Outsourcing

Achieving success as an IT consultant

Independent consultant Chip Camden shares how his ideas about what it means to be a success in this field have changed depending on his motives, values, and priorities.

In my last TechRepublic IT Consultant post, I responded to Josh Richard's question on LinkedIn: "Why did you become an IT consultant?" Josh also asked a follow-up question: "How close are you to achieving consulting success as you envisioned it?"

I'm glad he qualified success with those last four words, because its definition depends on individual motives, values, and priorities. Not only is it an individual matter, it also varies within the individual over time.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I became a consultant almost by accident. Judging from the discussion, I'm not unique in that regard. I didn't have a clear vision at that time about what I wanted to achieve long-term as a consultant. My decision was much more tactical than strategic. I had vague notions of piling up an impressive client base and charging them lots of money, without however having a plan on how to accomplish that. I had enough work to do at the time, and not a severe enough motivation for putting forth the effort to acquire more.

A couple of years into it, though, I had gained more regular clients (again, almost by accident). I realized that if I were willing to work evenings and weekends, I could start raking in some serious cash. I compromised on personal time, relinquishing my position as Chief Couch Potato on college football Saturdays in order to work instead, while retaining that title for NFL games on Sundays.

Life has a way, though, of changing your plans for you. Just as I was really starting to roll, I met my future second wife. Suddenly, personal time became more important -- although I immediately donated it all to my significant other. In an attempt to cut back on my hours, I rather rudely informed my clients that I'd be raising my rates by almost 40%. This backfired, however. Instead of reducing demand, it increased it!

About a year later, my wife gave birth to our daughter. For a little while after that, I cared for her half the day while my wife went into the office, then I'd hand her off to Mom and go into my client's office for the rest of the day. Soon, though, my wife decided to quit her job and take care of our daughter full-time. This shifted my priorities yet again, both because I suddenly had more time available for work and because I was the sole bread-winner for a family. At this time, I began building my business as fast as I could. I accepted every engagement, some of which turned into some pretty bad trips (I still have flashbacks), but others became good long-term relationships that I still have after more than a decade.

We had a second child, then moved to Washington and bought waterfront property. I kept cranking my intensity past eleven in order to support our lifestyle. "Work hard, play hard" became my motto. I drove a Lincoln, and we sipped Dom Perignon whenever we felt like it. I thought then that I had achieved "consulting success," but then some things happened that changed my mind.

First came the dot-com bust. My clients weren't terribly affected by that event, but it did put a damper on new software development across the board for while. This let me know how fragile my business model was, and how easily it might crash.

Then came 9/11, followed the next year by three difficult medical situations in our family (which I won't detail for reasons of privacy). These reminded me how brief is life, and made me realize that I was speeding through it. I began to feel burned out, and I decided to cut back my billable hours in order to spend more time doing the things that matter in the long run.

I'm still trying to find that balance, though. When you invite the feast or famine phenomenon to flip on you, it usually obliges in trumps. So financial concerns have often led me back to over-working until I have too much to do again, and my personal life suffers. I'm living alone now, so I go back and forth between thinking of myself as a success or a failure. Honestly, it's a mixture.

Most people who are just starting out as consultants would probably look at me and think, "He's successful. That's where I want to be." Even myself twenty years ago would look at my business as it stands today and call that a success. Heck, I even write about consulting for TechRepublic. But if you don't know it yet, I'll give you a clue: there is no point of arrival at success. It's a continuous process of adaptation to your changing market, the circumstances of your life, and your own evolving desires and aspirations. Aeschylus said, "Call no man happy until he is dead." I think, on the contrary, you can call someone happy if they are doing what they most want to be doing, right now.

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
aohouo
aohouo

I am a web application developer How do you start your IT consultant career...What do you need to know?

ranandg
ranandg

Chip you nailed it by mentioning ''find that balance'' & ''personal life suffers''....4 out of 5 people I know work the week away from their family returning only weekends......most have young families, infants. I wonder if all that money can buy their child's hood days..., I wonder if they feel all this will end one day.....I wonder!!!!

