IT Consulting and the commute from hell

It’s a significant challenge to be smiling and optimistic when you are spending several hours a day looking out the front windshield of your car and seeing something like this…

CFH

Add in rain, sleet and snow; and it is next to impossible to keep a smile on your face! (This is why I moved to Dallas – less sleet and snow). This is often the reality of IT consulting especially when you work in parts of America where a one hour commute (each way) is considered commonplace. The commute can be extremely challenging for an IT consultant even when working for an organization focused on providing local work for their consultants.

 

What is a local people local work focused consulting organization?

Most of my consulting career has been working for organizations which focus on employing local consultants and local clients. The concept behind this approach to consulting is to develop a branch location and hire personnel locally (or transfer them to that location). This allows the organization to build relationships with clients nearby so that local consulting personnel can staff the majority of the engagements.

There are four primary benefits to the local travel model for consulting when compared with a regional travel based consulting organization:

  1. This provides a better work/life balance for most consultants as they can be home on a nightly basis versus on the road for the week and only home on the weekend.
  2. This type of consulting model often appeals to consultants who have families or consultants who are tired of being on the road on a weekly basis.
  3. This model builds a more cohesive team as consultants work together more frequently and are able to gather in person for meetings, and company functions, or exchanging ideas.
  4. This model provides a stronger bond between the sales and delivery portions of the consulting organization as well as with the clients that consult. This long term working arrangement often results in a situation where the consulting organization becomes a trusted advisor for the client.

There are four major detriments to the local travel model for consulting:

  1. Client organizations have a long memory – one bad engagement with a client can mean that the consulting organization will no longer be able to do business with that client. While this is true for all consulting organizations, this is a bigger risk to the local travel consulting model as there is a limited pool of clients within the local geographical area.
  2. The local travel model does not work well when selling engagements outside of the geographic boundaries as the organization is not designed to provide delivery to these areas. Additionally, sales personnel are often assigned to specific clients within the geographic area, resulting in more focus on those accounts; however, this in turn results in an inability to deliver effectively outside of the geographic boundary.
  3. The local travel model does not work well in situation when the local branch either does not have local consulting personnel with the required skill-set or does not have availability in the local branch for the requirements that the client needs assistance with. Consulting personnel can travel between branch office locations to staff client engagements, but in general this results in a decreased consultant satisfaction due to the fact that they joined an organization based on local people/local work. Consulting organizations attempt to offset this by setting expectations with the consultants that they will be up to a certain percent on non-local travel (50% or 25% as an example).
  4. Regional consulting organizations allow their consultants to live anywhere in the region as they will be traveling during the week anyways. Proximity to a major airport is preferred but not required as the consultant is responsible for being able to travel where it is required. Consultants in a local travel based consulting organization need to live within the geographic boundaries of the organization and will benefit from living close to the center of the geography.

The interesting concept on this topic is what the word "local" means. A local office placed in a geography serves that entire geography. As an example, an organization would be unlikely to put offices in both Tulsa and Oklahoma City OK. Nor would an organization put an office in both Dallas and Fort Worth. For each of these situations as an example, a single branch location would be founded to serve each of the markets in that geography. Geographically based offices generally cover a circular distance from the office ranging about 1.5 – 2 hours in any direction from the location of the office. Let’s take the DFW metroplex as an example, focusing on a Dallas based consulting organization. This organization would be looking for client engagements in Dallas and up to an hour or an hour in a half in any direction (this makes approximate boundaries of: northern boundary of Sherman Texas, far west Fort Worth, far east Dallas, and a southern boundary of Waco) shown in the figure below by the green circle.

CFH4 

In each geographic area, the organization will also start to locate hot-spots where a lot of businesses exist. For DFW these hot spots are shown by the red circles on the map above focused on Fort Worth, Dallas, Plano and Irving. These hot spots are the common point of travel for the consultants in that geography.

 

Why is this different as a consultant versus anyone else working in this area?

When you start a job with a non-consulting company, you know where the job is located and you know what type of a commute you are committing yourself to. When you join a consulting organization, you don’t really know what you are committing yourself to as far as the daily commute. Your commutes could be almost non-existent or you could be driving several hours a day.

 

How does this work out on a daily basis?

I’ll admit, when I’m getting up before the sun rises and driving to what seems to be the other side of the planet it’s hard to remember why this was "logical". This is especially true when one of my colleagues lives 10 minutes from the client site that I’m driving to. To determine why we need to step back and look at how I got here.

The sales team for a consulting organization is responsible for selling work within their geography. Their goal is to develop a client relationship based upon successful consulting engagements so that the consulting organization can continue to do work for the client. The management team is responsible for determining which consultant has the best match of skills for the client’s requirements based upon the pool of available consultants. 99% of determining which consultant is going where is determined by who has the best chance of succeeding at a client engagement and who is available in a timeframe which will work within the client’s timeframe. Only once these considerations are evaluated is anything like the commute required from the consultant put into consideration – and only if there happens to be two consultants with the same skill-set and the same availability (needless to say, this doesn’t happen often). 

