Chilling condemnation of those selling abstract deliverables

As I read this article in MIT's The Tech it left me feeling slightly ill. Back came all the memories. This article isn't just about what a crock of s**t consulting often is. It pertains to many industries selling abstract outcomes for lots of money, such as... oh, um... software. Never before have I seen the truth so bluntly told about selling clients what they want not what is good for them.

In the IT industry we sell abstract digital sequences. We can depict them as anything at all. In business consulting they sell abstract concepts and plans, which they can depict to be anything at all. Often the result feels morally much like working for a tobacco company. The article hits the nail on the head with "burning out isn’t just about work load, it’s about work load being greater than the motivation to do work".

Me before I quit my job:
Me a year later:

Of course I don't agree with his conclusion that "having a father who can pay for a top-notch education outweighs the disadvantage of being raised by a hypocrite". I'd rather look my son in the eye (and next year he starts an expensive private high school, we'll just struggle more to meet the fees). I felt so strongly about this I built a website about quitting your job at Perhaps not the best advice in the current climate, but then again f**k it: hard economic times generate opportunity. If they make you eat s**t all day, quit. (or if you are in sales support, you don't have to eat it like the salesmen, you just have to hold it in your mouth when in front of clients. Still quit.) Have some dignity. I don't make half what I used to but I'm proud of what I do now. I create value. I only charge for the work I do. And I tell clients what they need to hear.

Read that article and tell me which bits aren't true. And laugh along with the fabulous story of the rock.


Moral System

The author lost me after mentioning the basis of utilitarian moral system - I cringe at the thought of reading stolen business documents- that could be considered theft of intellectual property and penalties can include jail time. Illegally downloaded MP3s are not a victimless crime. We have copyright laws to protect the incomes of both the artist and the distributor.


How did he lose you? He found it as repugnant as we do.

It is also rife in the IT industry, consultants and clients alike. "It's OK so long as you don't share it outside our company".

The hideous Reality

I've tried hard throughout my consultancy and training career to be as morally sound as I can. I absolutely agree that there are consultants who work their fingers to the bone trying to help clients, consultants who work unpaid hours and take home worries that have never crossed the mind of whoever is paying the bill. Consultants who often know they are being paid to say what no one else will say, to point a finger at the elephant in the room.

But I would be remiss if I didn't admit that I also know there are people in the consultancy industry whose morals are contingent at best. Commonly these people are known as "partners"

I call B.S. on the article.

I call B.S. on the article. Too many unicorns.

- "They sent us vague requests for proposal, we returned vague case proposals, and by the time we were hired, no one was the wiser as to why exactly we were there."

A consultancy producing vague proposals is a business on the express lane to extinction. While clients certainly produce vague RFPs, most are way too seasoned -- and protected by procurement or vendor management -- to allow themselves to accept vague proposals or deliverables. Haven't seen it since the mid-90s. Clients who do pay money for such things soon find themselves on the unemployment line.

- "Putting together PowerPoint slides was easy, the hours were lenient, and the fifth day of every week usually consisting of a leisurely day away from the client site."

Consultancies are notorious for cultures sustained by Type-A workaholics. There is a reason they call it up-or-out. "Lenient hours" is akin to saying "billable hours aren't a big deal". Doesn't compute.

- "...I was handed consulting reports that had been stolen from our competitors."

In this post-Enron world, this borders on incredulous. No NDA protects a firm from illegal activities. Could it have happened? Sure. But to casually involve a new hire on a clearly criminal act for such a trivial reason? I'm dubious.

rings true

You make some good points about type-A consultant workaholics. I'm sure both viewpoints are true. in Dubai at that time I bet many consultants were cruising - it is that lack-of-motivation thing again. I must also say i've seen some pretty damn lazy consultants from what we used to call the Fat Four too. All his other points still stand regardless - seems like other people recognise them too.

You are quite right that the consultants who make the most revenue are the most successful, and those who turn down work because it is not in the client's interest eventually get driven out of the industry.


It feels a bit absurd reading a "22-year-old and redundant" tell-all confession, especially based on 5-6 months on his first job. Clearly he is venting, as he could have expressed his moral indignation by quitting prior. Instead he expresses the loss of his dream job and early retirement (see his blog) as a damning critique on the entire consulting industry.

The Dubai experience sounds like a poorly assembled and very green team in a new and unfamiliar market. Happens to all businesses at some time or another. Happens too often on Wall Street. But extrapolating these situations across the board is silly. I count BCG folks (and others from certain consultancies) as some of the hardest working and talented people I've had the pleasure of meeting.

My experience in a big consultancy is very different. I was surrounded by honest, talented and passionate people who thrived on solving the toughest problems clients had to offer. This was the norm, not the exception. Alas, most are in no rush to go to industry, as they are not cut out to go into the same cubicle year after year, working on the same stale problem for frustrated managers who will inevitably turn to consultants anyway. In the IT industry, its better to be a profit center than a cost.

