Project Management

18 maxims of successful IT consulting

Chip Camden shares IT consulting lessons he's picked up over the years. After you read his pearls of wisdom, post your favorite consulting one-liners in the discussion.

Note: This TechRepublic post originally published on April 14, 2009.

Today marks the 18th anniversary of the day I purchased my first business license to become an independent consultant. If my consultancy were a person, it would be old enough to have a beer in parts of Canada and vote and die for its country in the United States. Instead of spilling brew, ballot chads, or blood, I'll celebrate by sharing 18 lessons I've learned over the years from the harsh schoolmistress named Experience.

  1. Lead with your strongest suit. Clients hire consultants for their expertise, so develop a niche in which you can excel and focus on it. When you take on work in too many areas, you dilute your expertise in any one.
  2. You have not arrived, and you never will. Always keep learning new things. The industry evolves rapidly, so as soon as you stop learning, you're obsolete. Experts don't know everything, but they know what they don't know and where they need to improve.
  3. It's not the theory, it's the execution. Every methodology can be implemented badly, but the right people can make any system work to their advantage. The key is knowing when to follow the rules and when to break them.
  4. Don't implement technology -- solve problems. When the question is "how do we get to this technology?" the question is wrong. A new technology may provide a solution to a specific problem, but it should never be an end in itself, and it must be suitable to the client's business.
  5. Every tool has its purpose, but no tool should be used for everything. No technology is "better" or "worse" unless you answer the question "for what purpose?"
  6. Your clients aren't important to your business; they are your only business. Always do right by clients because making them successful is what will make you successful.
  7. Not every client is worth keeping. Not all business is good business. You need to be careful about with whom you get in bed.
  8. Cast your bread upon the waters. Give away some work, and much more business will return to you.
  9. Skill performs the job, but reputation gets the job. Give just as much attention to building your reputation as you do to improving your abilities.
  10. Be tough on yourself, so your clients won't have to be. Own up to your mistakes. Organize yourself for productivity. Fight procrastination.
  11. Cut yourself some slack. You will screw up. You can never choose or create the perfect solution. Sometimes, you will be late. You cannot work every waking hour. Give yourself permission to be wrong, so you can admit it when it happens. And give yourself a life, so you'll have something worth working for.
  12. Success requires trust in both directions. Trust requires working on the relationship with your client. It's like a marriage, except that either party can leave when they want to -- so okay, it is like a marriage.
  13. Honesty rocks because it builds trust. Even when your client wants you to be dishonest, tell the truth. If you're always truthful when it hurts, your client will never doubt your truthfulness.
  14. Take care of your business -- nobody else will. Do not let your clients slip into the habit of paying late. Make sure your rates are high enough to keep you afloat yet reasonable enough for the value you provide. Don't ignore all the little details of running a business, which include tracking and reporting hours, choosing insurance policies, and managing invoices and receivables.
  15. If you're doing this for the money, you're psychotic -- or you will be soon. Money is important, but its flow is highly unpredictable. Consulting is hard work, so you'd better be getting more out of it than a few pesos.
  16. Working without a contract is like skydiving without a parachute. You may be flying now, but it will not end well. If you don't have a contract, start putting one together now.
  17. Consult thyself. We often get so focused on our clients' problems that we forget to take our own advice. Periodically, step back from your work and look at yourself and your business as if you were one of your clients. What would you tell them?
  18. Every consulting maxim is wrong, even this one. "Wrong" is too strong a word, but it helps to make the point. More accurately, no consulting maxim is always right. Every situation differs -- use your head when applying rules.

I've linked to it before, but Steve Friedl's So you want to be a consultant...? contains even more pithy consulting maxims. What are your favorite consulting one-liners? Share them in the discussion.

About

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 b...

