Project Management

Four issues to consider before becoming a remote IT consultant

Working from home sounds great, but it may not be the best arrangement for you -- or your client. Before investing in a home office, read IT consultant Chip Camden's four reasons why it might be in your best interest to work onsite.

I perform most of my IT consulting work from home. This arrangement is quite convenient and allows me to work when inspiration strikes.

For example, I recently handed off a problem to a colleague, and then the solution occurred to me in a dream. As soon as I woke up, I walked into my office and grabbed the keyboard. I had forgotten my glasses, so I closed one eye and squinted my way through the solution. In five minutes, I implemented the solution, tested it, and e-mailed it to the client and my colleague. (I'm pretty sure it was the first time in 30 years of coding that I programmed naked.) If I had waited until I showered, dressed, ate breakfast, and commuted to an office, I probably would have forgotten about it amid the noise of the squeaky wheels that greet me every morning.

Despite the flexibility of working from home, not everyone is cut out to be a telecommuter. You also need to consider the drawbacks to remote IT consulting before making the commitment. Check out these four reasons why onsite may be your best bet.

#1: Network bandwidth can limit your productivity at home.

My home office is equipped with DSL that rates almost 1 Mbps on the CNET Bandwidth meter. My Internet access is considerably faster than most shared connections in an office setting, but I use that connection to perform tasks that my office-bound colleagues perform over a local network running at a gigabit.

Back when I first started my IT consulting career, I used to work remotely over a 9600 baud dial-up connection. Oddly, my network-enabled productivity isn't much better now because our expectations of what should go over that pipe have grown. Back then, I dialed into a character-based terminal server using a dumb terminal emulator and rarely moved files back and forth. Now, I do all my work locally and transfer files to and from a source control server. It's more convenient, but it's not that much faster.

#2: Some types of IT consulting work require you to be onsite.

If you're an admin, can you remotely resuscitate a system that is down? If so, you're better than me. I stay away from that kind of work; software is much easier to make location-independent.

#3: Clients may insist that you are present onsite.

Even though it's getting easier to collaborate over the Internet, sometimes a head-to-head session can be more productive -- especially when kicking off a new project. Facial expressions and direct conversation can often communicate more than we realize, while e-mail and chat can be misinterpreted for lack of those elements. Perhaps as Internet collaboration continues to improve, the personal element will become more available remotely.

#4: You may be more productive when you're onsite.

Some IT consultants prefer to work onsite because they concentrate solely on one client and don't get interrupted by other clients or nonwork-related activities. On the other hand, when you're only working for one client, you can face unproductive periods while waiting on a decision or some other resource; if you are working remotely, you can turn your attention to other matters like World of Warcraft.

Is remote work for you?

Even though I much prefer working from home, I can see where it wouldn't be the optimal situation for every IT consultant. Before you take the plunge, think about how much work would best be performed at clients' sites vs. remotely. Also, consider which arrangement you think is better and why. If you're already doing remote IT consulting from home, share tips on how you address the four drawbacks I list in this blog post.

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...

41 comments
pvolkmuth
pvolkmuth

Really, really watch this. If you work remotely 100% of the time, you are removing any value that you get from adding value to your billings other than your quanifiable work. All consultants say "My work is so exceptional that I don't have to be there. You can call or e-mail if you need to talk to me". As a manager who hires consultants, let me just respond, "Yes your work is exceptional, so is they guys in Bangalore or Kiev. Tell me your billing rate again". Do you really want to participate in that kind of auction?

mel
mel

#1: Network bandwidth can limit your productivity at home. Using the right software for the job will make a big difference. Some innovative tools make better use of bandwidth than others. I use the Syberfix remote repair tool. It works well on any type of internet connection. #2: Some types of IT consulting work require you to be onsite. You may not be able to resuscitate a system that is down, but you can offer remote maintenance that will reduce the number of times you have to go back, giving customer satisfaction and adding additional billable hours each month. Rarely do you have to go onsite, and in some cases using remote tools allow you to quickly determine if necessary or if you can fix it remotely. Again, the right software helps. Remote software cannot be used to fix every problem, but it can for most and is very beneficial to have as another tool for your trade. #3: Clients may insist that you are present onsite. You are right; some customers require face to face for a first meeting to foster a relationship. At that time you can sell them on the benefits of Remote Support for additional service. #4: You may be more productive when you???re onsite. There are some who are better at handling business than others. If you have good remote software activities can be completed quickly, which allows you more time to take on additional clients and make more money. Consideration should also be given 1. On the down time it takes to travel back and forth 2. The money you save on gas and vehicle expense 3. Reducing vehicle emissions which is better for the environment

