ColdFusion Muse

Up to $1000 Referral Fee!!

CF Webtools has revamped its awesome referral program to make it awesomer - or even more awesome. As you may know we have been offering generous referral bonuses to developers for years. If you bring us business we try and reward you. In 2016 CF Webtools paid out nearly $100,000 in referral bonuses! But our old program was hard to understand so our marketing guy - Curt - has twisted my arm to make better.

Here's the Deal

If you bring us business you get $500.00. Any business. A mom and pop store, someone selling pet insurance, an app for measuring dog poo by volume and color - we don't care. If it's business and we make a sale, you get $500. But wait there's more. If said business turns into at least 150 hours you get an additional $500! So, you can make $1000 just by name dropping.

The Part Curt Doesn't Like

Now I will have to avoid Curt for a few days after I say this, but if you bring us a whale - a customer with regular work involving at least half a developer (hopefully the top half) I will be even generouser - or even more generous. Call me and we'll make a deal. I promise we'll make it worth your while.

CF Webtools Pledge

So, your grandma is selling needle point online and you want to refer her to us but you are afraid. Maybe you fear we will treat her poorly, or that we won't take "needlinggrandma.com" seriously. Be reassured by the following Muse Pledge to you:

We will Reward You.

We will Make you Proud.

We will not Embarrass you.

We want to make you happy you turned over work to us. We will make every effort to insure it is a good experience.

What sort of thing qualifies?

CF Webtools has a large and diverse staff. Don't assume we won't be interested just because we shout "ColdFusion" all the time. We have a dedicated operations group for managing large technology stacks. We do IOS and Droid development. We manage complex databases and are familiar with many different environments. Give us a call and find out.

It's complicated

Ok, so you have a problem client or former employer where you had a bad experience. We get that. From month to month we are often embroiled in handling a "hand off" from a developer or company where things went south. We specialize in working hard to smooth things out for the customer and we do it without throwing the former developer under the bus. We will concentrate on the work and do our best to make you look good. If you don't want us to mention your name we won't. If it will help and you say it's ok we will. You will find us easy, dare I say charming to work with.

How do I make it happen?

  • Call Curt Lovegren at (402) 408-3733 ext 104 or...
  • Email your lead with as much information as you wish to cfleads@cfwebtools.com.
Before we call or email your lead we will contact you via email (or phone or carrier pigeon, whatever you prefer) and discuss the details and how to move forward. Our approach can involve you directly or we can leave you out of it - it's totally up to you.

We'll look to glean any information that can help us be of benefit to the prospective customer. Just reach out and let our staff do the rest. Easy, right?

Customers and how they Contribute to Estimating Angst

This is the moment the developers have been waiting for. After having thrown both the developer and his application under the bus, we are going to make room under there for the customer. Now if you are customer reading this, take heart. While I'm going to say some things that will hurt, in the end I'm going to rub salve on the wound and we will all sing Kumbaya together. Here we go.

The Muse finally has a number - a project that we've estimated at 350 hours. Of course, this estimate is not correct. Why? Because no estimate is ever correct. Please refer back to the first post in this series. The majority of estimates are wild guesses. We've done our best to find out all we can about the system, requirements, priorities and every little nitpicky detail we can imagine. Our estimate is based on that discovery. If all of our dozens of assumptions are correct then our estimate is rock solid. But of course, there are still things we don't know and many of our assumptions are simply off. Much of what we need to know we simply can't know until we dig in and start doing the work. For that reason we will give Bob a range of hours - say 275 to 375 hours - and dozens of caveats that he will epically fail to hear and absorb. What he will hear is the number 275 and that will be the basis of his expectations.

Let's check in with the Muse and Bob as they finalize the project.

