IT Employment

IT consultants must learn to trust their intuitions

Chip Camden says he's learning not to overthink his IT consulting work and to trust his intuitions. Find out why.

During a Trivial Pursuit game with my family years ago, my two younger sisters were on one team. Whenever it was their turn, they would debate the question between themselves, veering off into all sorts of unrelated topics, false memories, and logical fallacies. It was all I could do to keep from laughing as I imagined how far from the truth their answer would be, but time and again, they surprised me by coming up with the correct answer.

In retrospect, I think that one or both of my sisters must have known every correct answer, but they didn't know how they knew it. All the so-called reasoning that led them to the answer was just a way to chew up some time while their brains worked on fetching it in the background. When the right answer finally surfaced, they recognized it as correct. It was one of the more striking examples of intuition in action that I have ever witnessed.

I had to admire my sisters' feat, but I could never imitate it or advise anyone else to attempt to do so. Like most people in my profession, I prefer sound logic and verifiable data when available. Perhaps more importantly, I want to know where I can't be certain, and to what degree. But geeks like me sometimes suffer from an inability to make decisions, precisely because we're aware of all of our unanswered questions.

Even though "knowledge is power," in business you can't always afford to wait for knowledge; sometimes you need to make a decision based on what little you know, informed by your past experience. That's where intuition plays a useful role even in a technical occupation like IT consulting. Some people refer to it as "trusting your gut," but I prefer to think of it as knowing something without knowing precisely why.

I don't want to encourage magical thinking, so here's a concrete example that's simpler than your average software problem: a card game. In almost every game involving a deck of cards, it benefits your decision making to know what cards the other players have -- but that information is usually hidden. As you become a more experienced player, you notice what cards have been played; perhaps you even keep a mental count of the more important cards that you see, and note behaviors that might indicate that your opponent does or does not have a specific card. If you keep playing long enough, you'll "know" where certain cards are, without any scientific proof. It's not magic -- your brain can perceive a pattern based on your past experience for which you don't yet possess a theory.

The same thing happens in IT consulting and in other businesses. When you've been there many times before, you can smell when something isn't right -- even if you can't put a name on it. You can also notice an opportunity before you've thought of a plan to exploit it.

Thus it seems obvious that the more you know about a subject, the better your intuitions will be. In practice, though, once we've invested a lot of energy into a canonical way of thinking about a subject, it's difficult for us to let any thought outside that discipline receive any attention. We can become too narrowly focused to pick up on other cues. In my experience, the best intuitions come to me in a situation where I have a lot of related experience, but just enough ignorance to be novel.

That makes IT consulting a good career for me. All of my clients share the common problems of software development, but their individual challenges differ enough to keep me on my toes. I still strive for hard data where it can be found, and I work now more than ever on self-education, but where those fall short, I'm learning not to overthink it and to trust my intuitions.

How do your intuitions come into play in your IT consulting work? Tell us in the discussion.

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About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

68 comments
andrewgauger
andrewgauger

I agree with the article, but I have words of caution. I am a shoot from the hip kind of guy, and will tackle a project immediately and let intuition build the project. However, I caution that you cannot let your clients know this is your methods. When they ask a question, have a prepared answer that stimulates their reason-based minds. Too many "it just feels right" answers will lose your bid.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I don't mind telling my clients when something doesn't feel right, and I'll often support that with nothing more than "I've been around the block enough times to know when I'm about to have a head-on." But definitely, if I can frame a more rational support, I will. In fact, it's important to keep emotions and personal preferences out of it completely -- any intuition has to be about outcomes, not preconceived notions.

Arcturus909
Arcturus909

Is when you've got a good healthy portion of it and it serves you well, but "they" (upper management) suddenly task you with "training someone to be like you". You can't train intuition. Let me rephrase that: "I certainly don't know how to train intuition".

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

(though now I can't find a link) that the Soviets did a lot of research into intuition, focusing especially on how to improve intuitive skills. But that could be a false memory. For me, the only way I can think of to try to train intuition is to coach with many of the thoughts that have been voiced in this discussion. Mix with a liberal amount of experience.

