So you want to be a consultant…

This content is 19 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Earlier today I posted a link to Steve Friedl’s illustrated guide to IPSec. Steve’s site has a whole load of technical tips, but one item I stumbled across was his extremely interesting review of consultancy practices (subtitled as “Why work 8 hours/day for someone else when you can work 16 hours/day for yourself?”).

As an IT consultant (albeit one employed by a global IT services organisation), married to a PR consultant, I can really relate to some of Steve’s consulting maxims, the most pertinent of which I’ve quoted below:

  • “‘Trust’ is your best job security”.
  • “You are primarily in the customer service business, not the technical business”.
  • “For a good consultant, your voice is comforting: Be very easy to find”.
  • “The best way to appreciate the value of a good [specification] is to do a project without one”.
  • “Customers hate ‘unhappy surprises’ much more than ‘timely bad news'”.
  • “Ongoing business is much more important than maximizing every billable hour” (which goes hand in hand with “hourly arrangements of any substantial magnitude require that you have earned your customer’s trust”).
  • “It’s better to give away some time than to throw away your reputation” (but remember “if the customer doesn’t know you did work off the clock, you don’t get credit for it”).
  • “Detail is comforting to a customer”.
  • “If you routinely take ownership for your own mistakes, you’re much more likely to be believed when you claim something is not your doing”.
  • “Your best advertisement is publishing of original, technical content”.
  • “It’s a huge asset to communicate well – cultivate this skill vigorously”.
  • “Your references are your reputation in the consulting world”.
  • “The customer is not always right”.
  • “The Internet never forgets: don’t provide dirt for your future”.
  • “If you’re booked up solid, your rates are too low”.
  • “Your long-term customers are your best customers”.
  • “The best way to make a lot of money is to make your customers a lot of money”.
  • “You must know how to read your customer”.
  • “Your customers are buying your judgment, not just your time”.
  • “Being known for your integrity is the Holy Grail of consulting”.

He also makes some useful observations on technical skills and certification:

“Your references and your experience are far more important than your certifications. What counts here is truly learning the subject matter, and there is no harm in obtaining the certificate in the process. But if the goal is just to collect some paper, it leads to the prototypical computer jockey with lots of alphabets after his name but limited power in the driver’s seat.

Where the skills question gets tricky is when getting outside your comfort zone: a customer will ask you about a project that you are almost, but not quite, qualified for. Surprisingly, this happens a lot: if you have conducted yourself well, your customer would rather find a way to use you – a known quantity – than find somebody else. This occurs over a fairly wide range of skills.

When considering one of these projects, the first rule is: never lie to your customer about your skills. Be completely candid with your customer about what you know and how you would address the project. This would likely include substantial off-the-clock time as you got up to speed on the technology in question.”

Well worth a read for any consultant (whether self employed or not) and for any customers who employ consultants too!

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