Consulting the Aspiring Consultant with Mike Julian

Episode Summary

Mike Julian, CEO and Co-Founder of The Duckbill Group, joins Corey to discuss their evolving venture into the world of consulting and what he’s learned along the way. Mike discusses the new book he’s writing to help aspiring consultants launch their second career, as well as the mistakes he’s made in his own career and how he’s learned from them. Mike reveals the challenges of scaling from being an independent consultant to managing an entire consulting firm, and provides insight into what new consultants don’t know they don’t know when going into business for themselves.

Episode Show Notes & Transcript

About Mike

Beside his duties as The Duckbill Group’s CEO, Mike is the author of O’Reilly’s Practical Monitoring, and previously wrote the Monitoring Weekly newsletter and hosted the Real World DevOps podcast. He was previously a DevOps Engineer for companies such as Taos Consulting, Peak Hosting, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and many more. Mike is originally from Knoxville, TN (Go Vols!) and currently resides in Portland, OR.

Links Referenced:


Announcer: Hello, and welcome to Screaming in the Cloud with your host, Chief Cloud Economist at The Duckbill Group, Corey Quinn. This weekly show features conversations with people doing interesting work in the world of cloud, thoughtful commentary on the state of the technical world, and ridiculous titles for which Corey refuses to apologize. This is Screaming in the Cloud.

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Corey: Welcome to Screaming in the Cloud. I’m Cloud Economist Corey Quinn, and my guest is a returning guest on this show, my business partner and CEO of The Duckbill Group, Mike Julian. Mike, thanks for making the time.

Mike: Lucky number three, I believe?

Corey: Something like that, but numbers are hard. I have databases for that of varying quality and appropriateness for the task, but it works out. Anything’s a database. If you’re brave enough.

Mike: With you inviting me this many times, I’m starting to think you’d like me or something.

Corey: I know, I know. So, let’s talk about something that is going to put that rumor to rest.

Mike: [laugh].

Corey: Clearly, you have made some poor choices in the course of your career, like being my business partner being the obvious one. But what’s really in a dead heat for which is the worst decision is you’ve written a book previously. And now you are starting the process of writing another book because, I don’t know, we don’t keep you busy enough or something. What are you doing?

Mike: Making very bad decisions. When I finished writing Practical Monitoring—O’Reilly, and by the way, you should go buy a copy if interested in monitoring—I finished the book and said, “Wow, that was awful. I’m never doing it again.” And about a month later, I started thinking of new books to write. So, that was 2017, and Corey and I started Duckbill and kind of stopped thinking about writing books because small companies are basically small children. But now I’m going to write a book about consulting.

Corey: Oh, thank God. I thought you’re going to go down the observability path a second time.

Mike: You know, I’m actually dreading the day that O’Reilly asks me to do a second edition because I don’t really want to.

Corey: Yeah. Effectively turn it into an entire story where the only monitoring tool you really need is the AWS bill. That’ll go well.

Mike: [laugh]. Yeah. So yeah, like, basically, I’ve been doing consulting for such a long time, and most of my career is consulting in some form or fashion, and I head up all the consulting at Duckbill. I’ve learned a lot about consulting. And I’ve found that people have a lot of questions about consulting, particularly at the higher-end levels. Once you start getting into advisory sort of stuff, there’s not a lot of great information out there aimed at engineering.

Corey: There’s a bunch of different views on what consulting is. You have independent contractors billing by the hour as staff replacement who call what they do consulting; you have the big consultancies, like Bain or BCG; you’ve got what we do in an advisory sense, and of course, you have a bunch of MBA new grads going to a lot of the big consultancies who are going to see a book on consulting and think that it’s potentially for them. I don’t know that you necessarily have a lot of advice for the new grad type, so who is this for? What is your target customer for this book?

Mike: If you’re interested in joining McKinsey out of college, I don’t have a lot to add; I don’t have a lot to tell you. The reason for that is kind of twofold. One is that shops like McKinsey and Deloitte and Accenture and BCG and Bain, all those, are playing very different games than what most of us think about when we think consulting. Their entire model revolves around running a process. And it’s the same process for every client they work with. But, like, you’re buying them because of their process.

And that process is nothing new or novel. You don’t go to those firms because you want the best advice possible. You go to those firms because it’s the most defensible advice. It’s sort of those things like, “No one gets fired for buying Cisco,” no one got fired for buying IBM, like, that sort of thing, it’s a very defensible choice. But you’re not going to get great results from it.

But because of that, their entire model revolves around throwing dozens, in some cases, hundreds of new grads at a problem and saying, “Run this process. Have fun. Let us know if you need help.” That’s not consulting I have any experience with. It’s honestly not consulting that most of us want to do.

