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How to become an IT consultant

How to become an IT consultant
Photo by Christina @ / Unsplash

There are a multitude of reasons why someone might want to become an IT consultant. From preferring the flexibility and work-life balance that this industry offers, to needing the higher income of a consultant, people come from all walks of life and for many different reasons. There is no one right answer as to why someone should join this industry and what that path looks like.

This article aims to be a primer, both for those wanting to break in to the industry, as well as being a guidepost for those who are already consultants who are looking to learn how they can advance their careers.

These ideas will apply whether you are looking at becoming an IT consultant starting out of school with a Computer Science degree, or you have years of experience working in other industries and want to branch out into something different.

I think it is important to start off with a look at the appeal of becoming an IT consultant, since understanding why someone may want to engage in this line of work will help inform the rest of this article.

The appeal of being a consultant

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The primary reason that people go into consulting is that they get to set their own hours, they can travel, and they have a sense of freedom that many other jobs simply do not offer. You are essentially your own boss and can work on projects that you want to pursue, or if you are in a field like consulting that involves working with clients, you get to take the lead on the direction of their business.

Part of what makes IT consulting special is that while you may be able to do work completely remotely and choose your clients, you also have to face the same problems as most other employees: being friendly with co-workers, showing up on time and getting things done right.

The freedom of working as a consultant is a great selling point, but what makes it truly special is being part of something bigger than yourself and having the chance to help make a real difference in someone's business. I am a huge fan of the saying that you are never more than two degrees of separation away from everyone, and that applies to consulting too. You get to be part of the success stories of businesses all over the world, whether your work directly impacts their bottom line or not.

The work itself is a great opportunity to learn. You will get to learn about all types of businesses, learning how they do what they do and why they are such a success. There will be many times where you will be writing and fixing code, but you are also helping to educate people, and that alone can be a huge change in your life. That is the main appeal of being a consultant: you get to work with people who are already successful and help them become even more successful.

An often overlooked reason that is probably closer to the reality for many consultants is that you get to work on different types of projects, in different industries, for different skill levels. This means that you will have the chance to constantly learn new things and grow as a developer.

The IT consulting ecosystem

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In order to really understand the different types of consultants that exist, we first have to talk about what makes up an IT consulting ecosystem. When you think of consulting, you may think of someone working for VMware, IBM, Microsoft and others. But what about the companies that provide technology that those larger companies use? Don't they also get consultants?

In a perfect world there would be no direct IT team members at these large companies because all of their work would be done by consultants or outsourced development teams. In reality, there are just too many customers to actually be able to do this without a lot of overhead.

Why wouldn't you just outsource all of this work? Well, that is also possible, but who can you trust to provide these services if you don't have a direct stake in the company?

IT vendors actually try to steer their customers away from relying too heavily on consultants by creating their own version of a consulting team. These are called Solution Architects. You will find these people at Oracle and VMware, for example. They work for the IT vendor and as part of their job they help educate customers about ways to use the software better. The problem with this model is that there is a conflict of interest because the Solution Architect would love to get a new business from their existing customers, but they do not want to put so much effort into training and educating these customers that they lose them.

What you are left with is a situation where everyone has consultants, in an indirect way. The primary difference between having your own IT consultant and getting the work done by someone else is where these consultants fit into the business.

The different types of IT consultants

There are four primary ways to fit into the ecosystem and these definitions will help to define what each of the consulting roles is.

1. Independent – Being an independent consultant means that you do not get hired directly by a business, but instead you find your own clients. This model is often referred to as being a freelancer, because in essence you are selling your services for as long as people will purchase them, then moving on to the next project.

This is the simplest way of being a consultant and it is great for people who want to work on projects that are out of their specialty or tackle some other role like testing. For example, a developer may only want to do front end work and they can find a company that needs help with performance testing and fit right in.

Creating an independent consulting business can be challenging. In order to create your own business you have to have the ability to build a client base and make as much money as you can while still scaling your business. It also helps if you know a lot about business, so that when someone calls you with a problem, you know how to solve it.

A great way for people to get started would be with an online course like Udemy. Though it is free to enroll, you can make as much money as you like by selling a certification to your customers. Once you have a few certifications under your belt, then it will be easier to get larger contracts and even move from just testing to training others on how to use your products.

2. Staffing – Staffing agencies hire IT consultants who specialize in a specific technology or set of technologies and then they place them with clients. The benefit of this model is that you get to work on a larger range of problems than you would by just working projects with independent consultants. The companies that take on the staffing agencies are essentially outsourcing their technology needs and it is especially good for organizations who have a lot of companies come and go, looking for short term help.

