Saturday, January 05, 2008


When I was a kid I asked my mom what Dad’s job was. She told me he was a consultant, which, to a kid, sounded weird. They used to ask you that in grade school – what your parents did for a living – and I found it uncomfortable answering “consultant” or “businessman” when other kids were saying “doctor” and “lawyer” and “engineer.” It was difficult explaining it to a class (and a teacher) who didn’t know what to make of it. I wasn’t as cool as the kid whose dad flew planes or built buildings.

[Aside: “Entrepreneur” would’ve been nice but it wasn’t in vogue back then. Neither was “homemaker” so a number of us wrote down “housewife” for our stay-at-home moms.]

To a kid, jobs are clear-cut: policeman, firefighter, teacher. Even if we barely understood what the job entailed, it comforted us to have a name and an image that we saw in schoolbooks to attach to our parents.

My dad carried a briefcase, occasionally.

Now, some 20-odd years later, my father’s retired and I’m the consultant. And while the tools of the trade are laptops and cellphones – I lug around a backpack instead of a briefcase – I still can’t explain to a child what exactly it is I do.

Consulting is a catch-all. I was technically a Department of Education consultant in 2001 and (together with other members of Raul Roco’s staff) became “evidence” of graft and corruption in government. Of course that was only if you lumped us together with the typical government consultants who collected six-figure fees but rarely showed up (if at all). We weren’t like that at all. Think Mandy in the first season of “The West Wing;” we had no official positions but did a lot more work than the regular salaried staff.

Consultant is what they call you when they think you have something to offer but they’re just not sure what, or if they want to give you a job but can’t get you to sit your ass down from 9 to 5. We have “terms of engagement,” which is a fancy way of saying “what we need to do in order to get paid.” (It is implied that anything more will be charged accordingly.)

Basically people tell consultants their problems and we give our opinions. But unlike a friend over lunch or coffee, the consultant offers justifications (research, studies, and sound reasoning written on paper) to give the impression that he knows what he’s saying and that he’s worth what you’re paying him.

And most of the time we are.

Paying someone for their thoughts is expensive, with neither party knowing if they’re really worth it. My former professors consulted for large companies, charging 50 to 100 grand a day, spending it in a conference room telling their clients what’s wrong with their companies. Of course, there’s always a caveat. They (actually, we) tell them no one knows their business more than they do and no amount of research is 100% accurate in prediction.

That’s when we sometimes feel we’re not.

For the consultant there is always a nagging feeling that he’s putting one over his clients. Half the time I’m thinking “this is so fucking easy.” I just write down what I learned in school and what I read in books and what knowledge I gained from experience. I spend half an hour thinking about a problem and spend the same amount of time translating it into something my clients can understand, taking care to use enough jargon to sound convincing and enough lay terms to be comprehensible.

[But then again you count how much your education cost and the books and trade papers and the perceived value of your natural smarts and you begin to think you’re the one being had.]

Job descriptions are easy for a kid. A firefighter puts out fires, a policeman catches criminals, and a doctor heals people. But it’s never that simple. Cops’ and doctors’ and lawyers’ actual responsibilities are a bit more complicated for typical nine-year-olds to comprehend. In fact the job descriptions we find in elementary schoolbooks are just the aspect that’s easiest to understand.

Mom was never able to give me a decent description of what Dad did for a living, except he went to an office (occasionally) and carried a briefcase. What she should’ve told me was that people asked him questions and he told them what he knew.

Which, come to think of it, would’ve been pretty cool for a nine-year-old to say in class.

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