In the hectic world of IT, we often work for multiple clients at the same time. We schedule our time as tightly as possible to maximize profits and personal benefits. But sometimes we jam our schedules with too much. Maintaining separation between clients can become almost impossible, as I discovered to my embarrassment while working for one particular client.

This project involved fewer than 1,000 desktops and a server refresh. I feverishly worked on a new desktop and server architecture while my teammates tested out deployment scenarios. After two weeks, we had made good progress despite discovering more than 400 unregistered and untested applications in the environment.

One afternoon, I received an e-mail from the team I had left behind at a somewhat larger data-center redesign project. They needed answers to a handful of questions. It took five minutes to kick out the answers. An hour after I responded, a vast new architectural document arrived in my mailbox. My old team wanted me to review it for them. Realizing that I had a serious task on my hands, I shot an e-mail to my old project manager. He responded within minutes. It seemed that the data-center client had allocated additional funds to pay for the review. My current project manager and the data-center project manager were already negotiating about my time.

I dove into the review immediately after work. With the size of the document and the number of problems I encountered, I ended up spending every lunch and evening during the next week preparing responses and generating feedback. Sometimes those lunches stretched a bit longer than they should have.

About a week into helping both my current client and my former client, I received another request—to help one of our new architects on his first assignment. I at once agreed to step into the mentoring role. It was my first chance to truly play the “senior” to one of my peers. We spent hours on the phone and more time exchanging e-mail. He demonstrated a quick grasp of the technical and political aspects of his job. I like to think that I helped him organize his thoughts during our brainstorming sessions.

Five weeks into my primary project, I submitted a potential travel schedule for the deployment teams to the project manager. He came back to me with a few questions about the site assignments. Specifically, I had assigned teams to sites that didn’t exist, on dates outside the project’s scope. He expressed concern that perhaps I was trying to do too much. Fortunately, he caught it before it got to the client project manager.

The loss of focus
After we cleared up the confusion surrounding the travel schedule, I spent some time thinking not only about what had happened, but why. If I just assumed I would never make that mistake again, whatever forces led me to it in the first place would lead me back to the same place in the future.

The basic mistake stands out clearly in hindsight. I should never have taken on so much work, especially work that required essentially the same kind of thinking and effort for three separate clients. Bleed-over and outright confusion between architectures was inevitable. That I allowed it to get to the point that I became confused about which sites physically belonged to which client borders on inexcusable.

Beyond the problem of sorting out the work lurks the issue of how much we, as consultants, expect ourselves to do. We try to bill every hour of every day. We try to work ourselves into the ground—in part to justify our salaries and in part to generate as much profit as possible.

In ethical consultants, this drive leads to the kinds of mistakes I started to make. Trying to juggle the social, political, and technical contexts of three clients proved too much for me. I also spent days without sleep to keep up the pace. That, in turn, further degraded my performance, forcing me to work longer hours to perform the same amount of work.

Confused about what to do, I called my mentor. We talked about how to keep our clients separated when we had to work on similar projects simultaneously. He suggested using music as a separator. I could select different kinds of music to listen to while working on various documents. By changing the auditory environment, you create an environmental division that allows you to focus more clearly on individual clients. We brainstormed a number of other tricks: using separate rooms (in hotel suites) for separate clients, wearing specific suits for specific clients, and using different fonts for your writing. All of them revolved around the idea of creating a separation between the clients you worked for remotely and the client who was paying for your presence.

Less ethical consultants take a simpler route. They double- and even triple-bill their clients. The less ethical consultant rationalizes that since he’s meeting all of his deadlines and working “simultaneously” on two or more clients at once, everyone can pay for his time. This was a widespread practice early in the infrastructure boom, and it continues to some extent. Sometimes it’s innocent enough, with the consultant billing his lunch hours to other clients and simply forgetting to subtract the hours from his regular customer’s bills. Other times, the consultant deliberately schedules time that he can double- or triple-bill.

Fast forward
Six months later, I moved on to an operations methodology/services upgrade for a geographically diverse client. Two weeks into my new project, my old project team contacted me to request assistance on an evolutionary change to their legacy operations systems. Although I definitely wanted to take on the challenge to increase my billing, I also realized that I was headed down the same disastrous road.

Rather than saying yes upfront, I told them I would be back in touch with them soon. I then contacted my various colleagues. It turned out that one of them was working hard on a server deployment fouled up by damaged hardware. He had a server architecture to review/support that he was willing to swap out for my extra operations project. I made the necessary arrangements with both teams. To heighten the separation between the two clients, I also strictly enforced physical space: I only worked on the remote client while at my hotel room’s desk. Occasionally, this separation forced me to leave my current client’s site in the middle of the day, but by concentrating I kept the two straight in my mind.

In the first case, I allowed my desire to help my former clients and my desire to bill to push me into a situation where I could not do my job. In the second, I took advantage of my social contacts to spread out the work, generating a more positive result for all parties involved.