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How to go from coder to consultant

Matthew Heusser | Sept. 11, 2015
If you've had it with office life – or office life has had it with you – maybe it’s time to become an IT consultant. Here’s how to avoid the pitfalls along your path…and some tips to get started.

If you've noticed this, if you know who to push what way, if you've seen things unclear in the requirements, problems pushed through the cracks – then you’re probably ready for the next step. 

For me, the next step happened about 10 years ago, when a manager at the insurance company I was working for wrote "Know Your Role – Be Your Role!" in block letters on a whiteboard with a red marker. I wasn't there when he wrote it, so I’m not sure what point he was trying to make. I did pick up the pen, and, in very small letters below, wrote "OR: Figure out what the project needs to have done. Do that." 

What that team needed was a grown-up. Someone with these skills, to see what was falling through the cracks, and to fill in the gaps. I started to study consulting as an employee. 

What consultants actually do 

Gerald Weinberg's fantastic book “Secrets of Consulting: A Guide to Giving and Getting Advice Successfully drops a hint in its subtitle. It’s getting your advice used that makes the difference, or at least often enough to make the fee worth it. The saying "you can lead a client to a solution but you can't make them implement" is true, but it’s very hard to remain in the field long-term if no one does what you suggest. 

To have a consulting assignment, you probably need the company to want to improve something. When I was at the insurance company, it was repeatability: getting more projects in closer to the deadline with no surprises. At my next job it was reducing uncertainty through better testing, preferably in less time. This was internal consulting, so I had a day job – project management in the first, test lead in the second. Many evaluation systems have a "goals" section that is separate from the day-to-day work, so I took advantage of it, using those goals as mini-consulting projects. Suddenly I was meeting with my manager to discuss the scope, agreeing on the boundaries and expectations, and keeping management informed as I did the work. 

One classic consulting assignment is the gap analysis, which is easy enough to do as an employee – just wait for something to change. 

Say there’s a re-organization, and you get a new manager. That manager will want to demonstrate that he’s done something at the first annual review, if not sooner. So offer to conduct a gap analysis. Figure out his long-term vision, look at how the team operates now, find the gaps and recommend how to fix them. At this point in time, your manager has strong incentive to listen and, more importantly, nothing to lose. If you say things are bad, he'll say he made them better! 

 

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