In-Depth

Making the Jump to IT Consulting

Jumping ship from a career as a systems admin to that of an IT consultant can be stressful but ultimately rewarding. Some Redmond readers tell their tales of wonder and woe.

You have heard all the jokes before: How many consultants does it take to change a lightbulb? Nobody knows -- they never got past the feasibility study. What's the difference between a consultant and an ordinary employee? You pay the consultant for their opinion.

The artificial panic caused by Y2K, coupled with the short rise and long fall of the dot com era, has rendered suspect the true value of consultants' services. Despite the hard times, many IT professionals seem undeterred, willingly making the jump to consulting.

Have you considered leaving the comfortable confines of your cubicle job for the wild and wooly world of consulting, only to have your cold feet leave you frozen in place? Perhaps the following tales of adventure will give you the proper inspiration, or at least perspective, as you contemplate the jump.

Vishnu Benkert, now a consultant with Weston Technology Solutions in Bend, Ore., jumped both jobs and cities after nine years as a systems administrator.

"I've found that [consulting] is a much better fit for me as I get bored easily and enjoy constant challenges. With most companies, you have a fairly static environment with some yearly capital available for projects. Otherwise, you are performing generally mundane tasks with only the occasional brain-wrenching troubleshooting," Benkert says.

The Challenge Of Staying Challenged
The allure of constant challenge is a theme that runs through most of our reader responses. A major reason for that is once a company's network environment is up and running, there's not much left for an administrator to do. And with not much left to do, most find themselves filling their days with mundane tag-up meetings and weekly reports.

John Eberhardt, a self-employed consultant with Wise Enterprise Group LLC, tells us how he eventually managed to work his way out of a systems administrator job.

"After several years of good equipment funding, everything that was wrong was gone. It got to a point where you could hear a pin drop on the network. There were no [network] collisions, no layer three switches and no AppleTalk chatter, which meant no network troubles at all," Eberhardt says.

Val Clark, Independent Consultant

When he first started, his NT domain had 13 backup controllers and a separate domain for every department, Eberhardt recalls. Once the domain was flattened and nearly all the BDCs eliminated, log-ins became "lightning fast," all the fires went out and things got very boring, very fast. And with all the fires extinguished, feelings of job vulnerability crept in.

"Then, it just boiled down to me documenting everything I could, which is a great way for my boss to replace me with someone cheaper," Eberhardt says.

In addition to boredom, politics, aging technology and downsizing were all themes for wanting to escape the old job, according to most respondents. But once you get out and take the plunge, what is life like for a consultant, especially one that's living largely on the road?

Kent Draper, an experienced independent contractor who has worked in three locations over the past 12 months, describes an existence that can be a nomadic and sometimes spartan.

"Be prepared to go where the work is, live in a cheap studio apartment and eat out of a can," he warns.

10 Unwritten Rules of Consulting (Written Down)

Every industry has its list of unwritten rules and consulting is no different. Here are 10 rules respondents wanted to share.

  1. Be your client's trusted advisor. Be the person they want to turn to when they see problems or seek upgrades in their network.
  2. Keep the project sold. Your client signing the contract is merely the first step. As a consultant, you need to always remind the client why they made a good decision to work with you.
  3. Learn not to speak like a geek. Geekspeak never works for long. To prevent your client's eyes from glazing over use layman's language to explain any problem or solution.
  4. Don't be afraid to charge for your time. You are there to help a client solve problems, but you are also there to make a living and they know that. Don't be afraid to raise your rates a little every year.
  5. Believe in service excellence. Quality is never an accident. It is always the direct result of sincere effort, intelligent decisions and skillful execution.
  6. Know the difference between consulting and contracting. Contracting is a short-term engagement to help clients out with a backlog of work or to fill in for a missing team member. Consulting is a project where people are impressed with your skills and looking forward to you upgrading their experience with a subject. The first requires you to keep your head down and your mouth shut, and to work hard. The latter requires you to bring value to the company by improving some part of their infrastructure.
  7. Have adaptable people skills. While you must maintain a certain reserve, you have to make every effort to fit in with your client's culture. Regardless of your technical abilities, fitting in culturally can mean the difference between a successful and failed engagement.
  8. Vet your clients. Don't be so quick to take on just any client. For instance, if the client wants to use the cheapest hardware or pirated software and only brings you in when there are problems, then move on. Remember, a consultant is a professional, not a second-class citizen.
  9. Be fair, honest, reliable and timely. You don't have to be the cheapest consultant out there to get the contract, just the best.
  10. Keep the client informed. Communication is everything. They are paying you a lot more than they are paying any of their regular workers to accomplish a task. Keep them regularly informed about what you're doing and how you're providing value to them. -- G.S

To decide if you can afford to become a consultant, you have to do the math, Draper advises. For instance, will the work you find allow you to still pay your mortgage, travel to and from home, pay for lawn services and put some money in your pocket at the end of the month? A contract in New York or Washington D.C. may pay a great deal more than a similar contract in the Midwest, but you may find yourself paying $1,500 to $2,000 for housing in a neighborhood where your car will get broken into on a regular basis, he says.

Considering Entrepreneurship
Paul Schnackenburg, who owns his own consulting company in Queensland, Australia, describes a very different experience in finding work close to home. "I haven't had to do any marketing because out here in the sticks, word of mouth is the best marketing," he says.

