Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Consulting Lifestyle (contributed by Gary K. Evans)

Gary K. Evans ( spent 17 years as an independent consultant and trainer in object-oriented development and Agile processes. He is now working for a major financial institution in Enterprise Agile Process Enablement.

Why Be a Consultant?

Anyone who's flirting with "going independent" must consider a number of issues. Contracting isn't just regular employment without a boss—it's qualitatively different from a W-2 corporate position, and it’s not for everyone. When I considered going out on my own, the fundamental question I had to face was: Why do this? What inspires someone to walk away from the security of a W-2, salaried job? The answer varies with the individual. Some want more income or more control over their professional lives. Others are running from a bad corporate position, or seeking a challenging, exhausting world of untapped potential. Still others are forced into the choice by a layoff. Regardless, you should examine your motives ruthlessly.

Survey the field in which you wish to market your services and ask yourself if it can supply your financial needs. In 1999, the Y2K problem put COBOL and RPG programmers in high demand, and many with those skills jumped to contract or independent work. But by the end of 2001, it was the end of the road for many of those who had only these skills to bring to the market.

Be brutal in your self-examination. Remember, you never "work whenever you want to"—you work when work is around, because it might not be available when "you want to." Are you willing—or capable—of tackling the marketing, sales, billing, and office administration that must be done when you're the entire business? If the thought of cold calling gives you chills, perhaps you're not ready to take the plunge. Are you ready to be always looking for a job? Are you ready to accept each holiday or vacation period as unpaid days? Weigh the potential downside with serious consideration.

If you do decide to give consulting a fling, please do not burn your former employee relationships. You might despise the company you are leaving, but don't ever say so publicly, and that includes Facebook and Twitter. You may think your former managers are all idiots, but if you ever speak of them publicly, make sure you describe only what they did right. You can never know if you might someday need to rely on those very people to hire you or to act as a reference. In 1993 I was part of a layoff by NCR Corporation in the U.S. Five weeks later my first client was NCR-Canada, with whom I had had zero prior contact. You just never know what the future may bring. Keep it professional, never personal.

And what if you move to consulting, and then realize this really is not for you? Always have a backup plan, as well as a backup bank account. As I discuss below, consulting affects everyone in a family or relationship. You might find that the stress of job search, continual job uncertainty, weeks away from home, living in hotels, and eating meals alone is too high a price to pay. It all takes a toll. A simple recommendation is to plan to spend six to twelve months building a consulting presence, while continuing to look for full-time work. If the job market is good you might find yourself able to fill your calendar with consulting work, and even capture some full-time offers as well. In the latter scenario, one approach I took was to offer my services to the potential employer on a contract basis for, say, three months, so we could "test drive" each other. This way I was building my consulting credentials and history, and they had already put their cards on the table that they thought I would make a valuable addition to their full-time staff.

Two of the facets I love most about consulting are the flexibility it offers and the creativity it allows. You just have to think of how you can construct a "win/win" both for your own goals, and for the company engaging you. Even if you decide that independent consulting is not to your taste or the work just doesn't materialize, consider joining a small consulting firm who needs your skills, or even returning to a fulltime employment position.

The notion that consulting isn't a job, but rather is a way of doing a job, came home to me when I read Alan Weiss's excellent book Million Dollar Consulting. Essentially, we must have a field in which to conduct our consulting. You can choose to align yourself with a product, a vendor, a technology, or a platform. But beyond those choices, you must also find a focus, which should become your personal mission statement. Without this, you'll never know when to say no to a job offer. And if you don't say no to the wrong engagement, you won't be available to say yes when the right one comes.

It's a Family Business

Unless you're a hermit, don't fool yourself: Consulting affects everyone in a family or close relationship. For 1099 contractors as well as W-2 employees, time away from home takes its toll, and in the expanding global marketplace, our industry requires more traveling than ever before. I recently looked at my Frequent Flyer balance with Delta: it's over 500,000 miles after cashing in several tens of thousands for family flight tickets. And this is only for Delta, which I have flown only four times in the last three years! I estimate I have logged very close to one million miles across all airlines in my seventeen years of consulting.

But even the grinding tedium of air travel does not compare to the stress that comes at the end of a contract when no other opportunity is present. Essentially, you're out of a job—again and again. The stress of finding clients, negotiating fees, terms, and schedules, and delivering what you promise can be a killer if you don't have confidence in your abilities and support from those closest to you.

All of this will take a physical toll also. I have been very active all my adult life: lifting weights and playing soccer. This physical activity has been crucial to my being able to maintain both my mental and physical well-being. Make time for yourself so you can be as healthy as possible, and strong enough to support your family even when you are not there with them. Karl has two consultant friends who both wound up sick for several months, unable to shake their ailments because they never had enough down time to rest between client commitments. Having work is great, but you need to take enough breaks to stay mentally and physically healthy.

Don't disappear into a distant town and become a vague memory for your loved ones. When I travel, I call home every single night to talk with my wife and my children so I can still have a presence at home. When my children were small, I helped them with homework over the phone. Math isn’t easy to do by voice alone. My wife would fax or email the kids’ assignment sheets to me, and I would go over the assignment with them, usually sending back examples of how to solve the problems. It would have been infinitely better to be sitting at the kitchen table with them, but I could not, so this was a creative alternative. It required more effort from me, but it helped them and kept us in touch. And that's the whole point.

If you work out of a home office and you have small children, you will face a very special challenge. When I started consulting my children were 7 and 1. My 7-year-old understood the signal of my office door: when Daddy's door is closed he is working and you should not interrupt him. He will come out later to play. But my 1-year-old knew no such restraint. When he heard me through the door typing, or talking on the telephone, all he knew was: Daddy's home…play time! It broke my heart—and his—for me to have to move him out of my office so I could work. For several years I resorted to setting up shop with my laptop in a local public library several days a week. It was there in a (really) little room that I wrote my Object-Oriented Analysis and Design course of more than 700 pages.

Another unanticipated possibility for the consultant working out of his or her home is that your spouse or partner really make not like having you hanging around all day. You think you are working, but your partner sees you interloping on what was private turf. "This is my kingdom during the day, when you should be at an office working!" And once your partner realizes you are at home, she won’t feel hesitant to ask you to fix the cord on the vacuum, invite you to drive to the hardware store to look at faucets, or generate any number of other innocent interruptions. But the interruptions do add up and sap your productivity. You might find yourself staring at a computer at 10 p.m., realizing you accomplished nothing that day on the project your client is paying you to complete.

Expect that your days will not go as smoothly as you hope, and accept that both you and your family will have to make some lifestyle changes and accommodations. Assess yourself and your loved ones honestly. If you do decide to take the plunge, be kind: make it hard on yourself, so it looks like a walk in the park from their point of view.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

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