Hiring a SharePoint Expert – Dos and Don’ts

Life as a SharePoint consultant in Norway is good these days. People are calling several times every week asking if you can help out on some project. Headhunters seem to have my number on speed-dial.

Sadly, though, I can’t help everyone out. It’s not for lack of want, but with the demand these days, there simply isn’t enough time available. Add to that the fact that I’m also working for USPJA and writing USPJ journals and working with Bob to revive the SharePoint Beagle and planning the new SharePoint Magazine and already having said ‘yes’ to current clients months in advance, and the chances of me having a chance to help out is slim.

There is a downside to this as well. I don’t get to hear about many cool projects because people assume I’ll just turn it down without hearing them out. A while back, I spoke with one of the faculty members about this exact problem. It seems that approachability is a serious issue.

To help prospective clients, not just mine, but probably those of other SharePoint consultants as well, I’ve written down some tips and tricks for making sure that your chances are as good as possible. Even though I write these tips with my experiences in mind, I’ve tried to write them in a generic tone so it applies to others as well.

Regardless, take these tips as advice, not rules.

How To Hire a SharePoint Expert

These item are things that would definitely increase your chances of getting me on your project or team.

Be prepared and do your homework

If you call me to ask for advice on how to best set up your backup or structure your active directory for best performance, chances are, I won’t be worth the money I’m charging.

I am a developer and solutions architect, meaning I create stuff or figure out how stuff could be created. If you ask me to advice you on something that is outside my area of expertise, chances are you’ll either waste money or at least not get the best possible value. I don’t want to ‘taint’ my reputation by not delivering that value, so chances are I’ll turn you down or at least turn you elsewhere.

Instead, if you approach someone, take at least a few minutes, perhaps an hour, to google their names and understand what they do. You’ll likely quickly find what they have as their main focus and you know whether that person fits, at least on the topic.

Be patient and plan ahead

I am booked months in advance. If you call asking if I can help your team out for a project that is due tomorrow or even next week, you’re already three months too late.

Instead, think ahead and ask for advice in advance. If your project is due in December, call now and ask if I can help your team by assisting when they get stuck during the next couple of months. Schedule a review session in early December right now (now is September, by the way. If you’re reading this in December, think April, and so on).

Don’t wait. Stop reading right now if you think there is a chance you’ll need help later.

Be exciting and creative

You may get stuck on trivial problems. All of us have at some point. Most get stuck on some of the same problems. I’ve seen those problems hundreds of times and fixing the same issue over and over isn’t going to give me a proverbial hard-on.

Think of it like this: If you have a chance to watch a thrilling new movie or read last week’s newspaper for the 7th time, all other things being equal, which would you choose? If my options are to do something I find boring or something I find interesting, all other things being equal, guess what my choice would be?

I know, it’s difficult to make your project interesting if it’s a trivial task and you’re just paid to do just that. After all, the client is paying and you can’t just toss in whatever you want. Instead, here’s an idea: See if you may have other projects or ideas that may be a carrot if I do your other work.

Personally, I love teaching and sharing knowledge because it challenges me to take what I learn and ‘fight’ with new opinions to test that knowledge. Perhaps we could look at doing regular workshops to bring new skills to your team? Perhaps you could sponsor a SharePint event where we could share what we did in your project with the community?

Suddenly what may look like a trivial task becomes an opportunity to grow both your team and share with the community and suddenly your project may be much more exciting.

How To Get Hung Up On by a SharePoint Expert

Conversely, there are stuff that you should never do unless you want to waste both your and my time.

Don’t beg

Look, I know you’re in a squeeze and your client demands results. I want to help. Really.

However, if I say that I can’t help you because I’m busy, asking again won’t change that. I have no reason to lie about how busy I am, and in any case, if you begging would cause me to reveal that lie and suddenly have time after all… Well, I wouldn’t hire someone like that, and neither should you.

On the same page, if I’m already booked working for a client and you call to ask me to not work for that client but for you instead, then if I were to accept that, it would put your project in serious jeopardy. What happens when the next desperate soul calls while I’m working on your project? Should I just abandon your ship and go with them? Obviously, I’ve proven that I’d do so if begged properly, so your project delivery would be seriously compromised if begging helped.

Instead, move on or be patient. Ask if I know someone else that may help (chances are no, but it doesn’t hurt to ask). Ask when I’ll have more time.