IT-->PM
IT-->PM

I just forwarded to my wife and told her "This is titled 'Achieving success as an IT consultant' but could also be titled 'Achieving success in Life.'" It really is about being prepared for change, adapting to change, then finding balance. The change will come - in work, in relationships, in health, in finances. Adaptation is easier with preparation. Once past the change, if there is time before the next one, comes the time to reflect and balance. After reflection, I read the comments and told her to read those too - great feedback. One of the best discussions I've followed. Great insights into our field that I sometimes have difficulty explaining.

reisen55
reisen55

I have three medical offices in the same building. One is just a small account, two computers so I do spot checks, easy, pays for gasoline. Pays on time too. Second account: 15 years running, grown from a DOS Novell Server and 2 stations to a full Active Directory network, 24 stations and god knows how much weird software, managed well and pay on time. They love me too. Third Account: dental office, server and 7 stations, a constant pain and I damn near walked out on them today. This office has complained about every single invoice from Day 1, but today I managed the situation rather well - as upsetting as it is to me - and had a long conversation with the new owner. OK, so we have a better understanding of what needs to be done now so hopefully their 2012 retainer will be a better fit. I did truly heroic, customer sensitive work on Sunday with a damaged server and GX270 station performing data storage for their office right now. The server will be done in about 2 weeks when new SCSI drives arrive. Besides, I have the office server in my living room as hostage. True. So if they argue too much ... very much a stress issue for the day. Now, some clients seem to think we do our work BECAUSE WE LOVE IT SOOOOO MUCH. That being paid, well, we don't really need that do we. No, I hate aspects of IT whenever I get a non-resolvable blue screen of death or some damn Microsoft error message. I do it for the money, and the enjoyment of a job well done which is money well and truly earned. I have fun with it most of the time, but I can feed squirrels for fun too. I have a business and don't visit clients or work on systems for the fun of it. I also do not, except in rare cases, have terms of net 30 as a rule. I am more like that plumber or house repairman who does work, gives an invoice and gets paid relatively quickly if not on the spot. I would like to see somebody walk out of cursed Geek Squad with a machine and a promise of Net 30 THANK YOU. I am writing this in an admitted bad mood having just won the fight with the third client as above, but I dislike this aspect of our trade, that people somehow think that fixing a failed server with a dead SCSI drive is the same as Freecell.

jennyn
jennyn

Thanks for being so real, I appreciate it. I'm not reading much tech related these days as I'm in the process of pulling back on tech work and reassessing where I've come and where I'm going. You're articles draw me in because of the honesty that pervades them; the important questions always somewhere between the lines... what am i doing? why am i doing it? whatever it is, am i doing it well ... for myself, my clients, my family and the world around me? "How much is enough" is the ongoing question that should probably lead when (if) we plan our business... what is enough money? enough fun? enough sleep? (in my case not a question of too little sleep, but more like when have i done enough thinking about the day ahead, horizontally, to the radio, with my eyes closed...) anyways, keep up the good work!

viProCon
viProCon

That article was grea, and I am glad to see other poeple understanding the live in the now concept, something I try to do but sometimes forget. I'm a junior consultant (only 4 years in) and have a baby on the way. I must admit, when I read you raised rates by 40% and got more business, I have to ask, how is that possible? Would that not cause yoru clients to start shopping elsewhere? Soon to be a first-time parent, I find myself wondering if there will be enough money since my wife's salary will easily be less than 50% of what it was while she's off. And my income is very inconsistent being a consultant with a limited client base. I know I'll have to raise rates eventually to meet rising costs overall, but how can one get away with 40%? Maybe I should start reading books about consulting instead of just winging it the way I do.

Calcom Tech
Calcom Tech

This was a great read, but the ending is phenomenal. I litterally sat and thought about the last paragraph for 10 mins. Thanks for the inspiring words.

markjstanley
markjstanley

...that your business could continue to run effectively without you while you deal with personal/medical issues? If you didn't have to sell the house, if you didn't let down your clients, and you didn't let down your family then I think you can rightly say you succeeded with your consultancy.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

If we define success as being ahead of the mean of an imaginary field of peers, then we're forcing ourselves into a zero-sum game. If, on the other hand, we define success as having enough money, then we start to feel that the things we work to support are dragging us into failure... we create an opposition between success and spending - with the negative emotional focus on spending. Not many things hurts a relationship more than one party feeling animosity towards supporting the shared life. Prudent spending is one thing, but there's a short distance from there to a form of miserliness that is hard to live with. If we define success as "having a good life"... well, that requires a rare agreement in the relationship on what makes life good. It's a balancing act - but then, so is life in all other aspects, so I guess that's a truth. I guess the trick to success is changing one's expectations seamlessly to fit the stage of life one is in. That, in turn, suggests that success is a fallacy, a pitfall for the mind. The concept of Success is anathema to happiness and fulfillment.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

