Project Management

Sanity saving tips for newbie IT consultants

An IT consultant's first year in the field can be maddening. Jack Wallen offers newbies a few tips for staying sane.

 You've been preparing to enter the world of IT consulting for what seems like an eternity. You know your skills are sound; you can navigate your way around every OS known to man; you can subnet like nobody's business; and security... no one can keep unwanteds out like you. So, what's stopping you from being the best IT consultant ever? Maybe it's clients, Murphy's Law, scheduling, meetings, or coworkers.

Here's the deal: Education and training cannot fully prepare you for life in the field. In your IT classes at school, do you remember any of your teachers ever telling you that you will be working on a clients' machine when a customer comes in and the client needs to yank the machine from you in order to run a sale? Or did your QuickBooks class ever mention that, while creating a Sysadmin password, you would have three nervous people chatting in your ear, making it nearly impossible for you to remember the password you just created? I doubt it.

Being a consultant isn't easy, but there are ways to keep your sanity in check. Here are a few tips I recommend.

Have your tools with you Don't leave the office without the necessary tools -- software, hardware, actual tools (screwdrivers and wrenches), notes, etc. Nothing is worse than getting to a client and realizing that you don't have everything you need. Not only is it unnerving for the consultant, but it's also disrespectful to the client; they are paying you to get the job done as quickly as possible. Take copious notes I don't care if you have an eidetic memory, when clients are yapping in your ear to the point where they sound like mosquitoes, you will have to rely on your notes. And although it might go against every grain of your being, write down the passwords that you create so there is no mistaking what they are. You don't want to have to upload that datafile to Intuit, causing your client to lose 24-48 business hours worth of sales. Take a deep breath You will get into situations that become tense and possibly critical. Before you plow through that insanely difficult task, take a deep breath and relax. Remind yourself that you know what you're doing. It may sound hokey, but it really does work. People tend to think more clearly and work more efficiently when they are relaxed. Take a break You can't sit at the keyboard and stare at the same monitor for hours at a time without losing your ability to think cohesively. Even when you're on a deadline, a five minute caffeine and pizza break won't prevent you from getting the job done. In fact, that break just might be the thing that saves you.

This also goes for lunch. Don't eat your lunch in the car en route to your clients -- actually schedule a lunch break for yourself. You can't work without fuel and that 30-60 minute break will do you wonders.

Leave work at work This is the most difficult aspect of this job. When you have a rather challenging task hanging over your head, the default is to take that challenge home with you in the form of an obsession. When you leave work, leave work. If you take work home with you -- especially in the form of a borderline obsessive thought -- it will burn you out. When I get home from work, I have a ritual: I take off my watch and set it on my desk. I don't put that watch back on my wrist until Monday morning. I bet you can guess the metaphor in this case. Believe it or not, it works for me. You can come up with your own metaphoric, symbolic gestures that help you to leave your work at work. It'll save you from burning out and ending a promising career early.

If you happen to work at home, read Chip Camden's tip for keeping a work-life balance.

Listen to some tunes Sometimes the drive to the client can be more tense than the work at the client's office. Make sure you have your favorite tunes on hand. If you're into talk radio, tune in but be aware that listening to a talk radio show may get you seriously fired up and could affect your ability to work calmly.

Summary

These aren't earth-shattering ideas, but these are strategies that often escape newbie consultants and lead them to short-timers syndrome. In your first year as an IT consultant, make sure you not only keep your skills up to snuff, but your sanity as well.

What other tips would you offer to someone who is just starting out in the IT consulting field? Post your recommendations in the discussion.

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About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

17 comments
Englebert
Englebert

Probably the reason why a newbie is being contracted over the experienced Consultant, is for the above e-reasons. There may be some simple, mundane tasks that a experienced Consultant may find boring or perhaps you're being brought in to perk up the team and bring in a breath of freshness. There may be other reasons...no matter. Show enthusiasm and you'll go places.

samueldc
samueldc

Great tips, specially the break time. Have a piss also works!

Thump21
Thump21

In addition to general technical notes, which help for invoicing later, keep a separate running summary of tasks completed that you can leave behind. This lets the client know what you actually did and they can see what remains to be completed. Also make note of the CEO's or Office Mgr.'s comments about work tasks in the context of 'billing'. It's easy to let yourself get pulled off scheduled tasks to areas which consume time you must bill for, but these may not be things which the top decision maker cutting checks actually wants handled ahead of other priorities, if at all.

DDay3061
DDay3061

This is very good advice. Thanks Jack!

nonimportantname
nonimportantname

Sometimes, we can misconstrue a thought, so it could also be helpful to record critical brainstorming sessions with your handy DIGITAL recorder (no one's still using analog, are they?), if the client permits.

Sepius
Sepius

I have two great little boys, and a teenage daughter, they make sure my work stays at work. I would recommend kids, they can be the best distraction and relaxation when at home, even teen daughters. However, I would never work from home, I'd never get anything done.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Not only does this rescue your sanity, it's often the case that it will free your thinking. We tend to get log-jammed on a theory of the problem, and stepping away from it and coming back with fresh eyes will often reveal the hidden assumptions that had us deadlocked.

MikeG3b
MikeG3b

I've been using digital recorders for several years now -- no one really minds if they know you're just being diligent and trying to catch the details of a conversation. I can't tell you how many times -- when listening to the playback of a recording -- I've realized I missed important information during a meeting. It's even more important with a lot of different people in the room. Too often an important point has been made, but steamrollered by subsequent conversation. Even when meeting minutes are published and circulated, there's always something more that the recorder catches that would otherwise have been lost.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Specially about the teen daughter(s). All I had for me was to wing it. I can only hope that I winged it well, there having been no manual.

mafergus
mafergus

Nice write up. It very neatly covers a lot of issues people tend to forget, especially when they go into 'panic' mode. My only addition would be to remember your friends. I know it sounds corny, but talking to someone who isn't in the middle of the panic can do a lot to put things into perspective, and if it's a fellow techie, sometimes they can give you an extra perspective!

runako81
runako81

this article was very interesting. i am thinking about stepping into consulting and private operation, so i appreciate all advice and hints i can find on the subject.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

And here I thought my own "tween" was scaring me quite enough. You mean it gets worse?????? :O :_|

Amnezia
Amnezia

Yep - I could do that easily, but you'd have to tell me WHAT to write. (LOL I'm on form today. Sorry Chip.)

mafergus
mafergus

who could afford to pay to have one written. It'd take a lot of consultants and it wouldn't be cheap!

kancsel
kancsel

It's real good tips.Must read by starters.

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