Thinking of becoming an IT consultant? That might not be a bad idea — if you’ve developed the skills and experience needed to help clients deliver successful projects.
Companies are in need of expertise in areas such as cloud computing, cyber security, big data and analytics, data center transformation, artificial intelligence/machine learning, and the internet of things (IoT) — among others.
But they’re facing an ongoing shortage of talent with skills in these areas. That’s where outside consultants can help.
Pay for IT contract workers is on the rise. The Dice 2018 Tech Salary report notes that hourly rates for consultants increased 4.7 percent from 2016 to 2017, while pay for IT staffers remained fairly flat.
What does it take to be a successful IT consultant? Some of the obvious requirements include self-discipline, having good organizational skills, the ability to work independently, and so on.
But experts say anyone looking to transition from a full-time IT job with an organization to being an independent IT consultant should follow some basic practices. Here are some of the more important ones.
Develop good interview skills
As a consultant you will be interviewed by prospective clients — in some cases multiple times by people at different levels of an organization. That means you need to learn how to be adept at interviewing.
Be prepared not only to answer a host of questions about your background and skills, but to eloquently describe how you will help solve specific problems and deliver value to the client.
“Your resume may get you in the door of a prospective client, but your interview is where you make a lasting impression and land the opportunity,” says Todd Weneck, vice president of search at Modis, a provider of IT staffing services.
“You want interviewers to leave the discussion impressed with your technical capabilities as well as your soft skills,” Weneck says.
“Practicing interviews with a mentor or recruiter can help you become more polished in your responses and go into an interview with confidence. Find someone who knows your industry and will give you candid feedback as you prepare.”
As part of interviews, consultants need to provide quantifiable examples of how they affected work projects in previous roles.
“What you must be able to do is effectively communicate what value you’ll bring to the organization and how you’ll be able to solve the problem the client is facing,” says Jim Johnson, senior vice president at IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology.
“You’ll also want to be able to clearly convey how you’ve solved business issues in your prior roles, whether in full-time or contract positions.”
You might want to view the interview process as more of an in-depth business meeting, Johnson says. “Research the company in order to understand the issues the company or industry are facing, and come prepared with your own set of questions about the company and the project,” he says.
Learn how to review client contracts/confidentiality agreements, and find help if needed
Contracts should cover areas such as costs, hours, milestones, deliverables, deadlines, and who pays for outside expenses.
“If you are taking the independent contractor route, this is especially important, as you will be expected to comply with the ‘flow-downs’ of the company you are consulting with or the consulting company with which you are subcontracting,” says Steve Perkins, U.S. and global managing director of the technology industry practice at professional services firm Grant Thornton.
“In addition to SLAs [service-level agreements] and rates, this will include privacy, [intellectual property], insurance, etc.,” says Perkins, who began his career in government IT before transitioning to IT and management consulting.
“It’s essential to learn the business model of consulting — how they make money — and the levers that can be pulled to improve performance.”
It’s not a particularly complicated business, Perkins says, with consultants generally charging an hourly rate with some fixed-price, value-based and subscription models.
“But it’s a hard business as the competition is fierce, rates pressure is significant, labor costs are rising, and the technology consulting business itself is being disrupted dramatically by technology” such as bots and artificial intelligence, he says.
Navigating through the contract process can be a time-consuming, confusing, or stressful part of the consulting process for many who are unfamiliar with the ins and outs of what goes into the administrative process, Johnson says. Many new consultants will lean on an outside services firm that can take care of the administrative tasks.
Consider focusing on one or a few industries and go deep in these areas
One of the first questions prospective clients are likely to ask is what kind of experience you have in their industry, so focusing on particular sectors and gaining lots of experience might help land assignments.
Don’t understate the value of the insights you gained working in their industry, Perkins says. “They are what will differentiate you in the early days of your consulting career,” he says.
“Others will know the methods, tools and craft skills of consulting, but few will have the depth of industry-specific insight you bring to the table. Trade on this.”
As you develop a sense of which industry sectors most interest you, seek out assignments that will extend your expertise, Perkins says.
“Your value increases the deeper you go,” he says. “And conversely, actively manage yourself away from industry specializations that don’t interest you.”
