Crash Course – How to build a career at a consulting company

I left the world of system integrators and consultants a few years ago – but even today, the question I get asked the most is “how do I grow my career in consulting at my big name employer?”.  I thought I will post some of my thoughts – from my own experience in big consulting houses, as well as watching several others go through their careers from close quarters.

There are many ways to do this – so don’t think of it as “check these boxes and you are done” 🙂

1. Be the go-to guy in the company for something

This is the starting point – you need to be much better than everyone else, and willing to help everyone, for some unique topic that is in demand. This is how bosses know that you even exist in the company. The topic can be some technology, power point skills, knowing the best restaurants for boss to take customers – it just needs to be something that you are WAY better than anyone else. For me – that was Netweaver technologies and SAP CRM. I also know a guy who fast tracked because he was exceptional at making PPTs. You cannot stop learning – if you do, someone will over take you and it will be hard to win your turf back. Many a promising career has been lost this way.

Don’t get too narrow in what you are good at. Technology changes way too fast . You don’t want to be labelled as the expert on an obsolete technology or management technique. Move with the times and keep your eyes and ears open. Also – don’t be afraid to take a stance on topics where you have an expertise. Just be humble enough to concede a point when someone makes a logical argument.

2. Be known to the world

You might be awesome in your company and everyone adores you – but if google does not know you, it does not count anymore. Please don’t say “I don’t have time for it”. You always have time to do what you likeand prioritize. Lack of time is a poor excuse.

You need to express yourself in public – blogs, presentations etc outside your company firewalls. This is how customers and analysts and other employers know about you. And they will be willing to pay a premium for your services. Employers love employees that customers and analysts love. Simple as that. And if your career stagnates at one company, this gives you options to try your luck elsewhere.

3. Choose your career path consciously, and OWN it

Every consulting company promises at least three of four career paths – sales, management, delivery, technology. In theory, they are all equal. In practice they are not. Sales and Management typically will have more leadership openings compared to delivery and technology.

Technology is the most difficult one to go all the way up in a consulting company. You can be great at sales and management and make managing partner in IBM – but you have to be a real Einstein to be an IBM fellow. So choose wisely . The safe choice is always sales and management.

You own your career – not your boss, not HR, not any one else. If you wait for others to do right by you – you will wait for a very long time. Actively change courses till you get to cruising speed and altitude.

4. Start selling early in life

I hated sales as a young consultant and my mentor took me kicking and screaming into a quota carrying role. Turned out I was quite good at selling to customers. Even if you are not the actual seller, you can still learn a lot by being part of the proposal team . People who can convince customers typically fast track their consulting careers. And sales teaches you a hard lesson – even the coolest technology is not going to be bought unless you can explain it in simple language to customers.

When I was made an associate partner in IBM, the only thing my boss told me was “treat me as a customer and we will get along fine”. It was excellent advice. You need to sell your ideas effectively inside your company just as much as you need to do it outside.

5. Learn sales execution 

Being able to get a customer to understand your value proposition is not the same as making her buy on your terms and time line. That is a whole different ball game – and you need to learn how to do that and what levers you can and cannot/should not pull.

If you are not good at that – get someone on your side who can do it for you and learn. When your boss thinks of making you a leader – often sales execution is the deal breaker. This is also how you develop a thick skin which you need as your career progresses 🙂

6. Learn Operations

Consulting is about four things – bookings, revenue, gross profit and utilization. Every quarter, your boss will be held to a different pressure . Some times it is more bookings that you need, sometimes you need more utilization. Knowing what your boss is held accountable for is key to how you win approvals for deals internally. The larger your company – the more important this becomes. Without learning how to balance these four things, you cannot own a P&L and succeed. Become friends with your ops team and watch them work. You will learn a lot.

