Or why I choose to be a full-time coach.
“Explain to me again why we’re going to be renaming projects ‘missions’ and our teams are now ‘squadrons’?”
My boss waved his hand vaguely, “It’s the new consultants we brought in. Bunch awesome hot-shots. Their workshop was totally eye opening. I mean the military has been running fast projects for decades. Why didn’t we think of it sooner?”
‘Because we’re a data processing company with absolutely zero to do with the military’, I thought.
“Anyway,” he continued, “I think we should roll their recommendations out. You’re the coach, what do you think?”
What did I think? I tried to fathom the depths of his question and failing that I went with the obvious. “Well it’s hard for me to say. I didn’t go to the training so all I have is this promotional flyer you just handed me.”
My boss nodded gravely. “Yeah, that was unfortunate. But you’re a contractor so the company can’t send you to training.” He clapped his hands on the desk, and pushed himself to his feet. “Tell you what, spend some time Googling it and give me an assessment tomorrow. I’ve got to get to the strategy planning meeting.”
I started to open my mouth only to have my boss wave me to silence. “I know, I know. It would be so much easier if you could be in the meeting. Confidential company data and all though. I’ll brief you on what you need to know tomorrow.”
And with that he was gone, leaving me in his office staring at the flyer of some consultant, who I didn’t get to talk to, that I was supposed to give my opinion on how to implement. I buried my head in my hands and contemplated becoming a beat farmer.
“Hey,” the voice was deep and earthy “was that your boss I just saw walk into a conference room with those Fly Right Consultants?”
Oh my day couldn’t get any worse. Not only was my own personal gorilla here to torment me, he was telling me even the consultants get to go to the meeting I should be running. “Go away Hogarth, I’m not in the mood.”
“Yeah well how do you think I feel. You try explaining to the security rhino why you need a security pass when you’re just the figment of a contractor’s imagination. You’d think a fellow hourly guy would have some sympathy for my plight.”
I hadn’t sufficiently tuned out Hogarth and what he said pierced into my brain, jumping me into action. “Holy …., I forgot to put in my time card!” I started to jump from my chair only to be stopped by Hogarth’s massive hand in front of my face.
“Don’t worry, I turned it in for you this morning?”
I blinked. “This morning! It’s 6:00 pm how can you know how many hours I worked today?”
Hogarth gave a dismissive shrug. “It’s not like that matters, you know they’ll only pay you for forty hours no matter how many you actually work.”
Not for the first time I came to the conclusion that being a contractor sucks.
Agile Contractor, Agile Consultant, Agile Coach, the continuum
There are several paths to becoming an agile coach (leader, champion, guru, insert your adjective of choice). The most common path starts first with being a scrum master and then moving up into being an agile coach. A less common path is doing program management in an agile organization and moving from there into agile coaching.
What about once you are an agile coach? What then? How will you collect your paycheck? What is your place in the organization? As I see it, there are three paths one can take as an agile coach. Coach, Consultant, Contractor. Let’s review how these work, their pros and cons.
Full Time Agile Coach: A full time coach is perhaps the rarest form of agile employee you will find today (2016). While full-time scrum masters are not uncommon, the coach is more often a consultant or contractor with a sharply limited engagement. And I see this as a tragedy. The full-time coach is perhaps the most effective and cost-efficient solution a company will find. Sure, being a full-time coach does not offer the short-term satisfaction that consulting does. What it does offer is stability, trust and the ability to make real changes.
Benefits of being a Full-Time Coach: Longevity and trust. As a full-time coach you are not under the tight time windows so often imposed on consultants. And being full-time means you have the time and position to build trust with your teams, manager and company. In a good company (life’s to short not to work for good companies) you have the time to get to know your teams and build up relationships and trust before you start getting into the deep work of agile coaching.
Downsides of being a Full-Time Coach: You’re in the system. When you are inside of a company, reporting into the management structure and working within the politics, you lose a certain amount of authority and power. You can’t call on the “hero for hire” aura to push through your ideas. You may know the exact right thing that needs to be done. That’s great, now you have to convince your management. It can be a frustratingly teeth gnashing feeling to know and not be able to do. You also have to get used to change moving slower. Your company isn’t losing you at the end of the contract and working hard to push everything through.
Consultant Agile Coach: As a consultant you can feel like one of the Magnificent Seven (either the Samurai or Western version). You are hired for your specific expertise and when you come into an organization your word carries a voice of authority that can sway the course of CEOs much less the rank and file employee. You need to speak that authority fast though and you need to make it stick because you won’t be around for long.
