For the past six years or so, I’ve made a living as a consultant. Whenever I can, I work for scientists who use high performance computing. Sometimes I work for IT people who work with the scientists who use the abovementioned tech. Occasionally, I work for the executives who employ them both. The distinction is important: John Halamka has a wonderful recent post about consultants, good and bad. It’s a worthwhile read. His post made me re-visit a core value of any half decent consultant: “Know who you are working for.”
Anyway, this job has entailed quite a lot of travel – and has given me a window into a broad spectrum of teams and organizations. I think that I can, without exaggeration, say that I’ve worked with “hundreds” of groups over the last six years. With some, I had a brief couple of days. With others, I’ve had more of a chance to get to know them over years.
The perspective that comes from this sort of itinerant lifestyle cuts both ways. The world is really, seriously, full of teams composed of smart and competent people who are meshed in organizational structures and circumstance that make it very difficult for them to get things done. It can be depressing and difficult to see, over and over, good ideas and intentions smashed flat by organizational realities. Talented people are frequently burned out, clinically depressed, and bypassed by their organizations. People rise in power (seemingly) through belligerence or outright lies. Dilbert comes to seem more documentary than commentary. Couple that with the fact that people only rarely bring in an outside consultant when things are going well – and I’ve gotten pretty jaded. I’ve seen some serious messes, and I now sort of expect to see a mess when I look under the hood.
On the other hand, every now and then, I see something that brings a huge, geeky smile to my face. I’ve gotten backstage tours of the workbenches and data centers of a few of the most effective teams in the world. They are few and far between – but these deliciously well run systems really make my day. I got a tour of one of those sites recently, and I found my faith renewed. A small team of talented people, with adequate funding, clear direction, and good management, can do truly incredible engineering.