7. Verticals win more than horizontals

The power base in most consulting companies sit with their verticals, and not technology horizontals . Align yourself to a vertical as soon as you can . Learn everything you can about that vertical – read , attend seminars, do whatever it takes. Then try to relate your knowledge at customer projects and offer value addition. A couple of wins is all you need to be noticed at your employer. And then go do it for another customer in same vertical. Technology is great in itself – but it is outrageously good when put in context for very specific industries. As time progresses – expand your knowledge to micro verticals.

For example, I started with semiconductors – and eventually learned enough to have good conversations around consumer electronics, equipment manufacturers, etc and graduated to “electronics” expert as opposed to “semiconductors” expert.

8. Build relationships at all levels

Everyone likes to be friends with CIOs. That is a good idea in general – but you need to be friends with the DBAs, the IT directors, and so on too in IT. And then you need a few friends on business side. If you were to ever talk about transformation meaningfully at a client, you need to be able to convince IT and business. More over – the other people you make friends outside the C Suite – they will go into C suite later in your career, or might move to another company and give you new business .

Nothing is more important than building relationships in having a consulting career. You can even compensate for a lack of sales execution skills if you have exceptional relationships.

9. Make your boss and your team a hero

There are many times you can close a deal yourself. There are also many times when you need your boss to bail you out. Make your boss a hero whenever you can . This is not for sucking up as you might think. Your boss has goals which are an aggregation of goals that you and your peers have. So your boss has no reason to not help you. And by keeping her in the loop on good and bad things – you will gain her trust. You will also learn a lot watching her work. There is some nuance here – you will not do yourself any favors if you bring in your manager only for good deals and only for bad deals. If you can’t do both in moderation – don’t go down this path. Also – please don’t over do this. If they feel you need constant supervision, then you are not going up the chain any time soon.

Same goes for your team. Share credit abundantly and fairly. A key to getting ahead in your career is to find and groom someone to take your current job. And when you take bigger jobs, you need to build a layer under you that you can fully trust. You can’t do it overnight – so start early. Also – be mature enough to know that someone in your team might become your boss in future. Help her career along . If you feel terrible about it , it usually means you have some improvement to do on some dimension. The solution is to find ways to make yourself better and not to torpedo your junior’s career.

10. Make friends and mentors up and down the chain in your own company

Even if you make it to the top rungs of the ladder, to stay there is pretty difficult unless you have a support system. You will need friends above, below and on same level as you. And this means you typically have to pay it forward. Don’t help people with the idea of reciprocity. Those are transactional things that won’t take you far. Help as many people as you can – and encourage them to do the same with your example. It ALWAYS pays off.  And it is never too late to start.

Don’t just follow your boss or your mentors blindly. The thing you need the most to progress in your career is independent judgement. Learn to collect feedback from multiple sources, weigh the pros and cons but make and own your decision. I can’t emphasize it enough – It is your life and career .

11.  Stay humble

Please don’t get success get into your head too much. It is really hard to keep your mouth shut and stay humble when you are successful. But you have to learn to do it. I have seen way too many people gloat about success and then lose support inside the organization and with clients and fail. No one succeeds alone in this business. You need to thank the people who helped you succeed. And, send down the elevator if you went up first !

12. Develop a hobby and spend time with family

This is perhaps the most important part of being successful in consulting. This life needs a lot of travel and time away from families. You need to set boundaries or your work will set boundaries that you won’t like. You need to find time for family. It is all for nought if you make money and fame, but become a stranger to your family and friends. And I cannot tell you enough how much of a stress relief it is for me to play with my daughter and three dogs after a grueling week at work.



Rest In Peace, John Leffler !

My wife and I got engaged this day 13 years ago . She had to leave early for work and I called her as soon as I woke up to wish her happy anniversary. As soon as I hung up, my phone rang again. It was my friend and ex-colleague Jen from IBM. She was in tears and she gave me the shock of my life – that John Leffler is no more !

