Project Management

Is any IT consulting business better than no business?

Every IT consulting job offer may not be the best fit for you. Find out how to get the work you want.

TechRepublic reader Elaine Massa sent me an "Ask Chip" message containing seven questions. I'd like to answer her first one today:

All I seem to run into these days are people wanting a website and usually these are static. This is not a challenge and certainly not what I want to do. Is any business better than no business even if I do not do it well?

The seemingly obvious answer is "Yes, of course." If you need to put food on the table and stave off the collections officers, then you do what you have to do -- right?

Not necessarily. The potential fallacy in that statement is in the words "what you have to do." That phrase presumes that you have no other options. The truth is that you always have other options -- you just have to be aware of them, and then weigh their costs against their benefits. For example, it might be possible to find more challenging work that also pays better if you can spend time looking and training for it. However, making time for those activities may mean taking time from some of your other projects. Can you afford to do that? The alternative may be staying stuck in work you don't love.

"Well, I have no better opportunities," you might think to yourself. That, too, may be a self-deception. Sometimes, the way to get the work you want is to just start doing it. For instance, you might contribute to an open-source project. At the least, you'll be training yourself in what you want to do. Once you've gained confidence and a reputation for knowing that domain, you can more easily find paying work in it, or in a related endeavor. Again, you have to decide whether you can afford that investment.

Perhaps most insidiously, when you continue to do the same work for a long period of time, you gain a reputation as being that kind of consultant. Someone who has developed hundreds of static websites might find it difficult to convince a social media startup that they have the chops for something more interactive. Worse yet, you may come to think of yourself as just an HTML coder. When you don't keep your hand in the latest technologies, you can quickly feel obsolete.

The good news is that most technologies these days don't take long in which to gain (or regain) competency. But you have to make that effort, which means allocating time to it.

Of course there are extreme cases. If you're facing eviction or foreclosure, you take whatever work you can get. But I think it's important to treat that as a temporary state of affairs -- a stepping-stone to greater things. Then look for ways to make that next step.

Also read: Are you only working for the money? and Seven reasons to turn down business

Ask Chip

If you have an IT consulting question, email it to me or use the "Contact" link by my picture at the end of one of my articles, and I'll do my best to answer it. Read guidelines about submitting questions.

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...

8 comments
Greg Miliates
Greg Miliates

2 points: 1: Not all consulting work is good work, for a variety of reasons: the client is a bad/difficult/non-paying/indecisive client; you'll receive a low effective rate; the project doesn't move your business forward (e.g., the client will have no other work for you); the project keeps you stuck working in obsolete technology, etc. Being desperate to pay the bills is a sure way to snag some horrible consulting work--and turn off high-quality clients. 2: Like others mentioned, a consulting business is a business, and since we're reading Tech Republic, we're likely all techies, which also means there's a high probability most of us don't have much experience in marketing & sales. That lack of knowledge is fixable, but it's also one of the main reasons I see people struggling to build a sustainable consulting business (or ANY business). A couple rules of thumb: 1. If a client can't identify the specific value they'll receive from a project, AND if you can't identify the specific value to yourself and/or your business from a project, then the project probably isn't a good idea. It has to be a good fit for both you and the client. 2. Trust your gut instinct. There's been recent neuropsych research on how those gut feelings are often based on cues we might not even be consciously aware of--cues that indicate that something's out of whack. Just like Mark Miller commented above, listening to our gut and paying attention to red flags can prevent us from getting ourselves into problems.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

