Networking optimize

10 signs that you aren't cut out to be an IT consultant


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.

Summary

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.

About

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 o...

54 comments
SKFee
SKFee

For over a decade consulting was my sole source of income. As with any service based business you have to identify a need and fill it. In my case I was limited to a specific niche geographically in a rural area. It would be nice to know everything about everything but one person cant be all things to all people. I found an area I could fill the need and built a network of specialist to refer other work to. At one point I shared a shop with cartridge recharges and gave them the printer repair. They brought me the PC work. It would be "cool" to support other OS and but in my area it would have been a waist of time financially. I found a niche at the time moving clients from dos and thin net to cat 5 and windows. The niche soon changed and you have to be ready to adapt to fill the next need. I choose to go to work for a corporation and learn enterprise networking while maintaining a very small client base of the right customers who appreciate my skill, honesty and ethics and will pay for it to supplement my income.

dave
dave

I think you are confused between your definition of a consultant and a contractor. Most of the points in your blog refer to contracting abilities not a consultant's

cldawk
cldawk

I do these things daily in my current job daily, but do not receive the financial reward associated with being a consultant. I will use this to "brush-up" on the areas I'm weaker. Thanks

mark
mark

Wow, so the world does revolve around Windows eh? To be a half decent consultant you need to be familair with at least Linux and perhaps Novell too. Expand your knowledge, expand your client base.

fcarr
fcarr

Some companies can be quite slow about paying and some don't pay at all. You have to be able to stay on them if you want to shake your money loose. And you may have to write off some debts owed you unless you want a time consuming court battle.

zx12bob
zx12bob

The author seems to have a very narrow, parochial and low-level view of what it is to be an IT consultant. The (implicit) job description here reads much more like some network admin / contracting wonk. IT consultants I have known work at a much higher lever - pure-play IT consulting to CEO's and CIO's of Times 200 companies, for example.

geekchic
geekchic

Don't forget # 11, major family issues that seem to occur when you're best paying client's server is down.

casey
casey

While many of the general points are valid, I find #9 particularly troubling in a general list. Some IT consultants (like me), don't deal directly in the hardware/networking weeds anymore and my clients don't expect it of me. Perhaps this blog should have been titled "10 signs ... a small business IT Hardware/Networking Consultant".

archangelwade
archangelwade

There is no such thing as a problem, only situations that need to be rearranged.

jabramo
jabramo

That is certainly the most stupid article I've ever seen published on this web site. If you're in the IT business being consultant or not, everyone must face those challenges sooner or later or somehow during their IT career. This is what IT is all about.

B.Balvocius
B.Balvocius

I beg your pardon for my ignorance, but please explain me if an "IT consultant" job is more with HW, rather with SW and/or business consultancy? What do you understand under the term "IT consultant"?

Absolutely
Absolutely

Thanks to OnTheRopes, photobucket.com & the GIMP

Absolutely
Absolutely

I've found TR much less interesting since Maxwell Edison left. Until I get my own statistics in order, you can expect more of that kind of tomfoolery.

clintonspicer
clintonspicer

I have been in the game for 4 years now (+ uni of course), I work as an administrator. Because if the nature of the businesses I have been working in (manurfacturing) budgets are not there as they used to be. When I first joined my current company there were seven of us.. 2 technicians, network achitect, software developer, software support, Seibel consultant and a director of IT. Because of the cutbacks we now have 2 of us left. You may think to yourself yeah more challenges but more money.... WRONG. I have been increased by 5 grand since then have had to take on the software developer/ support scenario, desktop repairs, network admin roles and general fire fighting, then they put a goal summary in front of you and make you revise it with projects you know you will certianly have no time for. At the end of the year when the goal summary is reviewed they say... Sorry Mr but your performance is lacking only because they are looking at the project levels not the day to day scenarios. The two of us between us have to look after 400 PC/Laptops, 14 Servers, Firewalls, Routers, Licencing/ Virus Monitoring/ Patch Monitoring/ Assett Audits eand the list goes on. My point here is that in Consulting you would have to face the same challenges but if you do it as hard and fast as some people do it you can make some real gain financially. Before you say yeah what about the money collecting, I have budgets, requisitions, invoices and mountains of other paperwork to do each day. Now that I have wrote this I might look for another job me thinks :) maybe give consultancy a go!!!!! Anyone need a consultant haha

jhofman
jhofman

This is what contracts are for. Sure, it takes a little time to write one up and costs a little to have your lawyer proofread it, but it's worth it to hold clients to the terms and to get paid on time.

