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Thoughts on Steve Job on consulting

My manager at Khan Academy sent me an old video of Steve Jobs talking about the idea of consulting:

Here are some of the key quotes:

Without owning something over an extended period of time–like a few years–where one has a chance to take responsibility for one’s recommendations, where one has to see one’s recommendations through all action stages and accumulate scar tissue for the mistakes, and pick oneself up off the ground and dust oneself off, one learns a fraction of what one can.

Coming in and making recommendations and not owning the results and not owning the implementation–I think–is a fraction of the value and a fraction of the opportunity to learn and get better.

You do get a broad cut at companies, but it’s very thin. … You might get a very accurate picture, but it’s only two dimensional. And without the experience of actually doing it, you never get three dimensional.

You’re also a variable expense, and in hard times you find yourself [expendable].

I don’t have much experience with consultants, but his thoughts seem to ring true.

It’s easy to stand at a distance and make recommendations. On the lay end of the spectrum, millions of people do this every week to the manager of their favorite sports team every week. And then there is a whole class of professional pundits who make suggestions and critique decisions in (and too often outside) their sphere of expertise.

The ideal situation would be a consultant who has a long track record of working in the weeds through difficult problems in different scenarios. They’ve seen what worked, what didn’t and why. With that experience, you could trust their opinions and confidently follow their recommendations.

That reminds me of the proverb:

Seek first to understand, then to be understood

Or updated for consultants:

Seek first to understand the problem, context, constraints, history, technology, and best practices over a long period of time, then to be understood

Unless you truly understand all of that, why should others bother listening? That is a humbling question for me as I move into the next stage of my career.

Food for thought!



About the author

Sean McPherson is a software engineer for Khan Academy who specializes in web and mobile app development. He lives with his wife, sons, and dog in Pittsburgh, PA.