Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Tricky Business of Being a ThoughtWorks Consultant

I have been thinking about this for quite a while and the topic came up again recently. So I figure I might as well write it down. Keep in mind that these are my personal opinion as ONE ThoughtWorker based on my situations.

Blog or not to blog

Historically, my blog thoughts come through several ways, all of which is under the condition that requires me to blog at airport or late at night (like now).

1. Feeling Pain

As the book "Project Retrospective" has pointed out, when you feel the pain of doing something, it is very important to stop for long enough period of time to reflect about what you are doing. As true as it is, which makes me a true believer of retrospective, I still have the same amount, if not more than usual, of billable work that I need to do. When I do come up with an idea of improving the process, I only create more work for me to talk with others to sell the idea, one more thing on my coaching list, and a task to implement the fix.

So at the same time that I have learned a new aspect on software development, I am also burned out more from my day's work, which makes it a lot less appealing to write a blog about it. Sometimes an idea has to go through several round to mature, so I hold off the blog. Then when it is mature, I have got used to it and don't feel the excitement and urge writing it down anymore.

Yes probably it would be ideal if I can slow down my other work so that I can keep my energy up everyday, which brings back to the title "consultant", as in, like it or not, I am being paid to live up to my previous promises as much as possible.

2. Learning something new

When I got to know about something new, I always find a way to apply it so that I can learn more. What that means is my afterhour will pretty much be occupied by those activities rather than blog about my incomplete thoughts about it. To name a few:

Behaviour-driven development: Liz from UK office did a presentation on jBehave in the China office. After that, I start visiting Behaviour-driven website to learn more about it. When we created Cotta project, we decided to give it a try and it turned out to be very well. But the IDE integration sucked very much and jBehave is a bit rough around the edges (like loading all behaviors), so we joined jBehave project, created Eclipse and IntelliJ plugin and fine-tuned the API, during which process the site building part of BuildMaster became mature.

Can you imagine me keep a log of all these activities while I am working on them in my afterhour? I didn't think so. Although now I realize that I have different take on BDD from Dan North and Dave Astels, maybe I should write something about it, well, after I finish this thing about build and release that I learned from last project, and my thoughts on how BuildMaster can rock the world.

3. Getting Into Interesting Internal Discussion

From time to time I met people, ThoughtWorkers or not, who are not afraid of expressing their opinion and discuss about it. A lot of the time the outcome of the discussion is that "We now know what we don't know" (in a good way, kind of like your feeling after finish reading "the World is Flat" from what I have been told). So is there a point of blogging that? Maybe, maybe not. How to blog it, what is a good balance to strike, I think this is the time when I feel that technical writers are being paid for a reason.

Discuss or Not to Discuss

A good project is a project that is under "Total Quality Control", i.e., every single detail of the process is constantly under review to see if there are any room for improvement. Since ThoughtWorks has got itself out of the staffing business, ThoughtWorkers are generally taking the lead on the projects.

Whenever a new ThoughtWorker joins the project, it is more than welcome, as part of ThoughtWorks culture, for him or her to question every detail of how this project is run. Sometimes debates will rise during the day so that everyone can understand not only the way it is but also the history behind it.

On the other hand, ThoughtWorks is brought in as "consulting firm", being paid to say what the right way is to run a process. So when the new member joins and debates start occurring, it can be potentially perceived by the client as the incompetence of the existing project lead, incompetence of the new member, mismatch of the personality between the parties, or weird management style of ThoughtWorks.

This happened to me several times, and luckily, my clients have been open enough to raise the question thus giving me a chance to explain. It happens a lot less now because the first impression that I am trying to make is that "there is generally no silver bullet". At the same time I am giving out suggestions, sometimes strong ones, I also tell the reason behind it and that those reasons are revalidated constantly.

Then that makes me look like the kind of consultants that I have had contact in the past, with who are all talks and never tells the client anything concrete, the exact kind that I loath and want to stay way from.

Hence the "Tricky Business".

There are a few more thoughts on this but they are not as well thought. Plus it is 12:30am now and I did plan on have a full night sleep for a change, well, after I finish ironing my shirt for tomorrow.
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