Three things I wish someone had told me when I started consulting

Years ago I had a choice of what career path to take. I chose to be a consultant, working long hours for modest pay in a field which at the time seemed pretty stable. The roller-coaster ride hasn't stopped since. For the most part it's been a rewarding experience.

There are, however, a few things I wish people had just told me up front.

Money comes in bursts, not streams

Consultants, not contractors, make very good money on the job. Good enough money, in fact, that it can get pretty heady at times. Cash comes pouring in, either from the large checks we pick up from our independent clients or from the bonuses our home office pays us for jobs well done.

Unfortunately the good times never last. As an independent, any time we spend doing the job is time we cannot spend selling the next one. As a shop consultant, the bonuses only show up when the client pays the bills. In both cases the lean months will outnumber the fat ones.

If we want to survive, we have to learn to save. This is always true but it is doubly true for consultants. Every check needs to go into a savings account, with the bare minimum pulled out to deal with immediate needs. There will be time enough to spend the cash next year, or the year after, when we have taken the time to really plan the expenditure.

Don't be in such a hurry

Back in the day, I got to my client site and immediately set to work. I struggled for hours with whatever issues we faced, spent my time focused on the problem rather than the symptoms, and generally acted like a good consultant should. Rather, I acted as I thought a good consultant should.

Stop for a moment and consider why the client called on you. Yes, it's flattering to think that they called us because we and we alone have all the answers. However, back in reality, every client decision is made in a social and political context. Who stands to gain, and who to lose, by our success? Who would look good if we failed? What do the senior technical staff at the site have to say about the situation, and what do they know that we need to before getting involved?

Stop. Listen. Think. We need to consider what the heck is going on at the company and in the department before letting the monkey brain attach itself directly to our mouths.

Someone has to live with what we do

We all know that consulting gigs come and go. We go in, get the job done, and then move on. It is the nature of the business and, for some of us, the greatest thrill in the world. It's a very accomplishment oriented kind of lifestyle.

Our clients, unfortunately, do not have this luxury. Instead they have to live with the results of what we do and how we do it. Our sponsor must answer for our actions and the people we tried to help must endure whatever fall-our occurs when the solution we whipped together doesn't work out quite like we hoped.

Solving the “problem” is not enough. We have to understand what our solution will do not just to the client's specific system but how that solution fits in with the technical and process architecture. It doesn't have to be perfect. It does have to be perfect for whatever combination of factors will exist at the client after we leave.