But owning your own shop is very different than working for a larger company. Not only must you do the consulting, you must also do sales, accounting and financing, as well as head up the marketing department in your ever-shrinking spare time. While Schnackenburg admits that his bookkeeping skills are serviceable, for instance, he realizes not everyone has the ability to handle several very different disciplines.

Before Mike Bell joined Compu-Tech Inc., a large company in East Wenatchee, Wash., he first tried self-employment and soon discovered the challenges of being a one-man band.

"While I was on the self-employed track, about 15 percent to 20 percent of my billable day could be eaten up by things like marketing and accounting. Between tax forms, state revenue statements, brochure creation, estimates and pre-hire consultations, I was lucky that any of my hours were billable," he says.

Vishnu Benkert, Weston Technology Solutions

Ah yes, billable hours. Keeping them up is critically important for any consultant, regardless of whether he or she works for themselves or for a larger company. Because billable time is the bread and butter of consulting, any amount of learning, writing and attending conferences only pays off if you can keep the billable time to a maximum.

But after all the billable hours are counted and all the network problems are resolved, how are our nascent consultants answering the real question: How's the money? Few, it seems, have had to take a pay cut.

"I remember back in Y2K when you could name your price. In a way, it's still the same. If your customers trust you, you can pretty much charge whatever you want," Bell says.

People with small consultancies say they find it comforting to be close to the budget, where the monthly numbers are passed around freely. Those with the highest billable hours often wear that distinction like a badge of honor. But those who work in larger organizations say their job responsibilities often position them far away from any budgetary decisions.

Val Clark, who left a technician's job with large banking institution for an outsourced financial consulting and information technology firm, waxes philosophical on the dichotomy between improving the company's internal infrastructure and keeping up his billable hours.

"I do both internal support for my company and external support for the customers. I could spend a week on something internally that does great things for the company, but none of it brings in money directly. So I have to juggle improving the internal stuff with keeping my billable time as high as possible," Clark says.

The Author's Story: No Regrets

While I have been happily employed as a Windows systems administrator for nearly 10 years, I loved my old job with a major defense contractor. When I started there the company had just converted from an old Novell-based network to a more modern (at the time) Microsoft Windows NT-based network.

I saw the company's IT presence grow from a break-fix mentality to a mature, process-driven engineering environment where risks were identified and mitigated prior to implementation. The IT organization started demanding a requirements spec prior to the change control board approval of any updates. I also watched the network environment grow from a mostly stable one based on innovation, to a very stable one based on technology that was risk averse.

Over that time, however, I also saw more exciting work happening elsewhere.

Managing a mature network that rarely goes down can mean more sleep and a rested body, but it may also give rise to a restless soul. There's a certain maverick IT spirit in me that wishes for at least a little havoc to be reigning in the network.

So, this July, I made the jump. I moved from an 80,000 person company to 3t Systems Inc., an IT consultancy based in the Rocky Mountain region with just 200 people. The company specializes in Windows, Citrix and VMware-based technologies.

It's been a good jump for me. I have found the work to be both challenging and rewarding. In my first few weeks I've already resuscitated a pair of dying domain controllers, fixed a critical printing issue for a multi-national Citrix farm and authored a hospital's Active Directory disaster recovery plans.

I believe our customers recognize the true value we provide. -- G.S.

Tough Love
Despite some of their trepidations, respondents largely have positive things to say about making the jump. They cite a steady flow of new challenges and the lack of a smothering bureaucracy.

"I have found that consulting offers a new challenge every day, vastly different network environments and a variety of personalities," says Benkert of his experience. "If one company isn't upgrading systems or putting in a new solution, there's bound to be another one that is."

Asked what the most exciting part of his job was, Clark cites the complete absence of bureaucracy and environments where customers just want to see the work done. "That, along with client satisfaction -- I love engaging with the client, giving them solutions they can use, and having them say, 'Man, this guy's great!'"

Some miss the perks and benefits offered by their old jobs, but believe they are largely canceled out by the advantages.

"I miss the medical, 401(k), retirement benefits and knowing I will get a true annual salary rather than an hourly rate for an undetermined amount of time," Draper says. "But I don't miss a stagnant working environment and the office politics. I have improved my skills by working with a variety of good people in different environments. Change is good."

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Reader Comments:

Sun, Dec 17, 2006 R. Frederick Dallas, TX

Rule Number 1: Cash is King (Make sure that you have at least a year's worth before you jump ship.)
Rule Number 2: If you don't have a mechanism for selling continuously, then don't start this business.
Rule Number 3: Read the e-Myth by Michael Gerber, then read it again. Most people don't realize that a business is a legal entity which is seperate from themselves and should be treated as such.
Rule Number 4: Learn to read a Balance Sheet. All businesses start with a balance sheet and end with a balance sheet.

Good luck.

Tue, Nov 21, 2006 Ed Kless Dallas

I think this is a good article on the challenges of getting into consulting. I do, however, disagree with the belief, mentioned in the first sidebar, that you need to bill by the hour.

I believe strongly that true consultants will avoid this at all costs. In short, consultants sell knowledge not services. Knowledge cannot be billed by the hour. For further reading, please visit the VeraSage Institute at www.verasage.com or read Alan Weiss' Million Dollar Consulting.

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