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You Want To Be A Consultant? Rule #2: Watch Your Back

Note: On hundreds of projects I have found the great majority of customers to be highly professional and a pleasure to work with. This post addresses the few exceptions that are encountered from time to time. -EW

Several years ago I was hired by an electronics firm to determine the root cause of a circuit problem that was holding up production. I spoke to the young engineer who had created the design, analyzed his circuit, reviewed the test data, and concluded that he had made a design error. (For what it’s worth, most of my troubleshooting investigations have determined that the root cause of circuit problems is insufficient design margin, which is why I always recommend that every circuit be validated with a good WCA.) I provided a solution and that was that. Or so I thought.

I later received a tip from a colleague that the young engineer I had worked with had generated a memo that stated that my conclusions were wrong, and that he had found the “true cause” of the problem. Apparently the engineer felt threatened by the fact that he had designed a circuit with a problem that he could not identify, and decided to lie about the facts behind my back. Based on the tip, I provided a follow-up memo that corrected his inaccuracies. This caused the young engineer some serious embarrassment, but I think he earned it.

I felt bad nonetheless, because the first rule of a consultant is, in my opinion, to be sure that the client’s team perceives you as non-threatening. The consultant is not there to act superior, or to gloat, or to point out the perceived faults of the team. (Hint: such consultants create more damage than they’re worth; fire them.) The consultant’s job is simply to lend a hand.

Furthermore, there is no reason for the consultant to feel superior. Yes, the consultant must have design expertise and problem-solving skills, but more valuable is the fact that the consultant provides an outside and objective viewpoint, unpolluted by the daily hassles (sometimes political) that impede the team. In many cases the team is very close to finding the problem, but they are unable to do so because they are behind schedule, overworked, tired, and distracted by the varied and hectic demands of the typical engineering workplace. This is why it makes good sense to hire a consultant: it’s just not possible for a team to be completely objective about their own efforts, particularly when they’re under a lot of pressure.

Yet, despite the tactful and low-key assistance of a modest consultant, there will still be those cases where the defensiveness of some individuals cannot be disarmed. Untruthful memos, passive-aggressive unhelpfulness, “I thought of it before the consultant did” posturing, and other immature behavior will sometimes be encountered. If you want to be a consultant, then you will need to deal with such unpleasantness forthrightly but tactfully. It’s just part of the job.