That consulting thing

People regularly ask, “how’s that consulting thing going?” It’s a fair question, and I don’t mind answering. The short answer is that it’s going better than I ever expected.

Conditions were basically perfect when I created my LLC in 2013: I had been employed by BioTeam for nine years. Since 2011, I had been dedicated nearly full time to a single customer, the NY Genome Center. The work with the genome center was all-consuming, so Bioteam had transitioned my day to day management responsibilities to other members of the team. That made it minimally disruptive to ease myself out and “go direct” with the Genome Center.

About a year later, NYGC was to the point where it didn’t make sense for them to rely on consultants anymore. I have great respect and love for the team and the mission, but I didn’t want to live in Manhattan. I came back to Boston and hired on as the leader of research computing at the Broad Institute.

During that first round of independence, I didn’t give much thought at all to business development or process. I had NYGC to rely on, and a few other small gigs sort of landed in my lap along the way.

Fast forward to March of 2017. I decided to depart the Broad and give the “independent” thing another go. It was a very different situation. Without that single large “anchor” customer in hand, business development was essential. I started blogging (yes, this blog is a business development activity), meeting friends and colleagues, tweeting more actively, and generally hustling to raise my profile and build a client base.

It worked.

Two years in, I’ve closed deals with twenty different companies: Seven biotechs, four technology vendors, three other consulting groups (mostly subcontracting for specialized skills and expertise), two universities, a pharmaceutical company, a regional hospital system, a government agency, and an independent research institute. Two of my clients are coming up on their two year anniversary of working with me. Eight others were brief “one and done” engagements.

It’s going well enough that I’ve had to deal with some of the challenges of success.

There’s a fair amount of road time. I’m platinum status with Marriott, “select executive” on Amtrak, and Mosaic with Jetblue. It’s frankly disheartening that, in terms of lifetime totals, I’ve spent nearly two full years worth of nights sleeping in hotels. On the other hand, I benefit from the ongoing biotech miracle that is Kendall Square: Nine of my clients are within an easy bicycle ride from my house.

Managing travel time is among the most important things that I do for my health, happiness, and profitability. It turns out to be straightforward for me to book myself into travel hell, which certainly -feels- like being productive. However, for me at least, that productivity is an illusion. Looking at the numbers, the months when I was running myself ragged going back and forth across the country were actually among my -least- profitable, especially factoring in the downtime that I need to recover from even a few weeks of being flat-out on the road.

The basics of communication and scheduling also take discipline. Slack is ubiquitous among my clients, which means that I check something like six different workspaces on a daily basis. My life would be utter insecure chaos without a password manager to manage logins and secrets. I practice vigorous defensive calendaring to ensure that my days don’t wind up chopped into useless shards of time and to make space for life maintenance activities. Along the way, I’ve disabled all but the most essential alerts on my desktop and mobile devices. I’ve replaced an interrupt-driven way of life (which actually just doesn’t work at scale) with norms and boundaries that allow people get my attention without having to be online and interrupted all the time.

Independence was scary at first, both from a financial and from a lifestyle perspective. It certainly doesn’t work for everybody, and I’m cognizant of the luck and privilege that make it possible for me to live this way. I still have regular bouts of imposter syndrome where I realize that I cannot possibly be getting away with this.

As always, huge thanks to the community of colleagues, friends, and customers who make it all possible. And now, back to work!

2 thoughts on “That consulting thing”

  • Thanks a lot for sharing! Appreciate the advice a lot as pondering going a similar route. A question: How easy do you find it to find remote work, or to do some of the work remotely? I reckon that genomics and general AI/ML/data science might be different in terms of this, but would love to hear some experiences from either or both.

    • That’s a great question, and you’re right – it depends on the type of work and on how the team functions. For pure analysis / development, with a team who are good at distributed work, you could probably slot right in. I have friends and colleagues who work that way, and they report great success.

      My personal experience is that I need face time with my clients, especially when an engagement is starting. Very little of my work is purely technical anymore. Most of the time, I function as an advisor, strategist, and coach. That means that the vast majority of my work is communication rather than technical development. I find that my biggest impact is usually -not- some unique knowledge that I bring. Instead, it’s my freedom to connect various existing conversations within a team. I often find places where people by habit or organizational oversight feel like they can’t talk to each other. I haven’t found a good way to do that part of the work by remote.

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