Leadership

Steps to becoming an IT consultant

Chip Camden, who has 20+ years of IT consulting experience under his belt, believes there's really only one requirement for becoming a consultant.

Every other day or so I receive an email from a reader who asks, "please tell me what I need to do to become a consultant," as if there were some standard five-step process that magically bestows consultanthood upon anyone who checks off that list.

Sure, depending on your jurisdiction there might be business licensing requirements. Depending on your specialty, you might need to learn some things. But there is really only one requirement for becoming a consultant, and that requirement is shared by all successful business ventures:

Provide a service for which people will pay you.

Everything else is in furtherance of that goal. Let's break it down a bit.

In order to have a service to provide, you need to choose an area of specialization where a need is not being sufficiently met, or where there's room to expand on the services that people might want. One of the ways in which you can create that sort of niche is to learn things that not many people know. What everyone else knows can only be a foundation upon which to build. You will not find specialized knowledge in an undergraduate college course, a certification program, or a conference seminar. Independent study and experience are the best ways to obtain it. A wise mentor can give you a boost in the right direction, but you need to outgrow your mentor before you can truly claim a niche.

Technical professionals, the true geeks anyway, often enjoy learning their trade -- and the more esoteric the better. But they sometimes ignore the last half of the requirement I stated above: "for which people will pay you." That means that your specialized knowledge must be applicable to the problems faced by enough potential clients to provide a reasonable demand for your services.

Furthermore, nobody will be willing to pay for your services if they don't know you exist. Solving that problem is called "marketing." Those of us who have worked in a corporation large enough to have its own marketing department may from experience equate "marketing" with "lying," but it doesn't have to be that way. In fact, misrepresenting your business proposal is the quickest way to lose a client short of assaulting them physically. Marketing should always begin with the honest conviction that you can solve the prospect's problem, and then proceed to the strategy for letting them know that. If your business proposal presents a rock solid case for the benefits they will receive from using your services, you should be able to get the contract.

But don't get discouraged if you don't. Prospects have many reasons why they might refuse. Company policy, politics, and budget constraints can get in the way. Sometimes, they may simply have a better option available. If you did your homework and presented your case as well as you could, there's really nothing more you could have done. But there's almost always some lesson to be learned. Look for it.

Of course, landing the contract is only the beginning. To insure that the client will keep on paying you, you must deliver on your promises. If you ever surprise your client, it had better be a pleasant surprise. Doing more than you committed builds great customer loyalty. Yesterday, I drove up to a latte stand I hadn't visited before. Checking my wallet, I found I had only five dollars. I thought to myself, "For a Grande Breve it will be either three-something or four-something. If it's close to five, then they don't deserve much of a tip." The lady handed me my coffee and said, "That'll be $2.50, please." I was so pleasantly shocked, I told her to keep the change. She got a 100% tip because she didn't gouge me like every other latte stand in Washington State. She thanked me profusely, and because the coffee was just as good as any other I've had, you can bet I'll go out of my way to give her my return business (though I might not always tip her that well).

I dislike the general trend in our industry to try to establish fixed rules for how you must do things. The concept of "best practices," for instance, implies that it's possible to create a formula for how certain problems should be solved. In practice, every problem has its own nuances, and so-called "best practices" often obscure those differences. The same is true for running your own consultancy. Rather than adopting a long list of rituals upon which those who have gone before have bestowed their blessing, use your brain. Break things down into "what am I trying to accomplish," and then examine all options. The best practice is the one that works best for you, today.

You might find, for instance, that how you project yourself to your clients breaks out of the stereotype. Yes, you are a consultant and they are your client, but far above that you are both humans. The typical roles assigned to each of you have evolved as a way of dealing with certain recurring concerns, but that doesn't mean you can't adapt them where your specific concerns differ from the norm. In fact, it's almost axiomatic that by the time societal roles become well-established, they're already obsolete.

Andréa Coutu posted a poem about the experience of being an independent consultant, titled Nobody told me. Nobody can tell you -- because nobody else is traveling along your own unique journey.

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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...

15 comments
sandeepseeram
sandeepseeram

Join Associations, participate in Discussions, Keep updated on new trends in IT... try to accomplish certifications in different technologies, and most important arrange your partnerships with vendors.

alcoutu
alcoutu

Chip, I've been under the gun with a deadline and am just coming up for air now. I'm flattered that you linked to my poem. You can tell the kind of day I was having! I do think that very few people...even entrepreneurs...talk about the challenges of running a business. But the truth is that it can be tough at times and you do have to have a good sense of what's in it for you. Fortunately, I can usually find a long list of reasons that makes it all worthwhile. >> The best practice is the one that works best for you, today. That's excellent advice, whether for consulting or life.