Most of that is staffed by MBAs and accountants. When I think consulting, I think about specialized advice and providing that specialized advice to people. And I wager that most of us think about that in the same way, too. In some cases, it might just be, “I’m going to write code for you as a freelancer,” or I’m just going to tell you like, “Hey, put the nail in here instead of over here because it’s going to be better for you.” Like, paying for advice is good.

But with that, I also have a… one of the first things I say in the beginning of the book, which [laugh] I’ve already started writing because I’m a glutton for punishment, is I don’t think junior people should be consultants. I actually think it’s really bad idea because to be a consultant, you have to have expertise in some area, and junior staff don’t. They haven’t been in their careers long enough to develop that yet. So, they’re just going to flounder. So, my advice is generally aimed at people that have been in their careers for quite some time, generally, people that are 10, 15, 20 years into their career, looking to do something.

Corey: One of the problems that we see when whenever we talk about these things on Twitter is that we get an awful lot of people telling us that we’re wrong, that it can’t be made to work, et cetera, et cetera. But following this model, I’ve been independent for—well, I was independent and then we became The Duckbill Group; add them together because figuring out exactly where that divide happened is always a mental leap for me, but it’s been six years at this point. We’ve definitely proven our ability to not go out of business every month. It’s kind of amazing. Without even an exception case of, “That one time.”

Mike: [laugh]. Yeah, we are living proof that it does work, but you don’t really have to take just our word for it because there are a lot of other firms that exist entirely on an advisory-only, high-expertise model. And it works out really well. We’ve worked with several of them, so it does work; it just isn’t very common inside of tech and particularly inside of engineering.

Corey: So, one of the things that I find is what differentiates an expert from an enthusiastic amateur is, among other things, the number of mistakes that they’ve made. So, I guess a different way of asking this is what qualifies you to write this book, but instead, I’m going to frame it in a very negative way. What have you screwed up on that puts you in a position of, “Ah, I’m going to write a book so that someone else can make better choices.”

Mike: One of my favorite stories to tell—and Corey, I actually think you might not have heard this story before—

Corey: That seems unlikely, but give it a shot.

Mike: Yeah. So, early in my career, I was working for a consulting firm that did ERP implementations. We worked with mainly large, old-school manufacturing firms. So, my job there was to do the engineering side of the implementation. So, a lot of rack-and-stack, a lot of Windows Server configuration, a lot of pulling cables, that sort of thing. So, I thought I was pretty good at this. I quickly learned that I was actually not nearly as good as I thought I was.

Corey: A common affliction among many different people.

Mike: A common affliction. But I did not realize that until this one particular incident. So, me and my boss are both on site at this large manufacturing facility, and the CFO pulls my boss aside and I can hear them talking and, like, she’s pretty upset. She points at me and says, “I never want this asshole in my office ever again.” So, he and I have a long drive back to our office, like an hour and a half.

And we had a long chat about what that meant for me. I was not there for very long after that, as you might imagine, but the thing is, I still have no idea to this day what I did to upset her. I know that she was pissed and he knows that she was pissed. And he never told me exactly what it was, only that’s you take care of your client. And the client believes that I screwed up so massively that she wanted me fired.

Him not wanting to argue—he didn’t; he just kind of went with it—and put me on other clients. But as a result of that, it really got me thinking that I screwed something up so badly to make this person hate me so much and I still have no idea what it was that I did. Which tells me that even at the time, I did not understand what was going on around me. I did not understand how to manage clients well, and to really take care of them. That was probably the first really massive mistake that I’ve made my career—or, like, the first time I came to the realization that there’s a whole lot I don’t know and it’s really costing me.

Corey: From where I sit, there have been a number of things that we have done as we’ve built our consultancy, and I’m curious—you know, let’s get this even more personal—in the past, well, we’ll call it four years that we have been The Duckbill Group—which I think is right—what have we gotten right and what have we gotten wrong? You are the expert; you’re writing a book on this for God’s sake.

Mike: So, what I think we’ve gotten right is one of my core beliefs is never bill hourly. Shout out to Jonathan Stark. He wrote I really good book that is a much better explanation of that than I’ve ever been able to come up with. But I’ve always had the belief that billing hourly is just a bad idea, so we’ve never done that and that’s worked out really well for us. We’ve turned down work because that’s the model they wanted and it’s like, “Sorry, that’s not what we do. You’re going to have to go work for someone else—or hire someone else.”

