A bit of a deviation from what I normally blog and share, but several people have asked me in recent past what life is like as a consultant. They generally come from support backgrounds looking to explore their career and see consulting as the next milestone in their career. So I thought I would answer you all in a post about my life as a Technical Consultant and MVP.
I entered into the professional IT industry relatively late on in my life. People often think that you have to get into IT immediately after leaving School or University and are surprised when I tell them that actually my first job in IT was when I was 24! For six years previous to that, I worked in retail, specifically within the Bakery department in various roles as bread slicer (my first weekend job), shelf stacker, baker and bakery manager. I am not embarrassed by my background, in fact for the first 4 years of that I loved my job and often think it was the best job I’ve ever had! This was mainly because I was earning money to spend on beer, golf, beer and golf and had no commitments. As soon as I started to own a car, a house, things changed. I realised that actually what I am earning is not enough to keep me happy as well as pay for everything I wanted / needed.
Clearly retail was not going to cut it for me, so I wanted to get into IT where I had a hobbyist passion. Applying for IT jobs when your current post was bakery manager was a real handicap. I sent in tens of applications detailing what I could do with computers as a hobby (building websites, basic programming, building of PCs etc.) but each time I would be turned down because of lack of work experience! On the interviews I did attend and the technical tasks given, even though I aced the practical tests, this was not enough to convince them that I was worth a shot at the job. I found that particularly disheartening. However, something major changed in my life that allowed me to resign from my job and take some time to re-align. Not to go on about my background too much longer, but my friend had a computer repair shop business, and he gave me 6 months work there to build up some background and that was the springboard I needed to get into IT. Fast forward 10 years later…
Now I am a technical consultant delivering Skype for Business solutions. I don’t pretend to think I am an ultra-geek, I’m not. Where I see my value is being customer centric and my ability to show candidness and empathy to my customer that makes me what I think a good consultant. Sometimes, you can get too focussed on the technical problem or technical requirement that you end up over engineering something with terrible end user experience and no business value, because you failed to ask the simple question of why? And took the time to understand where the customer is coming from. My mantra has always been Keep It Simple Silly. I have to thank my background in retail for this, because without it, I think I would just have been tech focussed and fail to look up above my monitor and notice what is going on around me.
Now when you’re thinking of moving into consultancy, you have to ask yourself a few precursor questions.
- What element of consulting is making you feel that it is your next career step?
- What technology area do you want to move into?
- What is the current market supply and demand like for that area?
- Do you have the right mentality to be a consultant?
- Is your family geared up / aware of what life will be like as a consultant?
I can tell you now, that if your answer to number 1 is because of the money, then I am going to tell you right now, don’t even apply! If you think consultants are well paid and that is your only motivation you will be disappointed at the least but more importantly you’ll risk committing career suicide because you will struggle to transition into consultancy because you’ve failed to fully appreciate the skills needed for the role. Being a consultant is not just about knowing the technology, but you also need a business analysis head, able to discover business problems and translate them into a solution that not only delivers on tech, but actually works for the business. For example, you assess a business process that allows a receptionist to open a door to a visitor. The visitor pushes a button on the external side of the door, this rings an intercom phone on the receptionist desk. The receptionist can answer the phone and choose to grant entry by pressing a button or not. It’s a simple business process that works, low tech but perfectly functional. Now you want to replace the system with a new software solution that adds video and also asks the visitor to state the name of the person they are visiting. Once the name has been said the system emails the sponsor with a picture of the person standing outside and asks them to accept or decline their entry. If no action is taken then the receptionist can override this by going into the system to allow the visitor access. While this solution may be technically advanced, it introduces lots of potential flaws in the business process as well as extending it from a 30 second process to several minutes. However, what you haven’t considered is the receptionist experience, the customer experience and the training and adoption effort required to bring this system into the business. Without going into too much detail it is doomed to fail and your solution would be considered a massive failure in the eyes of the end users and visitors, especially on cold, wet winter days!