Benefits to being an Agile Consultant: The “Expert” aura. Companies pay good money to hire consultants. Something about investing lot’s of money in you means you’re listened to; given access to people, meetings, and information; even given a certain amount of authority to make changes. It’s a really big advantage. It is however pretty much your only advantage. Yes, it is common for consultants to know a lot and have a deeper set of experiences than your average Full-Time or Contract Coach. This is not a benefit though, it’s just a recognition that currently the consultant space draws a high percentage of the top tier coaches. The other advantage of being a consultant is shared with contractors, that being “control of destiny”. A consultant, particularly the independent consultant, gets to pick and choose their clients and can choose to work or not work. A full time coach doesn’t get to say “I don’t like this team, I’m not working with them.” A consultant can do this (though if they do it too often they find their phone stops ringing).
Downside of being an Agile Consultant: The agile consultants are heroes, therefore they are expected to work miracles. The miracle they are usually expected to work is to make a difference in a vanishingly short time window. Ninety days in not an uncommon duration for a consulting engagement. Ninety days is a brutally short time window to get anything done in. In, The Ninety Day Gorilla, I talk about how a full time employee should practice the mantra “Do no harm” in their first ninety days. For a consultant the money often runs out by the time ninety days are up and if they haven’t made some kind of impact, they won’t be asked to come back again. Worse yet, the client will talk to their friends and those friends are no longer potential clients. If you can’t hit the ground running, cure world hunger, make the client happy, all in three months, consulting may not be for you.
Consultants also come in two major flavors, Independent and “Firm”.
The independent contractor is the ultimate in self-determination. They hang out their shingle on the power of their name alone. You hire that one person and bring them in for their expertise. If you’re lucky and wildly successful (Jeff Sutherland, Joe Justice, Mike Cohn) you can afford a staff to help you. Otherwise you are coach, bizdev, bookkeeper, scheduler and receptionist all in one. You’re also always chasing the next paycheck. Even while helping profitable client A, you’re actively working to land client B, D and C.
“Firm” consultants work for a larger organization. In agile some of the big names are SolutionsIQ, Leading Agile, and Thoughtworks). Agency consultants have some more security than the independent and much more than the contractor. If you’re good, the firm will take care of you. You will probably get benefits, bonuses and a certain amount of immunity from the “what’s my next gig?” panic. You might even end up on “bench time” where you are being paid to do mostly nothing (write training, blogs, help with BizDev).
Contractor Agile Coach: Where as the Consultant is hired “hero”, a contractor can often feel like they were picked up at the local “Henchmens ‘r Us” outlet. A contractor is hired as an hourly employee that works within a company’s normal organizational structure. They are contracted through an outside agency who issues their paycheck and benefits (if applicable). They report to a manager within the company they are contracted to. Thanks to past legal cases, contracts are always for a fixed term so as to not ever imply the contractor is an actual employee. Depending on the company the max term usually ranges from twelve months to two years. Since this is not a fixed law, smaller companies tend to pay less attention to this and I’ve seen five plus year contractors at post startup, pre-IPO companies.
Benefits to being an Agile Coach Contractor: Honestly, not a lot. Like an independent consultant, the greatest benefit is you are in total control of your destiny. You interview with a “client” on your own merits. You decide when to work and when not to work. The advantage over independent consultant is that the contracting agency handles all the pesky paperwork for getting paid, benefits and the like. If you’re not ready to hang out your own shingle and don’t want to work for an established consulting firm, this is the greatest path of independence you can find.
Downside of being an Agile Coach Contractor: You’re getting the short end of the FTE and Consultant sticks. Contractors are considered “Staff Augmentation”, so they are treated as part of the organization they work for. They report to a company employee and are almost always the “junior” person in any department. Staff Augmentation means you don’t have the aura of being a hired “expert”.
And as a contractor you have the same fixed time window of a consultant. Last year I interviewed with one of the old enterprise players in Silicon Valley (you know the companies that were the big guns until Google and Facebook came along and Apple started their “i” wave of products). They were trying to engineer an end-to-end agile transformation of a core business unit. Only they were looking to hire an agile coach on a three month contract and expecting significant results in that three months.
So without the mantle of “expert” given to a consultant, a contractor has a doubly hard time being successful in the short time window given. That company I interviewed with last year is on something like their seventh agile coach contractor and no closer to real change than they were two years ago.
I’ve worked as a contractor, a consultant and a full time employee. While few would support contractor as the preferred way to earn a paycheck, the “Consultant or Full-Time” question is common.
For me the answer has become clear. I find it much more fulfilling to be a full-time coach. I’m not saying I won’t consult again in the future. What I am saying is that being a full-time coach I believe is the best combination of pros and cons of all the options.
Of course an even bigger question is what should companies hire?
You’ll have to wait until the next blog for that answer.
This blogs is a prequel to my upcoming Agile Coaches Playbook series. This blog is specifically inspired by my session at Agile Open Northern California on Oct 9 and 10. Special thanks to Mike Register, Sam Lipson, Ravi Tadlwaker, Arielle Mali, Eric Johnson, and Gautam Ramamurthy for their great contributions.