever way they can 🙂

Business development in consulting

Business development in consulting (also for systems integration) is a fairly straightforward process at its core .

1. You identify and solve problems for a client . These include problems whose impact that the client is fully not aware of yet !

2. The solution comes with value that the client can demonstrably see as greater than what it costs .

3. The specific problem you are solving is more valuable than solving other comparable problems the client could tackle right now

4. You have something special to offer – past experience, special skills and Knowledge , a unique point of view – which makes it less risky to hire you as opposed to someone else

5. You get paid fairly for the value you provided and you build enough trust based on that delivered value and earn future business

That’s all there is to it at a basic level . When we stick to this level of simplicity and clarity, it helps both consultants and the clients . The consultant can use this to qualify whether a particular opportunity is worth chasing at each step , and the client can make an informed decision based on facts and logic .

All this said – why do consultants and clients both struggle with this process ?

The answer is in step 1 above . This only works if the consultant knows the problems the client has . When I was a young consultant – it was quite common to just ask a client “tell me your problems and I will solve it for you”. It was a natural exercise back then – but it is not as effective today . Business is a more complex endeavour now than in the 90s, and people are way too short on time to have these open ended conversations with “strangers” .

It’s still common for clients to call consultants they have known for a long time (and have great trust ) to say “I have a problem” . But it’s not common enough in the industry anymore for a consultant to just depend largely on inbound demand to sustain their business .

A much better approach for consultants now is to approach clients with a unique point of view . This might not help win business right away – but it helps establish yourself as a value adding partner to the client and serve as a first step towards building a long term relationship .

I have been in both software and consulting industries across multiple employers in my own career. Consulting is more relationship driven and software is more transaction oriented . The best software business development leaders are also great at relationships – and the least effective consulting business development people are transactional sellers !

The world is not perfect – and even if a client is convinced about value , they are often tied down by a budget that was created based on some other definition of value that they had no control over . In those cases , you have to find a solution that fits in the envelope they have . What I have realised over time though is – even if you start that way , it’s often the case that over time you can help your clients make the case to their bosses on investment decisions and end up in win-win situations

When I was a young Associate Partner, I had a chance to present a finance transformation study to the CFO of a client . At the end of my presentation, he asked me “The value is clear – I am not sure why you are proposing a solution to only a third of the problem”. I responded that the controller who works for him only had so much budget available and hence I carved out a solution that fits that envelope . He smiled and asked me “Do you really think as CFO of a multi billion dollar company , I would hesitate to invest in solving a problem that has the kind of ROI you just convinced me of because someone in my team only had a tiny budget?” . It was a life and career changing moment for me !

Let me close out this post with what I think are the success factors for people who are good at this . There are three consistent differentiating factors for consultants who are good problem solvers for their clients .

1. They listen to understand the problem and they speak more to clarify the problem than offering spot solutions

2. Once they have a solution, they have the right balance of conviction on it being right and humility to accept an alternate point of view that they haven’t considered so far

3. They present the solution with clarity and they are not afraid to push back at clients professionally with facts and logic .

Happy Diwali everyone !

The Consulting Journey – Some thoughts for people who are just starting their career

I enjoy spending time with my colleagues – talking shop , sharing experiences , breaking bread , learning from each other , mentoring and getting mentored – and find every opportunity to do that . I especially enjoy hanging out with my younger colleagues who are in the very early stages of their career – their hopes and dreams , their refreshing views on work and humanity , their ambitions – it’s a given that I walk away quite inspired every time.

Yesterday I spent a bit of time with some of our associates and seniors on an AMA session and walked away thinking I should jot down some thoughts in my blog . So here we go

1. What separates the great from the good ?

The fact that you got hired should already make you comfortable with the fact that the firm feels you are a good quality individual . The question now is – what will make you stand out , and what will make you successful in building a career .

From what I have seen over the years – curiosity is the biggest differentiator . Academia gives us a foundation – but when you step into the industry, you generally have a lot to learn . If you are not curious about how the world operates in the big picture – work will look like a chore , and you will be miserable.

In consulting – the part of work that youngsters often rebel against is working on “making a slide deck pretty”. What they don’t often realize is that it’s not the fonts, colors and icons that make a presentation work – it’s the story ! The pretty slides that don’t tell a story are useless . The curious ones often come and ask their seniors a lot of WHY questions . They are also resourceful – they do their research and come with suggestions . They learn from the feedback and get better every time . And slowly – they “shift left” and get more opportunities to contribute to the thought leadership that leads to a solution .

2. How do you add value to your client ?

There are two parts to this – the “arms and legs” part , and the “brains and foresight” part .

The first is about keeping your skills sharp – are you staying current on your skill set ? Do you know who to reach out for help when you are stuck ? Etc. Basically – you need to know enough to do the job well as it was explained to you . You need to be able to solve a problem the right way

The second is – are you able to look into the future and spot opportunities and mitigate risk ? The general idea is – are you just solving the problem the right way , or are you able to figure out if this is the right problem to solve ?

3. How do you become an expert ?

Whether it’s an industry or a technical domain – you have a lot to learn to be an expert , and you can never stop learning . That needs a certain mindset to chart your course .

Consulting has two general approaches to expertise – you can do a series of short projects jumping from one project to another at various clients , or you can stay at one client in a variety of roles over a longer period of time and become a master at everything they do . The end goal is that you have enough experience at some point to know where a certain approach will take you and that foresight is useful to your client . That’s how you get to determine if you are solving the right problem for your client .

I prefer the approach of staying at one client for a longer time and learning everything you can about them and make meaningful relationships . In the process you become a true expert in that industry – and get a better appreciation of how everything fits together . It’s also very important that you get to apply your knowledge elsewhere along the way – by contributing to thought leadership , pursuits etc .