The point I am trying to make is that you have to ask yourself, does the benefits of the new system outweigh the upheaval the business is going to go through? Sometimes the answer is no. As a technical consultant you have a duty to your customer to ensure they have the facts they need to make an informed decision, and if that means steering them away from the original solution to something else, then that’s what you should do. As long as you can substantiate your view then you should do the right thing. I’ve seen consultancies in the past that drive a solution down a customer’s throat by convincing them (wrongly) that its going to be beneficial to them, only for the customer to find that it costs far more than they were led to believe and they have had to make fundamental change to their business to fit inside the delivered solution, rather than the solution fitting the customer. I hate that, and one of the reasons why you’ll never see me working for them!
If you think you have the aptitude to be a consultant then you need to answer the second question. Choose this wisely. My personal opinion right now is that you need to be multi skilled. The life of a single subject expert has passed. They are now the dinosaurs and the people who have exposure to multiple technology stacks are more favourable these days. I used to work in 3rd line managed services where I had depth, then moved into pure SfB. I wish some days that I stayed in that sort of role because I miss the depth. That doesn’t mean to say the SME is dead, just that you need to have a few cards in your back pocket because technology is moving so fast, you can find yourself with a single skill set that is no longer required. I’ve seen this happen with SfB. SfB is drying up, people are no longer deploying it at the pace they were a few years ago. This is a mix of saturation but also Microsoft’s decision to focus on Teams. I have a decision to make very soon that is going to define my future.
This kind of answers the third question. If your dominant skill set is not in demand, then you’re better off staying where you are and working on other skills that may be in more demand and focus your job search on these. Otherwise, you’ll miss the bubble and end up on the scrap heap quicker than you imagined.
Being a consultant is a lonely job, there is no denying that. You spend a lot of time on your own delivering projects and working from home. Whilst that seems attractive to many, be mindful that the sheen will rub off over time and you’ll start to feel a little isolated from the company you work for. You can combat this a little by going to the office now and again but that is very diary dependent. Being a consultant you’re expected to be the oracle of knowledge. Sometimes the customer will try and contradict you and you have to be ready to back yourself up. If you come across a problem deploying a solution you’re expected to be able to resolve it without help from your employer. Not because they are being difficult, but because you’re likely to be the most experienced in the company and have no one else to turn to. Therefore, you should ensure that you have a good independent network of people to call on for ideas. Trust me that is super important!
Being a consultant you are sent where the money is. It is common for most consultancies to send you to a job anywhere in the UK, so you need to be prepared to travel. Some employers demand that traveling to site is done in your own time (which is unethical!) while some will grant you some leeway. I remember being sent to Edinburgh (6 hour drive) for 9am Monday morning. This is not acceptable and often you’ll find yourself traveling on a Sunday and home late on a Friday. Luckily I now work for a company that actually looks after their employees and understand. So if you can rule your own diary and work with the customer, you can often agree to some custom working arrangements. Traveling in your own time will never go away, but you can limit it to an acceptable level.
Another massive consideration you need to understand is expenses! Most employers will pay expenses but these are paid in arrears of the expense. Not every business will offer a corporate card and often it is down to the employee to fund the expenses themselves and be reimbursed. I personally hate this because you the employee holds the risk and not your employer. Pay close attention to the reimbursement calendar. Many businesses will reimburse once the following calendar month, where date dependent means you effectively have to underwrite 2 months of expenses before you receive a payment. Others reimburse within 10 days of submission.
My advice on expenses is read the policy and make sure you abide by it. You definitely need to ensure that you have a dedicated credit card for your expenses. Don’t use one that you use for personal purchases or your debit account because it becomes harder to track what you have spent on business vs personal. Try and get a card with at least 90 days interest free on purchases because if your company only pays your expenses on say the 21st of the following month, then you accrue interest which you are liable for on your expenses which you’re going to struggle to claim back! Make sure that you repay your credit card with your full expenses because if you don’t you then have long term debt which you shouldn’t have. I know its far to easy to repay just a portion of the expenses back and use the rest for personal things but seriously, you start down that road, you’ll soon find yourself with 1,000’s of pounds worth of debt which you wouldn’t ordinarily have.
