A year of consulting

I’ve been out on my own for about a year now, and it’s been a blast. If you’ve read this blog for a while you won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve been working in math, software development, and especially the overlap of the two.

As far as areas of math, I did more probability modeling than anything else. Also some work with time series, differential equations, networks, and to my surprise, a little category theory. As for software, I mostly worked in Python, R, and C++, writing code for data analysis and numerical algorithms.

People often ask what industry I work with, but my work cuts across industries. Last year I worked for a couple pharmaceuticals, a couple software companies, a search engine, etc. The most unexpected clients I had were a game developer and a wallet manufacturer.

I did a lot of small projects last year, especially when I was first getting started. It’s hard to live off small projects, but they’re fun. Micro-consulting on retainer is better. You get the variety and sense of accomplishment of small projects, but with more steady income. I have larger projects now, but I plan to keep squeezing in a few smaller projects as well as micro-consulting and mentoring.

It looks like this year will be busier than last. I have a lot more lined up than I did this time last year. I expect to do the same kind of work I did last year. I expect to branch out a little as well, though it’s too early to say much about that.

I also expect to travel more this year as well. I’ll be in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles this week and Seattle later this month. In March I’m going to The Netherlands. If you’re in one of these areas and want to get together, please let me know.

10 thoughts on “A year of consulting

  1. Hi John –

    I’m curious as to how you draw the distinction between “consulting” and “contracting”. Superficially, it seems that you’re doing more of the latter.

    – Mark

  2. John, great to hear you’re keeping busy with what sounds like interesting and varied work. Also great that you still have time to do some blogging. All the best for 2014.

  3. Giles: Thanks!

    Mark: I think of a contractor as someone doing essentially the same work as an employee, only on a short-term basis. “Staff augmentation” is a buzz word for this. That’s not what I do.

    Consulting tends to be more advisory. For example, one of the pharmaceutical companies I work with wanted advice on improving their statistical software development practices.

    There’s a gray zone between these two. I think data analysis falls in the gray zone. If a client tells you exactly what do to, it’s contract work. But the more open-ended the project, the more I’d consider it consulting. When a client says “Here’s some data. What other data do you want? What else should we start collecting? What should we do based on this data?” that’s consulting in my opinion.

    I’ve done some projects that you could classify either as consulting or contracting, but most of my work is consulting as I think of the term.

  4. The act of performing data analysis is not gray. It’s a task that should support the achievement of some objective. If you’re simply analyzing data to produce a report, because that’s the only deliverable requested, then you’re still just contracting.

    However, if you have established some objective with your economic buyer, determined what metrics by which success will be measured, and established value jointly with your client, then you’re consulting.

    Answering “what should we do based on this data?” in and of itself is just barely consulting. It needs to be within the objective-measures-value (OMV) context I mentioned.

  5. Useless? The laws of science are differential equations! Maybe you had in mind finding analytic solutions, which is less useful these days. It’s often better to solve the right equation numerically than to solve an approximation exactly.

  6. They are useful for sure. What I meant that it is hard to find a job nowadays, where you would need to use differential equations. It is in contrast to what you had 20-40 years ago, where differential equations, perhaps, were as ubiquitous as statistical machine learning today.

  7. George Clinkscales

    Such erudite distinction between consultation and contracting reminds me of George Berkley’s famous comment from The Analyst.

    “And what are these Fluxions? The Velocities of evanescent Increments? And what are these same evanescent Increments? They are neither finite Quantities nor Quantities infinitely small, nor yet nothing. May we not call them the ghosts of departed quantities?”

    Short of a purposeful definition of a professional or trade association consider the OED definition of these English words.
    It appears one could contract to consult … consultation and contractor ( both from the OED http://www.oed.com )

    consultation, n.
    Pronunciation: /kɒnsʌlˈteɪʃən/
    Etymology: < French consultation, or < Latin consultātiōn-em , noun of action < …

    a. The action of consulting or taking counsel together; deliberation, conference.
    1548 Hall's Vnion: Edward IV f. ccxlviv, After long consultation had.
    a1600 R. Hooker Of Lawes Eccl. Politie vii. xxiv, in Wks. (1662) 67 If Bishops did often use..the help of mutual consultation.
    1651 T. Hobbes Philos. Rudim. vii. §13. 119 There must be certain set times and places for deliberation and consultation of affaires.
    1691 J. Ray Wisdom of God 96 It is plain enough, that Brutes are not above Consultation but below it.
    1791 W. Cowper tr. Homer Iliad in Iliad & Odyssey I. i. 342 My advice in consultation given.

    contractor, n.

    Pronunciation: /kənˈtræktə(r)/
    Forms: Also 15 -our, 15–16 -er.
    Etymology: < Latin contractor, noun of action from contrahĕre to contract v.
    Categories »

    a. One who enters into a contract or agreement; a contracting party. Obs. exc. as in 2.
    1548 Hall's Vnion: Edward IV f. ccxij, Although the Princes be named, as chief contractors in euerie treatie and amitie concluded.
    1570 Act 13 Eliz. c. 8 §5 Whereupon is not reserved..to the Lender, Contracter..or Deliverer, above the Sum of ten Pound for the Loan.
    a1652 J. Smith Select Disc. (1660) vii. iv. 310 These Contractors with Heaven.
    1748 B. Robins & R. Walter Voy. round World by Anson iii. ix. 392 Nor did it appear, that the Contractors had taken the least step to comply with their agreement.
    1767 W. Blackstone Comm. Laws Eng. II. 380 That the deed be taken most strongly against him that is the agent or contractor, and in favour of the other party.

  8. As long as the work is agreeable and the rate is enough, a client can call me their janitor or anything else they wish.

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