Technology Consulting as an Employment Option

With this post comes a big change for me.  I have left Mariner, a Microsoft BI consulting firm located in Charlotte, NC.  Mariner is a terrific firm with smart & fun employees I'll miss very much.  I have joined Intellinet, a Microsoft-centric business consulting technology firm based in Atlanta, GA, with a growing branch in Charlotte, NC.  Intellinet has groups which handle business intelligence (my group!), application development, portals & collaboration, infrastructure, as well as project management & business analysis.  

A Typical IT Consultant

We're generally folks who get bored easily. We crave challenge & variety of work, so instead of job hopping all the time, the world of consulting offers a lot of change.  At least I find this to be true for me.

What we don't think (well, most of us anyway) is that we're any better than the developers & administrators in the companies that we work for. Why do we get hired? Usually because a company doesn't have the expertise, time, or manpower in house - meaning we're just here to help. Hopefully we can bring ideas & experience to the project, with less risk & no long-term commitment to the customer.

Positives Within a Consulting Environment

  • Opportunity to learn a lot of skills (both technical & interpersonal)
  • Varying experiences with different projects, technologies, and clients
  • Exposure to repeatable processes and methodologies
  • Being around other talent (coworkers & clients) who are smart
  • Encouragement to obtain certifications
  • Support for speaking at events like user groups & conferences
  • Keeping up with new technologies
  • A continual focus on learning
  • Many occasions to meet people & develop relationships
  • Various career path options (such as:  technical, project management, business analyst, sales & business development, managerial, etc.) 

Potential Negatives Within a Consulting Environment

  • Time pressures, sometimes coupled with clients who have demanding expectations or deadlines
  • Demands for very extremely high quality work performed very quickly (I find this to be a good thing – but it does represent pressure)
  • Potential for a lot of travel (we need to be where the client is, right?)
  • Requirements to learn a new skill extremely fast (once a deal closes, you might be asked to get things rolling very quickly) 
  • Flexibility with assignments is required (for example, sometimes I need to fill in on project management or business analyst work in addition to BI development – sometimes you’ll be asked to perform tasks that aren’t your absolute favorite)

Things to Consider Before Starting a Consulting Job

Besides the obvious things like your job description, compensation & benefits, here’s a few other things to consider when evaluating an IT consulting job & firm:

  • What are the firm's expectations for your billable hours (referred to as utilization) per week? Does that expectation affect your compensation? Are the hours expected reasonable to you?
  • What is the firm’s typical billing model?  Does the firm typically charge per hour, or flat rate per project (both have different challenges).
  • Are professional development programs offered (and encouraged)?  How much investment is made routinely in training?
  • What is the chain of command above and below you (directly or indirectly)?
  • Do you get a sense the culture of the firm would be a fit for you?  Does each person you’ve met seem smart, friendly, supportive, and happy to work there?  Does it seem like an environment that will be conducive to personal & professional growth?
  • What specific technologies does the firm focus on?
  • Does the firm serve specific industries?
  • What equipment is provided (such as a laptop)?
  • Will you typically be devoted 100% to a single client, or often multiple clients?
  • In the eyes of the client, will you serve as staff augmentation (sometimes thought more of as a contractor by the client), or as a consultant?  Are your services being delivered through a project with deliverables?
  • What other personnel is available to back you up and/or provide additional expertise?  Will you work closely with others more experienced than you, who you can learn from?
  • Is bench time (when you're not assigned to a client engagement) paid?
  • Is there a typical lifecycle or duration for the type of projects you will work on?
  • What does a typical project team look like? Is it typically large or small? Will you personally have a lot of client interaction?  Do the teams often comprise both consulting team members & client team members?
  • How is project management typically handled? (Personally I think a good PM is invaluable.)
  • Are there established methodologies & repeatable processes in place?
  • What is the regional market served by the firm?  What are the expectations for travel?
  • Does the pipeline of future opportunities look promising?
  • Are specific certifications, or credentials, required or preferred?
  • Does the firm hire all levels of personnel starting at the junior level, or just experienced staff?
  • Will you typically work at the client site, at the office, or from home? What is the policy for working remotely?
  • What role will you be asked to play in the business development (sales) process?
  • Does the firm support community involvement, such as user groups & conferences?  Are there current employees who exhibit involvement & leadership in the local technical community?
  • Does the firm have a good reputation?

By no means is the above an exhaustive list; hopefully it gives you some things to think about. 

I really like consulting a lot because of the variety it offers.  As with anything, there’s ups and downs.  Sometimes the client really looks up to us, whereas sometimes we’re just “the vendor.”  There’s still politics & sticky situations on occasion, but I continually learn so much that the technology consulting industry is a really good fit for me.

Additional Information

Shannon Lowder (blog | twitter), a database engineer in Charlotte, has a terrific series of posts about Interview Questions.