Pleasures and perils of consultancy

Leaving a steady job to become an IT consultant means taking on new challenges and reaping new rewards

Perhaps that consultant your company hired to implement a VoIP rollout has you wondering: could you break out of the safety of your corporate IT job and succeed as a consultant too?

Anyone pondering this question needs a reality check to determine whether they are cut out to be a consultant. Those who have made the transition successfully say it is a job with challenges that are quite different from those corporate IT professionals face and that in some ways it is more demanding than corporate IT.

“Think about when you call a consultant,” says Matt Olson, chief executive of Ocean Consulting in Oregon. “You need to be prepared to deal with everybody’s worst problems. Either everybody else failed, or their vendor or lead engineer is tapped out and they need someone else to lay out a course of action.”

Consulting can present more challenges than corporate IT, but it also holds the potential for more rewards, according to experts who have studied the field. IT professionals can boost their careers with stints as consultants, they say.

“A typical career path might be process management in a corporate IT environment, becoming the process owner, then an internal consultant, then leaving to join a consulting organisation and [then] coming back into corporate IT as a CIO,” says Laurie Orlov, a Forrester Research analyst who has studied IT careers.

Similarly, a corporate systems integrator might be promoted to systems architect, then leave the company to work for an outsourcer and later return to a corporate IT management job specialising in vendor relations, says Sam Bright, another Forrester analyst.

This pays off for the businesses that hire former consultants to fill IT executive slots, Orlov says. “A lot of CIOs who come from consulting have [experienced] more advanced IT organisations that implement more of what are considered industry best practices,” she says.

There is also the potential to boost income. “It’s like any career move out of the standard, percentage-rate-increase raise and into a different salary band just by moving jobs,” Orlov says. “Plus, the opportunity to participate in revenue-related compensation can be very attractive and something you don’t see as much in corporate IT.” In other words, if you do well, you get bonuses.

Other upsides of consulting for IT professionals include increasing job skills through varied assignments, the potential for higher salaries as a consultant and on returning to corporate IT, and the satisfaction of being in the middle of significant projects most of the time.

“It’s like drinking from a fire hose,” says Chad Fetzer, a senior systems analyst with Chicago IT consulting firm Agility. “It’s more exciting than corporate IT. As a consultant you feel more valuable because you were hired to fix a critical problem or design a solution because you have specific expertise.”

Consulting isn’t for everybody, however. Those who succeed need motivation, certain personality traits and broad technical skills.

It’s more exciting than corporate IT Ocean Consulting’s Olson says. Nobody comes along to give you pep talks, and particularly if you are running your own business, you have to be able to withstand rejection when a potential client chooses someone else to do the job.

Consultants need self-confidence. “A lot of people have anxiety doing a cold call and sitting down with a client, but there’s no way to get around it,” Olson says.

The key is to ask questions and guide the decision-making process, he says. “Half the time the person on the other side doesn’t know exactly what they’re looking for except a path to resolution of their problem.”

Fetzer says the most important thing a consultant needs is a family that backs his career, with its long hours and uncertain pay. “It can have a big hit on your performance if you’re thinking that if you’re not home at a certain time, your wife will be mad,” he says. “If your family is happy, you perform a lot better.”

Potential consultants also need to evaluate their technical knowledge and brush up in areas where demand is high but their experience is weak. “If you’ve been in corporate IT for a while, you may need to go down to the basement, dust off your lab and work with the new stuff,” Fetzer says.

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