Work for yourself! Be your own boss! Make your own hours! Earn more money!
We've all heard of the benefits of a consultant's lifestyle. What's not so well known, or celebrated, are the challenges. Consulting requires a tough skin, the ability to juggle numerous tasks simultaneously, and the capacity to think like a technician, an IT manager, a project manager, and an accountant all at the same time.
In short, the consulting lifestyle is not for everyone. Here are 10 signs you may not be cut out to be a hired technical gun.
Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.
#1: Delivering bad news comes difficult
Occasionally, technology consultants must inform clients that data's irretrievably lost. Without backup copies (small businesses in particular are bad about performing regular back ups of critical data), business owners must often re-key data from scratch at great expense. And that's possible only when the data exists in other formats, such as handwritten notes or paper forms.
Bad news comes in other flavors, too. A $2,500 new server investment makes sense to most every technology consultant, but in some business owners' minds, such unplanned costs border on catastrophe.
Consultants are regularly called upon to deliver unwelcome news. Technology professionals must become proficient at communicating bad news without drama. Seemingly simple on the surface, explaining why a fleet of Windows 98 workstations must be replaced to support a proprietary application upgrade (or describing why a 20-employee for-profit organization isn't eligible to use student/teacher Microsoft Office licenses) requires patience, perseverance, and professionalism.
#2: Financial discussions make you uncomfortable
All clients want you onsite quickly. Even though many will resist securing your services on retainer, they'll request you arrive within an hour whenever they encounter the slightest error or interruption. You'll move several previously scheduled appointments to accommodate them, research and repair the issue (often by having to track down a little-known issue or obscure fix), and then wait months to get paid.
Paying bills isn't as important to many clients as keeping their computer systems running. Despite providing first-class service, consultants must anticipate having to chase down overdue payments from even the most solvent of clients.
#3: Multitasking makes you nervous
Most consultancies thrive by building a vibrant base of business clients. While many administrative maintenance and support tasks can be scheduled, a portion of any given work week is composed of unplanned requests for emergency service. After all, small businesses typically don't plan e-mail outages, network disruptions, hard disk failures, software corruption, and other failures that bring their organizations to a standstill.
Thus, meticulously planned and complex new-server deployments are sometimes interrupted by router outages across town. One client's facilities move will overlap another customer's e-mail server failure. Plus, all the technical work must be completed while also maintaining the consultant's own business operations (including billing, collections, payment of state sales taxes, legal registrations, etc.).
In other words, consultants must become very good at preparing estimates for one client while repairing emergencies for another while walking a third customer through a router power cycle procedure on the telephone.
#4: You don't enjoy crises
IT consultants are firefighters. While many projects (such as deploying new workstations, rolling out new printers, creating new user accounts, upgrading existing systems, and maintaining operating systems, antivirus software, and other applications) can be scheduled and fail to raise much anxiety, many service calls create significant stress for technicians.
That's just the nature of an IT consulting business. Many clients don't want to incur repair costs, so they therefore wait (sometimes too long) to request assistance. When the call is finally made to request help, it's often too late. Hard disks that could have had precious data copied to another medium are sometimes beyond repair, or a virus that had affected one system may have now spread to every system in an office.
Other crises arrive almost daily. Failed e-mail servers, downed Internet connections and corrupted hard disks are just three scenarios that frequently prompt clients to place unreasonable expectations on their IT providers. In addition to demanding the situation be repaired quickly (often within hours), clients frequently expect such emergency services (including repairs rendered after hours, on weekends, and on holidays) to be completed at little cost.
#5: You must know everything there is to know about a network
This one seems like a luxury. Sure, it'd be nice to know every in and out of a network, including all installed network equipment, administrative user account names and passwords, and IP addressing information. But the truth of the matter is that such data is rarely documented.
As a result, consultants often find themselves fighting rogue DHCP servers, struggling to log in to firewalls and other network equipment, and otherwise swimming upstream. Successful consultants must be prepared to learn (and diagram) network configurations, hack into firewalls and other network devices (or be comfortable resetting them to factory defaults and reconfiguring the equipment), and document system setups.
The more comfortable a consultant is starting from scratch, the better. While many small businesses like to think of themselves as having established networks, those networks are often ill conceived, poorly architected, and completed undocumented. Consultants must enjoy the process of navigating those issues -- a tough scenario that must often be completed just to begin troubleshooting the original problems originally prompting the service call.
