IT Employment

Job snapshot: IT Consultant

Two busy IT consultants describe the demands of their job and how they meet the challenges. Read about the training and experience that led them to this career.

This is another installment of a series within the Career Management blog in which I feature a short survey of a tech pro in a particular specialty. It's not a comprehensive look, just a snapshot of what the person likes best and likes least about his or her chosen profession. I'm hoping it will give a little anecdotal direction to those of you who are just starting out in IT or are looking to change direction. (If anyone wants to talk about their job for the benefit of our readers, feel free to answer the three questions below and email them to toni.bowers@cbs.com)

See also:

This week we feature two job snapshots of an IT Consultant. The first is from Erik Eckel, an IT pro and TechRepublic blogger who works for a consultancy, and the second is from Chip Camden, an independent consultant and TechRepublic blogger.

From Erik:

What do you like best about your job?

By far, the factor I enjoy most about my job is deploying or repairing technology solutions (laptops, VPNs, networks, point-of-sale systems, software platforms, desktop workstations and servers) that enable business owners to meet measurable objectives and further fuel their organization's success. Serving as an IT consultant, there are no gray areas. None. You either did your job well, and solved customer problems, or you didn't. Your work speaks for itself. There's no better calling card.

What do you dislike most about your job?

Make no mistake. Consulting is a very tough, difficult and complex business. It's not for everyone. The rigors and stresses can definitely take a toll. While corporate IT staff need only balance the needs of one company and typically work within a larger department, consultants frequently must juggle multiple crises simultaneously with little to no help from other professionals.

Further, technology consultants cannot just concentrate on staying current with technology, they must also manage the demands of business ownership and operation. But the rewards are outstanding. Whether helping clients solve long-standing issues other practitioners couldn't, eliminating roadblocks for small business owners, or implementing new and exciting platforms faster than any Fortune 500 firm could ever dream of, consulting is certainly positioned at the front lines of today's technology battlefield.

What education/background prepared you for your job?

I don't know that there's any perfect academic training or background that can prepare a technology professional for IT consulting. What you experience in the real world - the way clients, organizations, and businesses actually implement, maintain, and utilize computers, software and systems - is often far different than the way best practices dictate or manufacturers intend. Only a tight combination of structured technical training, hands-on experience and a genuine zeal for technology can position a consultant for success.

That said, I earned an undergraduate degree in English from a four-year university. That rounded education helped me appreciate and respect the wide variety of business models and wide range of customers from all walks of life I encounter daily. After working professionally for almost ten years after graduating from college, I returned to a second university to complete 10 months of intensive hands-on technical lab training. Those hard skills, combined with the liberal arts education and multiple IT industry certifications, provides an effective combination that serves me well when managing my own business' challenges as well as those of the clients it serves.

From Chip:

What do you like best about your job?

I like a lot of things about being an independent consultant, but what I like best is the autonomy it provides. I can choose what hours I work, though it often ends up being more than I used to work as an employee. I can choose where I work, which is usually in my home office with my own brand of coffee and choice of music and equipment. I can choose what projects to take and which ones to turn down. I can choose what rate to accept. My performance isn't evaluated based on the theories, whims, or ego of someone in management - instead it's reflected directly on my bottom line, in recurring business and the rate that I can command.

Autonomy also figures into my relationship with my client. I feel more enabled to say what I really think about a project than I did back in the days when every move had to be considered in relation to where it placed my hands on the corporate ladder. In fact, I find a direct incentive to speak the truth as an outsider, because if things go south I'll be the first one to be blamed for not objecting. Providing an objective viewpoint is a big part of my job.

What do you dislike most about your job?

The uncertainty can be a bit unnerving at times. While consultants have the opportunity to improve their income more frequently than the typical employee's annual raise, they're also not guaranteed a minimum. The lean times can be frightening. Fortunately, they've been few in my nineteen years of consulting, but the threat of the bottom potentially falling out makes it difficult to enter into large financial commitments. A couple of times I've over-extended and felt bankruptcy breathing down my collar, but I was able to claw my way back out of debt each time.

Like most geeks, I'm much more comfortable with the technical aspects of the job than I am with the business side. Negotiating contracts, reminding clients to pay, and dealing with miscommunications or failed expectations all make me feel a little queasy. As a result, I have to force myself to deal with those issues and not put them off until they become bigger problems.

What education/background prepared you for your job?

I studied neither computers nor business in college. I was a Biblical Literature major. I do think that my background in ancient languages informs my understanding of programming languages - ancient Hebrew and Greek differ widely from each other and from English in how they think and express things, which teaches me by analogy that programming languages can and should explore more effective alternatives for expression than those that are merely patterned after English.

Everything I learned about the technical side of my work, I learned on the job. I taught myself every programming language I know (somewhere around 40, depending on how you count them). I worked my way up from being an entry-level programmer in a software company to being its Director of Software Development before striking out on my own as a consultant. As an autodidact, I don't wait for things to be explained to me - I actively seek out knowledge of how others understand things, and then ask, "But what if there's another way of looking at it?"