  • Muse: Well Bob, as you can see by the painstakingly detailed 13 page document in front of you, we estimate 275 to 375 hours. Have you read the document?
  • Bob: I read... I got to page 2... uh... I did see the estimate at the end. So, 275 hours?
  • Muse: [caveat 1] 275 hours to 375 hours. You can expect it to be somewhere in the middle.
  • Bob: 275 eh? Wow that's a lot. But I get everything I asked for?
  • Muse:[caveat 2] To be clear you get everything we have carefully outlined and detailed in the proposal. If it's not in the proposal it would be "out of scope" - not included in this estimate.
  • Bob: Well, I can probably swing 275 as long as I can have it in 6 weeks.
  • Muse: [caveat 3] Well the timeline depends on resources and other factors. This is probably a one-woman job. It will take her around 4-5 weeks to do the core programming, then QA, revisions etc. You are probably looking at 8 to 10 weeks. [Caveat 1 again] It's 275 to 375 hours not including out of scope items that tend to arise.
  • Bob: Hmmm.... ok, I think we can do it. But just one thing. Did we discuss adding reporting to this application?
  • Muse: ...
  • Bob: Muse... you there? Did we lose our connection?
  • Muse: I'm here Bob... I was just asking my assistant to quickly remove sharp objects from my immediate vicinity. Now about your reporting...

Most clients are not quite as bad as Bob. Still, every contractor or development shop owner has a story remarkably similar to the one above. I know most Muse readers are developers. I can see you now in my mind's eye with righteous indignation and clenched fist saying, "You tell them muse, clients are the worst!" But actually, this is not their fault. Your customer has his or her own domain of knowledge. I have a customer who is a commodity trader. I expect him to know the difference between a bull call and a butterfly spread, but I do not expect him to know the difference between MySQL and MS SQL, how the cloud works, or why it takes 10 hours to program something. The basic issue is threefold:

  • Communication
  • Expectations
  • Cart and Horse problems
Today let's tackle the first two.

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Developers, Can't Live With 'em, Can't Deprecate 'em

When last we checked in with Bob and the Muse (part 1 - applications) they were trying to come to grips with Bob's complex... I mean his application's complexity. We are now at the stage called "developer involvement" where he and the Muse are speaking with Sugar Sweet - the Muse's crack developer (and the name of a girl I dated in college). Let's go live to the conference call (be careful not to spook them).

  • Muse: Ok, we've outlined changes to the onboarding and broken it out into 3 programming tasks. Sugar will get us an estimate but it seems straightforward.
  • Sugar: Muse, a moment.
  • Muse: Sure what is it sweetie? (Don't judge me - it's her nickname so it's not harassment)
  • Sugar: I've taken a look at this application and the entire thing will need to be rewritten.
  • Bob: Wait what? That sounds expensive.
  • Sugar: I'm afraid we have no choice Bob. It's written in tags and the variable naming is all wrong. Plus the previous developers used... sorry, this is hard, I'm getting a little choked up... cfqueries instead of stored procedures. [small sob]
  • Muse: I'm going to step in here while Sugar get's a drink of water. We will work to retain as much of the legacy code as we can and focus only on security issues Bob. In other words we Won't refactor your code unless it's necessary to protect your investment. How does that sound.
  • Sugar: [sounding a little hurt] But the queries... and our best practice guide!
  • Muse: I think we can work with what we have here...
  • Sugar: This is so hard. I feel beet down. I'm not sure I cane work here anymore.

Developers come in all stripes and their views will greatly impact your estimate. Some of them have a religious devotion to certain technologies, libraries and approaches to development. To be a developer (at least on my staff) requires high aptitude, intelligence, breadth of knowledge and confidence. Those traits generate towering personalities like the Muse (whose lack of modesty is his only real flaw), and of course egos. They have opinions and they are usually not afraid to use them. Their defensive ferocity increases exponentially the closer you get to their favorite technology. If you don't believe me try yelling "Windows rules" at an IOS conference (and hope it's not an open carry state). For this reason, it's always a good idea to have non-developers involved in your estimates. Around here we call them project managers. They use their knowledge of the developer and the customer to "find the sweet spot" that meets the needs of the application and its stakeholders.

Muse Wisdom: Estimating is usually a joint effort.

Of course, not every estimate needs the once over by a project manager, but larger projects or enhancements should always be a collaboration. Developers need to be able to justify the estimates they provide to someone who knows them well enough to understand how they might get tripped up. Here are a few "types" of developer estimators.