A huge flood of memories have been going through my mind since that call. And the sense of disbelief has not fully left me yet. I had spoken and exchanged texts with John late last week. Dhanya and I had saved the bottle of champagne John had sent us for Christmas for a special occasion. We had met in Phoenix a few months ago for a nice dinner (that is where this photo was taken – sadly, the last time I met John in person) and he told me that he had started using twitter after I started pestering him about it a few years ago.

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We were planning to meet for dinner again in New York in a couple of weeks. We even had some plans to collaborate on the work front after John’s retirement from IBM.

As much as we will all mourn his untimely demise, I think it is more important to celebrate his life. He was a one of a kind guy – as a human being, as a family man, as a top consulting executive, as an SAP industry veteran, as a mentor and friend to many of us , and as a leader. Here is a blog I wrote about him few years ago

I had known John for close to ten years now I think – but it is for the last five or so years that we got to know each other closely. Before that, I had the opportunity to present some of the cool innovations my team was working on from time to time and he was always supportive. But I did not know him very well then other than as the top leader of IBM’s SAP business – and he certainly did not know anything much about me either.

Our friendship really started with a call I got on a late afternoon in December of 2010. I was home after a long week at a project – and John had just finished an exec meeting in east coast with SAP CEO and IBM CEO. My name had come up in that discussion briefly – and that was the reason he called me. John asked me to fly to SFO the next day to meet him for breakfast.

I will never forget that breakfast. John showed up on time – but with his phone pressed to his ear, and talking animatedly to someone. He motioned to me that he needs 10 minutes more. When he finished his call – he spent about the next 20 minutes apologizing to me for not starting the meeting on time ! For context – at that time John ran a multibillion dollar global SAP business at IBM, and I was just a newly minted Associate Partner. It was a big deal for a junior dude like me to even get a few minutes with John – many senior partners in the firm would never get that opportunity with John’s busy schedule.

Our meeting was supposed to be for an hour – but Joanne, John’s most trusted EA, had extended it to 90 minutes. John asked me about my background – not just my career, but my school and college life, my hobbies, how I met my wife and many other things. That took all of the scheduled 90 minutes. John had not looked at his phone or watch this entire time, and had given me his full attention and I was worried that I lost a golden opportunity by just doing small talk with the big boss.

So I politely asked him for a follow up meeting – only to be told that the 10 minutes he was on phone when he came into the executive lounge, he was just asking Joanne to cancel every other meeting he had for the day to spend time with me. So we spoke for another 5 hours or so till we had to leave for SFO for our flights home. We ate lunch together at SFO terminal and he gave me his trademark big hug as he boarded his flight, and said “You are not someone who works for me now, you are my friend”.

And he truly became my friend – and an excellent mentor and coach. He was my sponsor for my partnership appointment process, and he was the executive sponsor for the largest deal I ever closed at IBM. Any time I would need help with a customer or someone at SAP, John would gladly jump into a plane and come help all he can. He did not teach me how to sell or how to be an executive (though I did pick up plenty of tips and tricks by watching him at work) – instead, he taught me – by his own example –  on how to deal with everyone as a good human being, and I will be grateful to him for ever for that.

He was the ultimate people person. Every time I have eaten at a restaurant with John, be it an airport eatery or a fancy steakhouse – he would ask the waiters for their names and will introduce them to everyone at the table. Every time he met a customer – he would convince them that their friendship and long term success was more important to him personally than the short term business opportunity at hand (I remember Tom Rosinski telling me over beers that getting John to the customer meeting was pretty much the one sureshot way of winning any deal.). To the best of my knowledge – the man never did anything with a short term gain in mind. Treating people as people – not as vendors, customers or employees – that is what set him apart in my mind.