scott
scott

Have to say I am mixed about remote consulting vs remore working, I have recently left a company and one of their competitors approached me to do some contract work for them, I could work from home, company vehicle (since they are in a different state) and very good pay rate. I get touchy on the remote consulting because they are paying me by the hour and at home its sometimes hard to go un-distracted, it takes alot of disiple, but your days are alot longer, have run into it many times already, the main point of contact is busy and unless I am at their office standing there he isnt freed up till he is at home and calls me at 8:30. I run in to the quandry because I am trying to do 8-5 on this gig, but if I know he will probably be calling me, I coast till he does call and dont feel right billing them for the coasting time. When I "Worked" from home, I had to have the same disiplne but when 5 came the day was over.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Some clients will expect you to work an unreasonable number of hours in the day. Or they'll expect you to be available 24x7 ("Sleep? You don' need no stinkin' sleep!"). Because they are not keeping you company they don't clue in that the hours are unreasonable. This is especially true for clients located in other time zones. It also seems to be most true for clients who insist on a per-diem rate. And of course, they expect 12 hours of output in 8 hours because they haven't realized how much time is being spent.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

1. I think you would have been better to title this paragraph/item "Sometimes the work requires you to be onsite". Which is certainly true and a factor to be considered. Dealing with people remotely is a different skill set from being on site and has a whole set of issues of its own. 2. The title should still stay. The US seems to be better than Canada that way, but a lot of clients up here still seem to feel that they have to have you in front of them in order for you to be working. For that matter a lot of clients in the US feel the same way.

paulj
paulj

Most of my clients are small businesses, and I have lots of them. Remote computing helps me to support sometimes 4-5 clients at one time. It's ideal for those software upgrades that require much time just waiting for the install to complete. Still, it is very true that you need face-to-face contact sometimes. Customer relations can ususally generate new business or expanded projects especially with existing clients. The real challenge is charging them fairly. Some customers do not feel they should pay the same rate, so I charge a "travel fee" that covers gas, wear & tear on my car, and my time to travel to their office. Of course, these are not charged if I remote connect. My problem is that I also charge a lower "remote per hour rate" that I am getting away from. Paul J. Montenero Clear-Cut Computing www.clearcutcomputing.com

reisen55
reisen55

Remote can be used in a pinch for CERTAIN tasks, but not all of them so you cannot dump ONSITE entirely. People pay an IT consultant money for results, and remote can give you a good measure of control but not the personal inter-active part. VERY IMPORTANT TO BE SOCIAL, TO SCHMOOZE WITH THE CLIENT. I often bring food and good stuff to them, and you can sit down and discuss current needs and issues with a client's staff. A consultant has to BE PART OF THEM to work with them, so sitting in an IVORY TOWER does not cut it. Remote is a supplemental tool, nothing more or less.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

