Should you strike out on your own and become a consultant? According to Dice’s most recent Salary Survey, there are some good monetary reasons why you should consider it: consultants averaged $116,547 in annual salary last year, down 7.9 percent from the previous year.
Compare that to full-time tech workers, who earned an average of $111,348 (up 2.3 percent year-over-year), and it’s clear that consulting can be the right choice for those with the right combination of experience and skills. But how do you become a consultant?
Before we delve into that, keep in mind that a typical consultant’s life is more than just money. Whether you’re a private IT consultant, a professional who specializes in consulting with startups, or some other type of consultant, there’s a lot of satisfaction in solving clients’ pain points and using your work and industry expertise to help small businesses and large enterprises succeed.
But the typical consultant’s life comes with trade-offs that may or may not appeal to you, depending on your temperament. Here are some things to consider if you’re thinking of trading your full-time job for a consulting gig.
What Skills Do You Need to Become a Consultant?
Consultants need a range of technical and “soft” skills to succeed, particularly if they’re consulting for tech companies. Here are some skills that pop up frequently in job postings:
- Communication: Consultants work with multiple stakeholders throughout an organization, from CEOs to tech pros, which means they must figure out how to convey complicated ideas in a way that everyone can understand and buy into.
- Change Management: Implementing new strategies can come at a cost, and consultants must show all stakeholders and team members how those changes will ultimately lead to better results.
- Technical Skills: Consultants must understand technology trends, platforms, and tools. Depending on their industry and focus, this potentially includes knowledge of cloud computing, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and data analytics. From there, you need to translate an abstract understanding of concepts into actionable plans.
- Problem-Solving: Consultants must analyze data and determine the best solutions, meaning they need strong analytical and problem-solving skills.
- Strategic Planning: Consulting is a ‘big picture’ role, which means many consultants , helping clients develop long-term strategies aligned with their overall vision and objectives. This includes forecasting future trends, identifying potential opportunities and risks, and developing actionable roadmaps.
Handling Your Own Infrastructure
The good thing about working full-time for a company is that you generally have an administrative staff that handles everything from your health insurance to your 401(k), leaving you to tackle your actual job.
When you’re an independent contractor, however, you must handle many of those functions yourself. Are you ready to negotiate for your own health insurance? How about fighting with clients to pay you on-time? Do you have the discipline to sock away enough for retirement every month, without a corporation automatically deducting a certain percentage from your paycheck? Sole proprietorship is basically running a small business on your own; you’re your own human resources department, and your areas of expertise must extend to figuring out how your business will run effectively.
The rise of sophisticated accounting and management software has expedited the handling of many back-office functions, especially for small shops and independent contractors. Nonetheless, be aware that dealing with administrative tasks will take up a fair amount of time as a contractor, especially if you subcontract out tasks to other workers.
Gig to Gig
With full-time employment, you probably rotate between projects on a regular basis; once you finish up one thing, there’s another series of tasks waiting for you. With contracting, once you’re completed a gig, it’s up to you to find the next one. (The exception is when you’re on retainer with a particular company, in which case you’re probably engaged and paid in a fashion more in keeping with full-time work.)
While some independent consultants and contractors revel in that sort of flexibility, others are nervous at the prospect of hunting for the next gig. For those just starting out in contracting, some nervousness is inevitable, and sometimes fades quickly; but for others, that anxiety never really goes away, and raises questions of whether they’re truly cut out for the contracting life.
In order to mitigate some of the pains that come with always scrounging up another job, it pays to network. The broader your connections, the better your chances of having another gig lined up before your current one finishes up. Check out Dice’s networking tips.
Not all consulting jobs are created equal. Depending on your skill-set and the client’s needs, your own job parameters may shift on a month-to-month—or even week-to-week—basis. Let’s say you’re a mobile-app developer who specializes in Android. One job might ask you to tweak an app that’s 90-percent built; your next might ask you to build such an app from scratch, on a tight deadline.
As with jumping from gig-to-gig, some contractors are fine with wildly shifting job parameters; but full-time workers who prefer routine and rigid processes might find their stress levels shooting through the proverbial roof. Before jumping into contracting, ask yourself whether that sort of plasticity appeals to you.
Know Your Career Paths
Consultants can pursue multiple career paths, especially in tech. Depending on your interests and expertise, you may want to pursue one of the following:
- Management Consulting: Assisting clients across various technology sectors with strategic planning, operational improvement, and digital transformation initiatives.
- Technical Consulting: These consultants focus on specific tech areas such as cybersecurity, data analytics, cloud computing, or artificial intelligence, offering specialized expertise to clients. They often come from a tech background and can delve deeply into the technical aspects of a project. They may conduct activities such as risk assessment, for instance.
- Independent Tech Consulting: These consultants range widely, jumping from client to client and even industry to industry, giving their best tech advice.
- Specialist: Some consultants choose to hyper-focus on a specific aspect of business, such as disaster recovery or cybersecurity.