In denial

I agree the article is the whining of a young pup. But like any young pup he speaks truths that others have come to live with. He gets angry where we just get tired.

Yes, there are all kinds in any industry. there are good people and corrupted people, good companies and corrupted companies. Anybody who says what he describes doesn't go on is in denial. He lived it. I've lived it. Several others commenting on this thread have lived it. We aren't making this up. There are plenty of companies selling abstract outcomes of various forms (consulting, software...) who sell bullshit without the best interests of the client in mind. I'd go so far as to say it's rife.

Pull your head out of the sand.

Its about adding value and staying Win - Win.

Sorry, I cannot agree with this article. I have been doing consulting for Business and Service Management for going on 20 years.
My experience is that building long term relationships always focuses on integrity and delivering value.

More than once we walked away from work because the client was not ready. Providing some feedback as to what they needed to do to prepare. In almost every case, they came back to us when the time was right. Not just from one vertical, I and my (now ex) colleagues have done work with Government, Industry, Finance, Oil and Utilities. In each consulting engagement, they were about making things better.

I was taught by my mentors to create win win relationships. In the end, isn't that the whole point of ITSM? Think about the service and deliver value. Snake oil salesmen exist everywhere, ethics and integrity seperate the wheat from the chaff everytime.

Turning down work

There is a middle way, that I think we followed quite successfully at Quint in the UK, but I think is much harder now. We would often put in an additional "non compliant" response saying in effect "We think what you really meant to say is..." Very often this struck a chord with the person who had initiated the RFI or tender. There are also times when it is helpful to get the client to be ultra specific about what they want. To give an example two clients could both say they want to "move to ITIL v3" but mean very different things by it. Client A might have a specific need that v3 addresses, for instance formulating a strategy in service terms. Client B might just want a shift to all staff being aware of the scope of v3.

As for type A workaholics the question is always whether their approach makes them more effective. There are times when I know they are vital, but they are rubbish, to use a technical term, when dealing with an organisation that has a more relaxed but long term perspective. I worked with a great and lovely American guy who I would recommend tomorrow, but he could not understand that when our European clients went to have a coffee they were actually working hard to find a solution on common ground, or that when the xxxxxx clients said "Yes we will work night and day to make this happen" they were just being polite because they knew it was what he wanted to hear. On the other hand sometimes you just need someone to work flat out and ask what time of day it is when they emerge at the other end.

As for Dubai I suspect if you were there you could quite easily distinguish between consultants with different attitudes:

- This is the kids's education paid for as long as I just keep saying yes
- Why won't these people listen to me, and keep telling me to speak to non-natives?
- I really don't like their moral position
- Hey, I don't like their moral position, but money talks
- I don't like their moral position, but they are asking me to do something, and I'll do it to the best of my ability
- Did he really just deliberately break a glass and then expect one of his minions to pick up every shard by hand?
- Hey I'm having a good time, what is the problem?

Story rings true

I have encountered some excellent consultants, and a fair share of absolutely horrible ones. In general small firms tend to live by word-of-mouth and therefore perform better, while the big firms are more willing to send in some trainees (unless they are called on it by competent management).

I disagree

I'm sorry, but from my time at a wannabe major consultancy it all sounds very familiar, especially if we are talking general management consultants rather than those with a specific practical skill set. In fact often what starts out as a well thought out initial requirement is often turned into something vague by the time it passes through all the internal hoops. Just seen it with a major organisation where the CIO wanted a specific ITIL simulation but is now being forced to put out a proposal for generic management training to keep all the other stakeholders happy.

Lenient hours = let us stretch the day out, getting in before the client and leaving afterwards so we can charge them, but not doing the work that actually matters until 48 hours before the final presentation, or when a partner is on site.

NDAs in the consultancy world aren't worth the paper they are written on. Again I think the generalist consultancies are much worse at this than than those with a focus on a particular expertise. I've met a lot of "ITIL experts" from the big firms who last week were SOA experts and know less about the subject than their clients.

Self justification

I found the UK's consultancy industry's response to the article almost as enlightening

Self-delusion appears to be alive and well amongst the junior ranks.

I can empathise with the author

I can fully empathise with the author. When I was consulting, I walked away from a job where the customer wanted to dodgy up the result of the analysis. On another occasion I put the relationship with what was at the time quite a powerful alliance partner by telling the truth in a business case and advising the customer to not embark on the expensive infrastructure project.

Now, in the public sector, I see this sort of behaviour at its worst. Contractors and consultants feathering their own nests and a voice of reason (perceived as dissent) being placed in the outer.

He's right - you get burnout, not from working too hard, but by losing all motivation to do more than just the minimum.

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