When I decided to leave IBM – there were two guys that I absolutely hated calling with the news because I truly felt that I was letting them down after they supported me all the way. One was Ken Englund, who I regard in the same high esteem as John. And the other was of course John. If I remember right, I caught John when he was coming out of a Church on a Sunday. I told him the news, mostly with profuse apologies. He took a minute to digest it . I totally expected him to yell and scream . Instead, he told me that he thought I made an excellent choice and that he is happy to be my reference if Bill McDermott or Vishal Sikka wanted to give him a call. For the record, Ken did exactly the same when he heard the news from me too. And about 2 weeks after I joined SAP, John flew to Palo Alto to take me out for a nice dinner to celebrate.

When I decided to leave SAP, John was one of the few people I called on for advice. He offered me a job in IBM in 10 seconds – but once he understood that MongoDB is where I am headed, he took the next two hours understanding what the company did and what my role will be. For a second time, he offered to be my reference. And yet again – he took me to a nice dinner in NY city to celebrate my new adventure.

He would pick my brains every couple of months on industry trends and SAP market. Some times he would call to just chat about random things . Irrespective of whether I agreed with him or not ( we disagreed often – and he would then tell me that I and Matteo were usually the ones he thought will give him contrarian views the most) , he always made it clear that he genuinely valued my input. He would always ask about my family as well in every single call – even though he had never met them in person. I have met John’s wife a few times at IBM and SAP events – an amazing , very pleasant and friendly lady, who clearly supported John fully during his demanding career. I have not met his children yet (he would talk about them a lot and tease me about what is in store for me and Dhanya as our daughter grows up) – and I hope to meet them very soon. I can’t begin to imagine what they are going through. I know they are incredibly proud of John – and they should absolutely be proud – he was already a legend when he lived. You will be in our prayers .

Talking about family – several colleagues at IBM and SAP, across the ranks, were family to John. This is true in reverse too.  I spoke with , emailed and texted many of them today after I heard the news. We are all devastated . John had touched so many of us in his own special way. While we all grieve – we are all honored and blessed to have known John. And he will continue to live through all of us .

Rest in peace, John ! And thank you for everything you did !

Six tips for clients when buying consulting services


A good part of the grey hair on my head today can be attributed to negotiating consulting related topics with my clients 🙂

Clients and customers can often behave as if they are from two different planets and nobody wins in those cases. They can also work together extremely well and amazing things happen as a result. Despite the grey hair part – I have been fortunate in having way more positive experiences with my consulting clients than negative experiences. Let me offer a half dozen suggestions from my experience to clients on how to engage with consulting companies . There are of course a lot more things involved and lots of nuances, but this should be a decent start for the conversation.

1. Buy on net-value, not on net-cost 

If you are buying gas , you can buy on net cost. The reason you can do it is because the variance between gas across gas stations is perceived to be low. That is not the case for consulting . Even if you think you have nailed down your requirements well – you won’t get a good deal if you only care for cost, and not of value. While there are a few customers and buyers agents who take the time to do a quantitative business case and then make determinations of vendor selection based on value, many just try to be a hard negotiator for cost alone.

Let me give you an example where I lost a deal a few years ago on price.

The customer wanted a specific project done for reporting on CRM service management. We bid for it along with a couple of competitors. We lost the deal on price. Why was our price higher? I knew from my long experience at the client that they had a complex system and relatively new staff taking care of service management. So I made the proposal with an extra onsite consultant with expertise in service management whereas the competitor made it mostly remote work with generic business objects skills. A year later, I ran into the client at a social event and asked about the project. Apparently my competitor had delivered on time and on budget and on spec – except the business owners rejected the final solution saying it is not what they wanted. And many change orders later – and a 3X budget over run – they scrapped the project.

2. Decide upfront – Do you want someone to milk the cow for you, or someone who can explain on phone how to milk the cow ?

A lot of outsourcing is done by customers who don’t appreciate the stress of going through change. If you are used to shouting out loud to the help desk guy to come fix your problem and tomorrow you have to spend 15 mins filling up a form for 10 minutes and then wait for half a day for someone to call back, you will hate it. Sounds simple – but I have sat across customers many a time who don’t understand this impact on their employees.  What is worse – they will even skimp on the cost of change management . The result is a large number of employees who never got clarity on what changed and why it changed. And more than the people who signed the agreement on both sides, the poor consultants delivering the unrealistic contract gets yelled and screamed at, and people who can’t get their job done get all frustrated (rightfully).

