The book was called 100 Bullshit Jobs and How to Get Them.
I want to say that I bought it in the San Francisco airport, but during those days, it could’ve just as easily have been Dulles, Heathrow, Oakland, San Jose, Newark, JFK, or any other number of airports. At the time, I was traveling almost weekly, and while I usually have a great head for small details, that era of my life has faded into a blur.
While being in the book put me in the same dubious company as “Right-Wing Radio Talk Show Host” (#82) and “Being Donald Trump” (#11), I’ll admit to being tickled when I saw my job: “Consultant” listed as #27. I should also point out that my parents and my stepfather made the list too, at numbers #54 (Lawyer), #57 (Marriage Counselor) and #92 (University Administrator). At least I’ve outranked them on the list, and they should be so proud of that.
There are some ironies in that last paragraph, feel free to figure out where they are.
The entry for consultant was especially hilarious. To paraphrase: “Your kids won’t be able to tell anyone what you do, but you’ll make good money and get to travel a lot.”
Funny thing about the travel: I was once in a situation where I “did the right thing” as a leader by sending various team members to Spain, France and Sweden, whilst I went to Newark, N.J. Nothing against the people of Newark, but, well, you’re not Madrid, sorry.
Anyway, I couldn’t blame those hypothetical children I’ll never have for not being able to describe to their friends what I do, because it’s not like I have a great idea of what a management consultant does, either. I mean, at a very micro-level, I have a solid idea of what my client expects from me, but it’s not exactly a profession that’s easy to describe at parties. “Re-engineering business value creation systems” doesn’t play well over the cheese plate at a dinner party, especially when I have no idea what that phrase means, exactly—I just know it gives consulting firm CEOs warm fuzzy feelings.
Here’s another, perhaps more comprehensible description: Companies hire management consultants to recommend solutions to problems to help them become more efficient and profitable. But even that’s somewhat vague.
That being said, I do have some “interesting anecdotes” that describe what my job as a management consultant is actually like.
Work in the corporate world long enough and you’ll come across a situation where you’ll listen to someone talk, and find yourself in awe at what’s coming out of their mouth; in awe that an allegedly educated person can spout such bullshit.
Unfortunately, in this particular case I couldn’t verbally smack down the guy’s viewpoint because we worked for the same consulting firm. In fact I knew that I was sort of expected to defer to him (even though I had been with the client longer and made more*) because he was A) more experienced B) had an MBA.** This gave him a little bit more credibility than me, especially since I was a general advisor on technology issues, and he was sort of the special advisor to the executive (AKA the client) who had hired all of us as consultants.
So, what was the problem?
There was a stock ticker on the company’s intranet portal (think iGoogle, just internal)—a stock ticker that was really a “wealth counter” for the top executives. The aftermath of a couple of fairly significant positive events had sent the stock soaring, and the executives loved looking at it to see how much richer they had gotten.
Unfortunately, the stock ticker was just “scraped” from another website—a website that warned that sometimes the quotes would be delayed by 20 minutes. This meant that sometimes the executives would look at the stock ticker and find that it hadn’t updated, and whenever this happened they would get upset and demand that IT do something about it. After several months of IT telling them that they had no control over the ticker and that they were at the mercy of the website they had “borrowed” it from, they decided to call in the big guns: the management consultants.
Apparently, simply going to their brokerage website to get not just real time quotes but real time data on the value of their portfolios was too complicated for the executives at this company.
So there we were: Mr. MBA, a junior consultant (let’s call him “minion”—for the record, we’re bros to this day), me, various internal people who just wanted to be involved in “fixing this critical issue,” the folks from IT who had been explaining the problem for months, and the client.
I thought the problem was pretty straightforward:
“The problem is that you scraped a stock ticker from a third party who doesn’t guarantee their service, and you can’t control or demand a higher service level because you’re not paying them. Therefore, the only solution is for the company to purchase a stock ticker service for the Intranet site that provides some sort of service level agreement that guarantees that this sort of thing won’t happen. Beyond that, there is nothing we can do. We don’t control the stock ticker, and there is nothing we can fix on our end beyond getting a better one.”
But then Mr. MBA chimed in: “I think what we need to do here is analyze the process for putting external information on the website. If we do that, we’ll be able to figure out what went wrong, and can create a list of potential solutions, evaluate their pros and cons and then develop an action plan.”
Minion and I looked at each other as if to say: “Is he serious with this shit?”
It was a rhetorical question because Mr. MBA was indeed serious; he hadn’t really learned the lay of the land yet, but was eager to flex his consulting muscles, which is why he was always offering solutions like this: Ideas that sounded good on paper provided you knew the problem in name only, as opposed to the context and full nature of it.
I was about to re-state, well, a solution to a simple problem, when the client said, “That’s a great idea Mr. MBA. Markham can you produce that analysis and provide it for us next week?”
Not wanting to go through a pointless exercise, I tried to be diplomatic.
“While we should have a formal process for connecting to external data sources, it won’t solve this particular problem. The problem here is that this is a service we basically “borrowed” and didn’t pay for, and the service clearly states that the stock quotes aren’t guaranteed to be in real time or accurate, and may be delayed by up to 20 minutes.”
A week later I was presenting several slides explaining in excruciating detail why the problem occurred, replete with several options for getting near or fully real-time quotes. I even racked up some overtime doing it since, well, consultants get paid hourly and I finished the presentation over the weekend.
So what do management consultants do? Sometimes we do great work and provide terrific value to our clients; other times we just waste time producing PowerPoint Decks and/or engaging in a variety of farcical exercises.
In this case, we spun around and around with this issue for months, and accomplished nothing aside from wasting valuable pixels on PowerPoint slides. Funny enough, I won an award from some of these same executives for a project that took up less of my time than the stock ticker ruckus did.
Four years later I was talking with Minion, and he told me that he was back onsite with that same client. I asked, “Do they still use that same stock ticker, and are they still complaining about it?”
He laughed. “They’re still using it! Remember that presentation you had to do?”
Yes, Minion, I remember, I remember it well.
*Yes, I know that’s petty and I don’t care.
**I actually think MBAs are valuable in that it can be a great business toolset provided you pick the right program vs. your goals. The problem lies in that just because I teach you how to use all the tools in the toolbox, doesn’t mean you’re now a master mechanic. The problem isn’t the degree it’s how people use the information learned and how they apply post graduation.
Markham Lee is a freelance writer based in Seattle who has spilled pixels on topics ranging from music, relationships, television, and those instances where life is stranger than fiction. He’s also working on a science fiction novel he hopes to finish before 2020. His work has been published by Nerve.com, The Frisky, Pop Matters, and Seeking Alpha. You can find more of his writing on his blog, and some of his more random, yet semi-intelligent thoughts on Twitter.