Friday, August 24, 2012

"Who Was That Masked Man?"

When we were kids, we'd occasionally get to watch the Lone Ranger. We watched the fifties version, with the Lone Ranger and Tonto riding into town in black and white and saving the day. Inevitably, it would end with someone staring into the camera and asking, "Who was that masked man?" as the Lone  Ranger rode off to his next town.
"Here I come to save the day!" (Wrong TV show, right sentiment)

I watched the show again not too long ago with a friend's son, and got to thinking that there really was something to this idea of someone riding into town, clearing out the bad guys, and riding off into the distance. It's really rather like being a consultant in some ways. You ride in, find the bad parts, fix them, and ride out. Fortunately for me, there is a lot less horseback riding and gunplay in software than there ever was in the Lone Ranger!

But let's look at each of those steps:

  1. You come in
  2. You find the bad part(s)
  3. You fix them
  4. You leave
All of those steps are important. If you leave without finishing every single step, well, you're no Lone Ranger.

Come In
Coming in doesn't have to mean going to the client's offices. It just means that you need to show up. You have to interact with the client  - and not just the project sponsor. This is how you'll know the full extent of the problem, and start to build trust to fix it. This means you have to be around and be available for casual conversations. This might be in person, by phone, in chat rooms, or over IM.

Find the Bad Part(s)
You're here because there's a problem the client can't or won't solve internally. Understanding that problem gives you the bounds of your engagement. Sure, there are probably other things you could optimize or improve, but don't lose sight of the thing you're actually here to fix!

Fix Them
You have to actually fix the bad part(s). Don't offer a proposal; don't outline the problem and note how it could be fixed. Do the work and fix it. This is what differentiates the Lone Ranger from the stereotypical management consultant.

This part is surprisingly hard sometimes. Sometimes the problem will be fixed and you just keep coming around, or start working on a new problem, or maintaining the fixes. This is all well and good until you're sure the fix is stable, or if there is another problem to be solved. When it's just maintenance, though, then it's time to leave. Don't forget to actually do that part.

And that is how 24 minutes with the Lone Ranger turned into a rant on consulting software engineers. Now, back to the fake Wild West for me!

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