Arcturus909
Arcturus909

When I started my IT career. I was hired to do documentation for company installs and how tos. I had no formal IT training (other than 1st year CS html). The job quickly morphed into a support position. A lot of time we found problems that didn't make any logical sense to any of the other more experienced techs, but the root causes would sort of bubble up to the surface of my mind after looking over the symptoms of the problem and gathering as much data as possible. Unfortunately, now that I have a lot more knowledge, my intuition doesn't work nearly as well as it used to. I have fallen into thinking patterns and have "the rules" firmly established in my mind. :)

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Rules help us, because they shorten the path to a solution in many cases. The problem comes when the rules are too narrow to account for everything (which they usually are). Like most shortcuts, they have their cost.

herlizness
herlizness

some years ago I was asked to provide an informal evaluation of a new system prototype; the UI looked gorgeous and the "theory" and specs of the system looked fine, but there was something horribly wrong about the whole thing. It felt too complex, too fat; it lacked a good postive responsive feel .. and I was bothered by the fact that they were running it on state of the art hardware that real users would not be using. I gave it a tentative thumbs-down and suggested someone take charge of giving it a really good, long, hard look. Nobody listened; they had been looking for a rave review. Two years later, after many, many painful meetings the project was dropped at a net cost of $60 million .. and the lawsuits began. One of the practical problems with an intuitive approach is that in many quarters you simple cannot get people to listen if you can't articulate an empirical basis for whatever conclusion or hypothesis you may have drawn. All the same, I think it's a key component of decision making and won't be giving it up. Malcolm Gladwell talks about all of this in his informative and entertaining book "Blink."

David Horowitz
David Horowitz

I empathize with your story and have some of my own. The thing is, I've learned to trust my intuition even more, especially when it tells me something feels wrong (as yours was telling you). Now I even steer clear of projects if they feel off - I've developed a clearer sense of which projects will succeed and which will fail. Projects can fail for any number of factors, ranging from technical flaws, design flaws, overreaching in time or cost, and flaws in the organizational environment in which the project is to be created (not to be underestimated!).

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I've heard good things about that book, though I haven't yet read it. One truth about software projects that I've seen confirmed over and over again is "the bigger they are, the harder they fall." Too much complexity is almost always a recipe for disaster.

herlizness
herlizness

> available on Amazon for less than $10 these days ... think you'll enjoy it

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

And they say you don't ever post constructively. Thanks, I'll try to implement crisper.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

After creating such a huge and beautiful specification, the sunk-cost fallacy hushes any hints that it should be altered, or (perish the thought) scrapped.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Both "thats"; and, the third, replaced with a semicolon. Crisper.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

I mean that I realize that my subconscious is seeing something clearly, that I can only glimpse. It's frustrating.

santeewelding
santeewelding

That, what you interpose and depend upon -- your linguistic expertise -- stumbles?

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

i.e. the question of doom! It's a tough one on the intuitive level too. Sometimes I feel that I get caught between my intuitive perception of a solution and my inability to formulate it into implementability... that's... not nice.

David Horowitz
David Horowitz

Chip, kudos for saying what you've said. I agree wholeheartedly. After many years in the industry, one of the things my clients count on me for *is* my intuitive understanding of problems, their potential solutions, and the scope. Granted, I don't think my clients nor I want to talk about how I'm using my intuitive senses - no one wants things to sound like "guesses", or even "educated guesses" or "best guesses". But, properly backed up with the best information that can be stated, we are *counting* on my intuition. I also agree with you strongly that it can be very difficult for us in a technical field to learn to trust our intuition - it is that very leap however that took me from the realm of a software developer into an IT consultant. Thank you for the article.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, unfortunately a "guess" is all you have sometimes -- not being able to clearly foresee the future. Learning to guess well is part of the intuitive art.

gduamroh
gduamroh

my cutting edge decisions or choices are formed by what looks like a conglomerate of bits of infos that i have gathered, consciously or unconsciously overtime. how they all form together (without an attempt to recollect) to make that critical decision at that moment is the mystery. but i am mostly right. call that intuition?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I still believe that we should strive to understand our decisions as much as possible, but if we confine our decisions to only the territory that we've mapped, we aren't going anywhere new.

mcswan454
mcswan454

I'm surprised you had replies at all. Obviously, to this point, no one inherently diagrees, so what are we talking about? M.

kmo
kmo

I really appreciate the post as it makes me consider how to improve my intuition as part of my deliverables. Often, my intuition comes into play when an analysis in finished and everybody is claiming we are on rigth track but I keep feeling something is missing. Or there is a risk we haven't discovered. Finding the right words and timing to bring it up is essential and I haven't found the method yet. Having time to digest and come up with this voice is important for me; usually this voice comes out during a long shower or a walk in the forest. Funny how the brain works

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

You're right, and as consultants we not only need to trust our intuitions, but also give them weight in front of our clients. We might be afraid to say anything because it's just a hunch or a bad feeling, but the experiences that back that feeling up should have some weight. So it's OK to say to your client, "I don't know why yet, but this doesn't feel right."

