Archive for the ‘consulting’ Category

Reflections on consulting part 5 – what languages and tools to learn?

May 12, 2010

What languages and tools should you learn as a math/stat consultant?  To jump to the answer: Excel/VBA, SQL, R, Java, and Python.

Spreadsheets have many problems with verifiability and scalability, so why Excel?

Excel is:

  • Useful for prototyping ideas quickly, either for your own use or to show to other team members
  • Well-known and understood by many business users – no need to explain a new system to them
  • A useful cross-check on work in other languages
  • Zero marginal cost – people will assume you have Windows anyway and send you Word and Excel docs, so you have to get it
  • Actually has some nice features – Solver lets you do Maximum Likelihood Estimation, Pivot Tables give quick and easy summaries

If you’re consulting, you should at least know the basics of Excel.  Learning introductory VB is also very worthwhile, and there are a number of perfectly fine analytic systems than run in Excel/VBA.  Yes, there are problems with extending to a full enterprise-level system, but you can deal with that in a follow-on engagement.

SQL?  Pretty much everything you’ll do is either an input that comes from a database, or an output that should be stored in one.  And it allows for very basic data analysis.

R.  Unlike my fellow bloggers at Win-Vector, I’m not a big fan of R.  But you can do a lot of statistics in it, and it’s free, so no need for your clients to get an expensive licence.  It’s also a reasonably modern language, unlike many of its competitors.  Since R is rapidly becoming the statistical analysis language of choice for cash-strapped startups or clients without big legacy systems, every consultant should be able to work in it.

Java?  You don’t need to be a Java expert, but you should understand enough about Java to look at programs to see what they do, and to make minor alterations – invaluable for dealing with an engineering team, if they have to implement your great ideas.

Python?  Well data is always a mess, so you should have some way of cleaning it before it gums up your shiny new models.  Python’s as good as any other, and it’s more intuitive than Perl.  But this is the least important of the recommendations.

I haven’t included SAS on this list.  On the one hand, it was the predominant language for statistical analysis for a long time, so you can often find consulting work in it.  It’s also a language unlike most others, so almost worth learning for that reason alone.  And it is excellent at reading in data and dealing with large amounts of it.  On the other hand, the consulting rates for SAS work are generally low, and the lack of free licences makes learning it on spec a riskier move.  So if you know SAS or can pick it up at work, that’s great.  If not, it’s probably not worth learning it.

Loyal readers have already loyally read parts 1-3 (networking, networking, and networking) and part 4 (why consult).  Stay tuned for part 6 (or maybe 6-7 if I cheat again), when we’ll delve more into the wonderful world of consulting.

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Reflections on consulting Part 4 – Why consult?

April 19, 2010

In parts 1, 2, and 3 we talked about the three most important things for consultants – networking, networking, and networking.  But why consult in the first place?

One possible reason would be for money.  Since money is functionally equivalent to goods and services, if you don’t like money, what do you like?  There are enough subtleties to this that it perhaps deserves its own post, but briefly, the situation is reminiscent of a story I once read where a man makes a deal with Devil, and then eventually has to pay his soul.  He takes some consolation in having at least got something for eternal damnation, but the Devil cheerfully informs him that diabolical pacts are limited to offering only what could be achieved by hard work and trust in “above” – there are no consolations available to the damned.  In our case, you can certainly make a lot of money as a consultant, but more than by diligently climbing the corporate ladder?  It’s unclear.

What about freedom and flexibility?  Perhaps freedom is just another word for nothing left to bill.  But consultants may at times have more flexible work schedules than regular employees.  On the other hand, they might end up with less flexibility when a deliverable becomes due.  And although you can choose to take a client or not, contracts may come at awkward times, so you can’t take two good ones at once.  (A network of consultants can help with this – see parts 1, 2, and 3.)  Still, there’s something to freedom and flexibility as a consulting advantage.

Perhaps the best reason to be a consultant is liking variety.  When I was consulting, I worked for organizations ranging from 20-person startups to Fortune 5 companies, in a number of different industries.  It’s worth noting that you might be able to get similar variety as an employee in the consulting arm of a company, and that depth can end up being sacrificed to breadth.  But if you like the new, and don’t mind uncertainty, consulting could be the career for you.

Reflections on consulting – Parts 1, 2 and 3 – network, network, network!

December 16, 2009

Over the past few years, I was a full-time math/stat consultant in a five-person company.  Through 2008, most of my work came from my colleagues, while in 2009 most of it came from my own contacts.  Now that I have a “proper job”, I’m noting down some of my experiences and thoughts here.

If you’re thinking of consulting, you may find Alan Weiss’s books “Getting Started in Consulting” and “Million Dollar Consulting” useful.  Barley and Kunda’s “Gurus, Hired Guns and Warm Bodies” is an interesting ethnographic exploration of independent consultants and their lifestyles.

Why start with networking?  Why not how much to charge, what languages / skills to learn, or why or whether to be a consultant at all?  These are all important topics, which I’ll talk about later, but subsidiary to the most important one – networking.  For your network can give you much better advice on all of these things than I can, and they can actually get you contracts as well.

Everyone says that you need to network and meet potential clients, or people who can lead you to clients.  The part they don’t say [or at least the part I wasn’t paying attention to] is that this very often leads nowhere, which can be dispiriting.  But you do have to try it, as the benefits are large and unpredictable.  One example – after I mentioned to a former manager that I was looking for new contracts, he put me in touch with another consultant, who put me in touch with his partner, who passed my name on to another consultant who was looking for subcontractors, and who took me on for a lucrative engagement.  The catches are that this chain of events took about a year, and that many other possible chains didn’t go anywhere.  Imagine playing a slot machine where you had to come back in a year to see if you’d won anything.  How long would Vegas last under these conditions?

Surprisingly, I often found other consultants to be the most useful part of my network.  It seems that this should not be so – aren’t we all competing for work?  Well, yes and no.  Sometimes your fellow consultant might pass something on to you because they’re already committed to something else, or they don’t have quite the right skills or interests to do it.  You can do the same for them to.  It’s similar to how businesses in the same field will often find it advantageous to cluster together, in the same region, city, or even block.

What are good networking venues for math/stat consultants?  Conferences such as INFORMS or the AEA are possibilities, though I found these to be too dominated by academics.  Other more practical conferences often have forbidding fees.  One promising avenue is user group meetings for different languages, such as SAS or R.  If you can put together an intelligent presentation for such a group, so much the better.  There is an as yet unfilled niche for meetups of math/stat practitioners, who may often be isolated at their individual companies or consultancies and want to share experiences.

In summary:

  • Networking is the most important thing in consulting
  • But it often gives no immediately visible results
  • You should start a meetup for math / stat practitioners, so I can come to it.

P.S. Morrissey’s counterpoint to networking below – “We hate it when our friends become successful”