The Refactorer

Sugar is in this camp. She will like over-estimate every task on older code because she sees any legacy code as debt that needs to be paid. To her this isn't optional, it's essential. In the real world it's definitely optional. Is script better than tags - in most cases yes (don't email me). Is using jQuery better than custom JS libraries? I believe it is. Are stored procs better than queries? Usually they are (though I've seen some god-awful stored procs). Best practices, frameworks, indentation, file naming conventions - these are all important parts of competent development. But when approaching legacy code there is a lot to consider. For example, has the customer managed to get a return on his initial investment? If he has, he may be ready for a rewrite. If not, we may need to work with what is there and not break the bank rewriting huge swaths of code. The business decisions rule the day. It's important for developers to understand the economics in play.

The Blithe Underestimator

Estimating is about imagining what could happen. What if the user doesn't check the box - what happens then? What happens when a user doesn't follow your pattern and puts in letters where numbers are indicated? Most developers react to these conditions with frustration. Who would do that? Why would a user use the application in that way when it's clearly designed to be used this way. A good estimator considers all these what-ifs. Estimating is also about accounting for what you still don't know. It's about challenging your assumptions. The underestimator concentrates on what he sees in front of him. His estimate comes with the caveat "if all my broad assumptions are correct". A good project manager will know the developer well enough to A) challenge him on his assumptions and B) add hours to the final estimate to insure it's adequate.

The Over-Complicator (Chicken Little)

Some developers are the opposite of the blithe underestimator. Instead of broad assumptions they build a huge list of unknowns and caveats. How do you know if you are an overcomplicator? Here's a little test for you. Let's say uou pull up Google and the page fails to load. Order the following list by probability.

  1. Google is down
  2. The entire internet is down
  3. It's the zombie apocalypse
  4. You've typed in "gloogle.com" accidently
  5. Your wireless connection is bad
  6. The network is under attack
  7. Your mom changed the wireless password again (for those you working in your basement)
  8. The NSA is monitoring your computer
  9. DNS is not responding
If anything but number 4, 5, 7 or 9 is near the top of your list you may be an over complicator.

Some time ago I was helping a Muse reader with an error via screen share. On the screen the error debug information had query code and indicated a malformed query. I asked what he had tried. "I tried a new DB driver, checked the network connection and I've been googling how cached execution plans work." I took a closer look at the debug output on the screen, highlighted a portion and said "You are missing a comma after this column." A good manager will know his devs well enough to spot an over estimator and adjust estimates accordingly.

The Technology Hammerer

Finally, there is the developer for whom everything is about tech. The saying goes that when your only tool is a hammer everything looks like a nail. Developers need to be reminded that what they are solving are behavior problems, not (typically) technical problems. When we build a new search engine for a company selling nuts and bolts, the problem we are solving is not faster indexing, better sorting, or more granular pattern matching. nope. It's the basic problem of folks rummaging through bins trying to figure out thread and length. We are trying to make that task easier.

The tech hammerer will turn to the technical aspects of a project over and over because that is her comfort zone. She will suggest products, approaches and solutions that may or may not solve the basic problem underlying the project.

Tech hammerers usually need to learn that it is highly beneficial to gather domain knowledge about your customer. What does the company do? How do they make money? (that's the most important question for a dev company like ours) What sort of problems do they solve with their application? These questions inform our decisions in ways that mere technical questions cannot. Moreover, they tend to make us better partners - better at suggesting changes that save or make money for the customer. "What if we chose to do it this way Bob, would that save your users a step? Do you really need this field, it seems like we have this covered with earlier data. Explain how this will help your user - I want to understand."

Conclusion

The main takeaway here is that developers and their personalities have an impact on your estimates. Estimating is a team effort and requires give and take from several sectors. In our next post we are going to throw customers under the bus - gently of course.

Why is Estimating So Dang Hard

Let's go Live to Bob and the Muse

Consider this typical interaction with a prospective customer:

