Interview: Starting out as an IT Consultant.

Peter Pilgrim interviewed Peter Lawrey to find out how he started out as an IT Consultant.

[Pilgrim] Starting a business for me is pretty scary and crazy s%#t, no offence. I just do not know how to market myself to the key decision makers for one thing.

I am unsure if one week going into a site will work for the typical Java EE project that I see. Some clients take at least that much time to set up access to SVN and produce a good enough laptop that works. I assume that this is different in your experience with low latency trading.

[Pilgrim] So Peter, how did you get started?

[Lawrey] I preferred the technically challenging and interesting roles but I was finding the same issues coming up and spending less time solving them.  After some short roles, I saw a trend of moving to shorter consulting roles.  I have enjoyed consulting and don't feel under challenged.

I am friends with a couple of guys who have a small start up and have been operating for a few years.  We traded knowledge and expertise, and this helped me get started.

In the beginning I got some work through people I have worked with before and started getting more work from new clients.

I still find technical challenges interesting, but starting a business is an interesting and demanding new challenge.

How do you get new work?

Work is erratic, for months I might only have recurring clients and then suddenly could get four new clients in the same week. There is no reliable source of work so I diversify.  I get work from these sources

  • Open source projects such as the OpenHFT project.
  • Developers finding me via StackOverflow. I am third for [Java] and second for [concurrency]
  • People I have worked with before.
  • Recruitment agents

These all provide about the same amount of new work.  About half of my work is repeat business.

I go to conferences to meet people and to learn something from the talks.  I have been told there is a two to three year lag between presenting at conferences and getting work from them.   

How do you get around the inertia of IT support in your engagements? [For instance, it has often taken me one week to get SVN access at any investment bank!

One week is not enough time to learn the systems and contribute in a supportable way.  What I do is take a different approach, such as;

  • Pair Programming so the developer can maintain what was changed in the weeks to come.
  • Training and consulting tailored to needs of the projects under development.
  • Focus on the skills left behind, rather than the code left behind.

About half my work is longer engagements of months. e.g. every second week or one week a month.  This allows the teams to absorb the changes in skills and code and make them their own.

Or another example is the laptop provided has only 4GB of RAM to run a IDE, multiple web browsers and the application server and is so slow Intel i3!]

It is frustrating when the client has out-dated equipment for you to work on.  A year ago, I bought my 8 year old a PC for him to build which has 8GB. I don’t think 4 GB is sufficient for a child, let alone a professional developer. You can buy 32 GB for $400 retail and when you consider how much your time costs the company over a year, it is a small price to pay IMHO.

For development work, you do the best you can and usually they have access to decent servers.  For training, however, clients rarely have high performance machines for doing training of high performance software on, and I have often have to do demonstrations on my own laptop.

How do you get repeat business?

I like solving a problem so that it doesn’t need to be done again.  This means doing myself out of a job, but it also means being able to move onto new things. I try to move towards my clients not needing me again, unless it is for something new.

I would hope this gives me a good reputation and about half my work is repeat business, but I try to ensure what has been done is solid before moving on (so there shouldn't be a need to go over it again).

I see. Are you travelling around? How much time do you spend on business travel?

I travel outside the UK about two weeks a month.  This is to visit clients in Europe and the USA, but also to attend conferences.  This year I expect to attend at least six conferences.
The rest of the time I am travelling to clients in London

Or if working from home, do you get access to your client sites through VPN?

Paid work from home is relatively rare. I got about 4 weeks last year.  Unpaid work from home is also relatively rare as I don't have much free time.  The problem is that a week's engagement is often 7 days including travel and preparation and if you do lots of these back to back you don't even get weekends really.

How do you get expedited IT access to client system and programs?

This is where pair programming is brilliant.  You train up someone and you are using their access effectively. Ideally I get them to drive as well, that way they own the knowledge transfer.

Does your consulting style operate like PA or Accenture?

Possibly, I don't know what they do exactly.  Some consulting is done in meeting rooms with a few developers and managers, but there is usually a development system in the room we are working on.

