It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the IT consulting business you have now is all you should expect. By comparing what you're doing against what you'd like to be doing, you set a direction for yourself that you'll ultimately find a way to follow.
If you want to gauge how satisfied you are with your work, here are six questions to ask yourself about each consulting gig that comes your way.
#1: How much do I enjoy the work?
There's plenty of money to be made updating COBOL systems, but for me that falls in the same category as a number of other ways to abuse one's talents for money. I've found that there is room in the consulting business to be choosy. If you're not doing what you love, why do it at all?
#2: How does this job benefit my career?
Does the job allow you to learn new things, or are you just redoing the same old stuff? You can increase your knowledge and experience in at least two dimensions: breadth (to gain a wider range of opportunities) and depth (to build expertise in a niche). Especially in the latter case, you need to evaluate whether you want your career to move in that direction. Niches are great for building a revenue stream, but they can be hard to get out of if you tire of them.
#3: How well does this client pay?
You're not working just for your personal improvement — you're also in this to make money. So consider how much the jobs pays and how soon the client will pay you. A very good rate doesn't mean much if you have to wait months to get it — you might as well loan it out at no interest. On the other hand, you don't want to sell yourself short just to avoid payment hassles. Pre-paid at a decent rate is consulting heaven. If the price is right, I'm happy if I receive payment within 30 days. If a customer regularly pays me within 15 days, he or she goes to the top of my attention queue.
#4: How easy is it to work with this client?
All the money in the world doesn't adequately reimburse you for a living hell. You and your client must have a mutual trust and the right balance of direction and independence. Above all, you must be able to communicate. Nothing sours an engagement faster than finding out you haven't been on the same page for hundreds of hours. By contrast, some clients are so great to work with that you might be glad to do less interesting or less lucrative projects just to keep the relationship going.
#5: How likely is it that this job will lead to more business?
A client who provides recurring work is a consultant's best friend. If this job is part of a regular series or if it looks like it could be the start of a beautiful relationship, then it deserves special attention.
#6: How capable am I to do this job?
Challenges are great for learning, but you don't want to overestimate your abilities or create an unrealistic expectation for your client. Insufficient skill can be traded for more time, but make sure that you have enough of both to do the work and that your client is on board with your strategy.
What do you consider when accepting a gig?
It's tempting to say "yes" to all offers (especially if you're an overly optimistic, conceited software developer like me), but if you don't say "no" sometimes, you'll disappoint everyone and give yourself an ulcer as a bonus.
What questions (besides what I've already spelled out) do you typically ask yourself before signing on with a new client? What is your dream IT consulting gig? Let me know in the discussion forum.
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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.