  • Muse: Tell me what you need Bob.
  • Bob: I have an application hosted on ColdFusion 9. I want to upgrade to the latest version and move it to the cloud.
  • Muse: That's a good choice. The latest version of ColdFusion performs splendidly in the cloud and is much easier to manage. (yes the Muse uses words like "splendidly").
  • Bob: Great! How much will it cost me.
  • Muse: Well.... [lengthy pause]
  • Bob: Did I lose you? Muse... Hello...
  • Muse: Oh I'm here. I have some questions. What kind of application is it?
  • Bob: It's a customer portal where folks log in and use our whizzbang service.
  • Muse: Do you use any third party APIs?
  • Bob: Pbbbt... of course not.
  • Muse: Excellent - how about jar files. Do you remember using any jar files in your code to access Java stuff?
  • Bob: Jar files? What in the ham sandwich is a jar file?
  • Muse: It's a way you package Java classes. You might use it to do some complicated Java thing that ColdFusion can't handle on its own.
  • Bob: Uh... [Lengthy Pause]
  • Muse: Did I lose you? Bob... hello? Maybe we'll put a pin in that one.
  • Bob: Sorry my eyes just glazed over there for a second. Anyway, how much did you say?
  • Muse: Well I'm not sure I have enough information to uh...
  • Bob: Oh! and we also need to upgrade our thingy that posts reviews to Amazon and Yelp. Something about bees... apiary or something.
  • Muse: API Library maybe?
  • Bob: That's it!
  • Muse: [banging head on the desk] ok how about you walk me through the app.
  • Bob: Sure ... but... how much will it cost?

Now it's not the Muse's fault that he's having a hard time communicating. After all, if it was easy I'd be flipping burgers and still driving my '72 delta 88 from College. And before you get all up in Bob's grill, it's not his fault either. We IT natives tend to use lingo as if everyone has been exposed to the concept of an "API" or "java integration" or a "mouse".

So I'm going to let you in on a little secret. The bald truth is that development companies usually have no idea what something will cost even after you describe it to them thoroughly. The most accurate estimate for enhancements will always come from the original developer, and even then, they are often guessing wildly.

Muse Wisdom: Don't trust quick estimates or high levels of certainty!

Chances are if someone is throwing numbers around without asking a lot of questions and without being nervous about "guaranteeing" the cost, you are about to enter a relationship you will regret. Think Vegas chapel and too much bourbon and you'll get the idea. To help further the conversation about estimates I offer this 3-part blog series on "The hard task of estimating". My hope is that in the end, readers who are customers and readers who are developers will both come to understand a little more about this maddeningly ticklish task that we all must do.

Estimating is hard and estimates are often unreliable because of three main areas where issues arise:

  • Applications
  • Developers
  • Stakeholders or Customers
In this post we are going to talk about your application.

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Business Referral - don't forget

A week ago, in my post, The Muse Has Cash... I started a new program to reward community members for leads. Thank you for all the input and for the many leads generated already. We really appreciate it and we'll make you proud! After a quarter or so I will report on the success of the program.

Meanwhile, a few have pointed out that the previous post is lengthy so I wanted to put up the "express checkout" version. It's simple, if you refer a lead to us (email cfleads@cfwebtools.com) that results in new business, we will pay back to you 8% of the gross revenue from that customer in the first 10 months of working with the customer. If the customer spends 10k with us, you make $800.00. Simple and easy. So hook the Muse up. We are looking for another record year!

Note: In the past the Muse has offered bonuses for referring developers to us. This program is for new business, not developers - although as always if you are looking for work send me your resume. We typically hire several times a year.

The Muse has Cash and He's Not Afraid to Use It!

The hardest thing about running a ColdFusion development shop is getting in front of the people who might need your help. Thousands of companies could use the expertise we offer but it can be very difficult to approach them. In spite of our culture, our transparency, our chameleon-like flexibility, our unique reputation, our high competency and our focus on communication and productivity, CTO's and CIO's tend to lump CF Webtools in with the outsourcing crowd. That's just not who we are. The truth is, once we gain the ear of someone who needs us we have an amazing record at closing the deal and retaining the customer. We alleviate the pitfalls of ColdFusion (oh yes, there are pitfalls) and allow the benefits to shine. We simply bring too much to the table to ignore.

So that's the Gordian knot the Muse has been trying to unravel for the last 18 months or so as we have doubled and tripled in size. How do I get the name and reputation of my fantastic company in front of the folks who need us? I mean, besides a holocaust cloak ("...Then why wasn't it listed among our assets?") what do we have to work with? My executive team and I have spent a few weeks mulling this over and we have concluded that perhaps our greatest asset is our connection with developers within the ColdFusion Community.