2 things have happened since the late-90s to make this possible; 1) Hardware these days is very reliable and it rarely fails. 2) Near universal availability of high-speed Internet. At the same time, it's software that has become unreliable. This means that it's rare that I have to make a personal appearence anywhere since most software problems can be fixed remotely. On occasions where it's hardware, I've got people who can swap most items out for me. I now live thousands of miles away from most of my clients and can be working almost anywhere I am. The freedom is wonderful! 9600 Baud dial-up? Lucky bastard! I started doing remote support back in the '80s on 2400 with "Carbon Copy". Since everything was text-based back then, it wasn't too bad. Actually, could do most things that I can do today. It was Windows that really screwed things up. PCAnywhere worked suprisingly well until GoToMyPC and Remote Desktop and the like took over.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... by a request from one of my clients to go onsite for a week in May. I used to go into their offices every day, but now I live 800 miles away. At first there was a productivity lapse as we got used to the new arrangement, but overall I'm glad I made the change. What sorts of experiences have you had with onsite vs. remote?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Even though it's good to talk on the phone from time to time, I think telephone is generally a poor medium for communication, precisely because you must coordinate the schedules of both parties. That's where email works better, even if the disconnected nature of the conversation can make it take longer. Of course, I think email is broken, too. Spam and spoofing and are huge problems. A wiki, change tracking software, or a shared blog might be a better way.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Back when we were in high school, each teacher seemed to assign homework as if you had nothing to do in the evening other than the work that they assigned. Of course, you had six teachers all doing the same thing, plus any sports or other extra-curricular activities. Not to mention holding down a part-time job. Clients often do the same thing. "I gave you this assignment three days ago -- what's up?"

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

"clients up here still seem to feel that they have to have you in front of them in order for you to be working." Yes, remote workers have to be trusted to be self-motivating and to stay on task. In practice, I think remote workers usually do this better than office workers, but management feels a little loss of control.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

So, did I understand correctly that you charge less for remote work? That might not be a bad idea, if you enjoy working remotely more, and since you can also overlap (or interweave) work for other clients. How much less?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I've had some clients that I never met in person, and everything went just fine. But others may have an office dynamic that greatly benefits being there. At one client that I used to visit daily, I couldn't stand their coffee so I used to stop and buy a bag of good stuff on my way in. Then I'd make a pot and send an email around announcing it. I made lots of friends that way.

rjt
rjt

I agree with your main point - customer relationships are what keep you working, but a bit of onsite and a lot of offsite can also work. Just make the onsite special. Make appointments for it. Bring food or take them out to lunch/dinner. Make sure you get a lot done. Have work products to show them. I can be a lot more productive working offsite. Travel time has to be considered. Either I eat it (and add it to my rate, if possible) or they pay it or somewhere in between (charged at 1/2 rate?). But even outside that, if I have to travel 1 hr to and 1 hour from the client site, that is 2 hours where I cannot be working for them. Offsite I could put in 2 more hours/day on their project. But be careful. Don't fall into "out of site (sic) out of mind" with your clients.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yeah, I've used 2400 Paradyne modems back in the day, but that was before I became a consultant. It took all night to download 1MB over kermit! Even before that, I can remember using 110 baud occasionally. You could see every movement of the cursor as the text editor repainted the current line, character by character. Yes, PCAnywhere was ahead of its time. Great product. GoToMyPC and RemoteDesktop are only marginally better from a usage perspective, IMHO.

nsaunders
nsaunders

I have had much success working offsite, even with my children present at home. Like you I have done some of my best work by inspiration at odd hours. Thanks for sharing.

alex.a
alex.a

Hello, I have been working remotely for over 20 years and I would have it no other way. Mind you it depends on what you do. I can see that if you are providing operational type of support that can be problematic in some cases, although remote equipment is getting much better. In my case, I am a management consultant mostly within IT or high tech companies. As such, most of my projects are bounded and are structured. The initial phases require lots of on-site time. It would be difficult to carry out interviews without being there. In fact, I learned to touch type so that I could see the body language while I was interviewing - it sometimes tells me more that the words. The analysis and solution development are rather creative processes and, at least for me, need some peace and inspiration - that is very difficult in an office environment. In addition, I have a library of well of 100 reference books, all annotated with yellow stickies which I use in this phase continuously. Bandwidth is not a problem as I carry a USB attached hard drive with me and will capture all of the information I need. In addition, I have hardware encryption on this (as well as on all of other equipment) so as to not expose the data which can be a problem when you download. I provide very detailed reports on a weekly to monthly basis (based on the customer) of what I did, how much time I spent and the effort still required for each task of the engagement. I find that this works well for almost all customers. I charge a premium rate for on site work. Since most of my work is in the SMB area, where money is scarce, this helps. All in all, for a given engagement, I will work remotely from 50% to 90% of the time, with 80% being average. BTW, I used to have to buy a new car every 5 years or so. I have had my last car for 11 years, and it is still in great shape and going strong, never mind how much I save on wardrobe! Thanks, Alex Apouchtine, Management Consultant.

