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Is Consulting Right for You?

Aaron Erickson is technology writer and author of The Nomadic Developer: Surviving and Thriving in the World of Technology Consulting on which this article is based. Aaron can be contacted at http://nomadic-developer.com/. Courtesy Addison-Wesley Professional. Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.

Technology consulting isn't a good fit for everyone. Is it for you? It is important to understand that not everyone is a good fit for technology consulting. There are many good reasons for this, and this article focuses on the five main reasons you may want to consider not being a technology consultant:

  • Lack of risk tolerance
  • Incompatible personality
  • Incompatible lifestyle and/or responsibilities
  • Single product focus -- desire to work on one product over a long period of time
  • Desire to do it "for the money"

These enumerated factors, although not exhaustive, are typical reasons why consultants either burn out quickly or never really manage to get their careers into a trajectory that allows them to have success. Indeed, whereas trying something out and discovering it isn't for you may not be as career limiting as, say, surfing for pornography at work or serving time for fraud, choosing to become a consultant when the career isn't a good fit can be quite a mistake. Going down this path when it isn't a good fit presents risks of continually being frustrated, weary, and possibly left unemployed at inopportune times. Although not career ending or, for that matter, even limiting, there is a serious risk of its wasting time and giving you a lot of avoidable grief if you are ill-suited to consulting.

Sign #1: Lack of Risk Tolerance

Talking about lack of risk tolerance might strike you as odd when I have made the case in The Nomadic Developer that in technology consulting, your actual level of risk is lower than working in an IT position. Although I believe this to be true, based on the kinds of networks you build over time supporting you regardless of company, the apparent risk, based on the clarity in which your position is directly related to revenue, will feel high at times.

The "Corporate Bench"

You might be surprised to learn that in IT jobs at non-IT companies, there are periods when you are at great risk of job loss. Especially, but not exclusively, during budget time during a recession, because most companies look at software developers as a cost, software developers, middle managers, project managers, and many others who have advanced in their career and look expensive on the budget spreadsheet are at acute risk of being laid off.

I call this situation the "Corporate Bench" because what happens, prior to the big layoff, is that many low-impact projects are created for IT staff only to give people something to do while the decisions are being made. These projects feel like work, and therefore they feel productive. However, the bottomline impact in many cases is simply not there to make the CFO overlook the position when cost-cutting time comes around.

Let's face it: For good reasons, nobody does profit cutting. In most cases, working for a company in an IT department, you are considered a cost center (note that many believe this designation to be a mistake).When it's time to cut costs, that means cut those who work in the cost center. This especially means people with titles that, if there are no new projects and everything is in maintenance mode, are probably not really needed.

Why Technology Consulting Feels Riskier

What's the difference in technology consulting? Frankly, it's more honest. When you are not billing, you know you are not generating revenue. Because the question as to whether you are earning your keep in technology consulting is more cut and dry, there is little choice in this business but to realize that if you are not billing, selling, or owning, you probably are not contributing. Working in IT masks the risk because you may be on the bench for months or years and not even know it because nobody will tell you that you are vulnerable. In consulting, you know that when you hit the bench, the clock starts ticking. In IT, you probably don't even know where the clock is!

Early in my career, I took a job at a company working on "internal projects." I was one of the only developers who wasn't required to have billable hours, and I was (foolishly) proud of that fact. Looking back, it comes as no surprise that when heads started rolling, mine was one of the first on the block. That was a real eye-opener.

— Chris Williams

Of course, on a case-by-case basis, some consultancies are far riskier propositions than certain IT departments, so this rule is more of a guideline. Consider technology consulting firms with weak demand-generation capability -- for example, a sales department that isn't getting out and meeting customers, or worse, cutting bad deals. Staying at a consultancy like that is probably riskier than almost any other situation you could ever work in. By contrast, in some IT departments all jobs are probably pretty much secure.

The guy who runs servers for Google is probably in a pretty secure position!

Why Avoid Technology Consulting Then?

Why should the risk-averse avoid consulting? The answer really has to do with the fact that there are many people for whom blissful ignorance of their risk is probably a better choice. If the thought of hitting the bench and having daily, visceral fear that you might be let go is going to prevent you from sleeping at night, working in an IT department or for a software company might be a better career choice. You have to feel somewhat secure in your job to be able to do your best work. Of course, almost nobody is truly 100 percent secure. That said, if you are constantly feeling at risk -- be it lack of self-confidence or, more likely, lack of confidence in the ability of your company to keep you busy -- you will be miserable, and you probably won't succeed. Rest assured, nobody does good work for very long when suffering from insomnia.

Refuge for the Risk-Intolerant?

Of course, if you happen to be risk-intolerant, and you have just read this section and decided that maybe neither consulting nor IT departments are the right place for you, should you avoid technology altogether? Of course not.

On the risk continuum, for software developers, the least risky position is to be a software product developer for a successful company that sells software. Although this position is not completely without risk, you could be on a team that makes a less than successful product and again find yourself out of work. On balance, this position combines the aspects of being in a revenuegenerating capacity but provides a business model that has less of a "feast or famine" revenue profile.

The downside to this plan is that there are, sadly, far fewer jobs as software product developers than there are jobs in IT and technology consulting. For every software company with a product that is selling well, there are probably 10 consulting companies and 50 IT departments in companies writing software. And just like everything else, there are proportionally as many poorly run software companies with bad products and miserable owners who hate software developers as there are consulting companies that fit the mold of the Seven Deadly Firms from Chapter 2 of The Nomadic Developer.That said, if you love software but simply hate risk, this is probably the best option for you.

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