Mark Richardson knows what it’s like to spend four out of seven days away from home. He’s lived out of a suitcase 11 out of 12 months, spending his days in stuffy buildings and his nights in dreary hotel rooms away from his wife and children. Mark’s an IT consultant, possibly one of the loneliest professions outside of a Maytag repairman. A year and a half ago, he underscored the isolation of his chosen profession and stepped out on his own. He became an independent consultant.

“I made Platinum with Delta my first year as a consultant. I don’t know if that’s something to be proud of or not. I burned out on the travel,” Richardson explained. He looked for a way off the road. Independent consulting, however, wasn’t his first choice. Instead, he took a more conventional office job near his home in the Atlanta area training incoming consultants for a company that partnered with his former employer, PeopleSoft—a Pleasanton, CA-based enterprise application software provider.

“It was a nine-to-five type thing,” he says. “It paid a little more (than consulting), so I thought, this is great.” That was before “the market started getting soft.” After the first class completed its training, Mark found out that there wasn’t going to be a second class. Not only that, the company asked Mark to go out on the road as a consultant.

Freedom and responsibility
Many consultants facing the same situation would have reluctantly hit the road again, but for Richardson, there was no turning back. His only remaining choice was independence—an option that may have been somewhat forced upon him, but one that has resulted in a career path that he loves.

Being an independent consultant offers just that—independence and freedom, Richardson said.

“If an assignment comes up in a part of the country that I don’t want to travel to, I’ll turn it down. I didn’t have that option when I was working for a firm. When they say go, you go. They’re paying you a salary to do work. It’s your job.” An independent, on the other hand, can dictate where and when he works, an especially appealing part of the job.

With this freedom, however, comes responsibility. Consultants who work independently are totally responsible for every aspect of their business. They have to find their own clients. Richardson said that he builds lead time into his contracts so that he has something else lined up when a job is completed.

“They have to let me know a month out whether they want to renew or not,” he said, but even with this lead time, there is no guarantee that he will find another client by the end of that month.

In addition to the actual business of consulting, an independent has to deal with the business of doing business.

“The tax thing is an issue,” said Richardson, who has incorporated. “I tried to do it on my own, but finally turned it over to a CPA,” something he advises every independent to do.

Then, there are the issues of health insurance and a retirement fund—considerations many new independents may overlook when setting fees for their services.

“Don’t under price yourself,” Richardson warned. “You can’t just charge what you used to make for a company and expect to have the same income.”

Working solo and with a firm
Freedom has its price, and instead of paying it, many consultants choose to work as full-time employees of a corporation or agency. To them, the security that brings is worth more than independence.

There is another route, however. David Simmons, an IT consultant for 30 years, has found what might be the best of both worlds. Simmons is a contract consultant currently working with Cotelligent, an IT consulting and outsourcing services firm in Los Angeles.

“I’m a technical person, not a business person,” he said. As a contractor, “I don’t have to worry about carrying liability insurance, paying taxes, finding contracts, negotiating contracts,” and all the other headaches an independent faces.

Contracting gives Simmons the security of an employee, but at the same time, he has the freedom to set his own rates as well as being among his co-workers rather than being a part of them. That slight variance in wording merely means that as a contractor “you can take the good and ignore the bad at a client site,” Simmons said. “I don’t get into office politics.”

Yet, nothing is perfect, and even when contracting your services, there are pitfalls.

“Some (agencies) are good and some are bad,” says Simmons, who has worked with “seven or eight” agencies in his career. “I enjoy working with Cotelligent. (The company) has never lied to me and has always done what they said they would do.”

With other agencies, that wasn’t true, and Simmons learned that “it’s as important that you choose an agency correctly as it is that you choose a client correctly,” he said. “Interview them as they interview you.

“You have the skill set that people are going to demand,” Simmons advised. “If you’re confident that you have that skill set, you’ll be successful. Don’t go in there thinking that they’re doing you a favor. You’re doing them one. You’re there to make them money, as well as to take care of yourself.”

Carry that confidence into your work, he added.

He noted the importance of having enough confidence in your own skills that you know there will be another assignment when the current one is completed.

“If you continue to improve your skills, you will never be on the beach. I haven’t been without a consulting job in 27-and-a-half years, but you have to keep up your skills. You can’t rely on your clients to make them better.”

What’s your best move?
IT consulting: one career, three paths. Which do you choose? The answer depends on what you want from a career and what type of personality you have.

“You have to be able to play by yourself,” to be an IT consultant, Richardson noted, but to be independent, you have to be extremely content alone. At the same time, he added, “you have to be a self-motivator and starter,” and you have to interact well with people and be comfortable advising them on their technological needs.

“The best thing you can do,” Richardson said, “is to go work for some consulting firm and let them give you the training and you get the experience without the worries or headaches (of being an independent).”

That, however, is not always a popular strategy with employers.

“No company, including high-tech ones, likes the idea of training employees and then losing them to work as an independent,” said George Salerno, vice president of human resources at Cotelligent, where—like many companies—employees must sign non-compete agreements.

“Regardless of how a company may feel,” Salerno said, people will leave. With that in mind, he added, a company should “always leave the door open for the independent to return to your employ. Sooner or later he or she will see there are risks, as well as rewards, to being independent.”
Do you work for a consulting firm or as an independent? Or do you do both? Why? Give us your thoughts by posting a comment below, or send us a note.

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