Joe Petrich

Product solutions engineer @google-pay, Pitt CS grad, ham radio enthusiast, linguist

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Finding success as a consultant

Published Jan 05, 2021

I work within Google’s technical services organization, which supports Google’s users, partners, and internal teams. Prior to working at Google, I worked in software engineering and product development at startups. Over the past few years I’ve developed these strategies to succeed at Google as a technical solutions consultant, and I hope they might benefit you too, whatever the kind of consulting you do.

Explain your role, your talents, and your goals

As a consultant, but especially as part of an internal consultancy group, you may be brought into projects where your peers don’t really know who you are, what talents you bring to the table, or why you’re working with them. Their management may understand the value you bring, but there’s no guarantee everyone you’ll be working with is on the same page. While you can certainly provide value to your stakeholders without developing a great rapport with your peers, introducing yourself, explaining what you were brought in to accomplish, and giving some examples of prior work you’ve done will help your peers bring opportunities to contribute to your attention, enhancing your ability to make a positive impact.

Be a teammate

When you’re new to a project, there’s always going to be some ramp-up time, no matter your role. You can help reduce the time it takes to get up to speed, and improve the quality of your onboarding by behaving like one of the core team members, even if you were brought in to consult on a specific aspect of the project. Time and time again I’ve seen a subject-matter expert come in to advise on one aspect of a project, get into the weeds within their niche too quickly, and then have to practically restart their engagement with a broader view of the project, its goals, and complications. Take some time to read the team’s onboarding guide (if they have one), talk to the newest team member and take their advice for how to get up to speed, and take tasks off the team’s queue, even if they’re not directly related to your goals. If you’re non-technical and working with a software team, you can help write documentation, perform manual QA testing, or read public reviews of the team’s product to gain familiarity with it while providing value to your new teammates. If you’re an engineer brought in to build something for a non-technical team, spend some time learning and validating the problem statement. Your expertise will be far more valuable in context than in a vacuum.

Don’t beg for a seat at the table

While you should make every effort to be a good teammate, don’t sweat it if you’re not invited to every team meeting, asked for input on every new initiative, or included on every code review, especially if your engagement on the project is time-bound. Your top priority should be to accomplish your goals as efficiently as possible. If you continually succeed, new opportunities will come to you. The alternative is to ask to be invited to meetings you hear about, offer unsolicited feedback on topics outside your immediate scope, and pitch yourself for new opportunities you hear about. While each of these strategies is helpful in moderation - you shouldn’t be anti-social, keep helpful advice to yourself, or fail to pursue exciting opportunities - you risk negatively impacting your own productivity by losing focus, or perhaps worse, making yourself indispensable.

Know when to move on

If you enjoy working on the same thing for years at a time, or would be happy to retire after a long career working on the project you’re consulting on, ignore this part! But, if you’re consulting in the first place, chances are you have an appetite for change that is only satisfied by taking on new roles, working on new products, or at least picking up a new project now and then. Becoming indispensable hinders your ability to pursue new endeavors. Indispensability may be great for job security, but your career security lies in consistently finishing what you start. Regularly evaluate your progress against your goals, and share that evaluation with your stakeholders to make sure you stay in agreement about what your next steps should be.

If your work is behind schedule, there’s probably a good reason for it, and you can amicably collaborate on a way to extend timelines or accelerate progress. Don’t try to be a hero, hiding the state of things until you can reveal the problem with the solution. Explain the problem to your stakeholders, present your view of potential solutions, and offer your help, but be willing to disengage or bring in more help if that’s the best path forward. Presenting impartial recommendations that show you’re putting the project above personal concerns demonstrates leadership and ethics. If you’re an internal consultant (like me) it’s especially helpful to know when a project isn’t set up to best utilize your talents, because you can move on to something that will be more enjoyable for you, and more impactful for the company. Of course, if you’re an external consultant and your contract guarantees your employment on a project for a certain length of time there’s no need to voluntarily give that up just because the project isn’t going well.

If your work is ahead of schedule and nearing completion, celebrate! Take a short pause to ensure you leave the project in good order - there should be good documentation, a record of how things went,a decision log, and signoff from stakeholders. Every project you finish gives you experience that is invaluable to your future work, and your success will help unlock the next opportunity that comes your way. If appropriate, pitch opportunities you’ve identified to further help your stakeholders, and ask them for both critical feedback and references. Take the time to reflect on how the project went, write about it to further develop your thoughts, and evaluate it in the lens of your larger career and life goals. Some questions I like to ask myself are

  • What did I learn that will help me during my next project?
  • What would I do differently if I could do it again?
  • What would I have done differently if I had hired me?
  • How will the person who picks up my work a week/month/year from now evaluate it?
  • Am I happier than I was before this project? Why?

Final thoughts

What did you think of this article? Are you a consultant, and has your experience led you to similar thoughts? Please reach out with any thoughts, praise, or criticism to joe@petrich.xyz.