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How to become an independent IT consultant

Matthew Heusser | Oct. 23, 2015
The risk may be high, but the rewards can be even higher. Here are some practical tips for making the leap from employee to independent IT consultant.

That's actually how I got my first full-time assignment. Lanette Creamer, out of Seattle, was sick of a Midwest client – by which I mean literally sick. She was spending every Sunday and Friday afternoon in airports and airplanes, and five nights a week in a hotel. Commuting in from Seattle to Northern Indiana just did not make sense. So when it was time to renew, she gave me a call; I was a two-hour drive away in West Michigan. 

That was 2011. Lanette and I had known each other for years. By recommending me for the assignment, Lanette was risking her reputation; I doubt she would have done that for someone she met on Twitter the hour before. We also shared a specialty. We were test-leaders who thought of ourselves as "Agile," saw testing as an activity and were interested in growing team capability through coaching. That's a mouthful, but it really differentiated us from the rest of the technology pack. 

When I asked peers about finding work, they often said things like "All the work I find is through referrals." That struck me as a non-answer; it means someone heard about you or recommended you from someone else. How did they find out about you? My second major assignment came from Twitter, just replying to an ad for someone contract and remote. I did not know the hiring company, but each of us had enough public information – websites, Twitter followers, published articles – that we could get a sense of each other. 

My next major assignment came from someone I had known through a user-group for years that had called me before about the potential for work; the time was finally right. The common theme here is that I knew people over a series of years, and when an opening happened, they thought of me. That took a lot more than one touchpoint and a business card. If you can do it without being smarmy, I've found that it never hurts to ask; I have closed a deal or two thanks to a good week together at a conference. (After four years and 40 customers, that number is, literally, a deal or two.) 

Recently a few contacts came from our website, or even LinkedIn. The key to LinkedIn is to make your profile match what people are searching for – and to be the best at it. That's probably a niche, like, say, software delivery AND consulting AND writing. It took me four years to get there. 

Differentiation – on what you do 

When you start looking for work, it is tempting to do everything. A "one stop shop," after all, sounds appealing. Yet that should have limits. As David Maister, the retired Harvard Business School Professor, points out in Strategy and the Fat Smoker – if you go to McDonalds and ask for a pizza, they won't sell you one. Companies that sell anything are likely to go to low-end freelancing website that list jobs and pay the lowest bidder. The lowest bidder will be ... low. Instead of competing on price, compete on something else, what you do differently and better than your peers. For an independent, that could mean that the expert advisor who leads the sales is the same person that does the work – and the person who picks up the phone afterwards for support. 


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