“This book is about technology consulting companies and how a technology professional might be successful working for one….

…Consider this book something of a career guide that maps out how most firms work, covers the kinds of employers to avoid, and provides some sample career paths beyond the career paths you would normally think about in a technology company. I have aimed to provide a good mixture of advice and realism, mixed with a bit of inspiration and unconventional advice…

…there are not many books on how a technology services practice is run.”

I have worked alongside people from consulting firms of various types, from small boutique firms to massive consulting organizations like Deloitte or Accenture, for many years. I was very interested in reading this book as I had no detailed insight into how consulting firms worked, and the experience of consultants from these organizations.

This book provides a detailed description of the landscape in consulting organizations. It explains the types of consulting organization and how to identify them, how to survive, thrive, and explains some career-limiting moves. It’s a great insight to help someone decide if a career working as a technical consultant is for them.

Idea#1             Why Consulting

Idea#2             Seven Deadly Firms

Idea#3             How Technology firms work

Idea#4             Getting In

Idea#5             What you need to ask before joining

Idea#6             Surviving

Idea#7             Thriving

Idea#8             Career Path

Idea#9             Career-limiting moves

Idea#10           Is Consulting Right for You?

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Text Link:
The Nomadic Developer: Surviving and Thriving in the World of Technology Consulting


Idea 1: Why Consulting?

“Namely, I realized that technology skill would not really control my destiny, but rather skills in relating to people, building a network, and learning to be a politician. In fact, even today, I am amazed at how much the day-to-day world of technology is much more of a people business than a technology business. I’ve been consulting for more than 15 years, and even now, I screw this up all the time!…. Having a strong network of people you trust and who trust you is a critical employment strategy….learning how to succeed with difficult relationships is a skill that becomes very valuable as a consultant’s career lengthens…. But this profession requires a certain personality oriented toward self-improvement and a predisposition to being proactive in managing your career. If your goal is to find a secure place and do the same thing over the next 20 years, this is probably not the place for you.”

Aaron correctly identifies the key skills of a technology job in this quote; technical geniuses do not make the best consultants. Indeed when I studied programming in university I was far from the top of the class, but the workplace is a completely different environment. In university most of my training was learning technical skills; I was completely under-prepared for the people aspects of a technology consulting job; having to rely on my natural attributes and observing the successful people in the companies where I worked to see the correct path.

Secondly Aaron lets the reader know self-improvement should be high on the priority list of someone who wants to be a consultant.  ou can learn a lot by looking around your current workplace. Learning on the job is a key part of a technology consulting role, as you won’t be 100% qualified for most of the roles you work in. An ability to quickly learn new skills is a pre-requisite for this type of working life.

Idea 2 The Seven Deadly Firms

“BOZO Consulting ….FEAR Consulting ….The Body Shop….CHEAP Consulting….Personality Cult Consulting ….Smelzer and Melzer Accounting….Push the SKU Consulting….often you will be called upon to enter situations working for clients who are, on occasion, highly dysfunctional, politically charged, and otherwise unpleasant. If you are going to go through all that, you want to at least be able to count on a culture “back at the mothership” that makes you comfortable dealing with the occasional difficult client. Put another way, if you are going to do hard work in difficult terrain, you want to do so with a strong sense of purpose that carries you through.”

Aaron makes the point here that you will often be put in uncomfortable situations when consulting, and this will be more bearable if you believe in the organization you are working for. As an independent consultant you only have to satisfy yourself of course, but sometimes I look at consulting company employee’s and wonder why they still work there. This chapter details the different types of consulting firms, how to identify them, and what you can expect if you work there. This is invaluable information for potential consultants as Aaron even tells the reader how to work this out from the interview, which should save you from taking the wrong job for you.

