I interview (and ultimately hire) a fair number of folks that have never worked as a consultant into their first consulting job. They often ask about the life of consultant and what to expect in their targeted role, which is completely fair. I discussed this pattern with a colleague who pointed me to a blog post titled Every engineer should do a stint in consulting by Forrest Brazeal. While I disagree that every engineer should work in consulting because I dislike absolutes, I do think many of the benefits and drawbacks defined are legitimate.
I’ve tried to sample from numerous verticals and company types throughout my career, including internal IT operations at numerous businesses, a value added reseller (VAR), a software product company (vendor), and now a consulting services firm. That doesn’t mean it’s the best path or even the right path. It was just the path I took based on my skills and the opportunities available at the time. Consulting isn’t a good or a bad thing, it’s just a different way to offer your technologist skills and capabilities “as a service.” And like any service, consulting can be used in an effective or wasteful way depending on the people involved on both sides of the contract.
Everyone has Broken Bits
It’s important to realize that all companies, regardless of size or vertical, have what I term to be “broken bits.” Areas of the company that have accrued too much technical debt, or have scaled too quickly, or are suffering from brain drain. Whatever the reason, these broken bits need attention. This is often when hiring consultants is put on the table by a stakeholder within the business. The broken bits are blocking some key initiative due to lack of time, people, or expertise. This can be shocking to new consultants because the perception is that most companies are awesome at technology. Sadly, no. Pretty much every company struggles to build and release code in a smooth and reliable fashion. I can count on one hand how many truly amazing technology companies I’ve had the pleasure of working with in the past few decades.
Bringing in technologists as a service is one way a smart company can trade money for velocity. As a consultant, the expectation is that you’re the sort of technologist that can quickly grok the problem, learn how things work at the organization, and perform problem solving. Because you’re not actually part of the organization, you’re kind of outside the typical politics and can often navigate them with a more direct (and brutal) approach. I personally love this, as politics within a company are incredibly stupid – after all, you’re all on the same team (company) and infighting is something reserved for low emotional quotient (EQ) folks.
Success as a Consultant
I like being a people leader at a consulting services firm. I get the benefits of running my own company without the headache of dealing with the financials. I can focus purely on supporting and mentoring my team while working on impactful projects that stoke my passion and align to my career goals. I learn just as much from my clients as they do from me.
If you’re considering consulting or have just joined a company as a new consultant, here are some tips from my personal experience:
- Practice the habit of gathering client information and learning how everything connects together. Many new consultants try to lead with a solution, meaning they hear enough to pick a tool or process and then go about implementing it. This is a bad pattern! Listen, learn, think, and then act.
- The most successful professional technologists are the ones who understand the power of writing. Being an effective communicator means writing a lot: documentation, deliverables, designs, plans, strategies, code reviews, emails, instant messages, as-builts, etc.
- Realize that you will never know everything and don’t assume everyone else does, either. In fact, assume all information to be faulty and inaccurate. Learn to find data and evidence to support your decisions. If people know why you make a decision – because it’s documented and data driven – then you’re going to have a much easier time convincing people to make a change.
- Make allies and network your heart out. My motto: “I don’t need to be the expert in all things, I just need to know who the experts are.”
My biased opinion is that consulting is the future of most technologists based on how technology and organizations are changing. Sure, a few mega companies like Google and Amazon will retain hundreds of thousands of engineers on staff, but that is dwarfed by the overall population of technologists. For the rest of the world there is simply too much complexity to deal with to reliably and affordably staff enough talent to handle “all the things.” Being able to leverage technologists as a service (via vehicles such as consulting) makes sense. It’s the same model we use to obviate toil when selecting tools as a service. Both models trade money for velocity and push context work away from core work.
Another data point to support my opinion is the Great Resignation and the vastly increased availability of remote work. As knowledge workers, we’re now, more than ever, able to pick and choose work based more on interest, opportunity, and impact. While there are drawbacks to being a consulting technologist, I’d say the benefits are larger and carry more weight. Put simply – as a person who loves building things, why would I saddle myself with one project or vertical when I could choose many of them? As an added bonus, it’s also a great way to fight boredom and automate yourself out of a project. 🙂
My final data point is the massive consolidation of value added resellers and consulting services firms. For example, CDW buying Sirius for 2.5 billion dollars. It’s obvious that these companies and the hedge funds / investors behind them are looking to gain more of a global foothold on the technologists as a service market. It makes sense to focus on deduplicating redundancies across back end administrative efforts, sales teams, marketing teams, alliance teams, and so forth. This fattens the already delicious services margins while increasing the amount of skills and capabilities being offered “as a service” to clients.
We’re still going to need internal IT operations folks working at organizations. But with such a focus on driving to the heart of core work and the fact that one person can operate and manage vast sums of technical resources with ease, we’re going to continue to see a sunset on large, in-house IT shops. Bringing in technologists as a service is one way a smart company can trade money for velocity and build relationships with those seeking impactful work.