Don’t forget to ask about terms

I’ve been doing this consulting thing for a while, and chances are that whoever you approach will also have a far amount of experience and know what their preferences are regarding terms.

Personally, I have a few simple rules:

  1. I work as a consultant three days of the week and on other stuff the remaining four days (no, I don’t do breaks in weekends)
    This means I’m not available for full-time employment of consulting
  2. I book contracts on a quarterly basis. 
    This means that I if you hire me, it should be for longer term projects. I usually can’t help you out one day ad-hoc. Usually.
  3. I only sell full days per week.
    I can’t help you out a couple of hours each week. The overhead of travel and unpredictability would kill productivity.

You may feel an urge to negotiate these terms. You may want to hire me for just a week. You may want to ask me to belly-dance and knit mittens, but that’s just not the way it works. You compete with other clients who are willing to accept these terms, so why would I change the terms for you?

Keep in mind, terms vary per consultant. These are my rules, others will have other rules.

Ask in advance what the terms are. If you don’t accept those terms, move on.

Don’t offer more money

Wait, what? I thought money was the real motivator here.

Think again. Contrary to popular belief, market demand doesn’t mean that you can limitlessly increase what you offer in order to secure goods or services. Within reason, of course, I would consider doing code refactoring all day if you paid me a million bucks per hour, but you also need to consider the value you are getting.

To prevent bid wars that take time and demeans all parties, I’ve set my fixed price months ago at approximately US$200 (1200 NOK) per hour. It’s a fair price for what I deliver and you know in advance what you’re going
to pay. We’re already done negotiating terms and can now move on to more interesting stuff.

Offering to increase the price introduces an extra disturbing element. Now, in addition to being good at SharePoint, I also need to be good at negotiation and sales. The negotiation takes time, of which there is a desperately short supply already.

Also, look at this from the perspective of begging. Offering more money is a form of begging. It also increases the pressure on me to increase value, indirectly saying that I’m not producing at peak efficiency unless you give me more money. I always perform to the best of my abilities, and a fair price for that is what I charge.

If the only tool you have to attempt to motivate me to work for you, even after reading this blog post, is more money, then chances are, you’re already failing in all the things I’ve said are going to land you my attention and chances are that the project won’t be a match for me.

Any Last Thoughts?

Please take these tips in the spirit they are offered: as advice on how to land a contract with an in-demand resource. Your mileage may vary with different people.

I’m not trying to sound arrogant by not jumping up and down from joy every time you call. I’m not saying you are a bad person, nor am I trying to say that your problems are less important than others. I just try to be fair and manage the time I have available in the best manner possible while still delivering as much value as possible to as many people as possible.

Oh, and one very, very, very, very, very important tip. The most important one, and a reward only for those who had the patience to read this entire thing: Don’t call me. Send me an email and ask for a time to talk. Text/SMS me. Chances are very high that I’ll be smack in the middle of something and your call will disturb me, distracting from the value I’m already tasked with providing to someone else.

So, now that you know what it takes to hire me, or someone like me, what are you waiting for? Fire off that email and we can get down to business. I look forward to hearing from you and providing exceptional value to you, your organization, team, or project.

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SharePoint Beagle is returning!

If you’ve been on the SharePoint scene for a long time (meaning you remember when we started speculating about what turned out to be SharePoint 2010), you’ may remember the SharePoint Beagle. For all you others, or if you didn’t pay attention, here’s a brief overview.

The SharePoint Beagle was the largest SharePoint newsletter in the world, and has had more than 60,000 readers over the years. The newsletter was run by Bob Mixon, one of the longest running SharePoint MVPs and an absolute guru when it comes to information architecture. The Beagle contained content from the community as well as Bob himself.

Sadly, though, due to personal circumstances, Bob was unable to keep the Beagle running, and it’s been over a year since the last issue.

The good news is that since Bob joined the USPJ Academy faculty, we’ve been talking about bringing the Beagle back from its dormant state. And I’m happy to say that we’ve now decided that the Beagle definitely should return as part of the USPJA platform.

There is still a lot of details we need to decide and reveal to you, but the following things are clear already:

  • The SharePoint Beagle will remain free
  • Bob Mixon will return as the editor
  • The USPJA faculty will contribute articles and content
  • We will invite the community to participate as well

The first issue of the Beagle will contain a very cool surprise as well, although I won’t reveal exactly what.

