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Is Consulting Right for You?


Sign #3: Incompatible Lifestyle and/or Responsibilities

The day-to-day realities of consulting, while they can be rewarding, almost certainly go beyond what most think of as a typical 9-to-5 existence. The thriving consultant probably spends at least 40 hours in a week billing for a client but then spends some measure of time doing the following:

  • Working for the consulting company, attending company events, helping on presales efforts
  • Working on side projects, doing open source work, authoring articles
  • Spending significant time learning new technologies
  • Commuting to clients that may or may not be particularly close to home

Needless to say, depending on the situation, the burden above 40 hours can be heavy. Especially during recessions when there are fewer opportunities and more need to distinguish yourself with side work, chances are, you will spend 50 to 60 hours on career-related activities in a given week:

Breakdown of the consulting week

Be aware that some people somehow manage to coach little league, hold the PTA presidency, and do numerous other things, all while still having avid hobbies on the side. I am not saying it is impossible, but a word of caution should apply: If you have a lot of nonwork, noncareer activities you want to be involved in, you need to think long and hard before you pursue a career in technology consulting. Although some manage to do it all, I personally am not convinced they are not secretly abusing methamphetamines (or at least a lot of coffee!) to give themselves 22 waking hours each day.

Travel Required?

In consulting, it is not a guarantee you will have to travel. However, if you ever want to work for one of the bigger consulting firms, where the job security is better, you will be working for a firm that probably operates in more than one city. If your firm operates in more than one city, chances are, you will be at least asked to travel occasionally.

You can survive in consulting if you refuse to travel. However, doing so, at least in most firms, puts you on a much slower track than those who are willing to travel, at least in the earlier career stages. The reality, as hard as it may seem, is that you are as valuable as you are marketable for the firm you work for. Being capable of travel opens up a level of flexibility in what you are able to do for your firm, therefore putting you on a faster path. If you can't travel, you have been on the bench for two months, and others who can travel are getting projects (albeit elsewhere) and you are not, you will certainly feel the heat! The requirement to travel is, like most things, situational. In some cases you might work for a consultancy that is mostly local, a consultancy that sells work that is mostly remote, and so forth. And if you find such a situation, by all means embrace it. However, at least in 2009, this is not the norm, though we would very much like it to be.

But What if I Have a Life?

There is room to have a life, depending on how you define "life." Let's put it bluntly: If you have hobbies that take a ton of time, whether it is something noble like working for a charity part-time 30 hours a week in the evenings or something even more noble like running a guild full-time in World of Warcraft, you may need to sacrifice part of that activity if you really want to thrive in consulting.

Of course, the alternative is to become very proficient at time management! Most people waste a lot of time (I write this, of course, after checking Twitter for 10 minutes, checking Facebook for another 10 minutes, checking my Google Reader…you get the idea). If you want to have time for work 60 hours per week; kids 30 hours per week; your hobby 30 hours per week; and time on top of that to occasionally eat, sleep, work out, and so on, you will not have another 30 hours per week to surf for funny YouTube videos.

But What If I Don't Have a Choice?

It is one thing if your life choices are not compatible; at least you can change that if you want to have a consulting career. There are others, however, for whom spending 40 hours per week parenting or taking care of an elderly or sick parent or spouse is not optional. Is a consulting career still possible in such a situation?

Yes, but having this career will be tougher for you than others who do not have that level of responsibility. The problem for someone with this level of responsibility is that you are operating in a marketplace where your peers have, on average, probably less responsibility than you. As a result, in situations in which you are competing for the best assignments, the sad truth in most cases is that there is a good chance, at least in some firms, that you might be at a disadvantage.

How do you get around this problem? Sadly, there is no real easy answer to that. The choices really are to balance the responsibilities, settle for operating from a position of disadvantage, and try to compensate in other ways (for example, compensate for lack of schedule flexibility with outstanding talent) or possibly try some means of being in technology that is less time-intensive than consulting. There is no easy answer, but for those who really want to make it work, there are ways to do it.


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