Early in his consulting career, Perkins was assigned to two large agricultural chemical clients in a row, and was beginning to be referred to as the “AgChem” subject-matter expert.
“Nothing wrong with AgChem, but I fancied myself a financial services technology strategist and took steps to gain experience in other areas,” he says. “At the same time, though, don’t neglect the emerging technologies and methodologies that will keep you attractive to a broad range of client and assignment types.”
Acquire relevant credentials and affiliations
Prospective clients want assurances that the consultants they hire know a lot about the particular technologies or services they are using. That’s where having credentials and affiliations in relevant areas can help seal the deal.
“These are table stakes in the consulting business,” Perkins says. “They range from the more general, such as certification in project management, to the specific, such as certification in a specific vendor product. These credentials enable clients, recruiters and consulting management to quickly appreciate your capabilities.”
Some are even required as a part of bidding for work in a structured proposal process, and a given in technology consulting for government clients, Perkins says.
IT certifications are beneficial in particular when they meet the needs of clients, Weneck says. “For instance, being an AWS Certified Solutions Architect is a valuable credential, but not if Microsoft Azure is your client’s cloud service,” he says. “The key is to know your audience and build on your existing skill sets.”
On the other hand, if your credentials are not exactly what the client is looking for but you think they will translate to the larger context of the job, it’s important to be upfront about this and articulate how your background makes you an ideal fit for the position, Weneck says.
Develop communication and collaboration skills
Being an IT consultant in many cases means working with others on a team, and being able to communicate clearly with team members and supervisors is vital.
“One of your primary goals as a consultant is to secure long-term and repeat opportunities,” Weneck says. “When management is considering which consultant is the right fit for the job, it often comes down to how well they integrate with the existing team.”
Effective communication and interpersonal skills help position you to seamlessly assimilate with those already on the job, Weneck says.
An annual trends survey of decision-makers that Modis conducts identified teamwork and communication as the most difficult soft skills to find among technology professionals. “It solidifies the need to hone these skills to be a successful IT consultant,” he says.
In many cases teams are assembled quickly from a large pool of potential candidates, and projects can be short term.
“Your ability to quickly gel with your teammates to form an effective, productive unit is essential,” Perkins says. “And unless you are a solo practitioner, this will be an important performance evaluation measurement.”
Nurture relationships and get good references
When looking to land consulting gigs you will almost certainly be asked to provide references. This can be a challenge when you’re first starting out, so you’ll probably need to list former employers as references.
Once you’ve successfully completed consulting projects for clients, be sure to ask if you can cite the organizations as references for prospective clients.
“Clients do business with people they trust and respect,” Perkins says. “Even if you are a part of a large consulting business, it comes down to your personal reputation, your track record of client service, and referrals from previous clients.
"In this consulting business, you are only as good as your last project. While a well-recognized logo will open a door to a new client, your reputation will close it. Over time, your network — within industry and within consulting — will be more valuable than your technical skills. Constantly nurture it."
As part of networking, “consultants should pull from past experiences, research, industry relationships, colleagues, partners, and what they learn within an organization,” says Kevin Rooney, vice president at AIM Consulting, a firm that specializes in IT consulting.
Get endorsements from people you work with on LinkedIn or other vehicles for showcasing your personal brand, Rooney says. “Everyone checks to see how you are connected before they will work with you,” he says. “This is how you will build a pipeline of business.”
Learn to be a salesman and business developer
In many cases the consulting work is not going to come to you; you need to go out and get it. One often-overlooked skill is the ability to both “sell” and “do,” Perkins says.
“The smaller your business — and especially if you are on your own — the harder this will be,” Perkins says. “And when you are selling, you are not making money, and when you are delivering, no one is bringing in the next project.
"You will certainly move into consulting with a client or two and a project or two already in hand, but quickly will come the need to replace these.”
Business development skills are almost never acquired in previous industry roles, Perkins says. “You must be the steward [of] your own career, proactively seeking out the client projects to gain the experiences you want and need, and the training to achieve necessary and value-add skills and certification,” he says.
“You may have a mentor to help along the way. [But] in the end, you must chart your path.”