You can sign up to get the Beagle now, and the first issue will be released within a few weeks.

http://www.sharepointbeagle.com/

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My Bekk Consulting Career – A Sunshine Story

Readers of this blog know that I’m generally whining and moaning whenever I don’t agree with something. I don’t sugar coat – if you do something stupid, prepare to hear about it in the least gentle terms I can conjure.

So it may come as a surprise to you that this blog post is almost entirely positive and in fact is commending someone very highly.

Bekk – The Way It Should Be

Let me first talk a bit about the background here. When I need to pay bills, I work as a consultant. About a year ago, I started working for Bekk Consulting in Norway on what seemed to be a short-term gig to help one of their clients evaluate SharePoint 2010. It turned out to be a year long project doing some of the most amazing things on SP2010, including delivering probably the largest SP2010 installation in the world.

Bekk is a small (by non-Norwegian standards) consulting company that has enjoyed huge success over the years. They do a range of development work but manages to remain focused on what they know works well. The result is a company that attracts some very, very skilled talent. Bekk has been on top of the list of most wanted employers for students for a long time.

One thing is recruiting talent, the other thing is holding on to that talent over time. These days, even with the current and recent financial crisis, it is still very easy for skilled IT people to get well paid jobs in Norway. Competing on salary doesn’t really work – you need something unique to hold on to people in the face of competitors trying to lure your people with fat pay-checks. You need to keep people motivated and happy.

Bekk does just that. Sure, people do drop out or try their luck across the river, but in general, everyone I’ve talked to at Bekk says that there is something with the spirit of the company that makes it more than just a job.

I could write for hours about the things I like about Bekk (really) but I’d like to point out three things that I think makes Bekk absolutely unique from all other clients and companies for which I have worked.

Team Spirit

Not just are the people I’ve met at Bekk very skilled, but they work as a team. Oh, and they don’t just work as a team – they are happy to work as a team. These days, however, every glossy brochure states that a company has great team spirit and without backing that up, they’re just empty words. Let me tell you exactly what this means.

During the previous year that I’ve worked for Bekk, I’ve needed assistance on stuff that I don’t feel comfortable doing on a professional basis. All I need to do is find out who knows something about that topic, ask them about it, and it seems they are almost rushing to help out, even if they aren’t really working on that specific project. If they don’t know, they’ll let you know and point you in the right direction to someone who will be just as eager to help.

In other companies where I’ve worked, when you ask someone to take a look at something, they usually start by asking who they can bill for that time, even if it’s just 15 minutes that will take hours off my own time. After all, if you have a high billable rate, you must be a good employee, right? Who gives a rats behind about what is really producing value for the customer.

The willingness to help that I’ve seen in Bekk is a sure sign of professionalism. What would take me a couple of hours to figure out, they know off the top of their heads and can do in less than an hour. Sure, they could say that they needed to bill the time they spent helping, but the overhead of formalizing the request, getting approvals for spending that time, internal billing, and so on, would ultimately cost the clients more money than simply just helping right away.

In return, when they need help with something, they get it, from anyone on the team or department, including myself. The result is less cost to clients, less time spent for me, higher overall efficiency, better team spirit, and improvements to motivation and morale.

A specific example of this is the operations or helpdesk crew. The willingness of these people to assist you and the attitude they show in approaching a task is something from which every other operations department should learn. Add to that their skill and ability to manage their tasks in a busy day and you’ve got a winning team. Kudos!

Honestly, I don’t know what the company has done to foster that attitude of helping, but I cannot help but get dragged into it and offer my own assistance on the same terms, so it is clear that they are doing something very right.

Challenges and Research

Another thing, vital to at least my motivation, is that of being challenged and, again to me, the best way to be challenged is if it is done in a safe environment where you are allowed to fail as long as you learn from it. Obviously, I never fail, but I’ve heard it described so I can imagine what it would be like.

The last year has been immensely challenging for anyone in the SharePoint world. With SP2010 coming out a couple of months ago and with more than a year of new knowledge streaming out, staying on top of your game requires active involvement far outside the confines of a project.

At Bekk, people are encouraged to explore new ways of doing things and of course new technologies. There is a clear expectation that there should be value produced for the clients, but even if what you learn don’t result in specific deliverables, exploration is an investment for the company. If you are stuck researching something for a couple of days that doesn’t lead to a specific delivery, that is fine if you gain valuable that saves the client money.