rjt
rjt

I do a significant amount of my work in my home office. I've been doing this for about 10 years. The main drawback is not picking up on the stuff going on in the client's office that is not directly related to the current project. For instance, I was contracted to do a week's work in one client. While doing the work, I overheard a discussion of a problem in the next cubicle. I pointed out a solution they had not considered and earned a three month contract to implement. This is not a rare occurance. You can also see some of the politics going on and either use that information or avoid getting caught up in it. You can have "off the record" discussions with team members or management when you are onsite. It is possible, but more difficult remotely. Phone calls may be overheard by others in the office without your knowledge. Emails create a record. Finally, when I am going to be working primarily offsite for a contract, I try to work with the onsite team for a few days to a couple of weeks (depending on the size of the project) to have the team gel. It makes subsequent remote operations much more successful.

BobR
BobR

My preference is to be on site a minimum of 20%, up to maybe 75%. On site builds relationships and facilitates communication. I can communicate remotely much more effectively if I have previously spent face time. Also when I'm on site I tend to get more requests. (My specialty is application software and a request could be anywhere from one hour to six months.) Functional managers are more likely to want me to do things, and top management is more likely to approve the requests if they know who I am. Regarding your four points: #1 not a problem. #2 I currently have a client that has put me on a support team (fighting fires) where I need to be on site certain hours. I do find it somewhat restrictive. #3 see #2. I can't say what I really think because they might be reading this. #4 this is interesting. My clients get more productivity when I am at home, because the 'clock' only runs when I am working (I do not charge for personal breaks). When I am onsite, the clock starts when I walk in the door. They pay for time getting coffee, water cooler chat, unpacking and packing my laptop etc. (normal office functions).

techrepublic@
techrepublic@

For me, remote definitely! I worked for people all over the world on one occasion or another. I would be interesting to work on site but the travel expenses and wasted time would put me out of business faster than "super sonic". :) Remotely has it's disadvantages (e.g. lack of human interaction) but lowers costs and wasted time and in my experience increases productivity (12 work hours per day are not uncommon when I'm inspired). Also working in a comfortable and varied environment (e.g. home office, coffee shop, park in the summer) can decrease mental fatigue, thus increase productivity. My 12 Mbps down stream and 4 Mbps up stream home connection gives me very responsive ssh, X, vnc, voip, rdc, audio/video/slide conference, etc. Can't wait for fiber optics to get here. Then I will really be cooking. :)

tmalonemcse
tmalonemcse

I work from home three days a week. I support several organizations via Remote Desktop. My bandwidth is 3Mbs down and 768K up at the home office. That seems to be adequate. I monitor and maintain a dozen servers and a hundred workstations this way. Most of the work during the day is monitoring servers and minor workstation tweaking. Like you, there is not much I can do if a server crashes. I have remote control power switches for my T1 and DSL modems so I can cycle the power on those if necessary. If a server does go down, which in three years has never happened, I have an associate on-site who can reboot it for me. I love Remote Desktop and wouldn't work any other way.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

That's a potential subject for another post all on its own. I typically charge 1/2 time for travel, which I define as from the moment I leave my door until I arrive at theirs (or the hotel) -- minus any hours during that time that I'm actually doing work on the way (which is billed at full rate). How about you?

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...you know, the ones where you manually dialed the # on your phone, and when you got a tone you put the headset in the little cups on the back of the thing and you were off. It used thermal paper, and made a distinctive noise as it plugged along at 110 baud. That was how you got on the Internet before Al Gore invented it.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Since this seems to be a bunch of old fogey's going "You young whippersnappers never had so good, I remember when ...", I figured I'd get out of my rocking chair and toss my two cents in the ring.... I remember supporting an IBM S/34 remotely over a 100baud modem. We were overjoyed when we upgraded to 300baud and 2400 was unbelievable. We got to see a whole screen with only the occasional 3 bander. Of course, we did this remote support from the client's office here in Toronto but that was still better than travelling up to the paper mill in Northern Ontario. After all a 2400 baud modem cost somewhere in the area of $10,000. And required a separate and extra special clean phone line. Which usually wasn't. I was strange how we all wanted to work remotely for the Northern Ontario mills ... but fought over who got sent to New Brunswick. Then again remembering the lobster dinners ...