The truth is that when a developer who has developed for a decision maker recommends us to that individual he or she is far more likely to listen and take our pitch seriously. After all, finding good ColdFusion talent is difficult. In our experience it is referrals that seal the deal. We began thinking, both the Muse and the CF Webtools staff tends to be engaged in user groups, forums, lists, and events focused on ColdFusion. Instead of dedicating a big chunk of money to a marketing budget (of dubious return) we had an epiphany. Why spend money on promotions and ads when the connection we need is right in front of our cfnose. Let's pay our friends in the community for their referrals.

The Big Plan

So our big plan is simple, we are going to generously reward any developer who refers a company to us that subsequently becomes a customer. The rules are simple. First, you need to be a part of the ColdFusion developer community. We are not looking to line the pockets of recruiters. But if you are in IT and work with ColdFusion you are a candidate. Finally your lead must result in a sale for you to get paid. In short, for forwarding a name to us you could get a check in the mail - that's it! Read on for the nitty gritty details.

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Resistance is not Futile: Why Change is so Hard

CF Webtools does more than 3000 hours of consulting every month. As you might imagine there launches, releases and deployments happening constantly. One thing we run into constantly is resistance to change. When users are confronted with a new screen, new functionality, or (especially) a new system there is always resistance. It can range from a mild teeth gritting to kicking and screaming depending on the depth of change. Developers and managers are often nonplussed by this resistance. In virtually every case developers see the changes they have made or the systems they have created as enhancements or improvements over the "old way of doing things." They usually see resistance as futile and self-defeating - not to mention a little absurd. I think this is one of the reason's that developers often have a negative view of end users who are not technical. They simply don't understand the dynamics at play because they are not thinking through the human dimensions.

Great New Systems Still Face Resistance

Take a deep breath and listen to the muse - resistance to your improvements is not based on the quality, appeal, innovations or the time saving nature of your improvements. In other words, the fact that it's the greatest thing since your mother's apple cobbler is not going to make users like it or want it. See if this rings true for you. You are presenting a new system to stakeholders. Say you re-engineer the process for approving a manufacturer's wholesale orders. You create a slick application that interfaces with the companies ERP system. You add approval gates and requirements that must be met to move the process forward. The CEO is ecstatic. It used to take 2 weeks to get an orders done because so many folks had to sign off on the pricing and the deadlines. Now the request won't sit around in someone's inbox or on their desk. The system will move it forward and acquire the needed vetting and approvals. Decreasing the time it takes to get bulk orders approved improves cash flow and the bottom line.

Sales folks are unhappy about it however. Why? Doesn't it mean faster commissions, more time for sales? Well maybe, but what you will hear from them is "We have always done it this way." Let's call that the WHADIT Way. Now before you get all huffy and accuse them of intransigence you should look a little deeper. There's a good reason that folks fall back on the WHADIT Way and its Cousin the WNDIT Way (i.e. "We've never done it that way before"). Consider for a moment how regular users of a system differ in perspective from you. When you got your new IPhone it was a splendid day right? You spent hours noodling with it and figuring out all the bells and whistles. That's because as a developer or IT pro you are a technology adapter. Far from being intimidated by new systems, hardware, phones and devices, you embrace them and revel in learning how to make the most of them. It's not a trial for you to learn. Indeed it's only a minor investment for you. Why? Because your day is filled with climbing up to the cutting edge of technology. You are oriented toward the new.

Now let's talk about the broad masses that include everyone else. Yesterday my wife (who is not technical) was frustrated trying to send a picture from her iPhone. She has a 5s and she was sending via email to her own email inbox. She was doing this to get the picture from her phone to her computer. She would take a picture and when she wanted it on her computer she would forward it to herself, then check her email on her computer to pull it up. Because of some network issue or whatever the email would not leave her outbox. I said to her, "Use the synch cable and copy it directly." The fact that she could do this was news to her. Given one solution to getting a picture out of her phone, it did not occur to her that there might be several.

So here's the question. What is it about me (and you Muse reader) that is different from my wife Ann? Why did I have a ready solution? Is it just because I'm smarter? I can tell you that this is not the case (my wife is extremely smart and savvy). The answer is that I envision technical solutions to problems and I assume that such solutions exist because "that's what I would have done" if I was building a UI, a site or an interface. I knew that the cable would work of course, but let's suppose I did not know. I have no doubt I would simply assume that there was a way to connect and copy images off of my phone. Why? Because it "stands to reason" - not Ann's reason or a regular user's reason - a technology worker's reason.

