Software

Five survival tips for new IT consultants

That first year in the field can be so daunting, a lot of newbie IT consultants just give up. Jack Wallen offers some hard-won advice to help you survive that break-in period.

You've been preparing to enter the world of IT consulting for what seems like an eternity. You know your skills are sound; you can navigate your way around every OS known to man; you can subnet like nobody's business; and security... no one can keep unwanteds out like you. So what's stopping you from being the best IT consultant ever? Maybe it's clients, Murphy's Law, scheduling, meetings, or coworkers.

Here's the deal: Education and training cannot fully prepare you for life in the field. In your IT classes at school, do you remember any of your teachers ever telling you that you will be working on a client's machine when a customer comes in -- so the client yanks the machine from you to run a sale? Or did your QuickBooks class ever mention that while creating a sysadmin password, you would have three nervous people chatting in your ear, making it nearly impossible for you to remember the password you just created? I doubt it.

Being a consultant isn't easy, but there are ways to keep your sanity in check. Here are a few tips that can help.

These tips are based on an entry in our IT Consultant blog.

1: Have your tools with you

Don't leave the office without the necessary tools -- software, hardware, actual tools (screwdrivers and wrenches), notes, etc. Nothing is worse than getting to a client and realizing you don't have everything you need. Not only is it unnerving for the consultant, but it's also disrespectful to the client. They are paying you to get the job done as quickly as possible.

2: Take copious notes

I don't care if you have an eidetic memory, when clients are yapping in your ear to the point that they sound like mosquitoes, you will have to rely on your notes. And although it might go against every grain of your being, write down the passwords you create so there is no mistaking what they are. You don't want to have to upload that data file to Intuit, causing your client to lose 24 to 48 business hours worth of sales.

3: Take a deep breath

You will get into situations that become tense and possibly critical. Before you plow through that insanely difficult task, take a deep breath and relax. Remind yourself that you know what you're doing. It may sound hokey, but it really does work. People tend to think more clearly and work more efficiently when they are relaxed.

4: Take a break

You can't sit at the keyboard and stare at the same monitor for hours at a time without losing your ability to think coherently. Even when you're on a deadline, a five-minute caffeine and pizza break won't prevent you from getting the job done. In fact, that break just might be the thing that saves you.

This also goes for lunch. Don't eat your lunch in the car en route to your clients -- actually schedule a lunch break for yourself. You can't work without fuel, and that 30 to 60 minute break will do you wonders.

5: Leave work at work

This is the most difficult aspect of the job. When you have a challenging task hanging over your head, the default is to take that challenge home with you in the form of an obsession. When you leave work, leave work. If you take work home with you -- especially if it becomes a borderline obsessive thought -- it will burn you out. When I get home from work, I have a ritual: I take off my watch and set it on my desk. I don't put that watch back on my wrist until Monday morning. I bet you can guess the metaphor in this case. But believe it or not, it works for me. You can come up with your own symbolic routine that helps you leave your work at work. It'll save you from burning out and ending a promising career early.

If you happen to work at home, read Chip Camden's tip for keeping a work-life balance.

Summary

These aren't earth-shattering ideas, but they often escape newbie consultants, who end up developing short-timers' syndrome. In your first year as an IT consultant, make sure you not only keep your skills up to snuff, but hang onto your sanity as well.

What other tips would you offer someone who is just starting out in the IT consulting field? Post your recommendations in the discussion.

Additional TechRepublic resources

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

6 comments
kirkhill
kirkhill

"Nothing is worse than getting to a client and realizing you don?t have everything you need." Nothing worse? Try having electrodes attached to your testicles.

Lazarus439
Lazarus439

About that "challenging task": I've found that thinking too hard about it keeps me from figuring it out. Once I've thought it over long enough to decide it really is hard, I stop thinking about it - consciously. Somewhere out of site, however, some part of my mind, which doesn't like to be watched, does keep thinking about it and will call me when it's figured it out. Sort of like not bothering the chef while he/she is at working the kitchen...

tbmay
tbmay

Learn how to do business and learn how to manage expectations. At least if you're working for yourself you better. The technical aspects of my work is the easy part. Leaving a client happy, even if I've done my job perfectly and provided deliverables as we agreed, ahead of schedule, and under budget, is hard. Human psychology is much more complicated that computer systems.

slatimer76
slatimer76

Great advice. In a past job teaching Martial Arts, we called that an Anchor. Just like for a boat, an Anchor keeps you in one spot, or in this case, one mind frame. Having an Anchor like putting your watch on is great for keeping you in the right mindframe, both for work and for personal time.

canuck82
canuck82

If you have to leave the site to get something the client might just provide the elctrodes...

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