Is Consulting Right For You?

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Technology consulting isn't a good fit for everyone. Is it for you? It is important to understand that not everyone is a good fit for technology consulting. There are many good reasons for this, and this article focuses on the five main reasons you may want to consider not being a technology consultant: •Lack of risk tolerance •Incompatible personality •Incompatible lifestyle and/or responsibilities •Single product focus -- desire to work on one product over a long period of time •Desire to do it "for the money" These enumerated factors, although not exhaustive, are typical reasons why consultants either burn out quickly or never really manage to get their careers into a trajectory that allows them to have success. Indeed, whereas trying something out and discovering it isn't for you may not be as career limiting as, say, surfing for pornography at work or serving time for fraud, choosing to become a consultant when the career isn't a good fit can be quite a mistake. Going down this path when it isn't a good fit presents risks of continually being frustrated, weary, and possibly left unemployed at inopportune times. Although not career ending or, for that matter, even limiting, there is a serious risk of its wasting time and giving you a lot of avoidable grief if you are ill-suited to consulting. Sign #1: Lack of Risk Tolerance Talking about lack of risk tolerance might strike you as odd when I have made the case in The Nomadic Developer that in technology consulting, your actual level of risk is lower than working in an IT position. Although I believe this to be true, based on the kinds of networks you build over time supporting you regardless of company, the apparent risk, based on the clarity in which your position is directly related to revenue, will feel high at times. The "Corporate Bench" You might be surprised to learn that in IT jobs at non-IT companies, there are periods when you are at great risk of job loss. Especially, but not exclusively, during budget time during a recession, because most companies look at software developers as a cost, software developers, middle managers, project managers, and many others who have advanced in their career and look expensive on the budget spreadsheet are at acute risk of being laid off. I call this situation the "Corporate Bench" because what happens, prior to the big layoff, is that many low-impact projects are created for IT staff only to give people something to do while the decisions are being made. These projects feel like work, and therefore they feel productive. However, the bottomline impact in many cases is simply not there to make the CFO overlook the position when cost-cutting time comes around. Let's face it: For good reasons, nobody does profit cutting. In most cases, working for a company in an IT department, you are considered a cost center (note that many believe this designation to be a mistake).When it's time to cut costs, that means cut those who work in the cost center. This especially means people with titles that, if there are no new projects and everything is in maintenance mode, are probably not really needed. Why Technology Consulting Feels Riskier What's the difference in technology consulting? Frankly, it's more honest. When you are not billing, you know you are not generating revenue. Because the question as to whether you are earning your keep in technology consulting is more cut and dry, there is little choice in this business but to realize that if you are not billing, selling, or owning, you probably are not contributing. Working in IT masks the risk because you may be on the bench for months or years and not even know it because nobody will tell you that you are vulnerable. In consulting, you know that when you hit the bench, the clock starts ticking. In IT, you probably don't even know where the clock is! Of course, on a case-by-case basis, some consultancies are far riskier propositions than certain IT departments, so this rule is more of a guideline. Consider technology consulting firms with weak demand-generation capability -- for example, a sales department that isn't getting out and meeting customers, or worse, cutting bad deals. Staying at a consultancy like that is probably riskier than almost any other situation you could ever work in. By contrast, in some IT departments all jobs are probably pretty much secure. The guy who runs servers for Google is probably in a pretty secure position! Why Avoid Technology Consulting Then? Why should the risk-averse avoid consulting? The answer really has to do with the fact that there are many people for whom blissful ignorance of their risk is probably a better choice. If the thought of hitting the bench and having daily, visceral fear that you might be let go is going to prevent you from sleeping at night, working in an IT department or for a software company might be a better career choice. You have to feel somewhat secure in your job to be able to do your best work. Of course, almost nobody is truly 100 percent secure. That said, if you are constantly feeling at risk -- be it lack of self-confidence or, more likely, lack of confidence in the ability of your company to keep you busy -- you will be miserable, and you probably won't succeed. Rest assured, nobody does good work for very long when suffering from insomnia. Refuge for the Risk-Intolerant? Of