Some of the fancy new technologies that emerge may look cool, but may not be suited for a project. If you spend time finding that out, you are not delivering anything to your client and would normally get a reprimand for being inefficient. However, at the same time, you are saving your client time and money because you find out what they should _not_ do.

At Bekk, they realize that research is vitally important, even if it doesn’t always lead to deliverables. If you save your client trouble down the line by knowing when not to use a piece of technology, then all in all, you’ve contributed positively.

Bekk is also great at utilizing that knowledge. Bring in people who know what they are talking about to teach to other people. The 1+1=3 equation really works.

Respect and Autonomy

When I started working there, which, by the way, was the first assignment I had in my ErgoGroup career, I was surprised about the way they treated the people there. In other companies, I’m used to spending a lot of time demonstrating that I know what I’m talking about. Even better (or worse, I’m being sarcastic again), in many companies, they overrule you on technical decisions in areas in which they pay you to be the expert.

“No, we must use out-of-the-box because that is what Microsoft says is best”

“No, you can’t do custom development because I don’t understand development”

“No, there’s no need to divide this server into two front-ends because that is expensive”

Let me ask you this: When you go to a doctor and he or she tells you to take a pill, do you counter-argue that you want to take another pill instead or that his or her diagnosis is wrong and that you are suffering from something completely different? Well, some people do, but most people go to a professional because they want them for their expertise, not because they know the answers themselves. You consult a lawyer because you don’t know all the aspects of law. You consult a carpenter because they have the expertise and experience to know how, why, where, and when to drive a nail into a plank.

At Bekk, when you know a topic, they’ll argue with you. That means they don’t argue against you. Ev
en more specific, they respect your professional opinion and knowledge and instead of trying to boost their own egos by overriding you, and instead look for ways to utilize your knowledge and expertise as efficiently as possible.

The end result is that you provide even more value to clients. Who knows green does green, who knows blue does blue. If you need cyan, you mix those skills. No need to argue whether green is good or bad or whether it really is green – higher efficiency, lower cost, less bickering.

In fact, this puzzles me. If someone hires me to do SharePoint work, and they override my advice, it must make them stupid. After all, if they knew what was best, why did they hire me?

So, What About Bekk Sucks?

I know I’m sounding like a fanboi and that is very unusual for me. This post wouldn’t be complete without some form of bitching.

However, I’ve soon spent two hours on this blog post. 15 minutes writing up to this point, and so far about 90 minutes trying to put my finger on what would suck at Bekk.

There could be one thing. Bekk is mostly owned by ErgoGroup, and you all know what I think about ErgoGroup. There is a slight bitter taste in my mouth about that.

However, that still doesn’t make Bekk suck. Ownership and management are two very different things, and ErgoGroup has been wise enough to leave Bekk to do what Bekk does best.

I have also tried setting up a list of what usually sucks with companies and seeing which items on that list applies to Bekk. However, I failed even at that:

  1. I’ve never had serious problems with payment from Bekk. In fact, once they called me to say my bill would be one day late.
  2. Bekk has challenging projects that allow you to grow. If you are bored, say so, and they’ll listen.
  3. Bekk gives you freedom when you deliver what you promise.

No suckage here either.

Well, there is the location. Bekk’s offices are not exactly smack in the middle of town. Granted, it takes only 15 minutes by bicycle from my place, but really, there isn’t anything nearby except boats and hookers.

Oh, and the offices in the summer are too warm for my taste.

And I have to wear pants to work (as opposed to shorts, you pervert). I have absolutely no idea why a pair of jeans or smart pants increases the value of what I deliver, but hey, when management says so…

And they don’t have a Nespresso machine. Coffee is usually good, though.

There’s also this thing that, during winter when the air is dry, you get a static electricity shock when you touch the utensils in the lunch room.

Sorry, can’t come up with anything else, and frankly, that’s saying a lot for me.

Conclusion

I also just want to make this absolutely clear: I am in no way incentivized to write this post, nor do I gain any benefit from writing it. In fact, I’m taking a break from Bekk in Q4 to give others a chance to experience my divine skillz, so this is really just a review based on a year of experience there.

This is my honest and true opinion about a great company:

I like Bekk. If you’re looking for a place to work, you’d be very lucky to get into that team.

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