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

For me at least, it helps to talk about intuition because I still have a hard time trusting it in practice.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

For me at least, intuition usually shows in what I do without thinking. So, all the quickly, certainly and correctly done things are pulled straight out of the scummy depths of id. It's when I stop to think that I get into trouble, usually. Like, shooting hoops while thinking too hard about how to shoot hoops... not easy, that. Or do you mean it in a different way?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... almost everyone here, at some time or another. Analytical thinking is what got us where we are, but too much reliance on it can hinder where you're going.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Of how many here overthink and disable self.

reisen55
reisen55

I too have discovered that first reactions, while sometimes suspect in detail, are damn good on smelling the air. Something is wrong somwhere and it is the job of the consultant to refine it down and pinpoint it. Gut reactions can be useful too on an consultant themselves. Feeling short of breath for the past month, diagnosed with pneumonia ... but nope, congestive heart failure. Made a cardio appt, was shot into a hospital for blood pressure and stent insertion. Home now and my business is recovering nicely as am I. So do not trust your gut just with clients!!!!

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

It drives me crazy how she can claim to know things without any proof. I'm especially annoyed because she's usually right.

jantakke
jantakke

Here's another one! Guess it's the only way to cope with (being married to) a consultant ;-)

reisen55
reisen55

Chip, it was not pneumonia but congestive heart failure!!!! I spent 5 days in Good Sam Hospital, Suffern NY having blood pressure reduced (stress) and a stent put into a 95% blocked artery!!! Now the health of an independent IT consultant is also a very good post. My business essentially shut itself down and I am picking up the pieces again.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... and good luck with the reassembly. That is a good topic for a post, BTW. Thanks!

Ahmed El-Deeb
Ahmed El-Deeb

What you are saying is very true; referred to as "Priori Knowledge" in philosophy and is enforced by Aristotle and Plato. This is regarding the card game. For inituition, it comes at the end of an intellectual journey; as enforced by Einstein when asked in an interview how he came about his Relativity theory. He said by intuition; then, paused for a while and continued that intuition comes after you do the intellectual journey. As you are saying, it plays a role acknowledging your experience and background. I believe this is the essence of a consultant and what is expected from him/her. You get exposed to multiple situations, knowledge, and experience that you are in a position intuition serves you and you are competent to articulate many solutions.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

The more experience, the more reliable the intuition. The intuitions of the inexperienced can sometimes be amazingly accurate, but more often they're amazingly misled.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

the greatest role of intuition in science is exactly in the seeing that something is amiss with accepted theory. Actually testing and formulating that intuited realization (what the ancients called "inspiration") into science requires a highly disciplined scientifically trained mind, i.e. the leg-work is no longer for the intuition.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

.. is that someone is going to jump all over this post for supposedly being anti-rational. But I could be wrong.

TheProfessorDan
TheProfessorDan

follow your initial thought because it is probably right on. One of the worst things that any support person can do is to be too influenced by their non technical customers. Just because a person can install a plug and play printer and use the disk to set it up does not make them an I.T. person.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

(other the ones that my first wife might name) is that I'm too willing to mistrust my instincts when confronted with the slightest uncertainty.

erbngeek
erbngeek

Intuition is the catalyst for further investigation. It let's us know something is amiss that requires our further attention. We have all had that feeling that someone is watching us, but do any us just dismiss it without another thought or action? Although our day-to-day situational intuitions may not be so life/death or fight/flight related, they typically "stick in the craw" that, more or less, require action on our part. Anyone ever had a restless night?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

You know it. Everything seems to be progressing with the project, but for some reason you can't help the feeling that something's going to blow. And it usually does.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...it's cost me money. Lots of it. I pay a lot more attention to it now.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...my intuition told me that I should have been selling parts of my investment portfolio that I had been planning to reallocate anyway, but I didn't. After yesterday, that proved very expensive.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

to sell the tiny amount of stock I had (banking), on the day it peaked and plummeted, and for more than that day's high-point. Some kind of stock-technical thing, but it sure made me reconsider a refocus on stocks trading. But luckily I realized that making myself constantly aware to all minute signs of economic movements, which was how I intuited the change, was too stressful. Not a way I could live, even if I could make a living on it.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... that the numbers all add up but I still don't feel right about it, it turns out in the end I was looking at the wrong numbers. We have to trust that intuition to drive us to find out more.

richard
richard

It seems that quite a few of us are in agreement. Personally, after 40 years in the business, I have finally come to trust my "intuition". Amazing how "rational" thinking can led to mistakes. Better late than never.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