Idea 3 How Technology Consulting Firms Work

“One of the most challenging aspects of managing a professional services company that deals in technology is matching up supply with demand when both sides of the equation require a significant sales effort. A mismatch on either side of the equation can spell problems. Too much supply (people) and not enough demand (work) means that the company either doesn’t make a profit or possibly runs at a loss. Too much demand and not enough supply might cause the firm to turn down work, which is a very efficient way to demoralize a salesperson who worked hard to generate that demand”
This chapter talks about the dual pipelines of (a) selling technology solutions to clients, and (b) selling your consultancy to technical people as a great place to work. It details the key roles in these consultancies, and how to interact with all of the personality types that hold these roles. Everyone from Account Executives, Engagement Managers, Recruiters, Senior Managers, Industry guru’s are explored, and tips provided on what these people will expect of you, and how to best get on with them. It also notes some of the key challenges you will face as a consultant; Project Running Late; Someone else’s code sucks; Scope Creep; when you are sold as something you are not.

I also have seen another more difficult challenge to be negotiated called Scope Seep, where the consultant adds some extra functionality! This happens when the consultant volunteers some features outside the agreed design. It can cause major unforeseen consequences at the time the promise is made. This is one of those times when it’s best not to say anything at all!

It seems the consultancy organization, especially large ones, are a complex ecosystem of different roles and characters to be dealt with. Independent consultants face none of these challenges, except for dealing with consultancy staff, so I found this chapter really interesting. I can see how this chapter would be very useful to read before deciding if a consultancy role is right for you.

I can also see the difficulty in managing a consultancy organization in terms of making sure you have hired the qualified personnel for a constantly changing pipeline of opportunities. Unless the consultancy wants to maintain a large bench, this is impossible, and results in people working for clients with varying levels of suitability for their roles. I have experienced this many times, working with consultancy staff who are smart but perhaps not experienced enough for a particular role.

Idea 4 Getting In: Ten Unstated Traits That Tech Consulting Firms Look For

“Tip 9# Develop Your Network: First, a larger network increases the chances you will be able to know which firms are good and which ones are not… Second, there is a good chance that, with a broad network, you will have either a friend, or at least a friend of a friend, who might be in a position to hire you and thus give you an inside track on a position…. Third, having a broad network makes you more valuable to the consultancy that hires you because a “connected” potential consultant will have much more valuable contacts for both sales and recruiting than one who isn’t as connected.”

The more I read, the more I think nobody should work for a technology consulting firm without reading this book. When I started my first job I certainly didn’t know what to expect, where my career choices would lead. This is great information for people thinking about consulting, or those who want to find out more if they are already consulting.

This chapter covers in detail how to launch your career with a consultancy company, and also gives you a good idea of what to expect in your day to day role. These are essential tips in what consulting firms look for.

My personal favourite of the ten tips is #9 Develop Your Network. Your network is useful in finding out what are the good places to work, you may possibly already know someone else working there. Finally, even though as a consultant you have sales staff working to sell you onto your next project, it’s clear you will progress much farther if you can sell yourself to current and new clients.

The full list of tips are:

Tip #1: Appearance; Tip #2: Be Really Good at Being Interviewed for Jobs; Tip #3: Always Be Learning; Tip #4: Be a Scarce Commodity Tip #5: Be Active in Your Technical Community; Tip #6: Be Easy to Work With; Tip #7: Energy, ENERGY, Energy *$&%! Tip #8: Demonstrate Great Writing Skills Tip #9: Develop Your Network Tip #10: Live a Balanced Life

Idea 5 What you need to ask before joining a Technology Consulting Firm

“Some employers might scoff at your turning the tables and asking them hard questions. Indeed, some people still hold onto the idea that interviews are for the employer to select an employee, and the employee should be happy to have an offer at all. We all have the angel sitting on our shoulder, telling us not to ask hard questions of the nice person at the other end of the desk, for fear of being impolite or making the person less than comfortable. Do you really want to work for a company that would scoff at the notion of you looking after your interests? Sometimes, perhaps deep in a recession, you may decide to accept a technology consulting position despite multiple red flags.

