Buddhism is a religion that originates from India and is the world’s fourth largest religion.
I’m not a Buddhist myself. I describe myself as an atheist, humanist, and scientist, who tries to live by some of the teachings of both Buddha and Jesus, in a non-spiritual and entirely secular way. Because I like to keep things complicated.
I’m not a spiritual person, and I don’t believe in the parts of Buddhism that talk about literal rebirth, karma, nirvana, and the six realms of existence. It can get quite technical to be honest, and there’s a lot of intricate details (check out the Wikipedia page) that I doubt most followers would need to understand.
My feeling is that a lot of the ideas that emerge from Buddhism (and some critical parts of Christianity) can serve as a useful framework for a secular, non-spiritual but essentially ‘good’ life.
I wouldn’t say that Buddhism is a perfect religion. I don’t think a perfect religion (or moral framework in general) exists. Different practitioners and Buddhist societies interpret the teachings differently, in ways that I personally don’t agree with—treatment of women and abortion rights for example. What I do believe is that taking lessons from different places and people, and applying them to life in a way that brings joy to yourself and those around you, is a pretty cool way to run your short time here on Earth.
Some of the concepts presented in Buddhism relate quite well to our consulting practice. I assume that everyone reading my blog is a consultant, in some way. Even if you’re a developer working as an individual contributor in a product team for a product company, I think it’s essential to have a consultant mindset, and to be able to approach challenges in a way that is holistic and beneficial for the people you’re working with, the product you’re building, and the company you’re helping grow.
So, I’m going to explore several Buddhist tenets and how they might relate to your practice as a consultant. Note that as I’m not an experienced Buddhist, my approach is to just take the basics of these ideas from different parts of Buddhist teachings and bringing my own perspective to them.
The Five Precepts are the basis of ethics for Buddhist laypeople. They’re some pretty good, basic instructions for a moral system that we can apply to consulting as well as to life in general. Briefly they are:
Not all of these apply to consulting per se so I’ll just pick a few and talk about them.
I see this as giving life—human life, animal life, plant life, the ecosystem and the planet/universe writ large—priority over short term profit or gain. Hopefully we get to choose our own adventures. I choose not to work directly with companies that cause harm to life, such as mining companies, arms manufacturers, gambling companies (think about that for a moment…). Be deliberate about the work that you choose to do and the effect that it has in this world.
Mining companies is an interesting one. My father and my brother both work in the mining industry. I wouldn’t work with a company that is making direct profits from causing ecological harm, but I find it ok to work with companies that are trying to make resource extraction and exploitation more efficient and reduce environmental impact. I don’t think there are cut-and-dry, single answers to the questions posed by trying to apply these tenets to your life.
This is interesting when you think about how much of programming is done via googling issues and copying from StackOverflow. That information is in fact generally freely given, but it is nice to be able to acknowledge your sources, and take opportunities to give back. That could be blogging about something you’ve learned, releasing code that builds on what you’ve found as an open source project, or giving a 5 minute lightning speech in front of your peers and community.
What this tenet definitely does apply to is the deliberate violation of the license on a work. So, taking an OSS library and using it in a way that violates the license, or using a copyrighted image or font set without paying for commercial use. I do try to pay for the tools I use, and my personal mantra is “Programmers gotta eat too”. If you’re being pushed to break this precept, perhaps you should consider pushing back, or in extermis voting with your feet and finding an employer who more closely matches your intentions.
It pays to be honest. I’m not a fan of telling people what they want to hear. If something is going wrong, with a project or personally, I try to be open and honest about it, and as soon as possible. Always be truthful, even when (often especially when) it isn’t good news.
Another interpretation is speaking mistruths about others. This includes failing to mention someone’s contributions, and even possibly taking credit for them yourself. Don’t lose yourself in the process, but be generous and kind to the people you work with.
This is the path a Buddhist adept follows to achieve the state of nirvana. Imagine being in IT consultant nirvana for a couple of minutes. I’ll wait.
Ok, ready? Let’s give it a go.
Here’s what Wikipedia tells us:
The Eightfold Path consists of eight practices: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi
Something very interesting and instructive is that the steps along the Noble Eightfold Path are cumulative—each one builds upon the ones before it.
I will try to relate each of these steps to the practice of consulting.
Our actions have consequences. You could think of this as karma, but in a much more direct sense, whatever you do has an effect on the world. As a person in this world, and specifically as a consultant, you usually will have some agency in what you choose to do. Those decisions affect you, the project, your client, the people that you work with, and the world. It’s important to have some clarity with yourself and the world around you, so that you can help make the right decisions in your life.
For example, say you’ve been asked to provide an estimate for a project or task. You could choose to pad it out and potentially make some extra revenue, or under-estimate it to win the client over and then have to either under-deliver or blow out the budget late in the project.
If you were to embrace Right view, you would be taking into account the effects of both of those less helpful paths. Use the information available to you, find an open, honest, and justifiable solution, and you will hopefully travel a middle path that results in a positive and valuable outcome for everyone involved.
Sometimes this means that you’ll miss out on tenders or contracts where someone else has quoted less than you.
Generally these are clients you might not want to work with anyway. In fact sometimes they'll come back to you to fix issues that the last consultants created.
My friend and colleague Chris Gilbert, coming from a different perspective, disagreed with the above statement and had a more nuanced approach:
Some clients will choose the cheaper option because, as far as they’re aware, both offerings are equal in quality, so why pay more? They might not know what the real quality is like until it’s too late.