jimrinflorida
jimrinflorida

Part of running your own business is being able to figure taxes when billing. This can be difficult when not experienced.

bartlmay
bartlmay

I know at least 100 IT consultants. All of them are what is described in this article, including myself. Small businesses need IT consultants just like major corporations. It is the Small businesses that use outdated hardware running Windows 98SE. I have 6 small businesses customers, none of which are able to keep up with the latest and greatest. I have had my own consulting business for six years. There are more of my style of Consultants than what you describe. Does that make me a Network Admin/Contracting Wonk?

jhofman
jhofman

That has a tendency to happen even when you aren't a consultant!

jimrinflorida
jimrinflorida

you are standing in line at Disney and your wife gives you the LOOK!

B.Balvocius
B.Balvocius

Your proposal could be a subset of exiting definitions, if not the word "only". :)

Robotech
Robotech

Reading the article made me feel as if the writer had been following me around for the past couple of years. He's spot on. Some of my clients have their own 'Network Admin', and regardless of how much they drop the ball they are always forgiven. Yet you install a PC as a consultant, the hard drive fails, and the way they treat you it's as if you should have a sixth sense to detect and prevent the hard drive failure. I have a solution though, for annoying clients I charge them extra, and I do a hefty markup on hardware, especially if it's hard to find, heh, heh, heh heh.

qblifts2007
qblifts2007

"Partners" -- This word is far too overused in current business-speak and I look for it to get someone in trouble. Example: From time to time you or your staff does work at XYZ Corporation. None of you is employed by XYZ Corporation; indeed, your only legal relationship to XYZ Corporation is your written service contract. Nonetheless, in your marketing brochures you write (this of course is exaggerated for effect): "Our valued business partners include XYZ Corporation, which partners with us in a partnership that has yielded tremendous revenue for our partner and us." Why anyone would put this in writing, anywhere, makes me cringe. "Partner" is a term of art that has a precise legal meaning. It includes sharing of such things as liabilities and losses. If you want to be sued by an employee of XYZ because the CEO spanked her in the file room, keep tooting your horn that some other company is your "partner". "Solutions" -- Oh how I hate this word, the most over-used marketing word of the twenty-first century. Everybody and their great-aunt has a damn "solution", for everything. Solutions are what I come up with to find the answer to math problems, or concoctions we mixed together to blow up the chemistry lab in school. The word as used in current business vernacular wanders far from its intended meaning. If my computer crashes, you fix the computer, you don't "solve" it. It calls to mind a commercial a few years ago that I loved. A gray-hair senior manager had just heard the brilliant "solutions" offered by a couple of wide-eyed consultant-types. "Great," the older man said. "Do it." The consultants, openly surprised, responded to the effect that, "uh, we don't actually do it; we just come up with the solution." "Solutions" in the vogue sense calls to mind something expensive, overvalued, intangible, likely not to work properly, and by definition of little value. I am immediately suspicious of any marketing piece or proposal with that term in it. Come up with something different.

ElectronSciences
ElectronSciences

That said, the above are not regularly called specifically to delivery the bad news, but the hired gun, because of his/her absence from the corp org chart, is sent into the cave to face the dragon. Some things I've learned: [1] ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH WITHOUT COLORING IT, YOU'LL ALWAYS FIND YOU CHOSE THE WRONG COLOR FOR SOMEONE. [2] The agony and anxiety of a deferred decision is always worse than the actual act - Get it off your desk ASAP.

verd
verd

YOU are out of line and do not know what you are talking about. The article is a very good one. Maybe you should think of doing something else!!!!!!!!!

