Consulting 101: Credibility and Integrity

Let me preface this treatise with a message to those in my audience who actually know me in person. I’ve been doing what I do for almost 18 years. My blog posts are a compilation of observations stretching that whole time and back into my years in grade school. I do not refer to anyone in particular any of you and I may know. My blogs are mostly about me.
How many times can a restaurant you frequent get your order wrong before you stop spending your money there? How many times can a garage fail to fix your car before you take it somewhere else for service? As a consultant, contractor, or subject matter expert, how many mistakes is your customer willing to forgive? I don’t know either, so I always shoot for perfection.
In my practice, the struggle for perfection means I will not quickly offer my gut feeling on a solution to a problem. I want to research the situation and think it over for some time until I am comfortable taking a position. The discipline to be 99% sure about something before I share it helps me avoid mistakes. The more often I’m right the more my credibility builds. The buildup of credibility eventually leads to my customers’ increasing confidence in my work. And that’s great because, a lack of confidence in my expertise always manifests itself as more time wasted in explanations, healthy debate, and sometimes fruitless arguments about things I’m at least 99% sure of.
Relatively, I do not propose solutions that I cannot implement 100% myself. There is a theme of helplessness prevailing through some workplace environments; taking the shape of people who will not lift a finger to figure something out without being fully trained and having a stack of documentation. I’m going to put on my old fogey hat now and relate to you, my audience, how my first ASP web sites were written in notepad. My “simulator” was an actual Windows NT server with IIS and FrontPage extensions. In those days there wasn’t any documentation really because we were figuring it out as we went. I was handed a challenge that usually looked nothing like requirements and told to go figure it out. I did figure it out without training and it made a better professional out of me.
So when I say, “Let’s do it this way.” I mean I can do the whole thing this way myself if I have to. I’m 99% sure it will meet all the requirements on paper and the several that you haven’t thought of yet.
Now, I am human and I do make mistakes. Under the perfection mandate, I strive to find my mistakes and fix them before everyone notices. I once worked for a company where the products all had a call home feature. When there was an error the system would either dial in or FTP a message to a system in the home office that would create a ticket and kick off a workflow for resolution. I was so impressed by the fact that a customer could come in the office in the morning to find an email from tech support notifying them an error was detected and fixed remotely overnight and the customer suffered no outage as a result. I strive to conduct my business the same way by fixing an issue as soon as I determine it’s my responsibility and then explaining what happened and how I fixed it. That’s exercising integrity to build credibility. The value of building credibility is always greater than the perceived liability of admitting to bugs with integrity.
All that said, every action has its equal and opposite reaction. There will always be competitive forces… or persons who will work to build credibility through damaging yours. After all, it seems hard to build credibility by simply agreeing with someone else all the time even if the other person has a 99% success rate. The perception is that always agreeing with another makes one a follower or toady. Likewise, some resources are hiding the fact that they will not succeed with your proposal because it involves things they haven’t been trained on. Yes, the corporate business environment often mirrors school yard factions carving out various spheres of dominance. Woe unto the executive staff that has to always play teacher or referee. Truly, you have to pity decision makers who are constantly dealing with weak personalities who cannot tolerate others discovering they may not be perfect, so seek to advance solely through bringing down others.
The school yard provides the tactic for dealing with this. Get to teacher first! Luckily, if you’re catching, fixing, and admitting to your short comings before anyone notices, your competition shows up to tattle on you and looks rather foolish. Teacher says, “Yes I know. He told me and corrected the issue in such a seamless matter we never knew anything was wrong.”
Don’t misunderstand. It makes me sick that adults conduct themselves in this matter. It’s one of the reasons I sought the freedom of working for myself. Even now, when these situations arise, I suffer less than healthy rises in blood pressure. Why do we have to go through this schoolyard battle again after I’ve already built up all this credibility? The point is to revert back to the idea of not immediately going with gut reactions mentioned above. Don’t fall into the competitive traps. Diligently building credibility through accuracy and integrity should, in theory, pay off in the long run. Optionally, find a sub-contractor and throw them to the wolves.