Sometimes you’ll start on the work and find more complexity and that it’s going to take longer and require more effort than estimated. If you’re open and communicative about this, usually you can end up with a good outcome for everyone involved anyway.
Right view is knowing about the challenges we face—suffering, dissatisfaction, duhkha—and being able to act in a way that reduces those challenges.
Another interpretations of right resolve is having the right motivation. What motivates you? If it’s money, that’s fair—you and your family have to eat. But is that all that motivates you? If you can also have resolve and motivation in accordance with your personal values, your sense of satisfaction will be greatly increased and you may find yourself both doing a better job and enjoying what you do a lot more.
What I’m not saying is that everyone should love their jobs. If you can positively say “I love 100% of my job”, you’re extremely lucky. But if you are resolved to act and live in a way that accords with your motivations and you can have a net positive effect on both yourself and the world around you, you will find your actions are easier to make. And if your motivation impacts your clients positively then your consulting practice wins too.
This boils down to a pretty simple instruction: think about what you are about to say. Is it true? Is it divisive? Are you causing harm? Does what you say even need to be said at all? If you can answer “no” to all of these questions, you’re engaging in right speech. If you can’t, abstaining from speaking is probably the better approach.
Some of those questions are a little conflicting. What if you need to say something that is true, but is going to cause harm to someone? The question then becomes, what is the result of not saying it? Are you going to cause more harm by abstaining from saying it in the first place? Short term harm is often preferable to more severe long term harm. But, if you’re not sure, maybe it’s better to wait until you have more information.
The biggest takeaway from the concept of right speech is to never knowingly tell a falsehood, regardless of the intention. You might be tempted to, to help yourself or a friend to get some short-term gain, or to keep a negative consequence from occurring in the short-term. However, the end result of ignoring right speech is almost always negative.
If you can’t say anything
niceright, don’t say anything at all
Another thing to consider is to only speak at the proper time. If waiting causes less harm than speaking immediately, consider waiting. Things get pretty tricky when you’re considering things at that level, as you need to consider the big picture. But really, you should be doing that anyway, otherwise you’re consulting wrong :-).
Sometimes you feel under pressure to make a decision or respond to a comment, especially in a Zoom or Teams call. However I find it extremely empowering to be able to just not respond for a few seconds and but some real thought into my response.
We are all experts in what we’ve learned, as consultants, developers, and people, and having the freedom to take some time to consider your next act or speech is part of the privilege that engaging in right speech gives us.
Right action is very much like right speech, however it is about your physical actions. A lot of information work we do as consultants is based in communication, so the line between right speech and right action gets blurry when doing consulting like a Buddhist.
You apply right action when you’re working on a section of code. Should you leave it and tweak what you need? Should you refactor it? Should you throw it away and rewrite it completely? All three of these actions may be valid, however you should consider which action to take depending on what causes the least amount of harm and suffering, for the product’s owners, users, and other developers and stakeholders. For example:
There are two parts to engaging in right livelihood. As a consultant you’ve already decided on a livelihood that has the potential for generating a lot of positive change in the world.
Above I discussed my personal decisions around which clients I would engage with and in different contexts. Kurt Vonnegut (in Slaughterhouse-Five) put it nicely:
I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that.
You can also engage in right livelihood by actively making decisions around how you do your work. If you’re constantly looking for ways to make more money and squeeze your clients, you’re probably not engaging in right livelihood. If instead you are trying to be a positive force in the world (while making enough to survive—after all, we’re not all ascetic monks) you’re much more aligned with the right livelihood way of life. And hopefully you’ll be happier about what you do at the same time.
This is closely tied to right livelihood. You should strive to put your effort into actions and activities that correspond with your intentions and values. Any effort that doesn’t correspond with those values should be considered wasted.
Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.
This is getting a little deep into the Eightfold Path now, but I see right mindfulness as a state where your mind is open and curious. Some people can tend to specialise in a certain area, however even then there is always more to learn, more efficient and elegant ways to work that benefit both your work practice and your consulting practice, and as a result your clients. In my experience curiosity and the willingness to try and learn new things are the greatest qualities anyone can hold, regardless of your job title or journey through life.
Right mindfulness talks about not letting negative thoughts and emotions affect the proper functioning of the mind. It is about intentionality—curiosity and mindfulness over craving and negative emotion. There should be a large element of self-awareness, a sense of knowledge and mastery of yourself, and the intention to explore the world in a way that is curious and somewhat child-like.
Samadhi is often thought of as the unification or concentration of mind. This is a very deep part of the actual Eightfold Path, but for our purposes here I see this as achieving flow state. As someone with ADHD, this can be difficult to get into without the right circumstances. Of course, as a step in the Eightfold Path it is much deeper than flow state, however I think there are a lot of similarities.
…the state in virtue of which consciousness and its concomitants remain evenly and rightly on a single object, undistracted and unscattered
Flow state can happen when programming—you’re pulling all these files together, building out complex queries out of thin air, defining data structures that model the problem domain perfectly, writing and running perfect, valuable tests.
It can also happen in other contexts. That could be when you’re in deep work with a client, writing a proposal or building out a large project plan and estimation.
Just remember to drink water and set healthy boundaries :-)
If you get to IT consulting nirvana, let me know. But we can take some lessons from the Bodhisattva vow:
Having crossed over, I will rescue others.
Liberated, I will liberate others.
Comforted, I will comfort others.
Having attained paranirvana, I will help others attain paranirvana.
I see this as nurturing a desire to help others in their journey as consultants.
With that in mind, I hope that this post has helped you in some way.