Review of The Nomadic Developer

Introduction

The Nomadic Developer by Aaron Erickson, published by Addison-Wesley. ISBN: 0321606396

The Nomadic Developer’s goal is to be a guidebook to working and thriving as a consultant. The author Aaron Erickson is a principal consultant at well-known ThoughtWorks and judging by his blog and Twitter output knows what he is talking about. I bought this book together with several other technical books but this was the first one I read. I felt I needed to balance my technical learning with some consulting skills.

The Nomadic Developer covers almost every part of being a consultant; everything from a technology consulting firm’s inner workings to personal advice about your appearance. For me, this structure means that the book is fairly disjointed and that the different sections have almost no connection except the consultancy theme. I also found that some of the themes are covered in depth and make interesting reading but that other sections are considerably weaker and only covered in a pretty shallow fashion. Amongst the stronger sections are the first few chapters that examine the inner workings of consultancy companies and consulting as well as some of the later chapters about breaking into the consultancy business and building a career path.

A Deep Dive into the Consulting Business

The first part of The Nomadic Developer is an introduction to technology consulting and examines why the consulting business exists and why you might want to work as a consultant. It’s a solid start to the book and I was drawn in straight away.

The second chapter presents “The Seven Deadly Firms” which are the seven types of consulting firms that you want to avoid. I found this chapter to be a bit weaker than the first chapter and slightly gimmicky. As the author says himself these seven types only cover 10% or less of all consulting firms out there but on the other hand it enables us to able to label these companies. Body shop is a well known term but Personality Cult Consulting and “Push the SKU” Consulting are new to me and pretty funny as well.

The third chapter does a deep dive into how technology consulting firms work and is one of the strongest parts of the book. These are the type of details that I did not know too much about before I became a consultant and am only starting to become of aware. It is quite different to working in an IT department or at a product company. The two pipelines of consulting, Sales and Recruiting are examined in detail and, as these pipelines are fairly new to me, this made fascinating reading.

Chapter four present the ten traits that technology consulting firms look for when hiring. This chapter read like one of those top ten blog posts that I usually skip read or just skip.

But straight after one of the weaker sections in the book follows a really strong chapter, one that I will reread a couple of times. It is all about interviewing your employer before taking the job. All the questions you need to ask about business, sales, delivery and community involvement not just the technical stuff that the Joel Test covers. I really wish I had read this before I started working as a consultant last year. The really tough questions that I would have liked to ask then but could not think of are right here.

Surviving and Thriving

I expected this section to be the main part of the book. All the chapters leading up to this section are preparation for the consulting life. So now I was all geared up to learn how to survive as a consultant and then how to be a great consultant.

Paradoxically, these chapters are the ones that got me thinking most about where I am headed with my career but also the ones that left me most disappointed. For example, the Thriving chapter touches on a lot of important topics but it just doesn’t go deep enough for my liking. In my opinion, a couple of the other chapters could have been cut and this chapter extended. I had hoped that the Surviving and Thriving as a consultant sections would give me more insights into such problems as handling difficult customers or how to be agile in non-agile environments. Instead a couple of topics like Building Your Brand and Learning to Think “Win-Win” are quickly skimmed through.

The author does point out some truths about the consulting industry which are important during a bad economic cycle. One of these is that rainmakers rarely get fired, something easily forgotten/ignored by a developer too caught up in the technical side of consulting. But it is mostly common sense or something that a new consultant will learn about during the first months on the job.

There is a chapter about avoiding career-limiting moves which uses the theme of the seven deadly sins that did not impress me too much. A mixture of common sense that applies to every job and moralizing that did not teach me anything and that I felt uncomfortable reading. I consider the section about dating co-workers and that it is a bad idea to surf porn at work to be totally unnecessary.

Conclusion

I am in two minds about whether to recommend this book or not.

On the negative side, I did not gain any earth shattering insights into the consulting world. There is way too much information which is either repetition or common sense. The book is pitched to an American audience and whole sections about avoiding getting fired did not really click with me (as a European). Some of the personal advice felt like moralizing to me and rubbed me up the wrong way. All calculations are done in dollars and the figures are based on American wages and costs which are so different from the European levels that it was difficult to translate them to my job and the company I work at.

But on the positive side this book has changed my behavior and how I look at my future career. And these are characteristics of the best books that I have read. Even if I learnt nothing new about potential career paths or building a personal brand, it still hammered home to me that I should focus more on these and not just on improving my technical skills. I have been thinking about this for the last two years but it crystallized into clear actions after reading The Nomadic Developer.

The parts about the inner workings of a Technology Consulting Firm were also very enlightening and went deep into the business side of consulting which would not be an area I know too much about.

So in conclusion, if you are a consultant and want to be a much better consultant then I do not think this book will teach you much. But if you want some tips on how to be better at interviews and how to build your career to be a successful consultant then this book will get you thinking.