course, if you happen to be risk-intolerant, and you have just read this section and decided that maybe neither consulting nor IT departments are the right place for you, should you avoid technology altogether? Of course not. On the risk continuum, for software developers, the least risky position is to be a software product developer for a successful company that sells software. Although this position is not completely without risk, you could be on a team that makes a less than successful product and again find yourself out of work. On balance, this position combines the aspects of being in a revenuegenerating capacity but provides a business model that has less of a "feast or famine" revenue profile. The downside to this plan is that there are, sadly, far fewer jobs as software product developers than there are jobs in IT and technology consulting. For every software company with a product that is selling well, there are probably 10 consulting companies and 50 IT departments in companies writing software. And just like everything else, there are proportionally as many poorly run software companies with bad products and miserable owners who hate software developers as there are consulting companies that fit the mold of the Seven Deadly Firms from Chapter 2 of The Nomadic Developer.That said, if you love software but simply hate risk, this is probably the best option for you. Sign #2: Incompatible Personality There is a mostly negative stereotype of a software developer who is a cave-dwelling creature that doesn't like people, doesn't shower or shave, smells kind of funny, and is otherwise socially not the most desirable person to be around. This stereotype is so common that in the 1990s Saturday Night Live used to do skits in which the "IT Guy" would go around helping people in a rude and gruff manner and after helping them, respond to their lack of thankfulness by saying sarcastically, "You're welcome." Indeed, this stereotype is so common that a national television show was able to do a skit about it, and lots of people -- outside programmers -- were able to get a good laugh from it. Is this stereotype true? Well, there is probably a certain segment in any given occupation that could be characterized a certain way. Given that effective software development demands people who can shut out others for long periods of time to solve complex problems, it should not surprise anyone that this profession may attract more than a few people who generally do not have strong extrovert personalities. Don't Like People? Then You Probably Won't Like Consulting One of the main differences between a typical programmer and a good consultant candidate is that the latter doesn't mind networking and other "people" aspects of the job. To consult isn't just to code; it involves getting into a position to advise, which requires building trust. In the best of all worlds, gaining trust would simply be a matter of doing good work for a period of time. Sadly, as imperfect people, we do not always appreciate the work that someone quietly does, but rather we notice the more visible. Good consultants make an effort to assure that their work has visibility, and that requires learning how to promote the work of your team as well as your own so that others see the value in it. If you find that in your day-to-day activities as a "consultant," you never interact with people, changes are you are acting in contractor role, not a consulting role. If this aspect feels too much like brown-nosing or self-promotion for you to feel comfortable, chances are others will grab that spotlight from you with their successes; thus, someone other than you will be "building trust."You may survive for a good deal of time working in a consulting company, but don't be fooled: Consulting is an act between people. If you rarely or never interact with people, and interaction with people is on a "definitely only when required" basis, you probably aren't really consulting. Answering yes to one or more of the following statements means your personality might be incompatible with consulting: •If I can't wear shorts, sneakers, and sweats while I code, I can't do good work. •The only small talk I want to engage in is related to the computer language, not conversational techniques. •More often than not, I find other people annoying. I really only want to work with people who are mostly like me. •I don't really care about business results that much; just let me code. •When I find a code base that someone else worked on, it is almost always inferior to the work I would do. •Writing documentation is always a waste of time. If the code was hard to write, it should be hard to understand. •If someone can't figure out how to use an application I wrote, that person is probably too stupid to use a computer. The key to knowing whether you are a fit is to be honest with yourself and decide whether, despite perhaps some inherent introvert tendencies, those traits got you into software in the first place. If you are willing and able to decide that interaction with the broader marketplace around you isn't just the job of other people, you might have better luck in this business. Introversion Isn't Universally Bad For some people, no matter how hard they try, they are going to be awkward in social situations, including those in the workplace.This does not mean you are doomed and unemployable as a software developer. If the trends tell us