I have heard young consultants often say after a short period of time at one client or one project “I am not learning anything new” . I have felt that way myself too when I was a young consultant – so I have some empathy . It just takes a few minutes to just ask yourself “Do I know how my client is measured and am I doing everything possible to help them attain and surpass that?”. We stop learning when we draw small boxes for ourselves as the scope of what we need to learn . To be successful in this field – you need to constantly expand that box .

4. Leading people

In theory, you can have a perfectly decent career by continuing to be an individual contributor – where your deep expertise is your differentiator . The part we need to understand is that it’s still a small part of the population . That’s a practical limitation . For most of the people – you need to become good at leading people to progress your career .

There are very few people in any company who are truly great leaders of people . But I can say with some conviction that the rest of us can all get into the “good” category with a little effort . The basic idea as you get to lead people is you cannot effectively manage people – you can only lead them . What you can manage is tasks . That’s a long winded way of saying – you don’t become a leader because of a title , you become a leader when people want to follow the direction you set , and they are inspired by both your words and action.

5. Growing your career

The corporate world is generally not very fair – in the sense that if you do good work , it usually doesn’t automatically take you places . The people who need to sponsor your career need to know that you are adding value and it’s on you to make sure they know . Similarly – you need to know that no organization can promote everyone at every level . So you do need to stand out – with high ethics , high skills , high integrity , high collaboration and all that . The sooner you realize it , the less grief you will have and the chance of success will get higher.

Success doesn’t teach us a lot – but we often realize it only later in life . And by then – the price to fail is too high. In other words – the time to take risks and fail a few times without having a big price to pay is early in your career. We all like to get promoted early and often – that’s a very natural feeling and it might never completely leave any of us . But also remember this – if you primarily focus on promotions and play that game successfully , eventually you will get to a place where you are not at all prepared for the role and you will fail . Essentially – pace yourself on how fast you want to grow .

Also remember that how you accomplish a career goal is as important (maybe even more important) as what you accomplish . A bad reputation is easy to take root and very hard to shake . Integrity is not just about career growth – every aspect of your personal and professional life needs you not compromise on that !

6. Mentors and Sponsors

You need both to have a great career and it’s important to build that network early in your career . It’s also important to remember that you need more than one of each . I had one mentor that I mirrored myself on – and one day to be sheer horror I realized that everything so do well is what I learned from him , but so is everything I am bad at 🙂

Getting mentored is easier than getting sponsored . You need to cast a wide net to make it work . Also remember – it’s easy to think that someone we know got promoted because they sucked up to their boss . That does happen – but not as often as you might think . No good leader will be your sponsor unless your work stands out already !

7. Sales vs delivery

No client likes a consultant because they are good sellers . But unfortunately a lot of consultants grow up thinking they need to get out of delivery and be more Sales focused to grow their careers . I can assure you that this is not the case ,

At the simplest level – the client is paying for your skills, experience and foresight . When we deliver that with high quality – they trust us more and that leads them to use our services even more . In other words – sales is more based on delivery , than delivery is based on sales .

Yes you do need to learn the sales process along the way . But never lose sight of the fundamental reason we are consultants – we are there to serve our clients . Sales just happens as a result of a client trusting us to deliver !

Also remember – people buy services from people they trust . Great client relationships happen because of great delivery offer a long period of time . Your success as a seller is much higher if your clients already trust you – which is another reason why staying longer on projects is more helpful than jumping around a lot of clients where you don’t get to create meaningful relationships !

8. Exits

This is a relatively new idea that young folks come into consulting with the primary idea that they want to exit to industry quickly . I actually like this idea a lot and wish I had considered that option early in my career . I switched to software industry for a few years as a young executive and loved it . That experience was very useful to me later when I came back to consulting .

If you want to experiment – my suggestion is to give it a shot early in your career when set backs are not costly . You can always come back to consulting if you want to . All I would say is that give each options bit of time before you make hard decisions .

The more common scenario is whether you want to jump across consulting companies . When I was a young consultant – it was looked down up on if you had a lot of companies on your resume . Today , there is no such stigma really . Also when you make lateral jumps – you get a little more money than via organic salary raises . At least for the short term – there are good reasons to make frequent lateral jumps .

The biggest difficulty for you individually when you switch employers is that you need to build your network from scratch every time . You will need new mentors and sponsors – which takes time to establish . You will possibly need to build new client relationships too – which also takes time . And last but not least – there will be already a line of candidates ahead of you to get promoted in the new place . So while in the short term the money might look good – it might not translate to great success even in the medium term , let alone the long term . So think very carefully before you make important decisions .

9. Goal setting and staying flexible

It’s important to have a North Star on where you are headed . But it’s even more important to be flexible on the short term goals that will get you to your destination .

Early in your career – your interest might be in full stack development and you might end up doing test automation instead . It’s easy to get disheartened and think your skills are being wasted . If you think of life as a linear path – you will be disappointed more times than not . In this scenario – think about the life cycle of the software being built from the perspective of your engineering manager . Would they build great software without a great way to test it ? And once you learn testing and go back to dev – think about how much your approach will change the next time you code . And soon you will realize that it’s not as bad as it seemed initially and maybe you can find a way to make it work and have some fun .

It is also important to work with your up line managers to explain your ambitions and chalk up a plan . They are much more likely to help you achieve your goals faster when they realize you are flexible about the path you take to the destination .

10. Have a great journey

When I look back at my own career – what comes to mind mostly is a rich set of experiences . Making new friends , traveling the world , trying all kinds of food , sleeping in conference rooms even when the hotel room was twenty minutes away , celebrating birthdays of clients and colleagues , the potlucks , sharing grief …all of that . The journey is way more fun and enriching than any particular milestone along the way

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