Two busy IT consultants describe the demands of their job and how they meet the challenges. Read about the training and experience that led them to this career.
This is an installment of the Job snapshot series in which I feature a short survey of a tech pro in a particular specialty. It's not a comprehensive look, just a snapshot of what the person likes best and likes least about his or her chosen profession. This installment features job snapshots from Erik Eckel, an IT pro and TechRepublic blogger who works for a consultancy, and from Chip Camden, an independent consultant and TechRepublic blogger.
IT consultant job snapshot: Erik EckelWhat do you like best about your job? Erik Eckel: By far, the factor I enjoy most about my job is deploying or repairing technology solutions (laptops, VPNs, networks, point-of-sale systems, software platforms, desktop workstations and servers) that enable business owners to meet measurable objectives and further fuel their organization's success. Serving as an IT consultant, there are no gray areas. None. You either did your job well, and solved customer problems, or you didn't. Your work speaks for itself. There's no better calling card. What do you dislike most about your job? Erik Eckel: Make no mistake. Consulting is a very tough, difficult and complex business. It's not for everyone. The rigors and stresses can definitely take a toll. While corporate IT staff need only balance the needs of one company and typically work within a larger department, consultants frequently must juggle multiple crises simultaneously with little to no help from other professionals.
Further, technology consultants cannot just concentrate on staying current with technology, they must also manage the demands of business ownership and operation. But the rewards are outstanding. Whether helping clients solve long-standing issues other practitioners couldn't, eliminating roadblocks for small business owners, or implementing new and exciting platforms faster than any Fortune 500 firm could ever dream of, consulting is certainly positioned at the front lines of today's technology battlefield.What education/background prepared you for your job? Erik Eckel: I don't know that there's any perfect academic training or background that can prepare a technology professional for IT consulting. What you experience in the real world - the way clients, organizations, and businesses actually implement, maintain, and utilize computers, software and systems - is often far different than the way best practices dictate or manufacturers intend. Only a tight combination of structured technical training, hands-on experience and a genuine zeal for technology can position a consultant for success.
That said, I earned an undergraduate degree in English from a four-year university. That rounded education helped me appreciate and respect the wide variety of business models and wide range of customers from all walks of life I encounter daily. After working professionally for almost ten years after graduating from college, I returned to a second university to complete 10 months of intensive hands-on technical lab training. Those hard skills, combined with the liberal arts education and multiple IT industry certifications, provides an effective combination that serves me well when managing my own business' challenges as well as those of the clients it serves.
IT consultant job snapshot: Chip CamdenWhat do you like best about your job? Chip Camden: I like a lot of things about being an independent consultant, but what I like best is the autonomy it provides. I can choose what hours I work, though it often ends up being more than I used to work as an employee. I can choose where I work, which is usually in my home office with my own brand of coffee and choice of music and equipment. I can choose what projects to take and which ones to turn down. I can choose what rate to accept. My performance isn't evaluated based on the theories, whims, or ego of someone in management - instead it's reflected directly on my bottom line, in recurring business and the rate that I can command.
Autonomy also figures into my relationship with my client. I feel more enabled to say what I really think about a project than I did back in the days when every move had to be considered in relation to where it placed my hands on the corporate ladder. In fact, I find a direct incentive to speak the truth as an outsider, because if things go south I'll be the first one to be blamed for not objecting. Providing an objective viewpoint is a big part of my job.What do you dislike most about your job? Chip Camden: The uncertainty can be a bit unnerving at times. While consultants have the opportunity to improve their income more frequently than the typical employee's annual raise, they're also not guaranteed a minimum. The lean times can be frightening. Fortunately, they've been few in my nineteen years of consulting, but the threat of the bottom potentially falling out makes it difficult to enter into large financial commitments. A couple of times I've over-extended and felt bankruptcy breathing down my collar, but I was able to claw my way back out of debt each time.
Like most geeks, I'm much more comfortable with the technical aspects of the job than I am with the business side. Negotiating contracts, reminding clients to pay, and dealing with miscommunications or failed expectations all make me feel a little queasy. As a result, I have to force myself to deal with those issues and not put them off until they become bigger problems.What education/background prepared you for your job? Chip Camden: I studied neither computers nor business in college. I was a Biblical Literature major. I do think that my background in ancient languages informs my understanding of programming languages - ancient Hebrew and Greek differ widely from each other and from English in how they think and express things, which teaches me by analogy that programming languages can and should explore more effective alternatives for expression than those that are merely patterned after English.
Everything I learned about the technical side of my work, I learned on the job. I taught myself every programming language I know (somewhere around 40, depending on how you count them). I worked my way up from being an entry-level programmer in a software company to being its Director of Software Development before striking out on my own as a consultant. As an autodidact, I don't wait for things to be explained to me - I actively seek out knowledge of how others understand things, and then ask, "But what if there's another way of looking at it?"
I think perhaps the most important preparation I received for this work, though, was provided by my father. Although I'm still a true geek at heart, I was well on my way towards becoming a reclusive hermit in high school when Dad gave me a job at the auto parts store that he managed and made me face the public on a daily basis. The experience taught me more about dealing with a variety of customers and running a business than you could ever get from any course of study.