CXO

A bit of advice for an aspiring consultant

Columnist John McCormick reached into the e-mailbag and found a reader who's wondering whether to become a consultant. Here's John's advice for all those grappling with this decision.

My first Silicon Samurai column generated an interesting question from reader Steve, who asks that we continue to cover topics for new as well as established consultants.

Steve wrote me to ask if I thought he had the potential to be a big-time consultant or if he needed a lot more education or some specialized training before he could move on to bigger contracts.

His background includes more than a decade as an officer in the military, so leadership is no problem. He followed up his tour of duty with six more years as a financial planner.

Steve had extensive computer experience and did computer consulting for the firm where he had been working, only to discover, as many of us have, that he "loved it so much there was no way [he] was going back, then branched out to work with some small businesses."

Steve's main concerns are that because his degree isn't in a technical subject, he may have trouble getting large clients and also that he lacks the knowledge to take on some big network problems.

Finding your potential
I have a general comment first.

There are all levels of consultants, and I firmly believe almost anyone can become a consultant if he or she has the ambition and business skills. For some jobs, extremely high technical skills are required, but for many contracts, it takes an ability to work with both people and machines, a willingness to stay ahead of the technology curve, and a basic desire to be self-employed.

Consulting isn't the easy path to independence many outsiders think, but it is an excellent way to strike out on your own if you have the people and business skills it requires.

Steve's top potential right now is in consulting for some government or military organization, not necessarily the one where he was an officer, but there's no reason to rule that out. That includes working with companies who want to contract with military organizations.

Steve has top leadership and training skills, so he needn't restrict himself to just working on computer upgrades.

Subcontracting is a real possibility since it shifts the burden of sales and much of the management headaches to a larger firm.

But perhaps the biggest problem is that to be a consultant, you also need to be a salesman. Most people who want to start their own businesses think all they need is skill, ambition, and knowledge, but to succeed you must also be able to sell yourself. The big trick in working for yourself is always in finding people willing to pay for what you do, and that means selling!

Finding new clients
Steve said that his largest client is still the company he used to work for and that his other jobs are for small companies. Perhaps what he needs most is to upgrade his sales skills. Selling to someone who already knows you, or small companies that aren't being actively courted by major consulting firms, is a lot easier than getting your foot in the door at a Fortune 1,000 company.

He lives outside the U.S. so I can't give specific help, but in this country there are some useful programs such as SCORE (Service Core Of Retired Executives) where he might be able to get some help in learning how to approach larger clients, respond to RFPs, and otherwise make his business appear big enough to tackle larger jobs.

As for Steve's concerns over his lack of formal technical education, such as a degree in computer science, I feel I should point out that I wasn't a computer science major either; of course, there was no such major back when I was in school, and I do have a strong science and math background.

A friend of mine who is a bit younger had no technical background in college but today is a systems analyst for Mitre Corporation. In case you don't know, that's a computer consulting firm that mostly works for the U.S. government.

Her degree is in English, yet she is a top computer specialist who could certainly go out on her own if she desired.

Another friend started out with a technical school background and went on to get a degree at about Steve's age, all the while working his way up through corporate structures. Like my friend, Steve might be able to upgrade his portfolio by using his independent learning to get another degree, this one in a technical field.

Finding the courage to do it
Steve's basic problem is one that faces many consultants who have made the move to independence: they find that although they possess many high levels of skills necessary to enlarge their businesses, there are always some missing components.

In Steve’s case, he says it is the lack of experience with the problems facing big companies that is holding him back. Or at least he feels it is holding him back. Perhaps it's just a matter of keeping at it and eventually he will land some contracts to work on the larger systems he wants to tackle. Perhaps it's as I pointed out—he may lack the sales skills needed to move up to the next level. Certainly he's young enough—in his 30s—and he has plenty of time to grow both his skills and business.

Tips for upgrading skills
Other than enhancing his sales skills, I have some suggestions for Steve:

First, he can change the direction of his company, focusing entirely on small businesses where he already has both the technical and business background as well as a proven track record. This isn't an admission of failure. Staying small has many advantages, and there is always a ready market for consultants or advisors in small companies since they usually can't afford to have a full-time computer staff large and knowledgeable enough to handle all their needs.

Second, he can dive back into the corporate world for a few years to gain the experience he feels he is missing, then strike out as an independent again. Actually, his skill and experience set might qualify him for a top corporate position and, although he wants to be independent, being the head of a computer division has a lot of autonomy.

Third, he can do what many small businesses do when faced with a missing skill: Hire it. Actually, from what I understand of his situation, he isn't in a position to hire another expert, so I suggest he look around for others doing similar work who may lack some of his leadership, training, and other skills. If he can find the right people where personalities and skills match up, they can form a partnership or incorporate their own consulting firm.

The final way I can see for Steve to continue to expand his business is to just keep working his way up the food chain, taking on jobs with larger and larger companies so he is getting paid to learn about the special problems of larger companies.

Along this line, it's important to remember the Internet has a lot of resources that can help, including HireAbility.com, which links companies outsourcing jobs to IT professionals. A later column will take a closer look at several of these sites where you can list your skills and browse job offers—I've gotten work at these Web sites, so I know some of these job sites are useful.

I hope this helps Steve and any others who are newly independent or are thinking of going out on their own as consultants.
If you have a question or suggestion for John McCormick, e-mail him at siliconsamurai@usa.com . If you have a general comment, e-mail TechRepublic.

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