Some customers do reference checks – but at the wrong levels. If you are a CIO wanting to do a reference call on an outsourcing arrangement – don’t call just the CIO on the other side. Go visit the people who are living in the outsourced world and visit the outsourcing staff and learn how a “day in the life” plays out. Ask how the transition was managed and learn from it.

A related aspect is clients who buy consulting as an insurance, and then feel happy when they don’t have to use it (same as with a car insurance where you are happy to spend money on insurance, but never want an accident even though you are covered) . When you need insurance for your software – your best bet in most cases is to buy support from the software vendor. Buy consulting to add value above and beyond what comes with software out of the box. This applies as much or even more to sellers. Do not sell consulting as insurance – it undermines the value of the offering over time, since most customers will buy but not use it.

3. Make a planned transition from contracting to delivery

In most cases, the consultants delivering the project don’t know much about what got signed. And in almost as many cases – the customer staff working with these customers also do not have the full context of what transpired during the contracting process. Having led many a project rescue mission – how I wish the people who signed the contract on both sides would hold a workshop for the delivery teams to get the context and ask questions and clarify things upfront in every project. My best estimate is about 20% of all projects do this . In many cases – both the customer procurement and consulting sellers know there are unrealistic assumptions , but they don’t give the context to delivery teams, resulting in nasty surprises and flamed tempers down the road. It is eminently avoidable .

Also – remember that requirements and people both change with time. So I would highly encourage a “big picture” meeting periodically to make sure that everyone is aligned .

If I am a client with a major project at hand, I would also ask if my sellers are compensated on successful project delivery. If not – I will need a lot of convincing before I sign a big contract.

4. Choose wisely between Agile and Waterfall

Agile is cool – and it is useful in many cases, especially in product companies. Waterfall gets ridiculed for both good and bad reasons. If you want the flexibility of Agile, you should be able to compromise on the fixed deliverables on fixed dates that you do in traditional contracts. Most agile projects typically are done on time and materials basis. Or they are done on fixed price basis for a certain time. If I am the client with long term projects – I would rather leave the methodology to my consulting partner, and demand a schedule of deliverables. And if I have short projects where agile is the better fit – I will either do it inhouse with own staff, or do a staff augmentation for few skills.  Bottom line – you can’t mix and match in every combination and expect this to work equally well.

 5. Trust and verify

The best professional (and personal) relationships are based on trust. When either side needs to go back to the written contract, it usually shows a lack of trust. The written contract should be the last line of defense, not the regular play. This only happens if you are both in it for the long term. Far too many customers shy away from long term relationships – I think it is mostly because they forget (or are not aware of the fact) that trust also comes with verification. Verification is not a negative exercise – the idea is to see if both sides held up their commitments, and when that is not the case a decision needs to be made on what fixes, change requests or compromises are needed.

Change orders have a bad rap – many CIOs have told me that they are scared of change orders, and in many cases they have been burned before. Change orders serve a genuine purpose – they exist because not all requirements can be judged upfront, and no one does perfect estimations. SI market is uber competitive – companies routinely undercut each other to win projects. Customers try to make use of this by negotiating on net cost as opposed to net value . The combination of these two behaviors is the genesis of change orders being used/seen as a way to nickel and dime. Essentially this plays out in a low trust environment. Don’t fall for it – be reasonable in contract negotiations, and play fairly in delivery. Get into a mode where change orders become a good thing.

6. Long term relationships between people, not just companies

Long term relations have many advantages on both sides – consolidated demand usually gets better pricing and delivery schedule. It also is a great risk mitigation exercise as communication will improve. No doubt, it is a lot of work – with different groups, different budgets, different goals etc.