an article about business realities, like filler jobs, loss leaders, trust earners, ones where it's hard to make a real, or even any, profit but earning some money to offset your costs, is better that earning none. Instead it's about perceptions, well given you are making money, it's just that the work isn't deemed interesting, or work that doesn't develop you technically, and to an extent as a business. Made me squint a bit I must confess. When I was consulting, I started doing it with some well established technology sets, but ones that were waning in popularity. Principally Delphi. "Worse" still from a technology perspective, during that time I ended up relearning Fortran, C, and VMS and picking up VB6. The only "new" stuff I added was the LAMP stack. The thing is, despite it not being the .net or Java stacks, all of that was still challenging, it was still interesting. It's solving the problems that fires me up, not the tools I use to do it. It's still CRUD, but it's different CRUD. I could still be out there earning with these technologies, even Fortran, I got a hit to go back to it at the end of last year. My problem as a consultant was I wasn't comfortable with the business side of things. I was putting the minimal amount of effort in to get another gig. If it paid, it would do. So as Chip alludes to I wasn't developing the business that is me, on any front. In our game standing still is means every body else runs in front of you. Some might walk, some will sprint, but the key point is viewed from the outside, you are going backwards. That hurts you on all fronts in many ways. My choice when I recognised this was to go back to corporate land, I was a good technologist, but a poor business man, worse still I wasn't inherrently interested in becoming a better one. So my words for your poster would be you've recognised the problem, start looking for solutions. "Ask Chip " is a start, but if you want to do anything about it, risk and effort are required. Learn how to sell yourself better so you can convince those who want more than a static web page, that you are up to the job. Do some charity work, do a dynamic on-line presence. Put an easter egg in there, news ticker, stock prices, the weather, a currency converter. No different to a fresh grad trying to scrabble on to the first rung on the employment ladder really. Or you could go down the business route. There are those that have the chutzpah to make opportunities, convince someone that they do need more than a static web page. What you can't do is sit there with your fingers crossed and hope fortune will smile up on you. It was already to, but someone with a bit more go in them, nipped in front and put you in the shade. Interestingly Easter egging, charity work, an on-line prescence are all forms of loss leader or trust earners, so may be I was right after all. This isn't about being a consultant, it's about being a business person. Find markets, develop markets,even make markets. I was poor at it, I'm not Sir Bill, or even Mr Camden. :) So are you up for it, or not, that's the thing you really need to decide.

Mark Miller
Mark Miller

I had quit an IT contracting gig that wasn't working out, and I got an e-mail from a former co-worker saying she had a business opportunity for me with a friend of hers, and she wondered whether I was interested. I met up with her friend, and at first it seemed promising. I've long been interested in educational issues, and she had been working for years on helping to diagnose children's learning problems with arithmetic. She pointed me to a web site she wanted to work on. It contained a couple animations (I don't remember whether they were animated gifs or Flash), but mostly it was a collection of static web pages with form submissions that posed problems to students, collecting their answers in multiple choice forms. She also talked about how she had had "developer problems," where there was a dispute about how much the developer was to be paid for their work, and they denied her access to the source code for the site, and she was up front about having some financial problems in her own work. That made me go, "Hmm" a little bit... She seemed like a perfectly nice lady, who would have been a pleasure to work with, though, so I wasn't ready to turn her down just from hearing this. I had demonstrated my willingness to be flexible in getting paid with my previous gig, and so long as I wasn't getting stiffed, I wasn't overjoyed with it, but I could live with it. I liked the idea of helping out with this from an educational standpoint, but I said, "I work on applications." I asked, "Do you see this expanding into an application?" The first thing she talked about me doing was working on a set of static web pages, but she vaguely hinted that it would turn into an application eventually. We corresponded some more afterwards, but eventually I lost touch with her. I think she got the clue before I did that we weren't a good match, and I think in retrospect I was better off for not going forward with her project, even though it would have been "closer" than the alternatives to what I would've liked to have been doing at the time.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

And unless your business is just for show, you need to invest time in developing the right business.

tbmay
tbmay

Nothing to be ashamed of though. Most of us techies are challenged in the marketing department. I loped along for 4 years with my own business and decided I simply was not ever going to be the type of person to run a thriving business. I closed it and went back to work for someone else. I am infinitely happier, and less stressed now. My starting the business was nothing but a mid-life crisis, and I chose that instead of buying a sports car. Unless I have some idea that I feel sure consumers will flock, in masse, to happily spend their money on, I won't do that again. We've talked about this in other threads, but technical are very tough to assign a consistent value to, and business managers and owners have their own ideas that are seldom grounded in reality on things like project scopes.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Shame is saying one thing and doing another. Shame is failing and pretending it's a success. Shame is blaming your customers for not wanting to buy, what you want to sell. Like many techs I got into the consultant role during the boom. Sort of fell into it. It was easy. People were flying me to hotels in exotic locations so they could throw large wads of cash at me. :) I didn't have to look for work, work was looking for me. The business side was just there, a given. My only real struggle was finding something to do in Amsterdam of an evening. All the art galleries and museums being closed. :p When the business boys dropped their ball, they resolved their lack, by not giving me their spare one. If it was their only spare, they took it back. I never learned how to keep it. Having a football, doesn't make you a footballer...

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Things sure aren't the same now. Finding new business is a challenge, even for Mr. Camden.