Other things that I think we’ve gotten right is a focus on staying on the advisory side and not doing any implementation. That’s allowed us to get really good at what we do very quickly because we don’t get mired in long-term implementation detail-level projects. So, that’s been great. Where we went a little wrong, I think—or what we have gotten wrong, lessons that we’ve learned. I had this idea that we could build out a junior and mid-level staff and have them overseen by very senior people.

And, as it turns out, that didn’t work for us, entirely because it didn’t work for me. That was really my failure. I went from being an IC to being the leader of a company in one single step. I’ve never been a manager before Duckbill. So, that particular mistake was really about my lack of abilities in being a good manager and being a good leader.

So, building that out, that did not work for us because it didn’t work for me and I didn’t know how to do it. So, I made way too many mistakes that were kind of amateur-level stuff in terms of management. So, that didn’t work. And the other major mistake that I think we’ve made is not putting enough effort into marketing. So, we get most of our leads by inbound or referral, as is common with boutique consulting firms, but a lot of the income that we get comes through Last Week in AWS, which is really awesome.

But we don’t put a whole lot of effort into content or any marketing stuff related to the thing that we do, like cost management. I think a lot of that is just that we don’t really know how, aside from just creating content and publishing it. We don’t really understand how to market ourselves very well on that side of things. I think that’s a mistake we’ve made.

Corey: It’s an effective strategy against what’s a very complicated problem because unlike most things, if—let’s go back to your old life—if we have an observability problem, we will talk about that very publicly on Twitter and people will come over and get—“Hey, hey, have you tried to buy my company’s product?” Or they’ll offer consulting services, or they’ll point us in the right direction, all of which is sometimes appreciated. Whereas when you have a big AWS bill, you generally don’t talk about it in public, especially if you’re a serious company because that’s going to, uh, I think the phrase is, “Shake investor confidence,” when you’re actually live tweeting slash shitposting about your own AWS bill. And our initial thesis was therefore, since we can’t wind up reaching out to these people when they’re having the pain because there’s no external indication of it, instead what we have to do is be loud enough and notable in this space, where they find us where it shouldn’t take more than them asking one or two of their friends before they get pointed to us. What’s always fun as the stories we hear is, “Okay, so I asked some other people because I wanted a second opinion, and they told us to go to you, too.” Word of mouth is where our customers come from. But how do you bootstrap that? I don’t know. I’m lucky that I got it right the first time.

Mike: Yeah, and as I mentioned a minute ago, that a lot of that really comes through your content, which is not really cost management-related. It’s much more AWS broad. We don’t put out a lot of cost management specific content. And honestly, I think that’s to our detriment. We should and we absolutely can. We just haven’t. I think that’s one of the really big things that we’ve missed on doing.

Corey: There’s an argument that the people who come to us do not spend their entire day thinking about AWS bills. I mean, I can’t imagine what that would be like, but they don’t for whatever reason; they’re trying to do something ridiculous, like you know, run a profitable company. So, getting in front of them when they’re not thinking about the bills means, on some level, that they’re going to reach out to us when the bill strikes. At least that’s been my operating theory.

Mike: Yeah, I mean, this really just comes down to content strategy and broader marketing strategy. Because one of the things you have to think about with marketing is how do you meet a customer at the time that they have the problem that you solve? And what most marketing people talk about here is what’s called the triggering event. Something causes someone to take an action. What is that something? Who is that someone, and what is that action?

And for us, one of the things that we thought early on is that well, the bill comes out the first week of the month, every month, so people are going to opened the bill freak out, and a big influx of leads are going to come our way and that’s going to happen every single month. The reality is that never happened. That turns out was not a triggering event for anyone.

Corey: And early on, when we didn’t have that many leads coming in, it was a statistical aberration that I thought I saw, like, “Oh, out of the three leads this month, two of them showed up in the same day. Clearly, it’s an AWS billing day thing.” No. It turns out that every company’s internal cadence is radically different.

Mike: Right. And I wish I could say that we have found what our triggering events are, but I actually don’t think we have. We know who the people are and we know what they reach out for, but we haven’t really uncovered that triggering event. And it could also be there, there isn’t a one. Or at least, if there is one, it’s not one that we could see externally, which is kind of fine.

Corey: Well, for the half of our consulting that does contract negotiation for large-scale commitments with AWS, it comes up for renewal or the initial discount contract gets offered, those are very clear triggering events but the challenge is that we don’t—

Mike: You can’t see them externally.

Corey: —really see that from the outside. Yeah.

Mike: Right. And this is one of those things where there are triggering events for basically everything and it’s probably going to be pretty consistent once you get down to specific services. Like we provide cost optimization services and contract negotiation services. I’m willing to bet that I can predict exactly what the trigger events for both of those will be pretty well. The problem is, you can never see those externally, which is kind of fine.