But this is not the case for the majority of folks who have to use your system (unless you are building it for IT, in which case they will pick it apart long before you get to brag about it in a meeting). Most people can't make leaps and confident assumptions about what something should do or can do or ought to do. They are tethered to what they know. They have made a major investment in knowledge to get things done surrounding their job. This knowledge might be how to fill out forms or which requests should go first or who to contact to get prices changed or how to navigate a legacy menu. It will almost certainly include some knowledge that they feel makes them important and is a source of status.

This idea of status is one we often forget. Consider how your technical knowledge makes you feel about yourself. Doesn't it heighten your sense of worth at the workplace? When people stop by your desk to ask about their hard drive or printer you get exasperated but inside aren't you secretly gratified that they depend on you? Non technical users are not so different, they just have different realms of knowledge. The WHADIT Way is really a ritual that binds users together. The current process might be byzantine and require lots of hoops, but knowing how to get it done is part of the power invested in competent employees. Once that power resides in an automated system it no longer requires special knowledge.

So new systems very often have this downside - they diminish the sense of value that employees feel when doing their jobs because they take things out of their hands.

So the Muse always recommends to board room types that they take a different approach when implementing new systems. Here are the Muse tips for stakeholder buy-in.

Campaign

Start with a sort of marketing strategy. Advertise the new system. Gather testimonials from pilot users. Put screen shots in the newsletter. Find a way to project a positive image for your new system prior to roll-out. This will make adoption easier and it will be harder to criticize.

Engage Early

Early on in the process of outlining the new system, engage your stakeholders and get their input. Make sure the system is not just solving problems that are seen by management. Get real input from users and solve their problems as well. If you get early engagement from the end users they will feel invested in the outcome and grease the skids at release.

No Implementation By Fiat

CEO's and CIO's are famous for saying "They'll just have to live with it." This simply never works - at least not in the U.S. Here we value creativity and innovation. We are looking for thinking, energetic employees who solve problems, not automatons who do things by rote. Valuing creativity and innovation comes at a cost for the manager. He or she cannot afford to force feed employees a solution. When it's tried it is a matter of weeks before there are workarounds and alternate paths for tasks that circumvent the new system. Instead, managers must find a way to:

  • Insure that all voices at the table are heard.
  • Find ways to alleviate concerns by stakeholders and users - and do it in a way that makes it clear you are investing in those concerns because of the input given by those individuals. In other words, they have to feel empowered to make a difference in the solution.
  • When changes in responsibility are needed due to automation, find ways to organize responsibilities, titles and job descriptions to take the sting out. For example, if your customer service manager can no longer approve an RMA without a new gate, give them the ability to provide free shipping or incentivize staff in some other fashion. The idea here is to provide for a lateral move with regard to status and responsibility.

Conclusion

In reality user Buy-in is probably more important than the slickness or usefulness of the system itself. So for all you techies in my audience, have a care with those users. Remember who writes the checks in our world. Take time to help them out.

The Journey: Winning the Clone Wars Part 1

In my last post on this topic back in September, Phase II - The Clone Wars, I discussed the first phase of our business development. We talked about how I tried to duplicate my own skills and energies by hiring likeminded folks, and how this led to a lack of diversity and innovation. In this post we will pick up on some of the solutions to those issues. Let me say at the outset that some of these issues (founders syndrome for example) are systemic and require constant vigilance and an ongoing effort to resolve. After all, we didn't come up with this list overnight at Denny's and pop in the next morning with neat and tidy solutions to all of them. Some of the items on our list (the need for sales, the value of diversity, the importance of management, team building etc.) required some convincing and cajoling and even some hard knocks to move us in the right direction. But I can say that in spite of "peaks and valleys" (which was incidentally my nickname in high school) we are moving in the right direction. So let's talk about solutions for moving off of the clone model and to something more workable for a larger, team-oriented staff.

