This feature first appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Whether you’re just getting started or are an established, experienced professional seeking a career change, IT consultancy can be an exciting and lucrative career. IT consultants are the “pinch hitters” of the tech world, stepping in to fix unforeseen IT problems and keep business projects on track.
Part tech guru, part business master, and part project manager, consultants are the professionals that companies call in to solve specific problems, meet strategic business goals and requirements, or rescue off-track projects. When companies don’t have the internal resources, skill sets, or experience required to meet the business need, IT consultants are called on to stand in the gap.
Depending on business requirements, an IT consultant may be involved in all aspects of project implementation, from initial planning to closure. At the front end of a project, an IT consultant may be called upon to evaluate a client’s existing infrastructure, recommend network, hardware or software systems, and design solutions that meet the business requirements and company goals.
IT consultants may also be involved actively in the project implementation phase as well. They could be called on to design and deliver training to team members who will maintain and support the solution after the consultant’s responsibilities have ended.
IT consultants typically work onsite, at the client’s location. Because each client has differing business goals and requirements, consultants will find that every new project brings a new adventure and unique challenges. Nothing is static, the variety is endless, and each project is a new slate yet to be written.
So you want to be an IT consultant
If you thrive on the flexibility of constantly changing environments, meeting new challenges, problem solving, and creating custom solutions, then consultancy is right in your wheelhouse. Once you decide that becoming a consultant is the right career move, one of the first things you’ll need to determine is whether you want to work for an existing consulting firm or fly solo.
If you’re not quite ready to jump into the market as a freelancer, then you’ll find that there are many established consulting firms that work closely with clients to identify and meet business needs, design and implement solutions, and/or provide training and ongoing support. Additionally, many corporations who aren’t in a position to hire permanent resources often turn to consultants to fill a short-term gap, in order to meet a critical resource or project requirement.
One of the major advantages (or disadvantages, depending on your point of view) when working for a consulting firm is that the firm finds the clients and you execute on the agreed-to requirements. While free from the burden of seeking clients, you lose some of the freedom of choice in choosing clientele and assignments.
On the other hand, if you are prepared and ready to launch your own consulting firm, then the burden of finding clients rests solely on your shoulders. You set your hours. You choose which clients and projects to accept. You develop the business plan and market your own services and expertise.
You are the head of marketing, head of HR, CFO, and CEO all rolled into one. While all the responsibility rests solely on the consultant, for those who have determination, vision, and who are willing to put in the long hours required for the road to success, the rewards can be great.
Translating skills to consultancy
There’s a lot more to launching a successful IT consultancy career than printing business cards and waiting for the phone to ring. At the foundation of any successful business is a carefully thought-out, well-conceived business plan.
You need to decide and understand what type of services you want to provide. While it’s certainly possible to market yourself as a jack-of-all-ITtech-trades, you’ll find that most consultants specialize in one or perhaps two key areas.
Take time to analyze your areas of expertise and strengths. What technology do you love? What are you passionate about? The question then becomes how to translate those strengths into value to prospective customers.
For example, an IT professional recently retired from the military might translate their expertise and experience into a consultancy that focuses on helping companies design and develop infrastructures that enable them to provide services to government agencies such as Homeland Security, or the Department of Defense.
Similarly, a retired bank CISO might choose to focus on providing services to banks and other financial institutions. A former helpdesk manager might focus on designing, deploying, and supporting computer networks for small and mid-size business clients. Regardless of the specialization chosen, your goal is to become known as the go-to person for that skill and industry segment.
Prepare for success
As with any career, successful consultants should prepare themselves by obtaining the right skill set and experience to meet the needs of clients. At a minimum, these skills should include a combination of education and experience, along with related soft skills and relevant certifications.
Education. Successful IT consultants typically possess at least a bachelor’s or equivalent degree in computer science, information technology, quality assurance, or other related degrees.
Business Skills. IT consultants need to possess an understanding of the business context related to proposed solutions and how the strategies and plans they may be recommending impact a client’s short- and long-term business goals.
Additional business training such as an MBA in an IT-related field can be useful. A simple Google search reveals numerous universities offering MBAs with IT-related specializations in areas such as information management, information technology, and information systems management.
