Any IT consultant that wishes to remain a consultant in the present job climate has to be well-networked professionally and constantly working to enhance this network of job contacts, colleagues, and project prospects.

A critical element to successful networking is data organization. One of the best ways to collect, organize, and house networking and job prospect details is with a database tool such as Microsoft’s Access. Another key element is understanding that the job hunt and network effort starts before you meet with anyone, make query calls, or send out a letter of introduction. It starts with the initiation of a job search.

New job-seeking parameters
Organizing a job search, whether it’s an aggressive hunt for your next meal or a background troll for something better, requires active attention to a number of factors.

You must have a sense, ahead of time, of what’s really important to you and what you can live without. The days of picking and choosing are over, at least for now, and you’re probably finding that you’ll have to do some trading off. Defining those trade-offs is something you’ve probably already done. Finding a way to organize that detail along with new contacts, the particulars of potential assignments, and questions for colleagues and recruiters is another matter—but it’s essential if you want to quickly hone in on an interesting job opportunity.

Here are the old job consideration standards, in no particular order:

  • Pay rate
  • Location
  • Length of contract
  • Job description fit with your wants/needs/abilities
  • Desired level of authority

These are more subtle considerations important to a consultant:

  • Prestige of hiring company
  • Opportunity to work with new technology
  • Potential for valuable training
  • Accumulation of experience in a desired area

The data load of a networking effort
At its simplest, networking for consulting positions amounts to keeping two notebooks, each with a separate list:

  • Notebook 1: Tracks potential jobs and related details
  • Notebook 2: Lists contacts that can help you get connected with potential jobs, with phone numbers and e-mail addresses

If your job search and your circle of colleagues are both tiny, literally using two little paper notebooks is an acceptable approach, but it’s the rare exception these days because we’re able to access so much information for job and project hunts via the Internet.

A full-blown networking and job search effort encompasses a much longer list, and a larger volume of data that you need to be able to access any time and anywhere:

  • Available consulting/contract positions by pay rate, location, job type, duration, technical content
  • Summary of which sources gave you which referrals for a quick view of what your best sources are
  • Timetable that shows you how soon each consulting position is to be filled
  • Listings of the most fruitful job source Web sites, recruiters, and colleagues
  • Tracking list of all your peer consultants, where they are, what they’re doing, what they’re looking for (we’ll explore the reason this is important later)
  • Status report that tells you at a glance where you are and what needs doing contact-wise with each position you’re shooting for

Using Access to build a network database
Clearly, two spiral notebooks aren’t the best tools for gathering, organizing, and accessing the needed information. A better choice is a database program, such as Microsoft Access, which many people have already seen or are using. I’ll describe how best to build the networking database within Access.

For the data organization, you don’t need anything more complicated than a simple table-query-report configuration file, much of which can be built with ease using Access’s wizard help feature.

The primary table to build is a Jobs table. You should include several fields. Most important is an identifier for each potential consulting position. (You may wish to let Access automatically number these records for you via the AutoNumber feature; if you yield to the temptation to identify and mark the records using company or client names as the primary key, you may regret it. You’ll run into tracking inefficiencies when one company is offering multiple positions and you wish to track more than one of them.)

Other fields include pay rate, location, duration of contract, and job type (project manager, programmer, etc.). Also include a technical content field, using some coding system that is convenient to you: Does the job involve SAP, application interface programming, WAN configuration, etc? And, very importantly, who referred you to this position? This critical item should contain some identifier (initials, or a name field that would contain the last name of an individual or the company name of a recruiter) that could also be used in another table.

Next, it’s time to set up a Contacts table. Fellow consultants, recruiters, and job source Web services go in this table. It is secondary to the Jobs table, but still vital: After all, the point of the system is to aid you in effective networking.

This table will be tied to the Jobs table through its primary key, the identifier of the organization or person with whom you’re networking. The point of this table is quick access to information on how to communicate with these parties. Important fields here include all modes of contact: phone, e-mail, snail mail, and a Web address, if relevant.

Next, create a third table, Consultant, and enter yourself. The record should include your name as key, followed by the items in the Jobs table: pay, job type, technical content codes. You want to build a self-portrait and create a record that defines what you’re looking for. In these fields, you’ll enter the values you want to match on in the Jobs table when you create reports.

Why go to the trouble of creating this one-record table, when all this information is always in your head? It allows you to generate reports rapidly after entering prospective positions and without having to manually enter your matching values more than once. Also, you can make any changes in the values in this record using a form designed for rapid update that allows you to change all your reports at a stroke. And as I’ll explain, it’s key to a necessary philosophy change when it comes to networking today.

To make the best use of your new database, you’ll create forms for filling in records in each of the other tables, to make sure you don’t skip critical information and to make sure you’re consistent in your use of identifiers. Access makes this extremely simple.

Finally, use simple Select Query to generate reports (there’s a wizard to set these up for you) for job tracking, networking effort, and tracking best job sources.

The very best step you can take
After you’ve created and developed your Access database, it’s time to do one other important job—change your networking philosophy. Abandon the idea that you’ve made this contact system for yourself, and stop thinking in terms of you-as-user and a list of jobs. This is the reason I recommend constructing the Consultant table.

The idea is to make yourself just one of many entries, and make all your contacts (that is, the contacts that are colleagues and professional consultants like yourself) additional entries. In effect, the goal is to create a simple system that matches consultants to jobs, with yourself as just one of the consultants to be matched.

Why in the world would you want to do this? It’s simple: Networking isn’t all about listing jobs and choosing one—it’s about networking, building relationships, developing contacts. Now imagine how strong you can be if you’re not only seeking out good prospects for yourself, but have your ear to the ground on openings for those colleagues whom you’re hoping will pass along tips to you.

Consider what a formidable task that would be without this organizational approach. Yes, you would still be able to pass along tips to colleagues as they occur to you, but you couldn’t really be organized or accurate in terms of figuring out to whom to provide the information.

If you’re organized in this way, the database provides a quick and easy resource for locating those who might appreciate jobs you aren’t going for, and it lets you e-mail a batch of hot tips each week, usually in less than 15 minutes. The payoff of this capability is strong—not only are you building goodwill with your network, but you’re very likely to get more feedback, tips, and job news from those you’ve helped.