But by the time you have asked these questions, you know what you are dealing with and have demonstrated a lot of business acumen that might just win you some respect.”

This chapter covers what you need to ask at the interview to get a real idea of what you working life will be like. It’s never possible to be certain what the future holds, but the way your interviewer answers these questions on sales and delivery will tell a lot about what to expect. You owe it to yourself to get the answers to these questions before you start working for someone; and in fact asking these questions shows good business knowledge of various consulting models, and should mark you out as a “clued-in” candidate.

As Aaron points out, some people see getting the interview as an end in itself, that any offer from any employer is to be gratefully accepted, but this a short-sighted approach. If you ask a lot of questions in the interview you can be more comfortable that this consulting firm knows what it is doing.

I particularly like his questions such as “Does the company sponsor a blog”, “How many consultants have written books, Authored articles or regularly speak at conferences” and “How does the company invest in advancing the skills of its consultants”. A company that cares about promoting itself in the industry gives you the chance to promote yourself within the wider community. The last question will give you a clear answer on what self-advancement goals the company has for its staff.

Idea 6 Surviving

“The Three Words you want to hear: You’ve been Extended.

 During good times you should strive to work for different clients so that you can build out your network and diversify the amount of vertical industry knowledge you bring to the table. However, when bad times hit, you are most interested in being extended at your current client”

This is a good summary of the high-level approach you should be taking in good times and bad. During bad times getting extended is the name of the game; there is no risk while you are billing.

As an independent consultant I know many people that build long careers with the same client, by delivering and building trust with the same client. In a sense they are effectively very highly-paid permanent employees. The management treat them as employees, and come to depend on them to achieve their own objectives.

If I am happy on a particular client, everything I do is aimed at getting an extension. I want to build my skill-set, hopefully not do the same type of work all the time, but during a recession this is my primary objective.

Working with the same client is generally less risky, provided the work is enough to satisfy and motivate you. Your reputation is established, so you don’t have to continually build relationships with new people at a different clients.

The strategies are “Reality Check: Avoid Fear and Greed”..”People Who Create Profit Don’t Get Fired”..”Rainmakers Are Always Welcome”..”One-Trick Pony? Better Be Good at Your Trick!”..Leave the Drama at the Theater”..”Being Overpaid Is a Curse”..”Early to Bed, Early to Rise”..”Billing Work = Good Work (with Few Exceptions)”..”The Three Words You Want to Hear: You’ve Been Extended”..”Don’t Live “Three Steps Ahead””..”Summary: What’s The Worst That Can Happen?”

Idea 7 Thriving

“Putting Yourself in a Position to Thrive; Staying “in the zone”—enjoying what you do ; Doing meaningful work ; Making sure you are always advancing and improving your capabilities ; Learning to think in terms of “win-win” when interacting with others ; Building your brand so that you can drastically increase the quality and quantity of opportunities at your disposal”

If you find yourself in a good consulting role, how do you make the most of it? Is real job satisfaction possible as a consultant? Aaron puts forward his theories on reaching your potential as a consultant in this more exciting chapter. This one is about potential, what happens after you have done the hard work, and it makes very enjoyable and useful reading!

I am particularly interested in “building a brand” for myself at the moment, there is a lot of competition in consulting and a solid professional brand is a cornerstone of a consulting career. The blog, my book, even my Linkedin profile are very valuable in building and protecting my personal brand. In IT consulting we are facing an increasing commoditization of services, where the perceived value of consultants is being driven downwards all the time.

A valuable personal brand means I have the pick of the available opportunities as I am visible to recruiters and within industry. Are you working on your personal brand at all?

Idea 8 Your Career Path

“Without question, of the four paths presented, the path of the entrepreneur has the most upside. It also happens to be the one with the risk, at least initially. When you go independent, meaning you decide that you no longer work for a firm other than “You, Inc.,” you might feel as though you have decided to take a walk down the street”

In terms of your career, according got Aaron there are 4 high-level career paths available, and he describes ways you might progress to each career with practical actions you might take, and what the final destination actually looks like.