Ideally, you would be able to see it externally, but you can’t, so we roll with it, which means our entire strategy has revolved around always being top-of-mind because at the time where it happens, we’re already there. And that’s a much more difficult strategy to employ, but it does work.

Corey: All it takes is time and being really lucky and being really prolific, and, and, and. It’s one of those things where if I were to set out to replicate it, I don’t even know how I’d go about doing it.

Mike: People have been asking me. They say, “I want to create The Duckbill Group for X. What do I do?” And I say, “First step, get yourself a Corey Quinn.” And they’re like, “Well, I can’t do that. There’s only one.” I’m like, “Yep. Sucks to be you.” [laugh].

Corey: Yeah, we called the Jerk Store. They’re running out of him. Yeah, it’s a problem. And I don’t think the world needs a whole lot more of my type of humor, to be honest, because the failure mode that I have experienced brutally and firsthand is not that people don’t find me funny; it’s that it really hurts people’s feelings. I have put significant effort into correcting those mistakes and not repeating them, but it sucks every time I get it wrong.

Mike: Yeah.

Corey: Another question I have for you around the book targeting, are you aiming this at individual independent consultants or are you looking to advise people who are building agencies?

Mike: Explicitly not the latter. My framing around this is that there are a number of people who are doing consulting right now and they’ve kind of fell into it. Often, they’ll leave one job and do a little consulting while they’re waiting on their next thing. And in some cases, that might be a month or two. In some cases, it might go on years, but that whole time, they’re just like, “Oh, yeah, I’m doing consulting in between things.”

But at some point, some of those think, “You know what? I want this to be my thing. I don’t want there to be a next thing. This is my thing. So therefore, how do I get serious about doing consulting? How do I get serious about being a consultant?”

And that’s where I think I can add a lot of value because casually consulting of, like, taking whatever work just kind of falls your way is interesting for a while, but once you get serious about it, and you have to start thinking, well, how do I actually deliver engagements? How do I do that consistently? How do I do it repeatedly? How to do it profitably? How do I price my stuff? How do I package it? How do I attract the leads that I want? How do I work with the customers I want?

And turning that whole thing from a casual, “Yeah, whatever,” into, “This is my business,” is a very different way of thinking. And most people don’t think that way because they didn’t really set out to build a business. They set out to just pass time and earn a little bit of money before they went off to the next job. So, the framing that I have here is that I’m aiming to help people that are wanting to get serious about doing consulting. But they generally have experience doing it already.

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Corey: We went from effectively being the two of us on the consulting delivery side, two scaling up to, I believe, at one point we were six of us, and now we have scaled back down to largely the two of us, aided by very specific external folk, when it makes sense.

Mike: And don’t forget April.

Corey: And of course. I’m talking delivery.

Mike: [laugh].

Corey: There’s a reason I—

Mike: Delivery. Yes.

Corey: —prefaced it that way. There’s a lot of support structure here, let’s not get ourselves, and they make this entire place work. But why did we scale up? And then why did we scale down? Because I don’t believe we’ve ever really talked about that publicly.

Mike: No, not publicly. In fact, most people probably don’t even notice that it happened. We got pretty big for—I mean, not big. So, we hit, I think, six full-time people at one point. And that was quite a bit.

Corey: On the delivery side. Let’s be clear.

Mike: Yeah. No, I think actually with support structure, too. Like, if you add in everyone that we had with the sales and marketing as well, we were like 11 people. And that was a pretty sizable company. But then in July this year, it kind of hit a point where I found that I just wasn’t enjoying my job anymore.

And I looked around and noticed that a lot of other people was kind of feeling the same way, is just things had gotten harder. And the business wasn’t suffering at all, it was just everything felt more difficult. And I finally realized that, for me personally at least, I started Duckbill because I love working with clients, I love doing consulting. And what I have found is that as the company grew larger and larger, I spent most of my time keeping the trains running and taking care of the staff. Which is exactly what I should be doing when we’re that size, like, that is my job at that size, but I didn’t actually enjoy it.

I went into management as, like, this job going from having never done it before. So, I didn’t have anything to compare it to. I didn’t know if I would like it or not. And once I got here, I realized I actually don’t. And I spent a lot of efforts to get better at it and I think I did. I’ve been working with a leadership coach for years now.

But it finally came to a point where I just realized that I wasn’t actually enjoying it anymore. I wasn’t enjoying the job that I had created. And I think that really panned out to you as well. So, we decided, we had kind of an opportune time where one of our team decided that they were also wanting to go back to do independent consulting. I’m like, “Well, this is actually pretty good time. Why don’t we just start scaling things back?” And like, maybe we’ll scale it up again in the future; maybe we won’t. But like, let’s just buy ourselves some breathing room.

