Consulting as a career

September 28, 2007

Jack Ganssle-September 28, 2007

Consulting can be a very rewarding job, but be prepared: it's not for the faint of heart. Here's what you need for success.

A week after I turned 16 in 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. A year later, funding for Apollo dried up and engineering tanked as a career. Some who had been designing spacecraft pumped gas.

By 1980, I was tired of working for "the man" so partnered with a friend and started a consulting business. Our timing could not have been worse as the inflation of the late '70s caught up with economic reality and a recession tossed engineers once again onto the streets.

In 1990, another recession battered this field. The dot-com bust of the early part of this century is still felt in some corners. There seems to be a 10-year cycle that drives economic setbacks. During these downturns, unemployed engineers often turn to consulting. Most fail as financial difficulties make companies reluctant to spend. The few that thrive usually have been around for a while, started in the bull years, and have an established clientele.

Times are pretty good now, or at least were when I wrote this in August. But mortgage fears have Wall Street jittery and I've been getting a steady stream of e-mail from developers nervously pondering their options, which usually include consulting. If the (at least to me mysterious) 10-year-recession cycle holds, now is a good time to make the leap into a career in consulting. I use the word "career" intentionally; those who hang a consultant's shingle out in desperation as a transition between jobs have a rough time of it.

Consulting can be a very rewarding job, both financially and in terms of fun. Those who succeed can, in the U.S. at least, earn surprisingly high salaries. I know of a few making better than a quarter million a year, though that is very unusual. And a consultant can work on many different sorts of projects, gaining broad experience.

So here are a few thoughts on what's needed to succeed as a consultant.

Just as every developer knows it's folly to start a project without a pretty decent set of requirements, don't even dream of starting any sort of business, even a one-person consulting shop, without a clear idea of your goals. Are you just trying to make a living or do you plan to build a practice staffed with an army of consultants? The latter case will require serious organizational development and quite a bit of capital.

In my opinion, no serious business--even a one-person outfit--can operate successfully without advisors. To assume one knows everything is arrogant. Hire a business advisor, someone you meet with regularly, who will take the time to learn about your industry and goals. Select an individual who is widely versed in business, legal, and financial matters; don't worry about experience in technology. I've worked with the same advisor for 15 years. Paul challenges me, beats me up for missing dates and goals, and is the best brainstormer I've ever met. Though some of his ideas are whacky, others stun me with their brilliance. He's a CPA, so he does my business and personal taxes, which works amazingly well since he truly understands the money flow. We met through the local Chamber of Commerce, which is a great resource for finding business resources. The cost: $410/month. That check is the most fruitful one I write.

My partner and I had plenty of technical skills but absolutely no concept of sales and marketing, and the business suffered for that lack. Naively, we thought that hanging out a shingle, and producing a nice brochure were all the marketing we'd need. Wrong. Sales is hard work. A web site will not keep you in BMWs.

Our experience mirrored one I see all the time. Once the champagne is gone after landing that plum contract, most consultants foolishly focus on getting the work done. Months later, they have a happy customer but no work. Panicked, they start selling again but suffer from a long spell of no income, and then repeat the process.

Sell constantly. If you "don't have time" to sell or market your services, something is seriously wrong. In all aspects of our lives, we must practice balance; that applies to the balance between doing the customer's work and working on your business.

If time is precious (as it always is), a solution might be to bill fewer hours each day, leaving time free for sales. Rest assured that those "lost" hours will be recouped in lack of downtime.

Although America is largely a service economy, services are the hardest of all things to sell. Engineering services are especially difficult. The price will always be far more than the customer wants or expects. The customer is wary of getting a low-quality product, and the consultant can only offer vague promises about his reliability. Sounds a little like marriage, and that analogy is surprisingly apt. Like a married couple, the most successful consultants build long-term relationships with their clients, relationships solid enough to withstand the inevitable surprises and problems found in building products.

Once you snag a job, your most important mission is to delight the customer. "Yeah, he's expensive, but we've found we can really count on him," is the sort of statement that gets another potential client interested.

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