Scott Hennes
Scott Hennes

Thanks for this post. My first response to much of what you said was, "well of course". Simultaneously my other first response was, "it feels damn good to hear someone else say it"! I'm 18 months into my first consultancy. I haven't achieved my financial objectives yet, and it's been extraordinarily hard work. At the same time I _love_ the work I'm doing! I've met many really cool people my clients who are generating a lot of return traffic. We'll see if I can break the profit barrier before I run out of capital, but in the meanwhile the part that is working is all about what you said: human relationships and finding something to offer that people value.

l.kobiernicki
l.kobiernicki

It is a part of ordinary business practice, when one is still an employee. It's when people decide to seek you out, because you are committed to a level of quality beyond the minimal of job specification. They desire a little something, that isn't built into the soulless, heartless, anonymous transactions that " the business " has become reduced to delivering. You become reliable, to people, for a kind of service, which truly deserves the name. It humanizes the entire deadly process, of having to undergo time given up to the thing that people secretly loathe - " work ". For work, in that sense, is other people's asset - not one's own. But work, in the sense of the pleasure of helping others, on a personal basis, is a joy, and a solace, for all the many attempts by perpetuators of the awful soullessness, to reduce you to a discontentee, a functionary, and a timeserver. For you, work becomes something special, which builds consultancy, as people seek you out, specifically, to do what others won't, and don't want to be bothered with. Consultancy is doing things personally for people - with them - and not simply servicing companies, institutions, agencies, bodies.

Greg Miliates
Greg Miliates

I saw a few of my colleagues jump ship at our company to start consulting, saw them being successful at it, and knew that there was a ready market for consulting in my niche. Our company's level of service had slipped significantly, and lots of clients needed expertise that consultants could provide. I also knew that the hourly bill rate was several times what my salary was, and also knew a few marketing channels where I could tap into clients. I remember getting my first check for consulting, and thinking, "Holy crap! They paid me this much to do something so easy?!" I was hooked. Since then, I've grown my business every year--even during the crazy recession--and QUADRUPLED my income. I'll never go back to a "real" job again. Greg Milates StartMyConsultingBusiness dot com

IT
IT

If you want to be able to live on your consultant career, you must have something to offer to your customer.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Just picking on nits here BUT ... Chip, you referred to choosing a specialization as creating a niche. What you are referring to is micro-marketing. Taking a large market (IT or IS) and breaking it down into smaller and smaller elements until eventually you end up with a tiny thing that your customers can understand (e.g. SAP implementation business process analysis). Sometimes it is confused with long-tail marketing (which is actually a reverse view). It is product and market focused and is intended to help you focus your marketing efforts on specific benefits and a single product. It's about making it easy for your customers to understand your message. . HOWEVER, niche marketing (ie creating a niche) is about your customers. It's about taking all the various possible customers and then breaking them into tiny segments. For example, you might start with all IT customers then move to all SAP customers then to SAP customers in distribution then to SAP customers in distribution on the west coast. The purpose is to identify a single class of customers with almost identical characteristics. In that way, you can arrange to place your messages where they are and you can target your message to appeal to them. Like I said, picking nits.... :D Glen Ford http://www.trainingnow.ca http://www.vproz.ca

TebuR
TebuR

Chip thanks a million times. I have an IT experience over 10 years. Tired of being under ones roof, living by their laws, their rules. Am definately going to follow & apply these steps. Thanks again T S.A

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Both of those words say "think for yourself." Formulas are for herd animals.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Your poem aligned with my experiences on the day that I read it. As much as we independents like to think we're self-sufficient, it's always nice to get a word of encouragement from someone else who's following a similar path.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I'll take that as a high compliment, because I think some of the most important truths in any situation are the ones that everybody knows but nobody says. We're often too busy chasing after the novel schemes that will make it all easy and instant. It sounds like you've got what it takes to succeed: passion and persistence. I wish you all the best success. Please let us know how you make out.

tbmay
tbmay

...if you haven't left your day job. It's not easy. Especially in the first years.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Producers -- especially "universal" producers such as accountants, lawyers or IT types -- tend to see only one dimension (the market). "I do computer repair. I don't care what your business is. A PC is a PC." Even worse, they tend to see the market in gross terms. "Project Management is a matter of managing projects. I don't care if it is a marketing project, an IT project or a merger & aquisition." Unfortunately, the customer tends to see themselves in their own dimension. "I need an accountant. He has to be familiar with Dress Shoppe retailing. After all, our tax laws are different." ]:) I haven't seen any other dimension. Most of the other candidates tend to be different levels of detail along one of the two dimensions (e.g. industry vs size of organization). And using other entities (a typical way of determining dimensions) usually just gives a variation on one of the two. Perhaps skills might? Be an interesting pub discussion.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Get your feet wet while still maintaining a steady income stream, then make the jump when you feel comfortable that you can sufficiently replace that stream with your new venture.