The trouble with so-called rational thinking is that we can never completely overcome our preconceptions. As a result, we constantly build systems of belief on shaky foundations. All's fine until the foundation cracks. Intuition can lead you to question those assumptions -- it isn't about rejecting rationalism, it's a check and balance to it.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

That it's possible to come up with many translations true to the original... as which one applies at any one time... for that you have to toss the coins.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Comes from what I remember of the D.C.Lau translation (without consulting it). I'm sure it's difficult to come up with a translation of the Tao Te Ching that's "true" to the original. Besides the vast differences between the two languages, the concepts themselves defy expression -- that's one of the work's main points.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

[i]tro[/i] (N): a belief or a faith. By extension; a religion (which is referred to specifically by adding [i]-s-retning[/i] which means direction-of). [i]tro[/i] (V): to believe; ~in smthng, ~that smthng, etc. [i]tro[/i] (Adj): faithful, reliable, devout (as in "true friend") Truth is [i]sandhed[/i], a derivative (akin to english [i]-ness[/i])of [i]sand[/i] which means true. The word for sand is homonymous with the word for truth.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Who stuck the "true" in there? Did you? The Way, as I recall, has nothing to do with "truth", past participle of, "trow", meaning, "to believe".

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I'm reminded of the Tao Te Ching: "The way that can be named is not the true way" As soon as we attempt to isolate anything for rational examination, we necessarily limit it. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't use rational examination, but we need to be aware of its limitations.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Sorry, I used the "general you", not the "specific you". So, replace with "one" to get what I mean.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

The worst kind of rationalism is half-assed rationalism. Because the brain is inductive, you really have to be totally disciplined when applying any kind of deductive thinking: the subconscious is fast enough to use induction reasonably well, because it uses the same kind of furry logic (not fuzzy, we're talking ten inch shag here!) also to limit impact of errors. When you pluck something out of there into the clean environment of the conscious for precise handling, then the furry induced data is arbitrarily shaved down to be read as precise. When you go on to deduce from that you're going to get exactly what you want to get, irregardless of whether it's true or not, but with all validity meters showing green. Dangerous.

pec
pec

Hi, In my opinion this has to do with the individual personality type. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), is a well-known instrument for measuring and understanding the various personality types. This is a valuable instrument in understanding why certain teams can't work together and produce the expected deliverables! I recommend reading an interesting article about personality types entitled "Making Sense of Software Development and Personality Types".

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I agree that understanding different personality types (even more than distinguished by MBTI) is very important to successfully working together. But I think everyone can benefit from exercising and trusting their intuitions. It's just harder for some of us.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Is the asstuition... you know, that inner voice that claims to be intuition, but is instead the sum of ones prejudices and hobby horse-thinking, and which when indulged leads to... well... I think we all know.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I like that term, "asstuition" -- I'll have to remember to use that, and attribute it to you. I think asstuition differs from intuition in its degree of laziness. Asstuition relies on what you've always thought you knew, while intuition looks for a connection you never saw before.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Of course, the "tuition" part comes from the same Latin root, meaning "to watch over" -- perhaps a lot of asstuition arises from CYA?

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

I actually was wondering how to put in laziness into my definition, but figured that for clarity I had to leave it out. The only problem with the term asstuition is that, while it works fine when said out loud, in writing some people will read ass-tuition... and that's probably something else entirely.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Trying to quash discussion on the usefulness of the id... :p

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

I'm definitely on the pro-intuition side. I figure it like this; the physical brain is a piece of work: it handles incredible amounts of raw, analog data, and manages to come up with mostly sensible solutions most of the time, and in split seconds too. The physical brain and the conscious mind however are worlds apart. The conscious mind is an emulation on the part of the fundamentally inductive brain, an emulation capable of emulating deduction. It has it's uses, but it's simply not what the brain does best; it is *s*l*o*w* in comparison to the real thing. Logic and sound reasoning is entirely the domain of the conscious mind, which means that it's slow too, as well as inherently flawed because deduction, logically, cannot be correctly based on an inductive foundation. So, anything you know, your subconscious (i.e. intuition) likely knows better. So, more people should learn to stop worrying and trust in the subconscious. Conscious reasoning is good for checking premises though, but the rigorous discipline you have to apply to completely validate the inductive basis is staggering, and you can't even begin to do that until you become aware of the difference.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

The constraints of reason mean that by definition, logic is a small subset of thought. It can be used to prove that a mistake has been made or to prevent one, but in order for it to find new ground it almost always has to be led by intuition or chance.

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