Experience. When it comes to consultancy, experience matters. When clients hire a consultant, it’s because they do not have any internal personnel with the knowledge and experience necessary to meet the current job challenge. Clients want to know the subject matter expert they hired has a proven, experiential record of success.
Certifications. Consultants need to demonstrate that their skills have currency and are cutting edge. One of the ways to accomplish this is to obtain (and maintain) widely recognized and well respected certifications that relate to their area of expertise. Such certifications speak not only to your skill, but to your commitment to maintain skill currency.
Soft Skills. Soft skills are absolutely essential in a consulting business. First and foremost, IT consultants need superior communication skills, both written and verbal. Excellent presentation skills are an advantage, as is the ability to transfer your knowledge to client’s team members who will implement plans after your contract is fulfilled.
Flexibility and adaptability to changing environments is also a must-have skill, along with the ability to quickly identify problems and create innovative solutions. Cultivating strong soft skills is absolutely essential. Remember, you are your best product and best advocate!
Finding those elusive clients
Let’s face it. Clients are the bread and butter of any business. When it comes to IT consultancy, one of the greatest challenges facing a fledgling consultant is how to secure referrals and snag potential clients away from the competition. How do you let people know who you are, what you do, and why you should be the one to do the project for them?
Network, Network, Network! Join your local Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations and regularly attend the meetings. Every professional you meet is a potential future client. Professional associations are also a great networking tool.
Promote Yourself. You need to get the word out. Let others know what you’re doing and the services you can provide. This includes friends, peers, former co-workers, suppliers and vendors. If they are in whatever address file you have to keep track of personal and professional contacts, then they should know what you’re doing.
References Are Key. Obtain references that you can readily and easily provide to prospective clients. It’s important to establish not only that you have the education and skills necessary to do the job, but the confidence of others in your ability to deliver.
Gain referrals. It’s also a good idea to develop a network with other professionals who possess complementary skills that are outside your area of expertise. This enables you to either collaborate with them on projects, or refer projects to them (and vice versa). Clients will remember and appreciate your integrity in connecting with the right professional to get the job done. Integrity is remembered.
Maintain skills currency. Keep your skills current. Companies hire IT consultants to do projects that they can’t do for themselves. Stay abreast of the newest, most cutting-edge technologies.
Setting up the work environment
If you are going it solo as an IT consultant, it’s important to remember that you’ll be working without whatever support staff may have been available to you during your corporate days. In addition to your consulting accounts current, making travel arrangements, copying and faxing, and preparing status reports all fall on the shoulders of the consultant.
For professionals used to the ready availability of support personnel for more routine or mundane tasks, this can be a real eye opener. Be prepared and willing to tackle the small stuff going in.
If this is your first time in business, then it can be tempting to think about setting up shop in a prime downtown location with a big corner office. Chances are, this won’t bring in clients and isn’t really necessary. Most, if not all, of a consultant’s time is spent at the client’s location so a “storefront” isn’t really required.
You do, however, need a good home office or dedicated space in which to work, along with the tools — phone, reliable internet access, computer, printer, and so forth — necessary for you to be effective in your role.
As a freelance IT consultant, you set your own hours. Bear in mind, however, that launching a new business takes time, dedication and commitment. Be prepared to work long hours, not only on current client projects, but networking to find the next job, and the next one after that.
In addition to work done for your clients, be sure to plan time to handle work done for yourself. You’ll need to make time to manage your own accounts receivable and payables, for example, as well as attend to your own licensure and fees (if applicable), taxes, healthcare, and more.
Looking to the future
In general, the field of management consultancy is solid. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the field of management analysts/ consultants is expected to experience a growth rate of 14 percent between 2016 and 2026. (It should be noted that this job role does not focus solely on IT consultants but all consultants in general.)
The BLS also reports projected growth for IT security analyst at 28 percent between 2016 and 2026. Salaries are solid with PayScale reporting median salaries for IT management consultants at $90,000 and the upper tier of earning more than $140,000.
Opportunity is out there. If you like challenges and flexibility, then IT consulting may be a very rewarding career, even if you work for an established consulting firm. And if you have solid IT skills and strong personal management acumen, then you just might already be the best boss you’ll ever work for — there’s only one way to find out!