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Think carefully before moving into a consulting career

The grass may seem greener over in the consulting field, but as a longtime consultant notes, IT managers need to examine and consider multiple issues before changing career tracks.

Many IT managers view themselves as company types—employees who like working for a corporate presence. But today's economics and job market are changing that outlook, and more IT professionals than ever are likely taking a good look at the consulting field.

But before you go any further into the consulting arena, it's good to get some insight on what the reality is in the field. (For the purposes of this article, I'll use the term "consultant" to include both consultants and contractors: professionals hired for supplemental staffing needs, as well as those people hired specifically for some needed expertise.)

As you start to consider the consulting field, the first area to focus on is your skill set. I have swapped e-mails with people who tell me that they want to become project management consultants, for instance. The only problem is that they don't have any project management experience. Formal training, and even formal certification, normally won't suffice. You need to have experience.

Are your skills marketable?
Okay, so you have experience but is it experience in an area where companies need help? This isn't always an easy question to answer. Sometimes, you are able to acquire experience in a skill set that you know is highly marketable. For instance, my brother had the good fortune to work at one of the first large companies that implemented SAP in the U.S. in the 1980s. After three years working on that project, he became a consultant and never had a problem being employed for the next eight years. It seemed everyone was looking for experienced SAP people. However, as more and more people became experienced in SAP, the demand for his services weakened. Today he is out of the field.

You don't necessarily have to be a guru in an exotic skill to be employable as a consultant. For instance, people with good mainframe skills became very valuable in the two years leading up to Y2K. This may still be an area in demand by many companies as fewer and fewer people pick up the skills and older workers retire. The goal is to evaluate your skill set and what the market demand is and will be in the future.

Choosing an "employee" position vs. the independent role
You also have to realize at the start that there are different employment options for consultants. One option is to be an employee of a consulting company. In this employment model, you would earn a salary and benefits from your consulting company just like a regular company employee.

There are many positives to this role. The consulting company has sales, marketing, and management people to run the business. They find your next assignment when your current assignment ends. If your company does not have another assignment, they would typically put you "on the bench." You would still get paid while you waited for your next assignment. However, there could be limits on how long your company would pay you while you are not working. Yet, for the most part, these types of positions are more stable than the true independent consultants.

The second consulting model is the true independent. These professionals are typically self-employed and, in many cases, self-incorporated. Instead of a salary, the independents typically negotiate an hourly rate with their employer and get paid based on the hours that they work. Usually, these people make more money than employees; however, they do not get paid when they are not working. This includes no paid vacation, holidays, or sick time. Also, when one assignment ends, the pay ends as well until the next contract comes along.

Answer these questions
Let's say at this point that you have experience and you believe that the experience is marketable. You also understand the two general consulting paths, and you're interested in pursuing the career path.

Here are some other issues you need to review and understand before making a final decision:
  • How confident are you in your abilities? I think you have to be pretty confident in your skills and abilities if you want to be a consultant. If you typically received high ratings when you were an employee (and if you felt like they were truly deserved), you may have the right skills to be a consultant. However, if you are tired of your skills, or if you don't think they measure up to your peers, then you are probably not yet ready for the consulting world.
  • Can you take control of your career? A consultant needs to be in charge of his or her own career planning and development. If you are an independent, this is totally within your control. If you are an employee-consultant, you still need to take a proactive approach to learning and acquiring new technical and business skills. If you want others to be responsible for your career growth, stick to a traditional employee relationship.
  • Can you stand some downtime? I believe that consultants generally have more of a chance to be unemployed and between jobs. If you are an independent, you have to be prepared for downtime. If you are lucky, it will not occur. However, you need to be prepared for it. Even employee-consultants are not immune. Consulting companies generate revenue through your labor on client assignments. If too many people do not have assignments, they become a financial drag that the company cannot afford. Layoffs become inevitable. This happens in small companies as well as big ones.
  • Do you like to travel? If you live in a big city, there may be enough work that you will not have to travel far. However, consultants typically need to go where the work is. If you cannot take travel, then you need to be very confident that you will always be able to find work locally. Otherwise, I recommend you find a regular employer.

The need for a realistic view
Many people have black and white views of consulting: Some think it is a romantic field where people make tons of money and get all of the good assignments. Others see consultants as wandering risk-takers.

The truth is there are some who make lots of money, some who travel a lot, some who get great assignments, and some who are career risk-takers. However, the majority of consultants are like me—people trying to make a living.

Consulting/contracting is an alternative working style that many IT managers find attractive. But you need to go into it with your eyes open and knowing the risks and the potential rewards before making a final career decision. For more insight on making the jump from full-time employee to full-time consultant, check out this recent TechRepublic article as well. As in any career decision, the more you know ahead of time, the more successful you'll be.
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