Corey: One of the things that I think we didn’t spend quite enough time really asking ourselves was what kind of place do we want to work at. Because we’ve explicitly stated that you and I both view this as the last job either of us is ever going to have, which means that we’re not trying to do the get big quickly to get acquired, or we want to raise a whole bunch of other people’s money to scale massively. Those aren’t things either of us enjoy. And it turns out that handling the challenges of a business with as many people working here as we had wasn’t what either one of us really wanted to do.

Mike: Yeah. You know what—[laugh] it’s funny because a lot of our advisors kept asking the same thing. Like, “So, what kind of company do you want?” And like, we had some pretty good answers for that, in that we didn’t want to build a VC-backed company, we didn’t ever want to be hyperscale. But there’s a wide gulf of things between two-person company and hyperscale and we didn’t really think too much about that.

In fact, being a ten-person company is very different than being a three-person company, and we didn’t really think about that either. We should have really put a lot more thought into that of what does it mean to be a ten-person company, and is that what we want? Or is three, four, or five-person more our style? But then again, I don’t know that we could have predicted that as a concern had we not tried it first.

Corey: Yeah, that was very much something that, for better or worse, we pay advisors for their advice—that’s kind of definitionally how it works—and then we ignored it, on some level, though we thought we were doing something different at the time because there’s some lessons you’ve just got to learn by making the mistake yourself.

Mike: Yeah, we definitely made a few of those. [laugh].

Corey: And it’s been an interesting ride and I’ve got zero problem with how things have shaken out. I like what we do quite a bit. And honestly, the biggest fear I’ve got going forward is that my jackass business partner is about to distract the hell out of himself by writing a book, which is never as easy as even the most pessimistic estimates would be. So, that’s going to be awesome and fun.

Mike: Yeah, just wait until you see the dedication page.

Corey: Yeah, I wasn’t mentioned at all in the last book that you wrote, which I found personally offensive. So, if I’m not mentioned this time, you’re fired.

Mike: Oh, no, you are. It’s just I’m also adding an anti-dedication page, which just has a photo of you.

Corey: Oh, wonderful, wonderful. This is going to be one of those stories of the good consultant and the bad consultant, and I’m going to be the Goofus to your Gallant, aren’t I?

Mike: [laugh]. Yes, yes. You are.

Corey: “Goofus wants to bill by the hour.”

Mike: It’s going to have a page of, like, “Here’s this [unintelligible 00:25:05] book is dedicated to. Here’s my acknowledgments. And [BLEEP] this guy.”

Corey: I love it. I absolutely love it. I think that there is definitely a bright future for telling other people how to consult properly. May just suggest as a subtitle for the book is Consulting—subtitle—You Have Problems and Money. We’ll Take Both.

Mike: [laugh]. Yeah. My working title for this is Practical Consulting, but only because my previous book was Practical Monitoring. Pretty sure O’Reilly would have a fit if I did that. I actually have no idea what I’m going to call the book, still.

Corey: Naming things is super hard. I would suggest asking people at AWS who name services and then doing the exact opposite of whatever they suggest. Like, take their list of recommendations and sort by reverse order and that’ll get you started.

Mike: Yeah. [laugh].

Corey: I want to thank you for giving us an update on what you’re working on and why you have less hair every time I see you because you’re mostly ripping it out due to self-inflicted pain. If people want to follow your adventures, where’s the best place to keep updated on this ridiculous, ridiculous nonsense that I cannot talk you out of?

Mike: Two places. You can follow me on Twitter, @Mike_Julian, or you can sign up for the newsletter on my site at where I’ll be posting all the updates.

Corey: Excellent. And I look forward to skewering the living hell out of them.

Mike: I look forward to ignoring them.

Corey: Thank you, Mike. It is always a pleasure.

Mike: Thank you, Corey.

Corey: Mike Julian, CEO at The Duckbill Group, and my unwilling best friend. I’m Cloud Economist Corey Quinn and this is Screaming in the Cloud. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice, whereas if you’ve hated this podcast, please leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice along with an angry, annoying comment in which you tell us exactly what our problem is, and then charge us a fixed fee to fix that problem.

Corey: If your AWS bill keeps rising and your blood pressure is doing the same, then you need The Duckbill Group. We help companies fix their AWS bill by making it smaller and less horrifying. The Duckbill Group works for you, not AWS. We tailor recommendations to your business and we get to the point. Visit to get started.

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