What to Consider When Becoming an IT Consultant
A number of 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 certainly challenging. Unlike a steady FTE role, consulting exposes you to different types of people, companies, industries, org 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 used to how one particular 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 of embarking on the adventure are considerable.
Let’s take a look at what makes it 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 So Attractive?
Consulting takes a certain type of personality. You have to be highly skilled, and a go-getter, but also customer-focused and flexible—able to see technology-related problems from both the business and technology angles, with the knowledge to solve those challenges, but able to work collaboratively with other people on the best approach.
In this way, consulting is a wonderful new world of self-discovery where you can make a big impact. As a consultant, you’ll get to meet a lot of new people. You’ll also be introduced to a wide range of processes and technologies. With every new client comes a set of new challenges that help you to grow as an IT professional as well as a person. For workers looking to realize their value and be catalysts for growth, consulting is an attractive career trajectory.
The Risks of Becoming a Consultant
Of course, challenges have their downsides. The variety, impact, and excitement of being a consultant is offset 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 some genuine reasons for this:
- You’re suddenly working for two (or more) new companies. If you are new to consulting, you probably worked for years at one company where you had established relationships and knew all the ins and outs. Now you’re working for two new companies: the new client company and the consulting firm that hired you to engage with the client. You don’t know anybody at either company and all the processes and resources are unfamiliar. So all the growing pains of being a new employee are multiplied by a factor of two. In addition, it can be difficult to feel like you are part of the consulting company at first because unless you are deployed as part of a bigger team, your fellow consultants are usually with other clients.
- You need to keep up with technology. As an FTE, you want to keep your skills polished, but as a consultant you have You can’t get complacent in technology because your client is depending on you to guide them. You have to continually hone your knowledge and expertise in order to give the best direction.
- Your job is volatile. Projects can end suddenly and you can be let go from a client at any given moment for a variety of reasons that are nobody’s fault. It’s even possible for this to happen before the project gets off the ground. If you are a contractor, this can mean suddenly finding yourself out in the cold. If you are at a consulting company with a bench, it means having to be redeployed. Either way, this precariousness can keep people from making the switch, but technology is so necessary in today’s world that highly skilled professionals aren’t going to be without a project for long.
- You have more responsibility. As a new consultant, it feels like the pressure is higher and there’s more weight on your shoulders than as an FTE. You feel like you own the project more – and that’s because you do. As a consultant, you’re the advisor and often also the implementer, team leader, and cheer squad. On day one of my first consulting job, I met with the VP, CTO and president of the client company. They told me what they expected of me—to turn this thing into a program—and that I would be reporting to them, whereas up to that point I thought I would be reporting to the first line manager. They wanted me to have all the answers. No pressure!
- You deal with more unknowns. You often don’t know your next project or its length (it can be extended or shortened), your projects will always be different, and you’ll be dealing with new people and new personalities on a regular basis. You also won’t know the company and its technology. That domain knowledge can be critical to making good decisions, so you will have to be skilled at ramping up. 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 org.
- You become attached to the client company. It’s very easy to get sucked into the culture of the client company and start to forget who you are really employed by. As you build relationships and rack up successes, you make new friends and sometimes it can feel hard to leave them when your contract is up, especially when they don’t want you to go.
A healthy dose of situational awareness and flexibility will help you deal with all of these challenges. Because no two businesses are alike, all your clients will do things differently and have different environments than what you’re used to. This is where your own knowledge and expertise really come to play. Your clients will expect you to be different and 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.
Another attribute that helps you deal with these new challenges is confidence. Clients want you to have the answers. This is because they don’t have the answers. Sometimes that can mean 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 confidence that a decision must be made is more important than what the decision actually is.
This is a very important point to remember — as a consultant, you are there to consult. This can mean challenging assumptions. It also means giving ground to the client to make the final decision. Clients often want and expect you to push them. They want you to have a perspective and a recommendation. They just want you to give it in a way that is friendly, cooperative and focused on their ultimate success. If they didn’t need direction, they would just make all the decisions themselves and staff contractors or full time employees to execute them. The best consultants are the ones who deliver value by giving sound advice politely and confidently without being unnecessarily pushy. Clients don’t appreciate it 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 Are 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 are some things to remember:
- 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 who leadership listens to 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 end up being different from what they thought. 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 actually 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 has 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.
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 are there to point out their failures or replace them. To solve this, remind the people you work with that they own certain things, and that your job is to look at the bigger picture and set them up for success after the engagement is complete, and 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 are 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, consider AIM Consulting. AIM Consulting has been recognized as a best place to work year over year with a lot of opportunity that has only expanded recently.
Of course, starting your own business is also an option, but just remember that in addition to delivering on client work you will also have to establish a business tax structure, price your services, market your services, sell yourself to clients, manage all the back-end administrative functions, and everything else that is involved in running your own business. When you join a consulting firm like AIM, you’ll have a parent company that matches you to great projects, offers benefits, and provides a great working environment with peers you can learn from and grow with.