I've failed miserably in my goal of becoming a Full Time Consultant. Sure I have 10 Techs working for me which was never intended, I suppose the Money is OK as well but I have [b]Absolutely No Time to Play with My Play Toys[/b] and that was never the intention. I may as well be working for a Boss, now and then I would have some Spare Time and not the Worst Boss possible who refuses to allow me to do anything I want to or even take a day off now and again at least once a decade. I sent one of [b]SWMBO[/b] cars away 7 years ago to be painted properly and I have yet to see it back. The only thing that makes it worthwhile is that if I was doing it myself I can guarantee that if I had 20 years I still wouldn't have the time to strip it back let alone paint it. :( My Boss is the worst bastard possible and is driving me crazy! The only good thing about him is that he'll make me at least a century late for my own funeral so I'll be around for a very long time to come. :D Col ;)

tbmay
tbmay

It is HARD. Especially in the economy we're in. Put it this way, more people see quality technical services as a rip-off and unneeded expense than ones that do. Just because you can see a need in businesses you can fill, doesn't mean it's going to work. Seriously. Heed my words here. Most small business leadership would rather do things half-butt for cheap than hire someone who knows what they're doing. Large businesses are a bit better about understanding the value of technical expertise, but honestly, not much. So, you'll need to look for those diamonds-in-the-rough who value the work enough to pay sustainable rates. This is NOT easy. It is MUCH harder than the technical work. And your phone and e-mail will light up with the cheapskates if you don't have an effective strategy to begin with to keep that from happening. Lesson learned the hard way. The business has it's perks. But sometimes you'll find yourself just wanting a normal job.

dswope79
dswope79

Nice article. I find myself at a cross roads as i'd like to do more consulting on the side and maybe even go full time as my own boss but i'm looking for that "push" into deep water.

tbmay
tbmay

Thanks for sharing.

lit.prep
lit.prep

Great article and excellent stories and examples of one that's seen many phases of consulting over time. The "feast or famine phenomenon" is a pervasive trait of consulting and as a service business, the opportunity to apply the kind of leverage that manufacturing allows (to avoid getting paid only for each hour worked rather than again and again for a designed widget) is one of the toughest nuts to crack. There's constant temptation to "product-ize" a previous work product but then you're not a consultant but either a publisher or professional services technician. Solving problems and enabling my customers to do things that they couldn't do before is the real appeal of consulting to me. But as you point out, job and career satisfaction is sometimes not enough at certain stages of your life. Work-life balance needs change as you change and your circle of significant others evolve. Economic and political conditions outside of your control will change things. As the oft quoted phrase says, "the only constant is change..." so maybe achieving success means the ability to be happy based on a constantly changing adaptation.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

All things come to an end eventually. The key is to enjoy what you have now, rather than always striving for what you hope will come next. Of course, that has to be balanced with providing for the future.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I'll second your assessment of the discussion. I learn a lot about this business from interacting with TechRepublic readers in this space.

tbmay
tbmay

...would by why so many people don't value I.T. services, even when their business depends on I.T. A long time ago, I tried to change their minds. Now, I just avoid them, and look for those few who are as Chip described in another post. How I do that....pricing...agreements....payments up front....etc. And most importantly, SAY NO. I can go broke just fine doing absolutely nothing. I don't have to work to do that.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Geeks especially so, I think. That's why we hid in a corner with our puzzles, gadgets, and weird hobbies instead of hanging out with our contemporaries when we were younger. To some degree, our work can be like those activities, but we still have to eat.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I do my best to keep it real. My favorite Hemingway quote is about writing: "write the truest sentence you know." Not only does that produce something that gets to the heart of the matter, it forces me to be honest with myself -- which is not as natural for me as I'd like to believe, but yields personal dividends.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

We fail to adequately appreciate our value, and we're afraid of price resistance. You're not charging enough if you get no resistance, because nobody likes to part with their money even if they value what they're purchasing. When you charge too little, clients tend to form an opinion about your value based on that figure. I think what happened in my case is that when I bumped my rate, some of my clients thought I must have struck a mother lode of demand, and that they'd need to get as much of my time as they could while I was still available. This wouldn't work in every situation -- for instance, where you have active, available competition.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I'm glad you found it inspiring, and I hope you'll take it further -- wherever you need to go with it.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I think at bottom the notion of "success" may be tied to the "ought" directive. The question, "Am I being the person I ought to be?" is in many ways equivalent to "Am I successful?" What is that "ought" other than the voice of someone trying to run(/ruin) your life for you?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... are the ones who know what they don't know, and realize that I can help them with that. They don't mind signing the check, because they know they're getting value for the money.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... but like learning to swim, once you get it you can probably keep your head above water.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Some oriental cultures think of change as a wheel. When you get to the top, the only place to go is down, but it will come around again. We can't try to hang onto what we had, or recreate past success. We always have to look to what works for the future instead.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... with a predictable cost cycle and no unexpected problems. For good or ill, IT changes much too quickly for that to ever materialize.

viProCon
viProCon

Interesting points. What's your opinion on the incremental increase idea? I'm only in the brainstorming process for this but had considered an annual marginal increase, like an annual inflation concept. The increase ould be say, 3-5%. This would of course mean that clients are constantly reminding of my increasing rates which is probably not good, yet the smart ones would see that it isn't as damaging to their budget as a very large single increase. Again, just brainstorming but does anybody have thoughts on this? Better to do one increase and leave it be for a few years, or spread those increases out? (or, give the client the choice, makin them feel in control?)