Q360
Q360

I think your reply is unfortunately somewhat out of context, much like the types of statistics often used in political debates. Some of these skills are sometimes never truly used by people who are "normally" employed (having been on both ends), but the biggest context issue is that the items mentioned in this article is what consultants have to perform day to day just to succeed in their work, and not just as an occasional annoyance where failure in these might not even really impact you much. Of course, there are different types of consulting, and some of the information in this article is focused more on hardware/3rd party software small to medium business support role than say software architecture consulting to a company doing software development inhouse. But the basics are definitely the same, just different words in places.

alaniane
alaniane

that most people working in the profession may have to one time or another face the problems, that does not make it a stupid article. Also, some problems are only faced by independent consultants or contractors. Employees generally do not have to worry about when they are going to get paid (although I did have to worry about whether my one of my former employer's paychecks would bounce or not). As an independent contractor, I do have to worry about collecting on services rendered and as the article stated: clients do like to procrastinate when it comes to paying their bills.

jim
jim

I would have to disagree with jabramo. Jabramo, Everyone in IT does not face the challenges that an independent IT consultant does. By making statements like you did then you obviously have not had to make sure you have enough work in the pipeline to ensure utilization is at 70%, while making sure that your recivables are current. It sounds like you work for a company in the IT department, if so, then you don't have to worry about the bills or your paycheck, the cost of training. At an average cost to staying current is around 30K a year that can be very daunting but a very fundamental need. If you had to make sure the client paid their bills to ensure that your family can pay the mortgage, loans, school for your kids then your clueless. Yes this business is a challenge and tough but it is very rewarding when things go well or the client turns around or becomes more successful and calls you back for more work. Please don't diminish the work of Independent Consultants to the work of paid W2 IT employees who have vacation, benefits and a regular paycheck. You obviously just don't get it. JimP OPIMA Consulting

dean
dean

To quote the Brits, Very good! best job description I have seen Thank You

zlitocook
zlitocook

Is a contact from or for the company he/she works for. You need to be a great IT person; you need to know the hardware and software. And a people person, if you can not create and show that you know what you are doing, well the users will not believe you. You need to create a friendship between the users and IT; it will help when things on the IT side need upgrading. People skills should be a class in school and shown how to apply them in real life.

Nodisalsi
Nodisalsi

Source: http://homepage.tinet.ie/~odyssey/Quotes/Popular/Comics/Dilbert.html Quote: "I like to con people. And I like to insult people. If you combine con & insult, you get consult!" I have never taken the term "consultant" seriously since I first read this. A couple of things I will point out as a matter of opinion which I hope will clarify things a little: If you're not called an "Engineer" you don't get your hands dirty in HW or your hair greyed in SW. If you're not called a Support administrator or a "Support" anything, then you're not really required to fix anything, help anyone fix anything or listen to anyone with respect to fixing something. As Dogbert would probably agree: people who are either noobs or technophobes need reassurance from the voice of someone who sounds like they know what they are talking about. This can be a salesman, the conman or a consultant. :)

OnTheRopes
OnTheRopes

Inquiring minds want to know. :0

Too Old For IT
Too Old For IT

When I still consulted, I always liked having a contract. If nothing else,it would bring out the danger signs: 1. "Well, we don't need to get all FORMAL ..." as the owner sweeps aside your contract. 2. I know it says Net 15, but we'll pay you after we collect on this contract we are bidding on. (I'm your partner in this deal HOW?) 3. We can always use a good consultant. (Sorry, I didn't get into this business to get used.) 4. We've had such trouble with IT firms in the past ...

zx12bob
zx12bob

Accepted. Maybe it's one of those cross-Atlantic nomeclature things? Have a nice weekend. :-)

CodeBubba
CodeBubba

>> ... clients do like to procrastinate when it comes to paying their bills.

paul
paul

I have to say I agree all the way Jim. This article for me is spot on, and your response Jim is also spot on. I have worked for myself as a consultant since 1992 and had some great rewards and challenges thrown at me. Nothing to do with more hardware, or more software, you have to know the whole shabang!! Just the other day I installed a service pack on a server and 2 out of 14 machines stopped working !!! No logic ryme or reason, no help articles you're on your own !! Do I roll back or press on ? Turns out the service pack fixed some things that didn't quite work right before and 2 PC's didn't have proxy 1.1 ticked !! who would have thought ? they worked OK before the SP. Very rewarding to actually track down the problem. Then you have to work out how to charge for this ?? worked ok before the service pack was installed. You then become a negotiater, customer personal skills exceriser, businessman, Professional, ready to do it all again the next day.