43 comments
BFilmFan
BFilmFan

Don't linger. Some consultants come onboard and never seem to leave. They are almost fixtures! Good list Chip, my friend.

xxing14
xxing14

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Clendanielc
Clendanielc

I worked with Steve on several projects. One of , if not, the best consultants I have ever worked with. I learned a lot from him in terms of consulting. Though his article is a little old on consulting it still gives good advice.

jenalimor
jenalimor

I recently graduated college and I will be delving into the world of consulting (with a major company) soon and your articles are very informative. I find that many of these tips will most likely apply to working in the corporate world as well as independent consulting.

Kirk_D
Kirk_D

Thanks for the tips. I've only been in consulting for only a year but I can see how your tips align with what I am seeing. Take care.

Arun1980
Arun1980

Worth following ... few points are rock solid .. thanks for sharing the exp...

cmaritz
cmaritz

Flipping splendid! First of all, congrats on making a success of not-the-easiest line of work! As my colleagues from my printing factory days years ago used to say occasionally, "Something went RIGHT!" :-) Some time ago I had a theory about why the essence of consulting made it extremely difficult to do. It went something like this: Person A hires a consultant B. When B begins to dispense advice, then at that moment B appears smarter than A. Conversely A appears dumber than B. And there's the problem - during the process of consulting, at some point and to some measure, someone looks stupider than someone else. It may or may not be actually true, but unfortunately it's about perceptions and it's human nature to avoid situations like this. Hence the reluctance to hire, the painfully long sells, the bad rep of some consultants, etc. Of course the really good consultants are the ones who skillfully work with and even empathise with their clients in solving real problems and actually make life easier for them. You pretty much hit this one on the head with #6, to aim to make your client successful first. Your own success will then come as a 'side-effect' of doing this well. Also, I particularly like #8 cast your bread upon the waters, and #17 consult thyself. These practices make consultants more, I dunno, 'human' maybe. I have 2 points to add, although you have probably included these to some level already: #19 - I don't know who said this originally, but "All thing being equal, people like to do business with friends. All things not being equal, people still like to do business with friends." I don't mean the suck-up buddy-buddy type of stuff, but at the end of the day clients are human, so are consultants. The feeling of working together and accomplishing a solution to a real problem is powerful, and there will be willingness from both sides to do it again. #20 - "People like to feel like they're shopping. They don't like to feel like they're being sold to." Always give the client a choice. Technology A or Technology B. Option A with extra features or Option B with less features but cheaper and will get done sooner. Whatever. Just don't force a solution on someone and / or make them feel like they're trapped. Thanks Chip for the post. Hey, I'm not even a consultant, but I can still apply a lot of the wisdom mentioned. And on top of that it's very useful for keeping the consultants that I do deal with on their toes! Cheers all and have a good one!

cbossy
cbossy

Do the little things that show you appreciate them. Give them some free advice, spend sometime getting them info and contacts that you don't bill them for, or do a Starbucks run for them and pay for it yourself. They'll notice.

reisen55
reisen55

Always found these three to be perfect. Respect for the individual (ie. my client's staff) Go the extra mile to do a thing right. Spend alot of time making the client happy. Another good motto, and a simple one, came from BATMAN RETURNS, spoken by Danny DeVito as the Penguin. If you get this down, you have much of what life can throw at your in a mangaged state. "Things change." Two words = genius.

juliendevries
juliendevries

would be the one missing in your awesome list. Successful people always look at the bright side of their decisions, their work and their relations. As soon as you start looking the other side, the "Dark Force" might catch you ;) After 18 yearsof consultancy, I am sure you are under a splendid sun ! Keep enjoying

TomMerritt
TomMerritt

19. OOPS! -- Doo-doo occurs. Deal with it.

reisen55
reisen55

I am taking these and saving them forever. Great job.

