A Day in the Life of an IT Consultant

FRAMINGHAM (01/31/2000) - A drive through the historic hamlet of Concord, Mass., to the offices of Binary Techniques Inc. feels more like a leisurely spin in the countryside than a commute to work. Colonial homes line the town's winding Main Street. Very little traffic detracts from the local scenery. And just a few yards from Martin Eyllon's independent consulting firm, located in a building that looks more like a ski lodge than an office complex, the road passes over a green pond filled with water lilies and surrounded by tall, fragrant plants waving in the gentle breeze. It's a spot Eyllon likes to walk to in the afternoons when he has to gear up for some serious debugging or programming.

Eyllon, who has been consulting for 13 years, has carved out a lifestyle and a workstyle that epitomizes the best that independent consulting has to offer.

The serene surroundings underscore a certain calmness that he brings to his meeting-filled days.

Like Thoreau and the other literary figures who populated Concord some 100 years before him, and the Minutemen of the American Revolution some 100 years before them, Eyllon is truly independent, living a deliberate, self-determined life. He recently allowed Computerworld to tag along and peek inside a typical day.

8:30 a.m.

Eyllon arrives at the office, having left only seven and a half hours earlier.

He had worked until 1 a.m. on a client proposal for his lunch meeting today, but when he was ready to print, the printer wouldn't cooperate. He e-mailed the document to himself and printed it out at home before finally going to bed.

With two client meetings and a lunch appointment with a consulting partner scheduled, he takes it easy in the morning as he prepares. This, he says, is his favorite part of the day - when it's quiet and he can refresh and refocus.

A recording of "The Brandenberg Concertos" plays softly on his CD-ROM drive.

The phone rings. Eyllon answers, listens, nods. "I've got a concept on paper," he says. "Yes, I think it's a done deal... I put something together that looks halfway like a catalog. I think it's nice looking... They want to have their own domain."

Eyllon is talking to a colleague he'll meet later for lunch. The two are working on a complicated Web site, one that represents the type of work Eyllon would like to do more of. It's an ambitious project that has already required several meetings with the client and a utility company, and still hasn't been firmed up. They agree on a time and place for lunch and hang up.

Eyllon, who describes himself as in his early 50s, started consulting not long after earning a master's degree in computer science from Brooklyn Polytechnic University. Originally from Romania, he still carries the slightest of accents.

A soft-spoken man, he seems at times more like a college professor than a computer consultant.

10 a.m.

Eyllon drives his green Saab 9000S to his first meeting, which is at the small research and development facility of Williamson Corp., a maker of industrial temperature-measurement devices that's also in Concord.

Williamson is family-owned, and the environment is even more casual than business casual. Eyllon has an ongoing relationship with the company, and Vice President Bill Barron greets him congenially as they sit down in a conference room to discuss the project.

Barron starts by updating Eyllon on where the project stands since they last met. Eyllon's job is to develop an application that will be integrated into Williamson's products, allowing customers to hook their field instruments into a diagnostic program on a remote PC and view the data with a graphical user interface front end. Eyllon had originally specified a program that would tie into a database back end, but as his conversation with Barron progresses, it becomes clear that Williamson wants to scale back the initial deliverables.

"We're on a shoestring budget, but I think we have the basic structure in place," Barron says. "Knowing how we've worked together in the past, if we could get this done in a week [of billable hours], that would be great."

"That will be tough," Eyllon says, trying to keep things open-ended.

"We can take a quick-and-dirty version," Barron responds. "We can call it beta software when we release it to customers."

Barron, whose company has suffered some recent setbacks, continues to reiterate that the project's original specs must be scaled back for the time being. But the whole negotiation is so low-key, it's hard to tell that a deal is being made. Once in agreement on the deliverable, Barron takes Eyllon downstairs to the engineering area to take a look at the instrument and a related application that's already in place. Across the shop floor a radio plays "Let's Dance."

