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How to Be a Successful High-Tech Consultant

Marty Larsen

Issue #83, March 2001

Number one requirement of the successful consultant: do what you love.

There are many means by which we choose to measure what is success. In my early days of computer-industry consulting, I was happy and successful because I was independent, busy and doing what I enjoyed. My primary goal was to make a living as a computer engineer and not work for a defense company. Although the economy was slow, I was successful because of a simple principle I have always stuck with: do what you love.

However, as time went on my success had limits. In the early days, I was a “body for hire”. I went from job to job, and when I had some free time I did my “administrative work”. The not-so-fun paperwork, billings, etc., always came last and, even then, only when I was forced. This model was cool but not very scalable. My priorities began to change, and my need for a more stable, steady income stream became apparent. I had to start exploring the more advanced consulting model.

When I examined my operation I found that life was good when I was doing my thing for the customers. My pain was in between jobs, when I had to collect bills and actively market my skills in the ever-present search for that lucrative, long-term and very cool gig. In business terms, I was at the sawtooth growth point for which the current mode of operation required additional investment for continued growth. I had the choice of hiring some help or hooking up with some outfit that would feed me leads; in return I would “fill out” their service offerings. My new expanded operating model evolved into two cool gigs. I hooked up with a small company hocking computers, Advance Engineering Labs, and I sold “solutions”. The solution lead to the sale of hardware. I got paid for designing and implementing the solution that solved a business problem for AEL’s customers, and AEL got paid for the sale of the hardware. Together we offered complete solutions and a single point of contact for the customer. This arrangement worked out quite well, and we were fairly unique in the early days of desktop-computing environments.

Part two of my mode of operations was part-time teaching of digital-design engineering at Heald College. I also credit my teaching time as excellent presentation training—a valued skill as we move up the ladder in the consulting world. Once again I felt I was the “successful” consultant.

However, as my customers grew, so did their needs and their level of engineering complexity. The increase in demand forced me to give up teaching and concentrate full-time on the consultative role I performed.

Item number two of requirements for successful consulting: continuing education, both formal and informal via industry seminars and trade rags.

The shelf life of consultants that do not continue to update their education is about the same as a cup of yogurt. I cannot express the importance of continued education. As consulting gigs grow in size and sophistication so must your resumé. Customers want to know how you keep up as well as what you have done.

Item number three: a highly referenceable, in depth library of information available at one’s fingertips.

As my number of consulting gigs increased I began to amass quite a collection of programs, diagrams, documents, tools and experience. Reinventing the same stuff is a sin. The independent consultant with any hope of being self-supporting must have an organized library of information available at a moment’s notice. As the consulting gigs grow in complexity so must your ability to communicate complex solutions in nontechnical ways. A solid library of information, processes, techniques, programs and tools can “jump-start” a consulting engagement, and develop confidence between you and the customer. Every customer likes to know they are getting their money’s worth.

Item number four of the successful consultant: require an assessment. Deliver a fair, honest, objective assessment to your customer.

If we are to be more than a “body for hire”, then we need to be part sales, psychologist, engineer, accountant, business person and so on. We must understand clearly the needs of the customer, the problems they are toiling with and the urgency of their situation. The best way to gain the confidence of the customer is through a proven-tested-assessment process designed to clarify and articulate the customer’s need. In other words, before you jump in with your “solution offering” you must assure the client you are completely aware of their “unique” and special situation. Insist on an assessment! This can be as simple as looking at the code and as complex as documenting and diagramming the customer’s entire business process. The final product of an assessment should be impartial in nature and of value to the customer. The successful consultant does not go into an engagement blind. We would be doing the customer a huge disservice if we did not carefully assess the situation, report our findings, and then collectively design a solution. If we maintain an objective approach, and if we are as complete as possible, the assessment should be of value to the customer and, therefore, a paid engagement. All our customers are offered a “free” assessment by the other guys. There are no free lunches! Your customers will get what they pay for, and almost all of the them will know this. If they do not, you may want to rethink the engagement. People not willing to do their homework most often are not satisfied with the final results.

Item number five for successful consulting: finish big.

Let’s say you are a consultant doing what you love, continuing your education, amassing your library and performing valuable assessments. What is next? Do the work right? Actually, performing the work is the easy part as long as it is something you love. The next most important thing you can do to maintain your success as a consultant is to “finish big”. Boxers may get away with poor training, starting slow and performing poorly for nine rounds, but if they knock out the opponent in the tenth they win. On the other hand, if the boxer trains well, studies his opponent, and kicks butt for nine rounds but drops his guard for one second in the tenth and gets knocked out, then he is remembered as a loser. The same goes for the consultant. Maintain your presence and build your business through references and repeat business, and then give your customers something to remember you with. Do a final presentation of your work, summarize your accomplishments throughout the engagement, present your final report and include a copy of all the kudos the client wrote to you while you were engaged. Do whatever you can to finish big. It is your last and best chance to build more business out of a successful consulting engagement. Even if the engagement was not successful, a final presentation of the project, your work and the issues is viewed as a professional thing to do and will often get you a second chance.

Marty Larsen has been doing IT-related consulting for over 15 years. He is currently the VP of consulting operations for VA Linux Systems Inc. Marty has done extensive IT consulting for the oil and gas as well as high-tech industries. His past positions include director of oil, gas and communications consulting at EDS and manager of Global Capacity Planning for Intel Corporation’s IOS data centers. He has a BSEE from Columbus University.