This is an example of where consulting can be a great job or a horrible job. Sometimes you draw the great commute where you can bicycle from your house to your client engagement (I’ll also admit that while I have been that close to a client site I never actually did bicycle there). Sometimes you draw the horrible commute where it’s an hour and a half each way and it would make more sense to just get a hotel for the week to reclaim the 15 hours of commute time spent that week.

Where you live as a consultant in the local geography really doesn’t matter most of the time as long as it’s within the geographic boundaries of the consulting organization. The further out you live from the office center the longer potential commute you will draw. As an example, as a consultant living on Fort Worth with a Dallas based office results in a reasonable commute time on the west side of the geography but results in an extremely long commute when client engagements are on the north, east or south side of the geography. The same can be said for a consultant living as an example on the north side of the geography, as commutes to the west, east or south sides of the geography can be an extremely long commute. The choice of where to live resides with the consultant but the impacts to the commute are theirs as well. I once worked with a consultant who lived in Indiana and worked in Illinois around the Chicago metroplex (needless to say, there is no such thing as a short commute from Indiana to Chicago in my opinion).

 

How to minimize the commute time as a consultant?

It is difficult to be extremely productive when a forty hour work week minimum is increased by a 15 hour commute time. The following are several methods I have seen used to effectively minimize the impact of extremely long commutes for consultants:

  1. If the client is flexible on the start and end times, arrange to start early and leave early or start late and leave late.
  2. Schedule four long days (arriving early and staying late and working for 10 hours a day as an example) versus five 8 hour days with longer commute times.
  3. Some client work can be done remotely through technologies such as Microsoft’s Lync for phone calls or Remote Desktop and Direct Access/VPN for server work. These approaches provide a way to cut the total commute time for the week either somewhat by working remote occasionally or completely when working a client engagement entirely from a remote location. The challenge with remote locations is without face to face time with clients, it is difficult or impossible to effectively maintain a strong working relationship which is key to a successful client engagement.
  4. If the client is not flexible on start and end times, arrange to drive early and arrive early. There are a variety of places available to get Internet connectivity (such as Starbucks, McDonalds, a public library, etc) which can provide a base to work from to make productive use of time instead of spending the extra hour a day stuck in traffic and frustrated. Worst-case you can use a mobile hotspot, connect your laptop to it and work in your car for a short period of time (Yes… I am sitting in my car right now as I type this).
  5. Bringing your own lunch and working through lunch can work to provide more billable hours in the day and make it possible to avoid some of the worst of the traffic.

Let’s take a recent client engagement as an example; door to door each way was 1.5 hours in traffic, or 3 hours a day on the road. Driving at non-peak times I was able to decrease this to 45 minutes each way or 1.5 hours a day on the road. This freed up 1.5 hours for the day (or 7.5 hours per week if applied each day of the week). The approach I took for this client was to get up early to bypass traffic, work at Starbucks before the client day could start, work through lunch at the client and drive home early to bypass the worst of the traffic on the way back. As with every decision in life there is a cost and a benefit. The cost means either less sleep or going to bed earlier, and shifting other priorities such as my morning workout to now occurring in the evening.

Bonus Tip from the field: This article has focused on how to minimize commute time. If you are stuck in the car one of my colleagues recommends downloading TechNet and other industry podcasts for the trip or even a good audio book to relax to. This way even though you are stuck in traffic, the time isn’t going to waste and you are still gaining valuable information, or just plain relaxing!

 

Key take-a-ways:

  • Sales and consulting organizations leaders don’t often factor in what the commute time is for a client engagement – nor should they.
  • For the consultant: The important thing to remember when you draw the short straw on the commute from hell is that "this too shall pass". One of the biggest benefits to consulting is that each client engagement is not permanent, so the commute is not permanent either. It’s also important to remember that sales is doing their job – to identify client opportunities for the consultants to work at. It’s easy to become passively aggressive to sales personnel for sales engagements which would result in extremely long commutes but this is bad for the consulting organization and potentially for other consultants. What may be a horrible commute for you could be the best commute ever for a colleague who may end up working that engagement.
  • For the clients: Try to be flexible with your consultants to allow them to address commute situations by allowing one or more of the five items listed in the “How to minimize the commute time as a consultant” section of this blog post.
  • For the sales team:
    • Remember that your consultants in the field are working on your client sites and trying to succeed at whatever they were tasked at. If you know that the commute time for the consultant will be excessive, initiate conversations early with the client to see what approaches will work to bring this more into balance.
    • While consultants need to assist the sales team with pre-sales type engagements it cannot be done in a way that it results in problems at the current client.  Be aware where your consultants are located; if they are on a client site on one side of the geography try to avoid sending that consultant to a sales call on the other side of the geography or at least schedule it for early or late in the day to minimize the client impact.
    • Don’t expect consultants to do sales calls while they are working on extremely short client engagements. There is very little which sets a more negative tone with a client than to have the consultant show up, do a kick off meeting, leave for several hours in the middle of the day, and then come back to wrap up the day.

 

I hope that this blog posts helps to provide some new insights on IT consulting and commuting – I owe huge thanks to Matthew Dowst and Larry Rayl for their insights on this topic!

 
Coming next week! Details on an approach to identify “optimal” commute times.

 

[Please note: The blog post above represents my personal opinions and may not reflect the views and opinions of my employer or any of my colleagues.]

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