Despite the delicate push and pull, meetings like these, says Eyllon, are one of his favorite parts of the job. The beginning of a new project, when "you're full of hope," is rejuvenating. "I guess it's really why I'm still in the business," he says.

Noon

At the China Trade Restaurant, Eyllon and Vijay Lathia, president of V. R. Tech Inc. in Westford, Mass., order lunch specials and go over their respective parts of a presentation. The two originally met when Lathia was employed at AT&T Bell Laboratories, and Eyllon consulted on a project with him. When Lathia went solo, they reconnected.

Since they last met to discuss the proposal they're working on, each has been researching vendors of customer management software, which will be a big part of the project. Lathia's expertise - in networking and "Internet plumbing," as he describes it - will complement Eyllon's experience developing online catalogs and e-commerce applications.

"The problem with this client is that they have an idea about the Internet, but they don't really know," Eyllon says. "They're approaching it like, ‘We have a solution - now show us a problem.' It has been a difficult process to get them to put their requirements in writing."

He holds up a sheet of paper with a hand-drawn diagram and a series of scribbled notes. Eyllon and Lathia both laugh, but they know this project could be big, and they're willing to keep gently guiding their client along. "They're pretty smart guys with good business connections," Eyllon says. "They've got a good idea - business-to-business e-commerce is up-and-coming."

When not talking about work, the two talk about their kids. Eyllon's three children, ages 16, 14 and 12, are always taking apart his home computers. The machines used to be networked, but the kids have dismantled that through their tinkering. Lathia's son is hooked on PC games and has established a Yahoo GeoCities Web site where he publishes tips and tricks. He's getting as many as 2,000 hits a day and wants his own domain. Lathia inquires as to just how much that would cost him - Eyllon is a reseller of Web space and could set it up for him.

They wrap up lunch with a review of what to do next, before they meet with the client yet again next week.

1:30 p.m.

Eyllon runs into his next appointment, John Toomy, in the hall of his office building. Toomy runs Laser Technologies Inc., a printer service and supply company across the hall, and he wants to launch a Web site. Toomy postpones their appointment for another half-hour, giving Eyllon time to sit down at his computer for the first time all day.

2 p.m.

Toomy comes over from across the hall to discuss the potential Web site. Eyllon walks him through his portfolio. Toomy starts out simple and gets grander and grander ideas as the meeting progresses, ending up with a vision of his dream site.

Eyllon seems to have a deal, but no money was ever discussed.

"Consultants are not great salespeople," Eyllon says. "I guess we have a deal.

He wants to think about exactly what he wants to do. But he knows more than most people do - he knows why he wants to do it."

3 p.m.

With the day's meetings behind him, Eyllon now needs to settle in for some serious debugging on another client's application. Although he finds client meetings motivating, they also create some uneasiness.

To make the mental transition from meeting mode to programming mode, he takes a walk down the country road that leads to his office, pausing at the pond to absorb the view and the tranquility. A great blue heron takes flight low over the water.

"Meetings generate more anxiety, especially meetings with customers," says Eyllon. "Walking helps bring that down, and little by little I get more into what I need to be doing next. It's amazing how easily you can get back into the work frame of mind when you need to."

3:30 p.m.

Back in the quiet of his office, Eyllon settles in at two computers. He's hoping to figure out exactly why the program he's working on keeps crashing his laptop.

This is the solitary part of consulting. After the proposals, the pitches and the lunches, in the end it all boils down to getting a program to work for a client and meeting the deliverable.

It's been a productive day, but for all his organization, Eyllon says he, like everyone else, has tasks that continually fall to the bottom of his to-do list.

"Filling out the 941 tax forms, accounting issues - those are the things that always bounce to the next day's to-do list," he says. "And I don't even put ‘clean off desk' on the list anymore." The day before, he had a professional service come in to tidy up the office.

5 p.m.

It's Friday, so Eyllon will end the workday a bit early. He's planned a family outing to Massachusetts' North Shore.

Goff is a freelance writer in New York. Contact her at lgoff@ix.netcom.com.

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