It has been roughly 4 years since I quit my industry job and decided to become a consultant. Before making my decision, I remember searching the Internet to see if I could gain any insight into what to expect. Unfortunately, there just didn’t seem to be many people sharing their own experiences about what it was like to go from an industry job to IT consulting. Quite a bit of time has passed since I became a consultant and I just wanted to take some time to share my own thoughts and experiences as I made the transition to possibly help others.
First, I just wanted to state that these are my own experiences and in no way is this meant to be an exhaustive account of life as an consultant as everyone is going to have different experiences. Also, I am a software developer, all the consulting companies I have worked for have been U.S. based, I am not married and I have no kids, so my thoughts will come from those perspectives.
I spent the first 9 years of my professional career in industry as a software developer. I had worked for about 3 or 4 employers in industries ranging from mortgage to city government. Each of the companies that I worked for were not tech companies and thus, technology wasn't how they made money. Often times, technology was only seen as a way to cut costs and help management make more informed decisions. I had never thought about consulting until I was contacted by a recruiter from an IT Consulting company and that is what started my transition from industry to consultancy.
Most of the companies that I worked for in industry were in sectors other than IT. What this meant is that technology was not their “cash cow” and was seen as a way to either save money or help streamline the decision making process on how to make money. From my experience, this typically resulted in older technology being used, lots of maintenance work and poor software development practices. I believe that If you want to remain in the technology industry, you must keep your skills up to date and work with modern technologies and practices. When I first thought about becoming a consultant, it was clear that my skills needed a serious upgrade. I felt that if I could get into a consulting firm, it would be the quickest way to upgrade my skills and be exposed to situations that would require me to learn at a faster rate.
One of the ideas that intrigued me about the world of consulting was the the concept of "constant change". Due to the nature of consulting, I knew that I would be working with many clients, technologies and problems. It has been my experience, that when you join a new company as a full time employee, it generally takes several months to be competent at your job and afterwards, you will be presented with few challenges that forces you to think outside the box and really stretch your abilities. Obviously, it depends on what type of company you work for but from my experience, I felt that I was never challenged on a consistent basis like I have experienced in consulting.
Increase my Personal Network
I was once listening to the sports radio personality Collin Cowherd and the subject was about success. Collin stated that he believed that a lot of times, how successful you are will largely depend upon the number of people you meet in life. He felt that the more interactions a person has throughout the course of their life, will result in an increased likelihood of learning about great opportunities. I fully subscribe to this idea and I feel that I have been exposed to more ideas, good opportunities and great people as my personal network has grown through consulting.
Once I made the decision to become a consultant and hired by a consulting firm, there were tons of adjustments that I had to make. Below are just a few that stand out and is something I think everyone who is considering joining an IT consulting company should understand before making a final decision.
9 to 5!
The biggest change that I observed was that consulting was definitely not a 9 to 5 job. In most of my industry jobs, I found that once I had gotten a good handle on how to do my job, working late hours really wasn’t necessary, unless there were critical bugs found in production or there was a release. In consulting, the client will view you as a highly skilled resource and you will always be solving problems. You will not always be working late hours but in my own experience, it definitely happens much more than when I was in industry.
The Danger Zone!
Another aspect of consulting that forced me to adjust and adapt quickly is that your abilities will be stretched to the limit and this will be the case quite often. Whether it is fair or not, as a consultant, you will often be viewed as a subject matter expert by the client and you will be given tasks that require you to step out of your comfort zone and into what my favorite motivational speaker Les Brown calls “The Danger Zone”. In my own experience, I found that I could always lean on a good teammate or ultimately find the solutions to a difficult problem if I was persistent enough.
I have worked for 3 consulting companies and one theme that was common to each was sales. As a IT consultant, a lot of your focus will revolve around technology and client satisfaction. However, IT Consulting is a business and thus, there will always be a need to acquire more work, so your company can continue to pay its bills. As a consultant, you will not only be asked to deliver great products but you will also be asked to be aware of any new business that can be sold to your client and meet with new clients as a subject matter expert to get new sales for your company.
Not so Glamorous!
When I got into consulting, I naively believed that all my projects would consist of working with cutting edge technology and it would all be new development. Much to my surprise, I quickly found that some clients not only had existing systems but some were developed in antiquated technologies. As a consultant, you will be asked to work on a range of projects, some will be new and exciting, others will be old and boring legacy code.
While in industry, I rarely felt the pressure to keep my skills up to date and to continuously improve. Once I became a consultant, I had to keep my skills up to date because no matter how unfair it is, you will be viewed as an “expert” in the eyes of the client. Also, because you will be working with a variety of client, who in turn have a diverse set of problems, you will have to continually broaden your skill set and keep apprised of the latest technologies or the road will be extremely tough.
Below are some of the “other” things I think people who are considering consulting should know and are definitely topics I wish I would have known when I was considering a career in consulting.
The Local Model
IT Consulting companies who use this model will typically have at least one office in a U.S. city and consultants will work at clients around the area or the state the city is located in. Consultants will rarely travel in this model. However, if the consultant is not assigned to a project and there is a client at another office, the consultant may be asked to travel to a client who is in need of their services. The first two consulting companies I joined used this model and in roughly 4 years, I only traveled once and that was because I requested to travel. Many consultants that have done extensive travel in the past, tend to gravitate towards this model because being on the road can get tiresome and it allows them to be near their family.
The Travel Mode
IT Consulting companies that use this model will typically require its consultants to travel nationally or internationally for upwards to 100%. In some cases, a consultant will get assigned to projects within their home city if the firm happens to have clients located in those cities. My current company employs this particular model. You will typically work what is called “consulting” hours, which is four- ten hour days, fly home on Thursday night and be at home on Friday and Saturday.
With Staff Augmentation, the consulting company will work with a client to fill (augment) a needed resource. Usually, the client will be in charge of the project in all aspects and the consultant will typically report to a full time employee of the client.
With solution based work, the consulting company will usually be responsible for most aspects of the project and typically, most of the resources will be from the consulting company. The consulting company will typically run the project on a day to day basis and ultimately, they are responsible for delivering the final product. The consulting company will typically work with the client to get any business related questions answered and scheduling releases.
I overwhelmingly prefer project based consulting companies. With Staff Augmentation, you are just another resource, the client environment will often have a body shop feel, it will be difficult to change bad processes that your client has in place and it is easy to be given assignments that have nothing to do with what you were originally brought in to do. You will quickly begin to feel as if your client is your employer because your client is driving the project and the other resources on your team may not even be from your consulting company. In the consulting world, we call this “going native” and it can have a negative impact on your career and job satisfaction.
With solution based work, the client has given your consulting company a great deal of trust and has admitted that they do not have the resources in house to solve their problems. In this environment, you will be working with resources from your own consulting company and you will be in a more favorable position to change bad processes your client has in place and engage in “true” consulting work.
Hopefully the information in this post has been useful and will serve as relevant information for those considering working for an IT consulting company. Before making your decision, make sure you weigh all the options, take a look at how this change will affect your current lifestyle and never be afraid to ask your potential consulting company too many questions.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.