Career Doctor: When Consulting is a Good Fit for You

By Katherine Spencer Lee | August 2008


Question:
I’m a 50-year-old "geek" with 26 years of IT experience. I’ve been working for my current company for eight years, mostly doing .NET and Oracle development, and my background is pretty broad. I don’t want to manage people, but I do love leading project teams. Things are getting stale here, but I have no idea where I fit in the job market. Can you give me any pointers?

Katherine Spencer Lee responds:
Your lengthy, varied experience, enthusiasm for project leadership and desire for new challenges all suggest that you should consider consulting. Experienced IT workers increasingly view consulting as a viable career choice, rather than a stopgap between full-time jobs. It can be an especially rewarding option toward the end of a successful IT career: In a Robert Half Technology poll of chief information officers, nearly half (46 percent) said they are likely to consider consulting or project work as a way to transition to retirement.

Fresh challenges
By immersing yourself in a variety of industries, companies and projects, consulting can supply the invigorating challenges your current position lacks. For example, you might discover new technical areas that engage you or find yourself putting existing skills to unfamiliar uses.

Even if you find that you prefer full-time work with a single employer, consulting enables you to sample the current hiring market – an especially valuable benefit after eight years with the same firm. Many hiring managers view contract work as an extended interview, during which they can assess a potential employee’s job performance and fit within the organization. Up-close exposure to different companies also broadens your network, improving your ability to find satisfying permanent employment if you decide to return to that option.

In addition, with your years of experience, consulting affords you the opportunity to lead a project team without having to serve in a management capacity. So, you can come into an organization and oversee an assignment, but not have to be concerned with duties such as conducting performance reviews or helping map out employees’ paths at the company. Those responsibilities can be handled by the individuals’ managers, allowing you to focus your energy on how to best complete the project.

Potential drawbacks
Of course, consulting isn’t a great choice for every experienced IT professional. It’s essential to assess your priorities, preferences and abilities before making a change.

First and foremost, consulting requires that you prefer change to consistency. As a project professional working with a range of clients and products, you must be able to adapt well to new work environments and corporate cultures. For those who prefer the predictability of working for a single employer, the switch to contract work can be difficult.

Your level of business acumen is another consideration to take into account before becoming a consultant. If you have little experience marketing yourself or are likely to become so wrapped up in projects that you neglect billing or other administrative tasks, managing your consulting business can create more stress than satisfaction. One way to avoid such drawbacks is to work through a staffing firm, which can perform the administrative aspects of the business for you.

A final consideration is your ability to effectively manage your time. You have to know how to ask the right questions at the beginning of a project: What is the proposed timeline? What resources are at your disposal? What is the project’s history? Are the goals of the assignment likely to change? Once you’ve established these particulars, you must have the discipline to continuously assess progress and the flexibility to adjust your methods as necessary. You may also need the leadership abilities to ensure that other team members stay on track.

If you’re at your best when facing the unexpected and eager to continue learning, consulting can be an extremely rewarding professional path. It may give you the flexibility to pursue other interests, both at work and in your personal life. In addition, you¿ll put yourself in the position to pass along your knowledge and experience to the next generation of IT talent.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in North America, Europe and Asia.

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