anything, there are plenty of people who meet that profile who make a fine living in software.The place for people like that is, again, probably in IT or, better yet, in the contracting marketplace. Contractors, who get paid to code by the hour on contracts working on projects designed by other people, can do very well. Although contracting isn't consulting, with the right agency to help find projects, it is a great way for a risk-tolerant developer who simply wants to code for money to make a nice living. Sign #3: Incompatible Lifestyle and/or Responsibilities The day-to-day realities of consulting, while they can be rewarding, almost certainly go beyond what most think of as a typical 9-to-5 existence. The thriving consultant probably spends at least 40 hours in a week billing for a client but then spends some measure of time doing the following: •Working for the consulting company, attending company events, helping on presales efforts •Working on side projects, doing open source work, authoring articles •Spending significant time learning new technologies Commuting to clients that may or may not be particularly close to home Needless to say, depending on the situation, the burden above 40 hours can be heavy. Especially during recessions when there are fewer opportunities and more need to distinguish yourself with side work, chances are, you will spend 50 to 60 hours on career-related activities in a given week. Be aware that some people somehow manage to coach little league, hold the PTA presidency, and do numerous other things, all while still having avid hobbies on the side. I am not saying it is impossible, but a word of caution should apply: If you have a lot of nonwork, noncareer activities you want to be involved in, you need to think long and hard before you pursue a career in technology consulting. Although some manage to do it all, I personally am not convinced they are not secretly abusing methamphetamines (or at least a lot of coffee!) to give themselves 22 waking hours each day. Travel Required? In consulting, it is not a guarantee you will have to travel. However, if you ever want to work for one of the bigger consulting firms, where the job security is better, you will be working for a firm that probably operates in more than one city. If your firm operates in more than one city, chances are, you will be at least asked to travel occasionally. You can survive in consulting if you refuse to travel. However, doing so, at least in most firms, puts you on a much slower track than those who are willing to travel, at least in the earlier career stages. The reality, as hard as it may seem, is that you are as valuable as you are marketable for the firm you work for. Being capable of travel opens up a level of flexibility in what you are able to do for your firm, therefore putting you on a faster path. If you can't travel, you have been on the bench for two months, and others who can travel are getting projects (albeit elsewhere) and you are not, you will certainly feel the heat! The requirement to travel is, like most things, situational. In some cases you might work for a consultancy that is mostly local, a consultancy that sells work that is mostly remote, and so forth. And if you find such a situation, by all means embrace it. However, at least in 2009, this is not the norm, though we would very much like it to be. But What if I Have a Life? There is room to have a life, depending on how you define "life." Let's put it bluntly: If you have hobbies that take a ton of time, whether it is something noble like working for a charity part-time 30 hours a week in the evenings or something even more noble like running a guild full-time in World of Warcraft, you may need to sacrifice part of that activity if you really want to thrive in consulting. Of course, the alternative is to become very proficient at time management! Most people waste a lot of time (I write this, of course, after checking Twitter for 10 minutes, checking Facebook for another 10 minutes, checking my Google Readeryou get the idea). If you want to have time for work 60 hours per week; kids 30 hours per week; your hobby 30 hours per week; and time on top of that to occasionally eat, sleep, work out, and so on, you will not have another 30 hours per week to surf for funny YouTube videos. But What If I Don't Have a Choice? It is one thing if your life choices are not compatible; at least you can change that if you want to have a consulting career. There are others, however, for whom spending 40 hours per week parenting or taking care of an elderly or sick parent or spouse is not optional. Is a consulting career still possible in such a situation? Yes, but having this career will be tougher for you than others who do not have that level of responsibility. The problem for someone with this level of responsibility is that you are operating in a marketplace where your peers have, on average, probably less responsibility than you. As a result, in situations in which you are competing for the best assignments, the sad truth in most cases is that there is a good chance, at least in some firms, that you might be at a disadvantage. How do you get around this problem? Sadly, there is no real easy answer to that. The choices really are to balance the responsibilities, settle for operating from a position of disadvantage, and try to compensate in other ways (for example, compensate for lack of schedule flexibility