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The Journey: Phase II - The Clone Wars

I was recently chastised by a twitter follower (a beat down in 140 characters or less) for starting series that I fail to finish. So I'm coming back to my "Journey" series to add to the CF Webtools story a bit. When last we met on the subject I spoke of the 3 attitudes you need to succeed in the consulting business:

  • Work Hard and Be Patient
  • Be a People Person First
  • Avoid Perfection Paralysis and Do What You Can Do
With those thoughts in mind I'd like to talk about Phase One of your consulting business - building Clones.

More of Me

Anyone who's ever been successful as a contractor and thought about expanding has thought to themselves, "If I only had 2 of me." Aside from the obvious stress it would put on my wife you would think that having 2 of the Muse would be exceedingly useful. But knowing me, I would doubtless be playing golf right now leaving me behind to do all this work. That's just like me. It would make me so angry I'd be beside myself. Still, the idea is compelling when you are starting out - so compelling that you think about it a great deal when contemplating that all important first hire.

Consulting businesses are often started by knowledge experts with little or no business experience. When expanding such a business the first choice is usually "more of the same". In my case since I worked a certain way, I geared all my documentation, proposals, and estimates to the skill set of the Muse. So what did I look for in my first hire? Muse II of course (same level of action with a weaker plot I guess). It made sense to expand the current way of doing business by simply gathering similar skill sets to myself and dividing the work up amongst them. My first hire (Jason Herbolsheimer who is now CF Webtools VP of development) was an energetic can-do programmer able to find creative solutions to difficult problems. He worked at a similar speed to my own and was (and still is) a terrific people person. It was a great fit. Suddenly we were able to do roughly twice the work as before. In fact, my first 3 hires where like that. They were proven CF developers who I had known previously. Two of them had worked with me at my previous Job. The 4 of us divided up our customers and simply worked them in the same manner that I had worked them when I was an individual contractor.

This approach reminds me of that moving company "2 men and a truck" (would that be a "Mac" truck?). My guess is they started out as 2 men... and a truck. When they decided to expand they were probably considered changing their name to 4 men and 2 trucks, then 6 men and 3 trucks. There's some magic to this approach. It actually works well in many cases - especially if you assemble the right folks. If your team members work well independently and have the right soft-skills (inner-directed, owning problems, eclectic skill set, customer driven etc.), it can work quite well. The 4 of us did fine and had a great time along the way. I know of 3 or 4 consulting companies who operate at this level and intentionally stay at this level. And why not? They make good money, have very low overhead, and the level of responsibility is less crushing. Still, if you plan to expand beyond a handful of developers, the "clone model" (not to be confused with cloning an actual model which my wife says is out of the question) comes with some penalties.

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The Muse on the Radio

I was privileged to appear on a local radio show called "Success in Action" on Saturday March 25th). The host is popular local business Coach Jim Barger. He works for "Action Coach" - an organization with which I was unfamiliar. But I found his low key approach (devoid of the usual Rah-Rah marketing hype) refreshing, and he had many insightful comments for me both on and off the air. The show explores strategies for successful business growth. It was fun and exciting to be able to talk about where we have been and where we are going. Check it out.

The Journey: Three Attitudes to Sustain Your Dream

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm starting a series about my journey in building a consulting company. It's my hope that a transparent look at some ups and downs of growing my company will benefit other aspiring business owners and generate discussion that we may all find useful. Now just to be clear, I am not covering tax laws, employment laws, accounting or incorporation. Get a good accountant and a good attorney - that's business 101 in my view. Outsourcing payroll and relying on an accountant will allow you to breathe easier and concentrate on other things (where your skills are no doubt of more use).

With that in mind let's start at the beginning with 3 hard earned attitudes that you will do well to settle in your mind as immutable. They are essential to your success. They aren't technical and they haven't changed since history began. If you don't have them, put your dream away until you do.

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How I started in ColdFusion

In 1995 after 9 years of pastoring I left the ministry. Why I left is a long story of a self-destructive man hitting rock bottom and almost drowning - but finding redemption and new life through faith, family and the love of God. We won't dive into that here, but it's pretty compelling stuff I have to tell you. Meanwhile, the Muse had no skills other than piano playing and public speaking (and a penchant for Greek and Hebrew). Oh... and I could type like a banshee. So while I was trying to figure out what to do with my career (and trying to hold my marriage together), I took assignments with a temp agency. I collated and typed and copied while I scratched my head wondering what the heck I was good for anymore.