Always remember – contracts are done between companies, but actual business of the project is done between real people.

By all means, negotiate hard on the net-value aspect and get as reasonable a deal as you can. But once the deal is inked – and it is time to deliver, replace “you and us” with “we” in your thinking. Many customers interview a slate of candidates for the lead roles in their projects. But very few consulting companies will ask the customer if they can meet and talk to the customer staff before the project. Not every consultant lead person will work well with every customer lead. A match of personalities is needed on both sides. If I am a client – I will encourage my consulting partner to interview my staff and then offer me lead candidates from their side who are good matches, along with suggestions for training etc. When people are comfortable working with each other with trust, magic happens in projects.



IT Services Industry in 2015

After a couple of years away from services business, I am back in it – albeit with a different flavor . My current services responsibility is to run consulting for a software company, as opposed to doing so in a pure services company. Nevertheless, with the new role, I have been thinking (and talking to old friends and customers) quite a bit over the last couple of months on what is changing in the IT services world. I am ignoring BPO services for now. Also, I am just jotting down six top of the mind items – there are a hundred other things which need attention too.

1. Increased demand for shorter time to value

In the 90s, I could easily convince a customer that the business requirement will take 6 months to implement. It is really difficult – but not impossible – to do so today. Customers do not have that kind of patience these days. We have both the hardware and software industry innovations to thank for that.

This is one area where smaller companies have a definite edge over larger companies in adapting to the change.

2. Business model changes

At a high level – most big services companies will continue to make a lot of money from large outsourcing deals given inertia of customers to let go of legacy, and fragmented SaaS solutions. This happens laregely in fixed scope/price as well as Time&Materials basis contracts today. But the model is changing for sure trending towards outcome based models. Customers expect vendors to provide more flexible capacity with less and less predictability. Some customers expect vendors to provide predictable TCO savings year over year via portfolio optimization. Not all vendors are equipped to deal with these though unfortunately. An increasing trend – but not mainstream quite yet, is the idea of managed application services tied to factors other than TCO.

3. Estimation needs to grow up real soon

If you look at estimation techniques – it is stuck in the 90s. Even in packaged software world, where it should take progressively less time to build something over time – estimates still show very little improvements from the mid 90s. A complex interface from ERP should take less time today compared to 1995 – but it ain’t so.

4. Talent Management needs a complete reboot

Talent management – or lack thereof – is the bane of services industry. Accelerated career progression (maybe more so in offshore centers) is one area that concerns me a lot in particular. Many midlevel managers have not had enough experience as individual contributors before they earned their promotions. This was the price to pay for the aggressive growth in last 10 years. But it also has resulted in a loss of senior level technical competency. Every company in services claim to have a technical career path – but very few actually do anything to make it work. For the most part, a rewarding career in services still exists only for sales and management jobs. Delivery skills are not rewarded anywhere close to sales and management. It is high time this changed.

5. Leadership Attrition

This is what is going to hurt established services companies the most in my opinion. The “rainmakers” in the established companies are a largely disillusioned bunch today from what I can see. Many of them will recognize that their impact is a lot higher if they join smaller companies , or even start a company on their own. This is a double whammy – this level of talent is extremely difficult to backfill, and usually they take their customer relationships with them. Coupled with the attrition at lower levels due to career and pay stagnation – this is a big area of concern. I am not convinced from examples I know personally that services companies are spending enough attention on this brewing problem.

6. Blurring of lines across software, consulting and support.

Most companies – pure services or software companies who do services too – keep software, consulting and support separately. There are good reasons for doing this from vendor point of view. From a customer point of view, this is mostly artificial. I expect 2015 is when many customers will demand more offerings from their vendors that blur the lines between software, services and support. This is a really hard problem for vendors in many ways – compensation, hiring, accounting, marketing, selling etc will all get disrupted when these two groups come together after being separated.

Happy new year, every one !