I get a lot of e-mail from readers who ask for pointers on how to get started in IT consulting. I usually refer them to my very first entry in the IT Consultant blog, "So you want to be a consultant?" and then I respond to any specific concerns the reader has that aren't covered in that post.
Here's a snippet of a recent e-mail from a reader:
I am now thinking about going freelance, possibly as a consultant, but am not sure how to get into it and also have problems with the confidence to be able to fix problems out there.
Do you have any suggestions? Are you able to suggest what skills would be needed at least to be able to break in to consultancy?
Here's part of my response:
First of all, if you don't have confidence in your abilities, I wouldn't attempt freelancing. You'll need to be able to convince not only yourself that you can do it, but also your clients. That doesn't mean that you have to know everything. But you need to feel confident that you can find out how to do anything that comes your way and that you can apply that knowledge successfully.
Second, I'd break in gradually if I were you. Keep your day job and take on a few small gigs on the side to feel your way. Then, if you can land enough business over time, make the jump -- or even try migrating to half-time at your present employment if they'll allow it.
As far as what skills to cultivate -- first and foremost are people skills. Being a consultant requires the ability to sell yourself, negotiate your terms, and motivate yourself to do the work. Naturally, you need to have some technical skills to back that up -- find the niche that you want to occupy and study that. Build on your existing strengths and target a segment where you can find some business.
This e-mail exchange got me thinking about what personality traits are beneficial to the independent consultant. Here are 10 traits that I think are important in order to be an effective and successful consultant.Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.
You have to look at a challenge and say, "I could do that." It might even help if you are a little megalomaniacal about your thinking; for example: "I can do anything, given enough time and information." Now that we live in an era in which information is almost always only a google away, the question becomes, "Do I have enough time to master this?" Most of the spectacular failures of consulting engagements probably result from a false positive answer to that question -- stemming from the very hubris that makes it possible to be successful.
#2: Problem solver
You need to be passionate about solving problems, because that is what you'll be doing all day. Whether it's a problem with computers, logistics, or personnel, your clients want you to solve it. Consulting may be for you if you like math and word problems; find problems in daily life more of a challenge in optimization than a drag; and enjoy playing a difficult game or solving a tough puzzle.
You have to be able to keep yourself on task, especially if you work from a remote office. If you can't control your tendency to procrastinate, you'll never get anything done -- and if you never get anything done, you won't keep your clients.
Many of the problems you encounter will take a lot of mental juice to solve, which means that you need to be able to focus your attention for long periods of time. You also need to be able to continue to process a problem in the background when you're not giving it full attention. Some of my best solutions come to me in my sleep, in the shower, while taking a walk, or while engaged in some other activity.
#5: Lateral thinker
While it's important to focus on a specific problem, you should also be able to see beyond the task at hand and question the assumptions that led to the problem; this can help you predict problems and find opportunities that your client hasn't considered.
You'll be involved in more than one company's culture, and in each case, you'll be seen as an outsider at the beginning. You need to be able to win the confidence of strangers who may be initially threatened by your presence. A big dose of humor works wonders, especially when you direct it at yourself.
You will have to accommodate the priorities of multiple clients, as well as be flexible about managing your time and money. For instance, you might get an emergency phone call in the middle of the night that you can't put off until morning; your monthly income will wax and wane as projects come and go; and sometimes you might have trouble collecting your money on time.
Although you try to be flexible on most things, you must stand your ground on the things that matter -- like getting paid and maintaining your integrity. You have to be willing to lose your client in order to defend your position in both of those cases.
This one seems to conflict with the others, but it actually tempers the other nine traits. You have to realize that you can't work 24/7. You must give yourself a life outside consulting, so you don't burn out. You can't start thinking about all your outside activities in terms of how much potential billable time they're costing you. And you have to be willing to admit when you make a mistake or need someone's help. You're not Superman... you're a consultant.
What qualities would you add to the list? Let me know by posting to the discussion.
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Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.