The Covid-19 pandemic has had an immeasurable impact on the world of work and industries. As an overall workforce trend, nearly 32% of organizations are replacing full-time employees with contract workers as a cost-saving measure according to a survey by Gartner. This may sound scary but, switching from full-time employment to a consultant has its own benefits.
Several factors are leading more workers to spring from full-time employment at established businesses and enter the consulting industry. IT professionals, in particular, are prone to worry about their skills growing stagnant in overly defined roles at large corporations, while the tech industry evolves and rushes past them at breakneck speed. For some, that’s motivation enough to consider IT consulting. For others, it’s the challenge that’s attractive. They’re tired of being comfortable and are looking for a spark.
IT consulting is challenging. Unlike a steady FTE role, consulting exposes you to different people, companies, industries, organizational structures, technical environments, tools, processes, and projects with continued regularity—and with high expectations for your performance.
In consulting, you are the expert. The client will be looking to you for guidance, which will push you to grow in ways you haven’t before. For IT professionals who are used to how one organization operates — especially a large organization with a structured hierarchy and slow-moving controls for how decisions are made and implemented — it can be a little like baptism by fire. But the rewards are considerable.
Keep reading to see why IT consulting a compelling choice, some of the risks and challenges involved, and some choices you’ll have to make in pursuing a consulting career.
What Makes IT Consulting Appealing?
Consulting takes a certain type of personality. You must be highly skilled and a go-getter, but also customer-focused and flexible. Consultants can see technology-related problems from both the business and technology angles, and have the knowledge to solve those challenges, but able to work collaboratively with others to create the best approach.
In this way, consulting is a world of self-discovery where you can make a large impact. With every new client comes a set of challenges that help you to grow both as an IT professional and a person. For workers looking to realize their value and be catalysts for growth, consulting is an attractive career trajectory.
The technology sector continues to grow every year, evolving with the changing needs of people, organizations, small businesses, governments, and more. IT consulting is changing every day, and it can expose you to amazing new projects that are changing the digital landscape as we know it.
Especially in a post-pandemic world, IT has become an integral part of the world’s infrastructure from work to schools to telehealth. People’s behaviors have changed and will continue to adapt to the new habits we’ve created.
Companies have also changed their habits over the course of the pandemic! In the early stages, many contract workers were let go, but now many organizations are opting for more flexibility in workforce management post-COVID, including hiring more contract workers, but also an “80% pay for 80% work” model.
These new modes of workforce management can offer not only companies flexibility, but you as well—you’ve got the ability to choose how you work, when you work, and negotiate your work-life balance on your terms.
The Challenges of Becoming a Consultant
Of course, moving into consulting has its challenges. The variety, impact, and excitement of being a consultant is balanced by the reality of the responsibilities. For someone new to consulting, at first you might think, “What did I just get myself into?” There are genuine reasons for thinking this way:
- You’re suddenly working for multiple companies. If you’re new to consulting, you probably worked at one company for years where you established relationships and knew the ins-and-outs. Now you’re working for two new companies: the new client company and your consulting firm. The growing pains of being a new employee are multiplied, but they won’t last long once you get to know your client and fellow consultants.
- You need to keep up with technology. As an FTE, you want to keep your skills polished, but as a consultant, you can’t get complacent in technology because your client is depending on you to guide them. You must continually hone your knowledge and expertise in order to give the best direction.
- You have more responsibility. As a new consultant, it can feel like there’s more weight on your shoulders than as an FTE. You’re the advisor and often also the implementer, team leader, and cheer squad. But don’t doubt yourself–you also got this consulting job for your experience and expertise, which will guide you more than you know.
- You deal with more unknowns. You might not know your next project or its length, and you’ll be dealing with new people and new personalities on a regular basis. You also may not know the company and its technology. That domain knowledge can be critical to making good decisions, so you will have to be skilled at learning quickly and moving fast. You may also be asked to do things you’re not well-versed in. In those situations, you’ll have to learn fast. Fortunately, you should also be able to lean on the expertise of others in your consulting organization.