#6: You prefer an orderly, organized, and predictable work environment
A consultant's best-made plans quickly go awry. Router installations, for which two hours were planned, can require four hours to complete. Server migrations, for which 12 hours of time was budgeted, can consume 20 hours or more. Preparing an estimate can take twice as long as anticipated. The same is true for most any other IT project.
Technical professionals predisposed to orderly and organized workdays should avoid serving as consultants. Due to the profession's very nature (responding to crises), a typical workday is often interrupted by unanticipated service requests.
In addition to juggling emergency calls, consultants need to be comfortable accommodating new clients who often have little or no documentation for their servers, networks, and client workstations. As a result, consultants must frequently work outside the box and develop creative methods of obtaining network documentation.
These same clients will often present unpredictable work requests as well. It's not unusual for clients to ask their IT partner for assistance deploying or repairing telephone systems, running data and telecommunications cabling, and even securing Internet domains and creating Web sites. Thus, every day is different and staid routines are difficult to establish.
#7: You insist on working with current technologies
IT consultants who want to work with the latest Windows releases, sexy hardware, and current technologies may not prove strong consulting candidates. Organizations are often committed to continuing use of their Windows 98-equipped operating systems, Office 2000 office suites, and even DOS-based proprietary programs and databases.
In short, working as a consultant doesn't mean you get to spend every day deploying Intel Core 2 Duo-powered systems, Windows Vista, and the latest Web 2.0 platforms. Instead, many days are spent surfing outdated or abandoned message boards seeking solutions to archaic software application failures for which no manufacturer remains in business.
#8: Marketing bores you
A significant element of any successful small business is a carefully crafted marketing strategy. This is especially true for computer consultants. Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA, Office Max, and other well-known retailers (all possessing healthy advertising budgets) compete within the computer service and repair industry.
Independent consultants wishing to maintain strong revenue trends must ensure they get the word out by effectively advertising their consultancies. This means that in addition to staying on top of technology trends and delivering technology services to clients, consultants must dedicate time to preparing, executing, and tracking the success of various marketing efforts.
#9: Your technical skills are rusty
Technology professionals fearing their technical skills may have become rusty are in for trouble. Clients demand quick response times and prove even more demanding when it comes to repair windows.
Consultants must be familiar with all of the following:
- Common brands of wireless routers and firewalls
- All major anti-malware applications (particularly those possessing their own software-based firewall)
- Nuances associated with proprietary hardware components found in Dell, eMachine, Gateway, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Sony, Acer, and other PCs
- All flavors of Windows 98, 2000, XP, and Vista
- Windows 2000 and 2003 server systems
That's a tall order. And while it's difficult to become an expert in all of those areas, consultants must at least be comfortable navigating the basic functionality of all those operating systems, software applications, and hardware platforms. Further, to avoid delays and additional troubleshooting steps, consultants should be able to create and terminate category 5 and crossover cables in their sleep.
#10: Vendor interaction leaves you queasy
Gone are the days of thinking you can do it yourself. Clients require their IT partners to repair systems as quickly as possible, and consultants are obligated to complete such repairs as cost effectively as they can. If the idea of calling everyone from Dell to Dentrix support makes you at all uncomfortable, you should avoid serving as a consultant.
Because it's important to grow as widespread a business base as possible, successful consultants will find themselves supporting everything from complex and proprietary networking equipment to industry-specific software applications across a variety of vertical markets. In many cases, the only support and troubleshooting information that will exist for such critical components is the private knowledge base maintained by the manufacturer.
Wise consultants will have no reservations about contacting a software or hardware manufacturer's technical support desk. Better yet, the smartest consultants will work to quickly eliminate Windows and common network issues as potential points of failure and place contacting an offending device or program's manufacturer next on their troubleshooting flowchart.
Consulting offers many rewards. In addition to determining their own work hours, consultants become their own bosses. In short, they become responsible for their own success and have much more control over their professional careers than is likely when working within larger corporations. But there are many disadvantages to consulting, too. If you find, after conducting an honest review of these 10 items, that you still have a high level of enthusiasm, consulting could well prove a wise and profitable pursuit.
Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president of Eckel Media Corp., a communications company specializing in public relations and technical authoring projects.