Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Science vs. Magic

I was listening to a Dale Carnegie tape about leadership styles (It doesn't matter which one. Buy anything you can find and listen to it at least three times). They talked about two primary leadership styles: Magician and Scientist.

A magician is very charismatic (or thinks he is) and will tell you that his job is more art than science. He can't document or codify what he does because it's done differently every time. And the key element is the magician.

A scientist, by comparison, has a process that can be written, analyzed, replicated, and improved upon. If she documents everything correctly, any competent scientist can do the job.

Sadly, our business is overrun with people who act like magicians. These are the people who tell clients "It's all very complicated. Everyone has these problems. The only way to fix it is to format your hard drive." They talk to clients in techno-speak, thinking the client will conclude that it's all just too complicated for normal people to understand.

By far the worst computer consultant I ever met was a guy who called himself "The Computer Wizard." How many F's in buffoon?

I don't mean to insult all the consultants who have businesses called wizards and magicians and gurus. But I'm on record that you need to rename your business if you want to be taken seriously. See http://smallbizthoughts.blogspot.com/2006/09/what-in-name.html

Here's the deal: If you've moved out of your parents' basement and got your own checking account, it's time to have a grown-up name for your business.
!< /end Detour>

What's the most important thing that Magicians do wrong? They have no process.

Which means they can never fix the same problem twice in the same manner.

And they don't set up two servers the same way.

And they don't document everything because . . . [insert your excuse here].

Um. I mean they don't document anything.

What's the difference between Magic and Science?

Magic involves the magician and the audience. With a different magician, or a different audience, you get different results. Just as a necromancer spreads the guts of chicken across the floor, a computer magician spreads a server across the table. And both tell a story. And half the time the story is about why the magician can't help, and the result was inevitable.

Meanwhile, the Scientist examines the problem. The scientist defines the problem. After all, if you don't know what the problem is, how can you fix it? How will you know when it's fixed?

Did you ever call Microsoft Tech support? The first thing they do is to define the problem. Why? Because they can't sit on the phone for the next week fixing every little thing that's wrong with you server. If your issue is with SharePoint permissions, they'll fix that. If you need help mounting an Exchange store, they'll help with that.

Think about this: If you want to be big and successful and have more money than 2/3rd of the countries in the world combined, take a lesson from MS: define the problem before you start working on it.

Scientists also make a plan. They create a logical sequence of steps and then proceed to step through them. That way they'll keep straight what worked and what didn't. They won't troubleshoot in circles, simply doing the same thing over and over hoping it will work.

I may have mentioned this before: Go read The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber. NOW.

Back? Good.

So, what you learned there is that franchises rarely go out of business, in part because they have standard operating procedures that can be repeated again and again.

There really is a "right" way to do things. You may need to keep fine-tuning the process. You may need to add more and more detail as time goes by. But the more you rely on process, and the less you rely on magic, the more successful you'll be.

Besides: Scientists get to take vacations. Success does not require them to be personally involved, and the process can be learned by someone else.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Money and Competence - continued

In the previous post, I argued that there are two levels of competence that matter for your SMB consulting practice:

"Level Two" is your area of High Competency

"Level Three" is your area of Low or No Competency

Did you ever watch Gilligan's Island reruns? The Professor was my favorite character. He knew every language and everything about anything remotely related to "science." Physics, botony, geology, electronics, aviation. He knew everything.

You're not the Professor of Computers.

You're just not.

Too many consultants in our business take on every job they can. They grab the ones where they're not competent just as quickly as the one where they are competent.

No one expects you to know everything. It's perfectly okay to call in an "expert" when you need one.

At the Microsoft Launch event last week, a local consultant came up to my table and said almost exactly these words: "Sometimes we get in over our heads right away on a job. It would be nice to have someone to call on. . . ."

Huh? You just walked up to my table and told me that you're incompetent and take on jobs you can't handle. Why do you do that?

Why do you do that?

Then he proceeded to ask me if I'd heard about these streams of data that are in all files, where Microsoft can hide data and run programs on your computer, and send information about your licensing without any possible way to detect it.

He was lucky the table was too wide for me to reach over and slap him.



If you're going to be in this business, take it seriously. Learn what your computer does and does not do. NEVER be the person who puts on an aluminum foil hat and stands over the computer with two sticks, telling the client that everyone has problems with this.

Never use lines line "Microsoft knows this is a problem. Everyone has this problem. There's nothing we can do about it." I've never found that line to be true. I've found that I needed to do more research. I needed to invest time and money to come up to speed.

For all the crap Microsoft gets about being proprietary, their technology is about the most "open" you could ask for.

You want to learn about every level of every file transaction at every ethernet layer? It's online. For free. And indexed. With blogs and usergroups and cross references. And the broader community, outside of Microsoft, has even more resources.