And how do you explain and advise client developers what to do and how to build the systems?

I do, but I prefer to show them, or better still, get them to do it.

Do you think having a business mentor helps?

My business mentor is an old friend of mine. He recently finished an MBA and we talk every week about plans for the business.  I wouldn’t say I have a clear idea what a business mentor does but I have found our conversations very useful to have someone experienced in business to sound the idea off.  He often has good suggestions and I value his advice.

What is the hardest part of running your business?

Like you said earlier, the first week is the hardest. In my case, nearly every week is the first week, and I need to make a difference to the team/project in that week.

Peter I think you used to come regularly to the JAVAWUG that I ran several years ago. What is your background in Core Java? How did you get into high performance trading and low latency?

Yes that is true, I did attend your JAVAWUG many times.

I started in development of GUI-less server application.  These were not trading systems but were only used to provide services to other applications. When I moved to London 11 years ago, I started working on financial applications, first in market data and later trading and order fulfilment.  This would not have been called high frequency.

Systems with high scalability or low latency requirements tend to be more technically driven which makes them more challenging. In technically driven systems, IT is seen more as a value-add or competitive advantage. Conversely, IT in most environments is treated as a part of facilities management and a cost to be managed.  Over time I found the problems in the go-faster domain more challenging/interesting than problems in the scalability domain.  

The catch-22 of high frequency is you need to have good experience to get started.  As I was interested in high performance, I would try to make systems faster and more scalable than they needed to be, usually by a factor of ten.  The main justification was it made the systems more robust at peak usage times.  In each project/role I moved to I would work on faster systems and make them much faster/more scalable than they needed to be. Four years ago I developed a trading system which had a response time of 60 micro-seconds external to our network, mostly in Java.

What are you looking to get out of Java 8 release for 2014 for your business?

Banks tend to be conservative so I can see Java 7 being used for some time.  I can imagine the HFT fund migrating to Java 8 for the JVM pretty quickly, but I suspect it will take a long time (years) before developers are proficient at using closures and Java 8’s new features.

Core Java systems generally don’t need to wait for support from a commercial application server which means they can adopt new versions faster.

How do you feel that the up-and-coming Java 8 release will effect your business and your client’s business?

I expect we will see some spectacular mis-use of closures. Most examples I have seen for closures don’t improve readability or performance, but allow the problem to be constructed a different way which might be useful but it will take a long time to know for sure.

The biggest feature I want to see in the JVM is a standard sun.misc.Unsafe which is the class which can be used to give you low level access to the machine.  Before Java 8, this class didn’t even exist in the Java Specifications, but in Java 8 it will at least exist and have standard read/write memory barriers.  I would hope future versions will have specification for all the functionality it provides.

What are your definitive plans for this year?

I have hired a part time Executive Assistant, and I plan to hire a couple of part time developers to help support work on projects for OpenHFT.

I plan to build out my hardware infrastructure so I test the software on large, low latency systems, and across multiple OSes such as Windows, Centos and Ubuntu.

Peter A. Pilgrim is a independent contractor, a technical book author and a Java Champion. He is author of Java EE 7 Developer Handbook by Packt Publishing. He has been in the Java space for since 1998. Peter contracts his services and writes professional Java EE and Scala software for `bluechip' enterprises and financial services in central London. He also speaks at conferences such as JavaOne, Devoxx and ACCU. You can find more information about Peter Pilgrim at or follow him on Twitter, @peter_pilgrim


  1. Great article on what it means to move into your own consultancy. There were some thoughts I wouldn't have considered. It sounds like it does eat up a lot of your time, so I wanted to ask where do you find the time to hone your craft? If you are always consulting and teaching others, are your skills simply built up on the job or through other ways? (eg traveling between engagements and conferences)

    Did moving to being a consultant make it easier or harder to spend time on your pet projects and technical interests?


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Java is Very Fast, If You Don’t Create Many Objects

System wide unique nanosecond timestamps

Comparing Approaches to Durability in Low Latency Messaging Queues