TomMerritt
TomMerritt

I founded EdgeTech in 1987. I've been flying solo or with a single tech since '91. I've never seen it all put together quite as succinctly as this. Thank you very much. I would like to think that I had already learned all these precepts in the School of Pain. The best way to remember a rule is to violate it and suffer the consequences. I just printed this out on B-Size paper. I spent some time messing with fonts and colors until it looked just right. I put a nice byline on the bottom attributing it to Chip. All in all, I have a billable hour in this, plus whatever I decide to spend on an 11x17 frame. It was worth it.

robin
robin

My wife always said we should put this phrase on our logo in Latin. We may not charge for a service, but we always get something for it, at least recognition and/or satisfaction of serving the profession. Some other guidance we live by: I am responsible for my results. A boat doesn?t sink on just one side. Never turn down good business. Everything works out for the best. Learn from everything. Congratulations, Chip; and thank you for this and so many other good columns of advice. We?ll be celebrating our consultancy?s 27th corporate anniversary in July.

jonathanlivingstoneseagull
jonathanlivingstoneseagull

great stuff - most helpful. i am less than a year into Database consultancy, so find these pointers most helpful. many thanks.

meetsiddhu
meetsiddhu

Great writing .. every consultant should read and follow it to the best

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, Mary, I stole your line. You should have copyrighted it. ;) Eighteen years! I would say that hopefully after eighteen more I'll be retired -- but I seriously doubt it.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

For your kind words and the extra maxims. I've been thinking about #19 for the last few days, and #20 is a marketing key.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, indeed. Back when I used to visit one of my clients on a daily basis, I would stop on the way in and buy some really good coffee and brew up a pot of it when I got there. Made a lot of friends that way.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

The story goes that one of the great Persian kings gathered wise men from all over his empire and charged them with developing a philosophy that would serve equally well under all conditions, good and bad. After much deliberation, they came back with: "This too shall pass."

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... but I couldn't help thinking of the ending of Life of Brian. Now that tune will be stuck in my head the rest of the day.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

In fact, if it weren't for other people's doo-doo, we might not have any work!

ddswanson
ddswanson

Congratulations on 18 years and thank you for an updated list of maxims. I have lived/work by the Chicago Telephone Company, Chicago, Illinois ?Rules for Troublemen? dated October 28, 1911 for over 30 years. I too will be framing your maxims and place them next to the "Rules for Troublemen". Thanks again for your insight.

burntfinger1
burntfinger1

but don't retire :) I did that in '95 and found that retired is just a short way of saying "Hey, you know all that computer stuff and you ain't doing anything anyway ..... " which leads to fixing computers in fur sheds, cow barns and logging equipment:)

jbrunner007
jbrunner007

Come on Chip! How could you forget the MOST important MAXIM of them ALL... get some of the fees, a block of hours, or some of the CASH up front... How many clients dont want to do this??? but guess what? Try checking into a hotel without a credit card... Try renting a car without a deposit... This business is driven by honesty... but many IT consultants find out too late, the guy they are working for is going to BURN THEM

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Both on the length of your survival and on the quality of your list. However, "with whom you get in bed." ? You're workin' too hard, man! As a former girlfriend (a fiction author, poet and editor) once said to me ... "Now, that we are adults and no longer in school ...". ;-) Glen Ford, PMP http://www.trainingnow.ca

KaryDavis
KaryDavis

...but wanted to say Congratulations!! You've nearly made it through the teen years ;)

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... I'd just do whatever projects I felt interested in. A lot more open source and just trying things out. They'll never take my keyboard until they pry it from my cold, lifeless fingers.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

But I usually reserve that measure for those who have trouble paying on time.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I've been to Camden (in London). I even have a photo somewhere of me leaning against the entrance to The Camden (a pub there).

busonab
busonab

Congrats mate... The maxims are just on the spot. In another eighteen years from now, even if you retire, you wouldn't be actively TIRED...LOL.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

She dumped me ... then and went on to write a biography of a local chief of police and a number of best-selling mysteries starring a homeless judge. Which is what she always wanted to do (the writing bit not the dumping bit! ]:) ). I've still got one of her novels around if the wife hasn't disposed of it.

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