On some career paths, the steps for advancement are well worn and clearly marked. You start at the bottom, gradually gain experience, and work your way to the top — or at least to a higher place than where you started. This system evolved in business in order to entice professionals to work hard for the company, and to groom leaders to replace those who move on.
Independent consulting, though, is a unique path. Nobody but you cares about your career advancement. Unlike employers, clients do not see the advantage of letting you gain experience on their time. They expect you to come to them with expertise in hand. A degree and certifications aren't enough — you need success stories with previous clients.
Recently I received an email from Marco Hernandez, who writes in part:
I am a solopreneur and own a small IT shop in Oakville, Ontario (Canada). I've been in the IT field for 18 years and now I'm servicing small business owners but I'm stuck with removing viruses and fixing computers. I have an MBA and also a PMP but people seem not to care and when I try to pitch to bigger businesses I never get a response. I know this is a loaded question but what do you suggest to get "unstuck"?
In Marco's case, I'm sure he has plenty of success stories in PC repair — but in the market he wants to penetrate (project management), he has no reputation. He can't land any contracts because he lacks experience. But how does he ever gain experience without any jobs? I can think of two strategies, and I'm sure our readers can think of more.
First of all, Marco appears to be thinking of his potential clients as two distinct groups: those he has (small businesses with PC problems), and those he'd like to have (big businesses with lucrative projects). Try erasing that distinction. Almost any business wants to grow, if it can. These days, any growth in business means a growth in IT. Look for ways to help small businesses manage that growth. I'd start with existing clients, and gently suggest ideas for how they can grow. The more you push yourself in that direction, the closer you'll get to the kinds of projects you're dreaming about. Eventually, you may gather enough experience that you attract the attention of the big boys precisely because you're a drop of fresh blood. The real leaders in business value creative successes over the plodding, predictable, costly measures employed by the big consulting firms — but they value them only after the fact. So gather your unconventional success stories, starting small and getting bigger.
Of course, bigger is not necessarily better. In recent decades, success seems to cling to the small, focused teams in our industry. That's good news for Marco, because it means that he doesn't necessarily need to scale any corporate walls. What he does need to do, though, is keep his eyes open for those small, dynamic opportunities.
This leads me to my second strategy: spend some time working on free software projects. I can imagine Marco thinking, "I have to keep working on PCs to pay the bills, I'm trying to get PM business — where am I going to find time for free projects?" Don't think of free software as a hobby or a charity — think of it as free experience. The barrier to entry is low. The chances for being able to manage a project in whole or in part are high, once you've gained the trust of a team. A successful open source project looks great on a resume. It says, "I have a passion for this kind of work, and I've earned the trust of my peers." And one of those open source projects might just turn into a successful business venture.
When you start to feel stuck in your career, it's often more a problem of perception than anything else. You see insurmountable obstacles surrounding you, and no way over them. It's easy to give up in the face of these obstacles, without actually testing them to see if they're as solid as they look. Give a little push in an unexpected direction. When the road ahead is barricaded, take the deer path instead. When the system works against you, invent a new system.
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 blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.