Consulting work is fraught with pitfalls. But overcome these and the rewards can be great.

The Realities of Consulting

Consulting work is fraught with pitfalls. But overcome these and the rewards can be great.

I’d like some advice on becoming an independent consultant. Since that means, among other things, that a company no longer pays your benefits, you need insurance, and you have to itemize your income for taxes, can the pluses outweigh the headaches associated with keeping track of every last penny?

—Geoff Rothman Systems Administrator
Lexington, Kentucky

Greg Neilson says: The best independent consultants have two major strengths: they’re among the top five to 10 percent of IT people, and they have excellent people skills. What this means is that you not only need to be a great performer, you need to be your own best salesperson.

That means to everyone you come across—IT managers, users, and peers. I mention the sales aspect right up front because it can be a big challenge for technical professionals. Lots of us like to keep to ourselves and let our skills speak for us. Unfortunately, this isn’t an option for the independent consultant.

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Speaking of marketing, I think certifications are particularly useful for selling others on your proven skills. I’ve come across plenty of IT staffers with lots of reasons (some good, some not-so-good) why they haven’t and won’t undertake certification. That might work if you’re an employee. But as a consultant, you owe it to yourself to get all the certifications that are relevant to your chosen specialty. If you’re claiming to be an expert in these technologies, you need to take the time to prepare for and pass the exams (and you might even learn some things you’d forgotten)!

Not only do you need to be an expert in your current chosen skills, you need to continually “ride the wave,” turning yourself into an expert in whatever technologies emerge and become hot over the next 20 to 30 years of your working life. When we consider that the IBM PC was invented just 20 years ago, and the rate of change is increasing rapidly, you can understand why no one really knows what tools and technologies will be popular next.

Only a few years ago, you might have been well advised to earn a CNE as your meal ticket far into the future, but that bubble has burst. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of people still making a good living specializing in NetWare, but I wouldn’t consider it a hot technology.

Anyone in IT needs to follow this dictum, but it’s especially true for a consultant. Resign yourself (actually, this should be something you enjoy) to continually keeping an eye on trends in IT, with an eye to picking your next skill set—usually by keeping an eye on your existing skills and knowledge, and how you can build on that.

The paradox is that you also need to get enough hands-on experience with the newer products to have employers who want to pay you as an expert. One way to do this is to become an expert in migrations—for example, if you’re a NetWare expert, start learning some Windows NT/2000 skills and get some expertise in migrating from one to the other. This strategy can also work for DBMS products, or for programming languages as well—many of the original Java programmers had expertise in C/C++, quickly learned the differences in the new language, and were soon productive in Java.

To watch for emerging trends in IT, any good consultant should keep an eye on one or more weekly industry trade magazines (Computerworld is one example), as well as magazines like this one. For example, if you’re a Windows NT specialist, I’d recommend picking up Linux now and learning how to integrate it with NT/Win2K networks. If you have SQL Server experience, consider learning Oracle as well. And we all need to keep an informed eye on how WAP (wireless application protocol) users will access our backend data sources in the future.

I make these suggestions based on what I see into the immediate future—I encourage you to come to your own conclusions.

My most important piece of advice isn’t what technologies and certifications to focus on, but the fact that it’s something you need to evaluate regularly. What skills are going to be hot tomorrow? How you can learn them? How marketable are the skills you have now? You don’t always want to learn the latest and greatest skill, but neither do you want to be stuck maintaining old COBOL code at bargain-basement rates.

A future as an independent consultant can be very exciting. Just make sure you’ve thought everything through before you start. Good luck!

About the Author

Greg Neilson, MCSE+Internet, MCNE, PCLP, is a Contributing Editor for MCP Magazine and a Professional Development Manager for a large IT services firm in Australia. He’s the author of Lotus Domino Administration in a Nutshell (O’Reilly and Associates, ISBN 1565927176).

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