A healthy dose of situational awareness, flexibility, and confidence will help you deal with the challenges of being a consultant. Because no two businesses are alike, your clients will expect you to bring a different perspective as well as insights, ideas, and processes—in many cases, that’s why they engaged a consultant in the first place.
Something that can help you deal with these new challenges: confidence. Clients want you to have the answers because they don’t have them. Sometimes that means having to disagree with the client and reminding them why they sought expert advice. It can also mean setting (and sometimes resetting) expectations.
On my first consulting job, an executive called me out in a meeting for not having done some things that were, frankly, impossible under the circumstances of the engagement. I was polite but assertive in my response, and after some silence, he said “okay”, and we were able to realign his expectations. I gained respect and credibility from that conversation. Moreover, being firm prevented the danger of client dissatisfaction later over something I couldn’t control and that the company’s leadership needed to own. Sometimes being confident that a decision must be made is more important than what the decision is.
The important thing to remember: as a consultant, you are there to consult. The best consultants are the ones who deliver value by giving sound advice politely and confidently without being pushy. Clients don’t appreciate when consultants browbeat them or try to run the business without understanding it well enough to know what will be successful.
Clients respond positively to consultants who listen actively, ask clarifying questions, and act as advisors—providing honest, knowledgeable guidance backed by research and experience—but allowing the client to make and own the final decision.
Things to Keep in Mind When You’re New
When you begin your first consulting engagement, you might experience strong emotions, ranging from exhilaration to terror. You might even have thoughts like “maybe I shouldn’t have left my old company” or “what if I’m not ready for this?” Relax. This is normal. Here’s some advice:
- Relationships are key. When starting a new engagement, find out who the biggest influencers are and start building relationships with them. The influencers don’t need to be managers or executives. Influencers can be respected employees anywhere in the organization and who know how things really work in the office environment.
- Keep an open mind and be prepared for anything. It’s common in consulting for the solution the client needs to be different than the solution they originally wanted. You’re often called in to alleviate a pain point, but you might have to tackle the root of the problem instead of the symptom–and you never know what else the client might ask for.
- Pay attention to how you articulate solutions. Part of consulting is being able to understand what people are trying to do, figure out where they’re stuck, and help them to get unstuck. For example, on my first consulting job, I was working within a budget and couldn’t get the director to move past a certain line item. I realized he needed to see the lower-level details that informed the summary expense, so I redrafted the budget to show that the plan was within constraints and had extra contingency. He was pleasantly surprised and the project was able to move forward.
- Keep a running to do list. A to-do list helps you to keep track of what you’ve discussed or promised to deliver and acts as a record for what you’ve accomplished and how you’ve added value. When you meet with your client, use your checklist to refer to previous conversations and ensure common understanding of what is being asked of you and what’s already been accomplished.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, but you should have an entire consulting company behind you. You are never alone. The best way to solve the transitioning issue is to keep your head up and ask for help.
- Get to know your fellow consultants. Obviously, the more people you know, the more help you’ll have. The best way to get to know your consultant peers is to attend team meetings, team activities, and company functions. Attend in-person whenever possible as face time makes a difference when it comes to building relationships (COVID-permitting, of course).
One final note of advice: interpersonal skills and relationship-building are highly important for a consultant. When you work with a client company, you might encounter workers or managers who are wary of consultants. You might even meet folks who feel like you’re there to point out their failures or replace them.
To ease their worries, remind the people you work with that they own certain things; that your job is to look at the bigger picture and set them up for success after the engagement is complete; and that you need their help to do that.
Joining a Consulting Firm
If you’re ready for new challenges and opportunities, becoming an IT consultant can be a great career decision. If you decide to take the leap, you’ll need to choose a consulting firm. The options are numerous, but I recommend looking for a consulting company with a broad client portfolio and strong relationships in your local market, an experienced team you can learn from, limited travel requirements, and a history of project successes.
If you’re looking for a reputable and rapidly-growing technology consulting company where you can make an impact not just with clients but also on the consulting company itself, look no further than AIM Consulting. AIM Consulting has been recognized as a best place to work year after year with opportunity that has continued to expand, despite the pandemic. When you join a consulting firm like AIM, you’ll have a company that matches you to great projects, offers benefits, and provides a great working environment with peers you can learn from and grow with!