Open Suck… I mean Open Source

If you’re reading this for a socialist country, I’m sorry but you’re going to struggle to understand the basic premise of this discussion. The application of a common cliché in capitalist societies, “You get what you pay for” I believe is universally appropriate. From my father-in-law, who bought the cheapest satellite service and complains incessantly about how much he wishes he had the same cable service I have but is unwilling to pay the higher service charges, to out sourcing call centers to regions of the world that speak a different language than the users of this service, to booking a cheaper hotel near the Orlando amusements with free shuttle service that’s just a glorified, overcrowded city bus without the graffiti. Going cheap is almost always going to disappoint. But this is a technical blog and my focus is Business Intelligence.

I’m working on a favor for a friend and I wanted to take this opportunity to explore some new technology. This friend of mine doesn’t have any budget for this project so I’m looking for cost effective components for this application that’s simply client front end to an RDBMS. My friend runs a small collection of Windows 7 desktops, I love Entity Framework, I’m proficient in Visual Studio, and I don’t need a “Big Data” solution. So I start thinking Open Source. Alright, hurdle 1, I’m not a java guy, and some of you might start harping about how Ruby, Rails, PHP running on Apache, Beans and Java all vastly different things…. I’m not into any of them; they’re all Java to me. A lifetime ago I played with swing and it sucked on Windows. Most Java apps I see run in Windows, are crap.

I don’t want to go into an in depth discussion on all the options, but I decided to investigate PostreSQL based on a recommendation from someone in my network who swears by it. One of the things I liked is the multi-OS support. Just in case the world turns upside down and I want to install the database one something other than a Microsoft OS, I thought I’d work with an RDBMS that would work the same no matter where it was installed with ne common client. The installation was smooth enough. I installed everything and clicked next, next, next… no errors. Good. Then I started researching ADO .NET clients to support Entity Framework, that’s where the wheels fell off.

In the realm of free providers to go with the free RDBMS; there is an OLEDB provider pgnpoledb, multiple JDBC drivers, and one ODBC/.NET provider npgsql. Now, I’m skeptical man and before I went down the path of actually trying to connect Entity Framework to the PostgreSQL database I decided to read the npgsql wiki. Pages were devoted to all the different issues and bugs, what was or wasn’t being submitted for acceptance in GitHub. From the headache mounting on my cranium, I could tell this option was going to require maybe a bit more effort than I was willing to invest in a favor for a friend. A lot of posters were pointing to the .NET provider for PostgreSQL from DevArt. Long story short, $199 for what I wanted… Wait a second I thought this crap was all Open Source and free!

Let’s just explore this concept, which has long been my complaint with the Open Source stack. If your goal is to create a mission critical high availability enterprise application with the Open Source offerings, you must be prepared to not only code your application, but also the platform on which it runs, or abandon the “Potentially Free” benefits of Open Source by purchasing licensed products to augment and stabilize the Open Source platforms. Option 1 means roughly doubling your workforce or your time to market. You need resources to code the platform and resources to code the application or resources that do both, but really only one at a time. Option 2 cuts into your equipment and tools budget and you need to verify what the vendor’s royalty and redistribution requirements are. No one wants to depend on a component that requires $1000 royalty for every user on a 40,000 seat client server application, right?

There are other Open Source challenges I love to joke with the diehard apologists I know. Like the fact that your favorite platform was written by one talented foreigner who doesn’t speak your language and only responds to email questions once a week when the internet service satellite flies over his bunker. I like a challenge as much as the next person, and I sympathize with the desire to revolt against the powerful software companies that are so slow to accommodate user needs. But, I’m just not willing to chance providing a service, where contractually I have to pay a refund for every minute of down time, dependent on a platform that was developed by hobbyists and amateurs.

Look at the example I stated above where the free provider has lots of challenges and the paid one is stable and supports all features of the toolset it’s meant to service. Developers whose livelihood (paycheck) is dependent on the successful execution of a project are naturally going to be more motivated to generate a better product than those who are working merely to support a community. Likewise, those tasks that facilitate the collection of said paycheck will take priority over the needs of a community, which leads you to have more down time as you wait for someone to get off from work (or high school marching band practice and homework) to fix a bug in the platform your product depends on and publish it to GitHub.