When you are on expenses, try and avoid cash, pay for everything on card and get a receipt. Card is easier to expense and track and actually saves you money. For example you use a taxi and the cost is £7.00. You pay with cash which you draw from your expense account of £10. You get £3 change. You can claim £7 back, but your debt is £10. Will that £3 be used to go back into pay the debt? Probably not. Do this several times and you’ll find yourself £100’s out which you need to find out of your personal money to repay.
If you are on expenses abroad, try wherever to pay with card in your native currency. Many places offer the choice to transact in the local currency of the currency of the card owner. If you use your card’s currency then your exchange rate and charge is included in that transaction. If you choose local currency then you have to find the exchange rate for that day and expense using that conversion, which some expense systems like concur have issues with. They will usually use the exchange rate on the day of expense submission which can leave you out of pocket. If you’re in a cash only position, then make sure you get an ATM receipt and expense the amount on the cash withdrawal using the ATM receipt as evidence.
Hotels, rail and air fares are usually covered by the company to give you some rest bite. However, sometimes you have to fund these as well. Make sure that you have a sufficient credit limit to cover things. I found that I needed about £3,000 to cover myself each month. Remember, if you can’t afford the expenses outlay, tell your employer that it is not acceptable to expect you to fund the expense and ask them to do it for you. You’ll find that most FD’s will fling you the corporate credit card.
Mileage for travel is also important. If you get a car allowance, then you can only claim fuel consumption at a flat rate of 12p per mile as you are getting paid by allowance to maintain a car and its wear and tare. If you don’t then you can claim 45p per mile for the 1st 10k miles a year then 25p per mile thereafter. If your employer fails to pay this in full, you can claim the difference from HMRC in your tax return. If you’re thinking of buying a car, then buy something reliable. It doesn’t need to be flash, unless you’re a double glazing salesmen but reliable and cheap to maintain (e.g. tyres, brakes, servicing, fuel economy etc.) and you’ll be quids in!
If you are working from home, don’t forget you can claim about £15 per month from HMRC to pay towards heating and electricity at a flat rate. Again, if your employer doesn’t do this for you, its as easy as filling out a form on HMRC website.
Be prepared for long stints away from home. Some projects last months and can see you away 5 nights a week sometimes. You’re out 5am on a Monday and you come home at 11pm on a Friday. Its hard work and it takes a toll on you and your family. Sit down with your partner and discuss whether this is something the family can buy into and the advantages outweigh the pressures. I am incredibly grateful to my wife because she is often left alone to look after the kids and the house while I am away, and she does it without grumbling too much. Yes, we have our arguments over it and it does put pressure on us as a unit, but we talk about it and find a way forward. However, if it simply does not work for you, then you can always talk to the customer to arrange a custom work schedule, or speak to your employer as it maybe unreasonable and an alternative solution can be found.
Its not all bad though, you do get stints at home and relatively peaceful life, but when the work comes it hits hard and if you’re used to a way of working as a family for a while and you get a sudden change to the routine it can throw everyone off balance.
My final piece of advice is to make sure you keep your motivation. Being a consultant it is often hard to motivate yourself to look after yourself, professionally and health wise. You often ignore your training needs to deliver for the customer and that is a bad trait to have. Make sure that you get adequate training time to get up to speed with current technology. Being head down in a project for months, things move on and you’re next job could be to deliver a solution that was released within that delta. Keep healthy! When on the road and living in hotel rooms, its far to easy to order a dominos. When you finish work, go for a walk rather than sitting in your hotel room with your laptop working even more hours than you’ve already done. Make sure you eat properly, have proper meals, go to a restaurant and avoid the local sainsbury’s or take out. Take it from me, you’ll regret it.
If you still believe consultancy is for you, then great! I wish you all the luck with your search and career. I hope this post gives you an idea of what to expect and helps you make that decision.