The four paths are Path #1: Rise to Management; Path #2: Rise to Sales; Path #3: Rise to Evangelist/Guru Path #4: Rise to Entrepreneur.

I want to talk about Path#4 Rise to Entrepreneur, as it’s the one I took. It’s debatable whether independent consultants can be considered entrepreneurs but you certainly need a lot more than technical skills to survive as an independent.

My blog is built around techniques you need in addition to your core skills like the The Four Pillars of a Consulting Career”; Position Yourself, Package Your Experience; Promote Yourself and Partner with the Right People.

In a traditional consultancy, someone else will find you the work and introduce you to new clients; this won’t happen as an independent consultant. You will also have someone to chase your invoices; this is also now your responsibility. You may even have someone working on making sure you are extended, creating new opportunities for you, this is all down to you.

I preferred it that way, when I made mistakes it cost me money, but I learnt from them and don’t (often) repeat them! I find I get a much more rounded career experience this way, and I can depend on myself.

Idea 9 Avoiding Career-Limiting Moves

“Pricing Yourself out of the Market…where you find yourself continually vulnerable due to being the highest compensated member of the team….prematurely going independent…where you go independent prior to having the means to acquire clients or the self-discipline required”

When I read this chapter first time I was entertained by using the seven deadly sins to illustrate career-limiting moves, and behaviour to be avoided. It’s certainly an effective metaphor, and I can think of consultants who have “sinned” like this during my career. Some sins are worse than others, in that some will get you immediately fired, some will result in no extension, and some just make you a pain to work with, but they all impact your reputation.

There are times when I have been guilty of some of these sins. I have personal experience of trying to price myself out of the market, where I was attempting to gain a rate increase due to increased responsibility. In actual fact my proposed increase would have left me at the top of the scale, out of line compared to other much more experienced resources on the project. My understanding manager declined the increase by pointing out there were consultants who were not being considered, due to them being too expensive. I took the advice, received some non-monetary concessions instead, and we both ended up happy with the outcome.

The Seven Deadly sins, aka Career-Limiting Moves are: Category #1: Gluttony; Category #2: Lust Category #3: Greed; Category #4: Sloth Category #5: Wrath; Category #6: Envy; Category #7: Pride

Idea 10 Is Consulting Right for You?

“You might be surprised to learn that in IT jobs at non-IT companies, there are periods when you are at great risk of job loss”

This chapter is written in most consulting books I have read, and it’s important that the reader give it proper consideration. Aaron illustrates your suitability for consulting by reading 5 “Signs”, listed below. What was interesting for me was in relation to Sign #1 Risk and Lack of Risk Tolerance”; he points out that working in IT for a non-consulting company is just as risky as consulting. He is correct in saying the great pity about IT roles; you are predominantly considered as part of a cost centre, rather than a profit centre. This means you are continually at risk, but not everyone is aware of this. There is the principle of the “permanent job”, and this leads to not taking the risk of lay-offs seriously.

In consulting the risk is more transparent; you are at risk if you are not billing, but as Aarons points out “this Transparency forces you to live with the reality”. Consulting feels riskier but in a sense it’s not as the consultant is always aware of the risk, and can make decisions accordingly.

In my experience there is life after consulting, which Aaron doesn’t really explore in the book. A career in consulting is great preparation for many other jobs, the skills you build up prepare you for many different types of career. I know consultants who are currently engaged in lots of different jobs, much the better from their consulting experiences, and with many tales to tell in addition!

Sign #1: Lack of Risk Tolerance; Sign #2: Incompatible Personality; Sign #3: Incompatible Lifestyle and/or Responsibilities; Sign #4: Desire for Single Product Focus; Sign #5: Doing It for the Money


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