Though staffing agencies may not be the best for every job, for many roles this is probably one of the best options. When looking at staffing agencies it is important to look for someone that can take on an ongoing role of maintenance, which means fixing problems once they arise rather than only looking to get new work.

There are several places you can find staffs agencies, though all have their own pros and cons. Some are free and some charge a small fee to use them. Some have smaller client base, but some are more selective. Some have more of a problem if their clients have issues, while others can have different levels of support as to how involved they get in the day to day work of the consultants.

3. Independent software vendor (ISV) – You may have heard of this term before. ISVs are essentially a vendors version of consultants. They will handle the development internally and then sell the finished product as part of a subscription product to their client base.

This is often a good option for companies who want to do development or IT support, or for companies that want a high level of custom work. However, with this model comes a lot of overhead and you will have to make sure that your software is profitable otherwise you could likely run into money problems.

4. Systems integration – This is a bit of a catch all for situations where you have systems that need to be integrated together. This can be anything from replacing your web server with something more robust, to replacing your existing database with a newer one that is more scalable and faster.

A lot of companies are now doing their own end to end development, which means they will take the software that they have and decide on the platform and framework that they want to use. Then they will code everything themselves and put it into the product that they create. This is a great way to create something that is unique and you will probably be able to sell it as a custom product.

How to be a consultant

The first thing that you have to do as a consultant is to decide what you are interested in doing. A lot of people think that they need a special qualification or degree before they can be consultants, but this is not necessarily the case. What you have to do is define your interests and then figure out how you can turn those into a career and income stream.

If you would rather learn on the job, find yourself an internship where you get hands on experience with the tools and technologies that interest you. If you prefer to be able to leverage your experience, then take a course online and then use that to get your first consultant job.

Once you have worked out the available options, figure out how much time and effort it will take you to learn the skills that you need for each option. Once you have an idea of how long each of those will take, pick one that suits your current situation and then plan a timeline for achieving success.

In many cases, people end up doing all four roles in some way during their career. It all depends on what works best for you. However, the more that you know, the more options you will have on how to become a consultant.

How to Become a Consultant | Get Started – Your First Steps

What follows here are some tips and ideas for getting started in consulting. You may want to use only one of these or you may want to do them all. However, no matter what you do, always follow your plan and make sure that you are working on the best way for you to build your income.

1. Figure out what you like

Sometimes it helps if you narrow down your choices ahead of time. If we can get a real idea for where we want to end up then sometimes it is easier to figure out how to get there. Where do you want your future to take you?

2. Use the time and effort to get a good education

There are many opportunities that you can take advantage of to learn new things. Learning is a good thing and you will be glad you took the time. However, since it takes time, whenever possible go out and do something that will give you experience.

3. Goal setting is important

Once you have committed to a particular path in life, making sure that you reach your goal is going to be one of the hardest things for you to do. However, it is not impossible and you will eventually get there. You just have to keep going.

4. Learn how to talk to potential employers

The first thing that you need to do is make the time to find out how to get a job as a consultant. This involves talking with people and learning about what is going on in your industry, so that you can understand how other people are doing their jobs and what companies are looking for.

5. Practice makes perfect

What you will find is that the more you do something, the better you will get at it. You may not become an expert, but if you keep practicing, then eventually you will be able to sell yourself and your services better.

6. Take risks

The worst thing that can happen if you take a risk is that nothing happens and you end up exactly where you are now. However, on the other hand, sometimes taking a risk can lead to things that result in success later on down the road. Frustration is sure to come from failing, but in the end you have no excuse not to try.

7. Take care of yourself

It is important for you to take care of yourself and your mental health. Sometimes it can be easy for people who are doing consulting jobs, to forget about themselves because they are busy with their clients and projects. However, learning new things, working on new skills and developing contacts will keep you involved as a consultant while also making it possible for you to grow your income as well.

8. Understand your market

What you have to make sure that you do is figure out where you are going to be able to sell yourself as a consultant. This will depend on your skill set, but if you understand what people need and what they are willing to pay for, then it will make it easier for you to maintain a consistent stream of income.

9. Set up your business

The next step is being able to turn the work that you do into a successful business so that you can expand and enjoy more success. This is something that you will have to work at and it will involve making sure that you are getting the most value that you can out of your consulting work.

10. Be careful when starting a business

A lot of people want to start their own business, but they often make the mistake of not fully understanding what they are doing or how much time and money they are going to need to operate the business. Always make sure that you understand the risks involved in starting a new company and what is required for it to succeed.

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