At some point I was given an assignment working the night shift at a credit union. I watched batch jobs run on a big DEC Alpha/VMS mainframe. Reports came out on 2 big green bar track printers. I watched for errors, updated reports and answered the phone. I decided I kind of liked being around all this technical stuff. I also discovered I had a knack for troubleshooting terminals and modems and the like. I checked out a "dictionary of computer terms" from the library and read it cover to cover while sitting in the lonely data center at 3 am. One of the ways I learn is by simply increasing my vocabulary and making connections. Pretty soon I knew how to ask the right questions to gain more knowledge. I believe God had given me the skills I needed to "start over".

To make a long story short, I read a bunch of books and took tests to become an MCSE and ended up working for a fellow named Jay at DTN financial services. I supported infrastructure for our division - sales tools, news feeds, laptops and desktops. Jay saw potential in me and I loved making him look good. One day Jay came to me with a ColdFusion script he needed to run. And that's where our story begins.

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Google Wave: Real Testing Delayed by Marketing Ploy

I have been looking forward to Google Wave and I was excited to at last have my invite. I got signed up and imported my contact list and created a wave and then.... then.... well... in the words of the dinosaur in the animated movie Meet the Robinsons, "I've got tiny arms and a huge head... I'm not sure you thought this plan through very well." Ok, not the tiny arms part, but this whole invitation thing, while a neat way to create Internet buzz in the lighting world of social media, doesn't really lend itself to useful testing - at least not for a company.

Sure, I'm seeing a few folks in my contact list who have a wave account. They are mostly tech savvy developers. I know I could create a wave and collaborate with them. But what I really need is to be able to roll my company developers and select customers into a wave for testing. I'm not trying to chat about the weather or review movies. If I want to waste time I can Facebook or Twitter. Instead I'm trying to see if the new wave paradigm can enhance my current project management processes (maybe even supersede some of them). I sent out a passel of invites but I've yet to have any of them approved. I guess until I get the right folks on the inside I will sit here and wave to myself. If I ever do get a legitimate test going - and more importantly if I can figure out how to tie Wave into my tracking and billing system - I will make sure and post a full report.

Estimating Part 3: Explaining the Costs to Customers

As we have discussed in our earlier posts on the Business of Web Development inexperienced customers (ones who have never done an IT project) are often surprised at the cost associated with a project. This is partially the result of the reputation that the web has for being cheap. Customers look at services like godaddy.com for example, and they see that they can register and host a site for the cost of skipping a couple of frappuccinos a month. While this is true, it is really not the same as professional design and development services and high performing, scalable, redundant, mission critical hosting services.

In fact, if I could digress to hosting for a moment, customers often fail to see the cost benefit of a more complete "managed" hosting setup. They spend thousands on development and then try to save a few hundred dollars a year on hosting. Having settled on hosting "on the cheap" they often have to pay someone a high hourly rate to do things like troubleshoot an underperforming server or handle DNS settings or figure out their mail services for them, or (worst of all) alter their code to conform to a changing server environment - like when a host recently disabled createobject() on a server causing an application to fail for someone who is now our customer. Any savings they might have gained is eaten up in support costs and they are actually losing money on the deal. In the words of Jesus they "strain out a gnat and swallow a camel" (email me if you don't know exactly what that means - I'll enlighten you).

Of course when it comes to development costs there are other things that mystify customers. As we have discussed before, customers often only account for the visual "up-front" items of a web application. They see forms, lists, charts and displays when the reality is that the bulk of the work on many complicated projects goes into coding, revisions, Q/A and Project Management. Here are a few fallacies that range from the hair-brained to flights of fancy:

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Estimating Part 2: Quality, Quantity and Visual Blinders

In our first post on this topic, Red Lobster Eyes With a Happy Meal Wallet, we began the discussion of the difficulty involved in estimating projects for startup companies. We took the time to chat about the nature of the bright people with big ideas who choose to try something new on the Internet. Our main point was that Big Idea people often underestimate the time and money it takes to complete a project. Today we will talk about one of the principle pitfalls that arise in reaction to lack of resources.

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