Don't jump into consulting before you're ready

The lure of big money and independence leads many IT pros to take the consulting plunge. But many of them do so before they've gained enough experience to be successful.

A lot of people want to know how they can become consultants. I know, because a large number of them have asked me over the years. Far too many people, however, have no business even thinking of going into this business, but do so because the pay looks good and the work seems easy—just give some nebulous advice, collect a fat check, and then move on to the next client.

But it's not usually that easy. If it were, then the checks wouldn't be as fat because anyone could do it. As I look around at my peers, it seems that many people are entering the consulting field without enough experience.

The gray-haired crowd
Look around at successful small consulting businesses. They’re run by folks with gray hair who have been working with computers since they had transistors and core memory. In another decade or less, companies won't even be able to hire people with their depth of experience, and even today, many of them are semi-retired.

My first computer program was written in machine language because the 4-KB memory of the room-filling computer wasn't big enough to hold a compiler, so we didn't have any other language except machine language! And that was a new IBM computer, not some relic.

Compare that sort of background to someone who doesn't know that the original IBM PC didn't come with a hard drive, and you can understand why I had little trouble becoming a consultant when I decided to do so.

Many older experts are making so much money that companies can't really afford to keep them on. They know the job so well and fix problems so quickly that the company literally doesn't have enough work to keep them busy and justify their income.

That's a perfect situation for many who want to semi-retire early or want to tackle a greater variety of jobs. They can often outsource their jobs as a long-term consulting contract and have plenty of time left over to pursue other jobs or just relax.

If that job goes away completely for one reason or another, they also have the experience and background to land other consulting jobs, as well as a network of friends and former colleagues who can help them find new work.

Getting that first contract
I got my first consulting work from a company where I was already working. This is obviously the best way to start a new consulting business, and if you keep your eyes open, you can also get your start this simple, inexpensive way.

But this method only works if you already have a job; it doesn't apply to the large numbers of new graduates who think they can become consultants without ever putting up with the daily nine-to-five grind or to managers who don't know VOIP from a PBX. For the most part, I strongly discourage new graduates from even attempting to become consultants. Working for an existing consulting firm is a more realistic starting point for them.

It is extremely difficult to start out in consulting without any experience. You probably don't have the real-world knowledge it takes to succeed even if you can get that first contract.

What comes after that first contract?
That doesn't mean new graduates shouldn't read this column. It just means that you need a bit of experience first. It's far, far easier to get your foot in the door the first time if you're already working for your first client. Sometimes all it takes is enough smarts not to slam the door behind you. You might only be a few years out of college when this happens, and it's possible to get started as a consultant that soon because your first client already knows you can do the job to their satisfaction. They're essentially just dumping you out the door so they can stop paying benefits.

But taking this easy route too early in your career can be a major mistake.

The problem isn't getting that first job, but the next one. The first job will almost certainly just be an outsourcing of your present job, and even if you finish the first contract to everyone's complete satisfaction, you don't really get any new experience you can brag about to potential new clients. You essentially have the same reference twice. Of course, if you happen to land a contract with your former employer to tackle some completely different job, then you do gain something, but not all that much.

Take your time
I don't want to completely discourage people who are looking to dive into this field, but when someone new to consulting starts asking me about how to get new clients, how to advertise, and how to manage his or her business, I really wonder if he or she has enough experience to become an independent consultant. Many of them really need to take on a few jobs as employees either with existing consulting firms or other businesses if they find they are struggling as consultants.

Far too many people go into the consulting business too soon. The longer you wait to strike out as an independent consultant, the easier it becomes.

I know some successful consultants who bounced between part-time consulting, full-time consulting, and full-time employment several times before finally making a go of full-time consulting. There’s no shame in this, and the experience you gain from all those jobs will make you a better consultant in the long run. While I don't counsel people to dump their consulting businesses at the first sign of trouble and run back to the corporate umbrella, younger aspiring consultants who find themselves really struggling should probably work on gaining more experience, as well as all those glorious steady paychecks.

John McCormick is a security consultant and technical writer who has worked with computers for more than three decades. His Locksmith column appears weekly in NetAdmin Republic.

How do you know when the time is right to throw your hat in the consulting ring? Are younger IT pros becoming consultants too soon? To share your opinion, post a comment or send us a note.

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