Tired of the trenches? Consider consulting

Joe Webb, the chief operating manager for WebbTech Solutions in Nashville, Tenn, explains what you need to know if you're looking to be a consultant.

During the consulting heyday of the late 1990s, many IT professionals were lured into the consulting arena with promises that they could make good money using the skills they already had. More than a few administrators and developers made the leap from full-time employment to contractual jobs in which they fixed or replaced antiquated systems in preparation for Y2K. Many of those systems were as old as the people working on them. But...

much like the dot-com economy, that consulting environment was an anomaly. It didn't offer a sustainable way of making a living.

To thrive -- sometimes just to survive -- as a consultant in today's sputtering economy, it takes more than a resume with the right combination of experience, skills and certifications. It takes a business-savvy entrepreneur with the right balance of technical expertise, business sense and interpersonal skills, who can effectively communicate with people who work at all levels of an organization and who have varying technical backgrounds.

Is consulting right for me?

If you are considering going into business for yourself, what are some of the things you should consider? How can you tell whether you have the right mix of technical and interpersonal skills? To answer those questions, let's start by examining some of the roles you'll play as a self-employed consultant. You can think of your time and responsibilities as being divided into two broad categories: those activities that are related to owning and maintaining a small business and those activities that result from being an advocate or agent for your clients.

Small business ownership

As a small business owner, you are completely responsible for the day-to-day operations of your business. You are the chief executive officer, the chief financial officer, and vice president of sales and marketing. That sounds impressive. But remember, it's up to you to be fiscally responsible, to manage your time and resources effectively. No one else is there to make sure all aspects of the company are doing well.

Each of these roles may require a different set of skills. For example, as the bookkeeper and accountant for your company, you'll need to be detail oriented and disciplined. When you're focusing on the sales and marketing aspects of the company, you'll want to be creative and optimistic, yet focused.

For most small business owners, time management is an issue. You'll need to balance the time you spend serving current clients with your efforts to bring in new business. There is always plenty of non-billable work to be done, so don't underestimate the time you'll spend filling out tax forms, writing proposals and working on your own internal systems.

One of the best tips l can give you -- and one of the hardest lessons to learn -- is that you should discover your strengths and find ways to spend more of your time doing those things. This may mean outsourcing some aspects of your business, such as bookkeeping or Web page design. If you don't, you'll end up spending an inordinate amount of time doing things at which you're not particularly good, at the expense of the activities to which you're naturally inclined.

Advocate for your client

The other portion of your time as an independent consultant -- the part most people think of first -- is that of becoming an advocate for your client. Your role as you're working with your clients is to look out for their best interests and put your interests behind those of your client.

Depending on your experience, there are numerous types of consulting engagements for which you may be qualified. Some clients may ask you to augment their existing staff, to effectively perform as one of their employees would. In other engagements, you may be asked to serve as a mentor to the client's staff by providing occasional technical guidance. A more senior-level engagement may involve managing a facilities move, performing a technical analysis of the client's current environment, or providing operational consulting.

When undertaking a new engagement with a client, make sure that everyone involved has a clear understanding of your role in the engagement. This is especially important for you and those with whom you'll directly work. One of the pitfalls of consulting is not clearly defining and understanding your role in the organization. Such miscommunications will inevitably lead to a perception that you have either fallen short of your mandate or overstepped your bounds.

One of the most counterintuitive aspects of your role as a consultant is that of preparing for your own obsolescence -- the better you do your job, the sooner your client will no longer need you. But take heart; coming in under budget or ahead of schedule will often lead to additional work from either that client or from others with whom your client will speak. Word of mouth is a powerful marketing tool, and you'll want it on your side.

And the verdict is ...

Of course there are many, many issues to ponder when considering a career in computer consulting -- far too many to mention here. I would encourage you, however, to carefully research and consider not only the items I've mentioned here, but also:

 

  • Investigate how your skills match those that are in demand in the marketplace.
  • Determine your comfort level for living with an uncertain income stream.
  • Analyze your personality traits to see what aspects of small business ownership will come naturally for you and which will require additional attention.

Finally, if the life of an independent consultant is for you, then map out a transition strategy that will systematically take you from full-time employment to independent consultancy with the minimum amount of risk.

Joe Webb serves as the chief operating manager for WebbTech Solutions, a Nashville, Tenn.-based Microsoft Certified Partner. He has more than 10 years of consulting experience, holds several certifications, and is the author of Start to Finish Guide to Becoming a Consultant, from NetImpress. He can be reached at joew@webbtechsolutions.com.

This was first published in September 2003

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