The Quantitative Value of Advice

When I started this blog some 7 years ago, one of my eventual goals was to parry my newfound online fame1 eventually into a consultancy. At the time, my biggest achievement was getting hired by Google, and so that became my first—and still one of my most popular—blog posts.

Since then, there have been a handful of opportunities for me to pursue the career of a technical consultant, but I passed them up in favor of working as a full-time employee, with a team and product. Once I got into people management, the natural arrangement would have been to expand into manager coaching and training. I might still decide to do that at some point, but I still really enjoy the notion of growing teams and scaling with a company while feeling ownership over the team’s products.

But I’ve always felt like that advice on good engineering/management practices shouldn’t be confined to just colleagues. In fact, that’s where a lot of early-stage startups get stuck: the head of the technical organization—usually the lead engineer or CTO—doesn’t have anybody to turn to when they run into situations and technologies they’ve never dealt with before. Sometimes they can tap past mentors and managers; sometimes they can make connections through their VCs or other execs in the company. And sometimes, it just means reaching out to a stranger.

I’ve been using Clarity as a paid on-demand voice chat, and recently joined a similar service called Harbor2 which is an email analogue. At least with Clarity, I’ve found that setting a price indeed validates economics textbooks claim, in that it acts as a strong filter against less relevant outreach. Much like the jokes about talking with lawyers that bill by the hour, having to pay for every minute of conversation acts as a great incentive to find the right person and get to the point.

On the other hand, I’ve also made myself reachable via my blog here for free, I signed up for LinkedIn mentors, and I volunteer 30 minutes a week to chat with other engineering managers via Plato3. My rationale here is more aligned with an altruistic desire to “give back” to the software industry, and that if anyone can make sure of my experiences to make their journeys easier, then it’s well worth my time and effort. I’d guess that my availability with these free services cannibalizes the above paid ones, even though I find myself trying a bit harder with Clarity and Harbor; I want to ensure that their money is well spent.

I’m sometimes reminded of a line from The Dark Knight:

If you are good at something, never do it for free.


I don’t have a great solution to this contradiction. Of course, as long as I’m happily employed, I can afford to take out time to help others along, even if the lack of explicit quantitative value—in the form of paying for that time—opens the floodgates to connections of dubious quality. If I do get into professional coaching and mentorship, however, the cost should act as that filter for useful, meaningful conversations.

  1. Which, incidentally, has eluded me also for 7 years. What a coincidence.

  2. I recently did an email-based interview with them too!

  3. I listed myself on The Mentoring List for fun, though the traffic from there isn’t of the highest quality.

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