I think perhaps the most important preparation I received for this work, though, was provided by my father. Although I'm still a true geek at heart, I was well on my way towards becoming a reclusive hermit in high school when Dad gave me a job at the auto parts store that he managed and made me face the public on a daily basis. The experience taught me more about dealing with a variety of customers and running a business than you could ever get from any course of study.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

17 comments
reisen55
reisen55

The awful part about being your own boss is that when you are sick, the whole company stops working. For the past 10 days I have been dealing with a nasty cold and stomach issue that turned out to be nothing more than a minor pneumonia issue, and the slowdown on ME PROFESSIONALLY is horrible. I have a new client appt next week in Manhattan and, right now, I would have an awful time just getting there.

japelaez
japelaez

I agree with both of them. I am currently, trying to get my consulting company up in Atl,GA. But it's a struggle. But you have to keep going. Thanks

reisen55
reisen55

I am in the middle of one of those awful dry pipline episodes and the financial stress is absolutely awful. Last night I had a genuine panic attack and the monetary stress is very real in this field.

Englebert
Englebert

Two excellent articles by Erik and Chip. The one point I was looking for is that as an IT Consultant you have to be extra nice not only to your hiring client, but to every staff member of that company. Performance of course is essential, but how you're perceived by others has a large bearing as well. An IT Consultant who does his job and rarely smiles or mixes will rarely find himself extended over another who charms well. We compete with the F/T staff, not only technically but also on the convivial side.

reisen55
reisen55

I spent seven years with Aon Group (1998 to 2006) in a corporate level III environment and while the work was challenging and I genuinely enjoyed working with the employees, my tech skills fell into a set pattern. Since going independent, with all of the various financial stress demands and business aspects, I have vastly increased my exposure to hardware and software platforms that I never would have touched at Aon. A major career plus. On the finance side, I am in the trough between work right now, so the dollar stress is relatively severe. I have created several co-networking relationships with a few franchise houses locally and none of these are working out. Picking up a few new accounts as 2010 moves along though which is good. One can only hope for a better year. Chip - you may remember me from my earlier posts about a talented colleague who left 3 months of invoices just slip by for a client....I no longer with this individual. As brilliant as he was, the partnership did not survive.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Erik and I share at least one thing in common: our IT paths were far from traditional or prescribed. I think that's one key strength for a consultant: having a variety of experience on which to draw.

Erik Eckel
Erik Eckel

Get the word out. Make sure people know you offer computer sales, service and support. Are your cars festooned with logos? Do you always wear professional-looking clothing with your logo? Have you recently distributed news releases or canvassed neighborhoods or industrial parks with fliers? Get the word out; that'll help the phones to ring! Hang in there.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

If there's a bright side, it's that things always change in this business, so hang in there.

Erik Eckel
Erik Eckel

Indeed, I believe one year of IT consulting is like seven years of corporate work. In fact, I have no doubt about it.

CGSJohnson
CGSJohnson

Hi. Do you mind sharing the kind of hardware/software to which you are being exposed now? Just trying to get a feel for what's being requested out there. Thanks. Chris

ccollins
ccollins

I have found in my "over 20 years" as an IT Consultant that it is best to partner with someone. In the beginning, my partnership was with a recruiting company which specialized in finding contracts for independent consultants. They received a percentage of the hourly rate that the client paid. They were motivated to get me as many hours as they could. It left me to focus on completing the contract to the best of my ability and not lose weeks of income looking for a new contract when one ended. Later I partnered with a consultant that had complementary skills, I in programming and database, he in networking and harware technology. We joined up and became one of the first Microsoft Certified Partners in 1995. We specialized in complete solutions to businesses who were ready to move from paper to technology business solutions and we were happy to let Microsoft share their product lines and expertise.

reisen55
reisen55

It takes alot to kill me for any period of time, but pneumonia is something else again. I am back to work and pacing myself on the heavy chores. One aspect of our trade is to thank the people at Microsoft for Remote Access to servers and stations, it has made my off-site work FAR FAR easier.

reisen55
reisen55

I always love it when people say "when a door closes another one opens." True, but then the hallway had 12,230 doors and finding the open one = Marx Brothers sometimes. Working with an Ubuntu system at a new client, something I know about 0.4% about having moved the mouse around but that's how we learn sometimes. New client in Manhattan too, visiting next week. Thanks for the good support too.

reisen55
reisen55

Is to partner with any number of franchise or independent businesses that exist. I have worked for a few and the experience has been problematic to good. But on software, the range of product designed for specific industry is most interesting. Self Storage businesses, for example, have a unique product called Space Control - it manages space in all aspects of their business. You will find that any independent niche trade usually has it's own trade software. Was working on an interesting Point of Sale system today - could not resolve but it was a starting point.

reisen55
reisen55

Aon Group was first and foremost a Lotus Notes shop, and I have a proficient understanding of this particular platform. In the real world, everything is Microsoft Exchange and not touching that was a major problem. Since I have gone independent, I have built and installed Windows 2003 and 2008 Servers into domains, built entirely new domains and worked with Exchange 2003 and 2007. Not for profit museums and such often use unique software such as Past Perfect which is very easy to support. Medical houses in the optical field tend to favor Officemate for management practice. Some point of sale work too.

reisen55
reisen55

I partnered in 2008 and 2009 with a brilliant idiot savant, who was unbending in his work, a first class s.o.b. to work with and did know the first thing about invoicing on a timely basis. He kept hold of a Windows 2008 server for a client for 8 months (I delivered and installed one recently in 2 weeks) and let three months of invoices slip for a major client. He detonated a lawyer's office through a bad VoIP installation too. Terrifying.

Editor's Picks