with outstanding talent) or possibly try some means of being in technology that is less time-intensive than consulting. There is no easy answer, but for those who really want to make it work, there are ways to do it. Sign #4: Desire for Single Product Focus Some people, perhaps by instinct, perhaps by disposition, have a desire to work on a single product flowing through their veins. If you are one of these people, there are very good reasons why the consulting business really isn't for you. If this description fits you, there simply are much better career alternatives you probably should pursue. The role of consulting in your career, if any, is simply to provide a means of acquiring cash so you have some "runway" (also known as "living expenses") that you need to launch a product on your own. If you can manage to find a place in a software company that shares your mission, has management you like, and has a product you believe in, you will almost certainly be happier working in a software product company. Unlike some of the other signs, if this is really the situation you are in, you should keep in mind that in the rare event, as a consultant, you are working on packaged software. It is very infrequent that a consultant will be named a product designer, architect, or even lead developer of a software product. It might happen occasionally, but to plan on it would be really hoping to get very lucky on each and every engagement. Even if you score such an engagement, chances are, the subsequent one is going to be writing software for an IT department somewhere with an internal corporate audience. The nature of consulting is that you are writing software for consumers who work within large companies, for audiences that are typically fairly small. Consulting, simply put, is not the place to go if your career goal is to have every project on which you work be something that will be used by thousands or millions of users. Even if it does happen occasionally, such cases are the exception, not the rule. Sign #5: Doing It for the Money Consulting does, at least for those who position themselves well, offer ample opportunities to make a reasonable amount of money. Even in bad times, a good, seasoned consultant drawing a salary can make $100,000 per year in the United States in most markets. An independent consultant who manages to land a gig where he or she can bring on two or three colleagues might do two or three times that! Although this isn't prefinancial crisis Wall Street money, it is certainly better than a sharp stick in the eye. In Chapter 9 of The Nomadic Developer I covered how greed can do damage to your career in consulting.The advice, however, in this context is that there are places where greed is a great motivator. If you really want to make money, I would submit that training in investment banking, stock trading, sales, or other more mercenary areas might be a better fit. As you saw earlier, when greed governs engineering decisions, the results can be disastrous. If you simply want to make a load of money, there are far better occupations for doing that. Being a software developer without enjoying software development is almost certainly a recipe for accute and frequent job dissatisfaction. Besides the tendency that strict money motivation leads to risky career behavior, if you don't have a strong desire to write code and work for clients, this business can be a nauseating experience. The payoff for most of the important career activities in consulting is brutally a long time coming. You can do something extraordinary, like write a popular open source framework, and not reap the rewards of that effort until years down the road. With such a lag between work and payoff, most people who are strictly motivated by "filthy lucre" will not make it through that gap in time between action and result. Summary Don't get me wrong: Technology consulting is a great occupation. For people who enjoy software development, are flexible enough to deal with some curveballs in terms of schedule, are able to handle the risks, enjoy working on diverse projects, and enjoy or at least tolerate working with other people, the occupation is ideal. If those things are going to be issues for you, it may not be a bad idea to look at some of the alternatives presented here or at least think very strongly about what you want to do before proceeding down this path.
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  • Ritesh Shukla
    Ritesh Shukla
    This is undoubtedly the best write-up on the topic of technology consulting I have come across. And I am saying this based on personal experience being in Software Product development for 4 years and technology consulting for 2 years, and interacting with colleagues.The author is spot on with his analysis of various job roles and the requirements for each.I am very interested in reading 'The Nomadic Developer' now.
  • Tejas B
    Tejas B
    It is a nice article and lot of your content comes from very detailed observations.  However, you could cover some more IT career roles like Business Systems Analysts, SEO experts et al.  These roles fit very well in consulting, and need not only the same traits and expertise as your example of a developer.  The payoff often comes too late after they have provided free analysis for the clients' products or services.Again, nice to read this article.
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