Go educate yourself!

When you know something cold -- absolutely master the knowledge -- you can solve lots of problems very quickly. You can clean up after the incompetent technician who billed the client for 16 hours and didn't solve the problem. You can be a real hero.

But real heros have super powers. That doesn't come from some drivel you heard and repeated about "secret files." Your super powers come from your ability know everything about every aspect of some technology.

How do files move into and out of Exchange? What is a protocol?

How can I solve this problem without making every user a domain administrator?

< /end diatribe >

We all start out incompetent.

But once we decide we want to do something for a living, we have an obligation to educate ourselves and take it seriously.

Please go read the post on Money and Competence. Do the inventory. Define very precisely where you have your core competency. Feel good that you can do those chores and make money hand over fist. Live in that space. Work in that space. Be supremely competent in the things you do. And be successful.

But also be very honest about "the next level" of tasks. There are some things you do, but you don't do well, or you don't master. Figure out how to increase your competency in these areas. Move up. Master a new technology -- gain a new super power -- and add that to your core competencies. Make even more money and have even more success.

Please Note: You cannot simply DO the thing you wish to add to your core competencies. You need to learn it and master it and DO IT RIGHT.

It hurts all of us when incompetent technicians take on tasks they can't handle. Clients become suspicious. They view our profession as one step above used car salesmen. On some days, not above.

One of the hardest things I face when I try to get business owners to go along with the managed services model is the belief that you can trust you computers to a consultant. Overwhelmingly, these people think computers are difficult and networks are troublesome. Something's always going wrong. Something's always broken. It seems like every week some time bomb goes off because of an improperly configured component.

These people have never seen how smooth and trouble-free a network can be. Because they've either done it all themselves or they've relied on incompetent or marginally-competent technicians.

There is no better example of a moving target than keeping up with technology.

If you're going to be in this business, the group of things in which you have low or no competency will continue to grow. Forever. You need to make self-education and self-improvement a regular part of what you do in your job.

And if you still rely on bullsh*t stories about secret files, just make sure there's a wide table between you and a competent technician.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Money and Competence

Where do you make money?

No matter what business you're in, you make money where you have the highest level of competence. By that I do not mean (necessarily) that you have greater technical prowess than your competitors. But, as you'll see, sheer technical prowess will put you in a position to make more money.

Let's say there are four levels of technical competence in your job. If you're wise, you'll spend 99% of your time in two of these levels.

The Obvious ----- High Competence ----- Low Competence ----- Super High End

Level One is The Obvious
This includes things like changing the background colors in Windows or how to right-click a mouse.

Yes, we all get the occasional question in this area. But this is really a level so basic that you can't make any money here. It's frustrating and not fun at all. These are the people we joke about who use the CD tray as a coffee holder.

If you spend your time at this level, you are probably a sad, depressed loner who spends all of your spare time polishing your gun collection.

You're not making any money and you can't be satisfied with your job here. Figure out how to get into another profession or move to the next level.

Level Four is Super High End
If you're in the SMB space, you will probably never bid on a contract to replace the statewide computer systems for the Department of Health. When a project involves high-end technology or high-end pricing, it's probably not your project. Most of us have never bid on a $100 million dollar project and never will.

I'm certainly not saying you can't get there. But if you do get there, you won't be in this space any more, you'll be in that space. You'll work your way up to that. You'll leave Small Business Consulting in the past. Five thousand dollar deals will be dismissed without a thought.

So that leaves us with two levels of technology:

Level Two is Your High Competency
For most SMB consultants, this includes setting up basic networks, installing workstations, configuring services such as DHCP, DNS, and configuring RAID controllers. This can be a pretty broad collection of skills.

Once you MASTER a skill at this level, you can make all the money you want.

By master I do not mean "I can do it." By master I mean that you absolutely understand every aspect of every level of what's going on. You complete the task quickly and efficiently with near-zero rework. Just like McDonalds makes fries: You have this job down to a science. It's done exactly the same way every time, it's perfect 99% of the time, and you know you will be successful every time you take on this task.

The more time you spend at Level Two, the more money you'll make.

Level Three is Your Low (or No) Competency
For most SMB consultants, this includes SANs, clustered servers, iSCSI and an array of other technologies you've heard about but probably never used.

You will occasionally get a request for this. You may be tempted.

You know you're in this category when you don't know what the shopping list looks like. What do I sell in order to create a cluster? How do I share a storage array between three servers? What parts do I need to order?

You may take on the project. But you probably won't make much money. You'll have re-work for sure. You'll spend hours putting together the quote, talking to pre-sales support, and making sure you didn't miss anything. And when the client wants you to adjust the price, you won't know what can be cut and what can't. You'll certainly guess the hours wrong and give away most of your time.