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

a back seat driver ;) There's a definite problem with scope, here. Success is meaningful for a boolean resolution of a task of the type "achievement". You either attended the Centennial Bulburra Sheep Shaving Contest and won this lousy t-shirt - or you didn't. Success or failure. If a task repeats, it's already beyond the scope of success... in such a task, just as a failure only means "not succeeded yet", "success" only means "didn't fail, this time...". And yet, even though this is reasonably easy to grasp, we luckless bastiches down here on earth attempt to apply this "success" stuff ... to our whole lives!

Techcited!
Techcited!

Chip: This really is what it is about. If I could find a mere 10 customers who fall into this category, that would be true success. I have two right now who are exactly as you describe. They love having me work with them because I take care of the things they know they cannot. And at the beginning of each month, when they do sign the check, I don't hear a peep and the check shows up right on time. I can tell every time we talk, they get the value. As the one client said to me..."I love working with you because you just take care of everything." These guys are truly gold. And I love them for it.

tbmay
tbmay

That's what you're looking for. And when you find them, treat them like kings. The challenge is finding them.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

"The basis of all business relationships should be purely platonic!" ;) What with knowing that one doesn't know a thing, and all :p

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... and thanks for your kind words. If you have any topics you'd like for me to address here, please feel free to shoot me an email (sterling at camdensoftware dot com, or use the "Contact" link on the bio at the end of an article).

viProCon
viProCon

My preference would be to go the route you're talking about too. I feel like it'd be nice to get along with everybody if possible. It's not a cutthroat atmosphere in the area where I do business so I think I might be able to accomlish things without bloodshed. I don't really think I would be doing that I'm doing if it was required - I'm not the cutthroat type and would'nt want to become one. Anyway, your articles are invaluable to me and it is striking just how often they directly relate to what's on my mind or my situation. And it provokes thought that I might not have considered before so I learn new things too. Thanks very much Chip!

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... are also your colleagues in the field. I try to form relationships that focus on mutual support rather than cutting each other's throats. With that in mind, a casual conversation at the local pub can be very enlightening.

viProCon
viProCon

You're right, it could. But I suspect this topic wouldn't have any real conclusion because I think it really depends on each client and their unique situation. Of course there's an underlying mindset that most clients have, a sort of comon thinking amongst most or all of them, that if understood one could probably work with to gain the best results. For example, if you have those types of clients that hide their head in the sand and never want to change, never want to upgrade past their trusty MS Office 2000 so to speak, then introducing change often does not go well. But clients that realize and have accepted that technology is what enables them to operate, and thus maintaining (and even growing with) it should be a top priority then that is ideal.Anyway, just a thought but perhaps you might consider an article that talks a little about how to check out the competition. I don't mean to suggest writing about how to perform espionage, but as a small business consultant, one thing I wonder often is what my competition is doing but I can't just walk in their front door and ask about all their rates. Or can I? :)

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

In my own business, it's a mix. I tend to bump the ones I started too low every year, while the higher-paying clients keep their initial rate for several years. It would be ideal if your contract included a provision for regular rate increases, but I've never managed that one. This topic could bear a lot more discussion.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Sometimes it feels like we're all having a brainstorm on, on how to trip ourselves up on simple things - just so philosophers can have an easy time pointing out banalities that seem profound. I used to think the philosophers were snake oil salesmen, but when I realize how we stab ourselves on simple words, then twist ourselves around those blades again and again... well, yes, it still is banal, but the realization of it, for the ones killing themselves on an imaginary bayonet, is also profound. Profound just means "from the deep"... something simple can be deep, if submerged. Piece of junk can too. Reminds me of the conjurer's trick: He reaches up to our ear, grabs a rusty old bicycle frame out of th(in)ere, and says "This is what's been causing those headaches. You should be more careful about what you eat!" *canned laughter* :D

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I never thought about it like that before. Your training in language helps you to see around the words. This seems to me to be a somewhat general problem with language (and thought) for us humans. We start with a term that we developed for a specific situation, then try to abstract it to the general case, even making it an eternal Platonic Form. That rarely works as well as we think.