Developr
Developr

You saved me some time JimP by posting your comments which I agree with. I have been involved with independent IT consulting since 1993 and can certainly identify with all the issues outlined by the article author. I believe the intent of this article was to provide a summary overview of the various challenges typically faced by an independent IT consultant for anyone contemplating making such a career transition. I believe the author achieved that goal.

GeneS
GeneS

This article hits my nail right on the head. Very few folks understand the life of an independant consultant. And, Jim, your respnse to the others is spot on. Thanks, Jody and Jim! You've made my day!!

Mandanglo78
Mandanglo78

This comment is silly. Before I started my consulting firm I worked for some very nice companies and some federal organizations and I can say hands down consulting is the hardest most stressful job you will ever have. You have to fix things right the first time. if you make a mistake your name is tarnished you are going to have a heck of a time getting more work. You don't get to sit in the office all day reading Wikipedia. you don't get the luxury of a test lab. you work sun up to sundown six seven days a week you get called at midnight cause a client tried to install pogo on the server and now things aren't working the way they should. As a consultant you will see problems you cannot even imagine and the only person to solve them is you, with no one to turn to but Microsoft TechNet. I have to say my skills have increased my love for technology came back and it took the punishing life of a consultant to remind me that I got in this game because I love to figure out problems,I love to help people to better accomplish the goals they have set. I like being able to help people use all the benefits of their technology to create truly beautiful things. I thought I lost it working 8:30 to 5:30 M-F doing the same repairs on the same equipment. Consulting is never the same you never know what is going to happen next and that?s why it is really the hardest job you will ever love.

Absolutely
Absolutely

If many of my posts are critical the flipside of that is that many of my omissions may reasonably be assumed complimentary. :)

OnTheRopes
OnTheRopes

I dislike it when I find myself doing that self-deprecation crap.

Absolutely
Absolutely

You did something right, as usual.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

[i]1. "Well, we don't need to get all FORMAL ..." [/i] Actually means that we can not afford to be Legally Bound to any IT Firm again. [i]2. I know it says Net 15, but we'll pay you after we collect on this contract we are bidding on.[/i] Means that the previous IT Firm bleed them dry and they have nothing left. [i]3. We can always use a good consultant.[/i] Totally correct but many of the Previous Consultants haven't been the [b]Good Type[/b] so everyone is out to rob them blind. [i]4. We've had such trouble with IT firms in the past [/i] Sadly I have to agree with this statement as I've had to fix other peoples mess far too often for my liking. About the only good thing to come out of jobs like this is once you have them setup properly the work is easy and not too time consuming. Though the initial work is a different story. Col

mazinoz
mazinoz

Backdoor trojans can be so helpful in this regard.

jwesleycooper
jwesleycooper

...so this certainly isn't the job for me then, I'd better hope I can find work as a Programmer...

CodeBubba
CodeBubba

I agree - good article. In my case I've been on both sides. I was an independent for about 5 years. Had a lot of fun doing it - but lost my shirt. The reason was because I am not good in some areas, like marketing and I got really tired of chasing after the payments. I discovered that what I really like to do is fix bugs in and develop code - that's my strong suit. Now working as the senior developer in a fine organization - paid well and get to focus on what I do best. The article is right - it AIN'T for everyone. Excellent 10-point checklist. Agree completely. -CB ;)

NetropolisII
NetropolisII

You're absolutely correct. That always works for me :)

spectrematrix
spectrematrix

We are just crazy ;) Regular IT would cry if they did half the crap we have to.

B.Balvocius
B.Balvocius

I completely agree with you. Good sence of humour and problem solving instead of fighting them are very pleasant and marketable features of good IT consultant. :)