You won't make money. But if you're successful, then you'll be able to do the next job better. And the next and the next and the next. If you stick with it, you can move this skill set into Level Two. When you absolutely master the technology, then you can make money doing this thing every day.

So, you make almost all of your money in Level Two. You will consider Level Two your "core competency."


Take an inventory. Be honest with yourself. What skills do you absolutely master? Those are Level Two. That's where your money is. Go get it.

What skills do you know some, but not absolutely master? This is probably a large list. This is Level Three. Master those skills and move them to Level Two so you can make more money!

It's also fair to say that there are skills in Level Three that you don't care about, will never learn, and don't expect to make money on. Fine. Let someone else have this work while you're off making money. There's nothing wrong with that.


To be continued . . .

Sunday, February 04, 2007

We Don't Work Weekends

We recently had a chat with a new client. They want to migrate a system to a new Small Business Server/domain. The client's preference was to do this over a weekend.

We said no. We don't work weekends.

"Uh, but . . .."

No buts. We don't work weekends.

"Well, we want to minimize downtime and interruption. We don't want to take a chance on losing any data. We'll be moving from POP3 to an in-house exchange server. We don't want to lose any email." Blah blah blah.

We're adamant about this.

We can migrate all your data, and your email, from your old NT 4 domain to your new Small Business Server with zero company downtime. We'll migrate every user with less than one hour downtime per user. We'll preserve their entire profile, and every icon will be exactly where it was. Zero data loss. Zero email loss. Zero company downtime.

Since we CAN do that during normal business hours, with virtually no interruption of your regular procedures, why shouldn't we? Why should you pay time-and-a-half for weekend work, when we can do it all during the week? Why should I pay overtime, and higher workers comp?

Let's both save a bunch of money and do the job during regular business hours when all the tech support lines are open, the ISP's available, and we can run out for donuts?

Eventually they agreed. It really wasn't a big deal. We stated very matter-of-factly that we could accomplish all their goals while the sun is still up. So why work after hours?


I always hear people in our business say things like "Of course there's always evening and weekend work."

No there isn't.

"But we can't have downtime during business hours."

Fine, so figure out how to avoid that. The technology exists. All you neeed are: 1) A commitment, and 2) A plan.

You can do a Swing Migration (see http://www.sbsmigration.com), or do a totally manual migration, as we do. Either way, you can do your job in the 8am - 6pm time frame without any overtime.

So the next question is, why do consultants do this? Why do they schedule work in the evenings? Why do they schedule work on the weekends?

I have to be honest. I just don't know. I speculate that some people don't really want to do it any other way. Maybe they like being the "hero." Maybe they don't want to go home. Maybe they just can't think of any other way to do things. Maybe they haven't tried.

The part I fear the most is that our business is filled with people who can't figure out how to get their work done within a ten hour day. Maybe they can't or won't come up to speed on the technology. Maybe they just don't care how much time they spend "at work" versus not at work.


Here's a fact. Every consulting company that grows big has some rules about overtime. They're not the same for everyone, but here are some of the basics.
  • Employees work 40-hour weeks
  • Employees get paid for overtime
  • Client work is done during normal business hours (8am-5pm)
  • Clients pay extra for work outside those hours
You need to value your own work and your own time. Your time has to be worth something. If it's not valuable to you, why should it be valuable to your clients?

As strange as it sounds, it can be very profitable to move into these policies. So, if you're not doing them, start soon. It is quite reasonable that, on a 30-day notice, you can raise your after-hours rates. That will make you more money and reduce the number of after-hours hours.

It is highly unlikely that you will ever grow your business beyond a one- or two-person shop until you adopt the policies you need to sustain a larger company.

Do emergencies happen after hour? Absolutely.

Does regular work ever need to be scheduled after hours? Absolutely not.

My vacation's over

Hi, all.

I've been taking it easy for the last several weeks. Haven't been online here or anywhere else much. I needed to focus on just getting some projects pushed in the right direction.

So now I'm awaking from my winter rest and rejoining the world.

Here's what's up for the Spring:

- I'm definitely going to SMB Nation East. Just wish we had some details on that.

- I'm trying to organize a pre-day event for SMB N.E.

- I opened a forum over at the Mobilize SMB Private Services Network -- http://www.mymspsn.com. Hoping that will be a bit of give and take on best practices. Check it out.

- Next book is well under way. Five chapters are on good, solid final draft status. Eight more chapters are at first draft status. One chapter exists as a set of scribbles on napkins.

The new book will be very different from my first three, and will be for a much wider audience. The topic is Relax Focus Succeed(R). The basic theme is about balancing your personal and professional lives and being more successful with both.

To keep up on that, head over to www.relaxfocussucceed.com and sign up for the free monthly newsletter. You can also read about seventy articles I've written there.