mabingle
mabingle

I used a 300 BAUD modem. When they gave me a 1200 BAUD modem I thought I was flying. When I connected to the mainframe I would see the screen paint on my display which was attached to a 10MZ box that had a 12 MZ TURBO switch. I also used remote 2 to connect to some DBASE apps I wrote. But, most of my stuff was COBOL/CICS. I also use Realia COBOL and CICS to develop on the PC and then upload to the mainframe. I prefer working at a location, but with the gas prices I save about $20/day if I don't.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Do you have rules for your children about interruptions? Hey, West Sac! I used to live in Sacramento.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I love working remotely. My own music (sans headphones or earbuds), my own coffee (instead of that swill they buy by the truckload), my own equipment and references, and an office with a view.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, I often do an on-site for up to a week to get a new project started. It does help to have a face for every name. And you're right, that IP connection doesn't usually carry the opportunities for serendipitous encounters (setting aside AdultFriendFinder.com)

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I tell my clients the same thing, but sometimes they think they're getting more of me if they have control over my physical presence.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Do you actually get that kind of speed (check out the bandwidth meter linked in the post)? Are you on direct fiber-optic? Or are you trusting what the cable company is telling you? My DSL is rated at 1.5/1.0, but it actually only gets about 990 Kbps up according to the meter. Cable connections are usually shared, so even though they rate it at 3 Mbps it can be a lot slower than that.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I switched to virtualization -- it saves a lot of time in the long run. But when setting up a virtual machine, I don't usually bill my client for that time unless they asked me to test their solution under virtualization.

reisen55
reisen55

This is an intresting thread, taking on several subjects. I too do not believe travel time to be productive time for the client. I have come to factor that expense into my retainer agreements (price of fuel is a factor NOT anticipated but it is not painful ... yet). For others I bill a flat rate, $40 ot $50 for everything. Hotel if required is billed at total cost. No extras. Productive time is another issue too I find interesting. GHOSTING a machine can take some time and restoring a GHOST image can take longer sometimes. So if I am on-site and doing hourly work, and I start a GHOST restore and it takes up an hour, is THAT time ... that specific job ... really productive time? In my mind, it is not but depending on my mood for the day and client, I bill accordingly. (Clients should never piss off their consultants, we can exact revenge in subtle ways). Remote is excellent for specific tasks and I do not ignore it at all. It is a vital part of our consulting world.

rjt
rjt

That is my algorithm most of the time. When the client asks me to do some unreasonable travel (one asked me to commute 2.5 hours each way each day), then I bill them at full rate for all travel. I disclose my billing structure to them, of course. I hoped the client would not want me badly enough to pay the full rate, but he did. I charge 1/2 rate because I am not able to bill someone else, but I'm not being productive for the client either. So we both eat a bit of it. If I can be preparing for the client or doing actual work, then I am being productive for the client and charge full rate.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

...we had a 300 baud connection for dedicated lines across campus. They used those both for data entry and for distributed printing. I and another guy wrote the print spooler for those printers in about 3000 lines of assembly language. Fun times.

Michael Horowitz
Michael Horowitz

It seems the CNET bandwidth test is broken. It's show my speed as 993.2 kbps. Both the tests at Speakeasy and PC Pitstop show my speed is over 17,000Kbps consistently - tested against multiple cities over a few days.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... gives me 1373 / 750. I wonder what accounts for the difference. Yeah, fiber optic rules -- I wish we had it available here.

tmalonemcse
tmalonemcse

I discounted the CNET test long ago because it never correlated to what I was seeing on other speed tests like Speakeasy.net/speedtest. It measures 2882 / 737 there which is real close to the 3.0 / 768 I am paying for on DSL. Most of our city is now on Verizon FIOS but for some reason, we are in a pocket of town that does not yet have it available. Can't wait.

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