How to Move from Contractor to Consultant

Programmers, systems architects, project managers or other IT specialists working as a contractor may actually have the capabilities of a consultant lurking in you.  All it calls for is drawing out a few extra skills and the payoff can potentially mean more money in your pocket.

But first, I draw a distinction between contractors and consultants. Contractors are usually hired by consulting companies to go into a company and perform a specific function. Programmers, project managers, system architects, and technical writers are frequent examples of contractors. The job is usually well-defined and the methodology is mature and predictable. That’s usually.

Bona fide consultants, on the other hand, go into a company to try to fix a problem. The client hires the consultant to help them figure out a solution. Sometimes the client is clueless to the underlying problem. Working consultants are masters at diplomacy and listening. They’ll test and investigate, then organize the plan of attack. They thrive on ambiguity and uncertainty. Clients have a tough time with those two things. That’s one reason they hire outside help.

There’s absolutely no reason that a programmer, project manager, system architect, or technical writer can’t go find some companies with problems, in their area of expertise, and help them fix whatever is broken.

Wearing a Consulting Hat

Let’s face it, the prospect of going out and selling your expertise can be daunting. There’s a lot of people skills that come into play too, so introverts might need to become more outgoing to make it work.

Dan McHugh, in “The Consultants Lifestyle,” explains this type of work is a prestigious way to make a living and can be pretty lucrative. His short article is certainly worth reading because it addresses issues like per diem pay, living out of hotels and how to deal with client’s workers.

Steve Friedl also has a great primer on consulting in his article “So You Want To Be A Consultant…?” Friedl says the biggest single factor in consulting success is “You Must Give The Customer The Warm And Fuzzy Feeling.” I agree. You need to build trust with your clients and it takes a while, often with frequent hand-holding.

Friedl’s story is compelling and filled with valuable nuggets you can put to immediate use. He’s blunt and to the point. But you definitely want a consultant who’ll tell it to you straight.

Lastly, make sure you round-up an old copy of “How To Be A Successful Consultant In Your Own Field,” by Hubert Bermont. This guy wrote the book on consulting. It addresses how to set up a practice, how to “work” with clients and what you’ll really do as an expert. The book is a short 205 pages, with loads of interesting personal insights and observations that will put you on the path to success. It’s advice is as timely now, as it was back in 1978.

Perhaps one reason knowledgeable, valuable IT specialists don’t make the transition from contractor to consultant is because they simply don’t know where to start. Now you have a starting line and you’ll never know if consulting is right for you, unless you give it a try.

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