Are You Ready To Cross Over To Consulting?

Technology Staff Editor
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If you're a tech professional working in an IT organization and contemplating a career change, you've probably considered becoming a consultant. But while the work and pay may look more exciting from your office window, be forewarned: There are pros and cons to making the jump from full-time employee to contracted consultant.One of consulting's biggest perks is the pay, says Web project manager Phil Marino, a consultant for IT outsourcing and services firm Hudson who has done stints with other contracting firms, including the former Andersen Consulting. Marino estimates he's making about 20% more as a contractor than he made as a full-time employee. He went into consulting about two years ago, after his last employer went through a merger and reorganization. The extra money is good, he says, but it's a trade-off since now he doesn't have health benefits or the vacation or sick pay he enjoyed as a full-timer. Another thing to jot down in the cons column is that consultants typically don't earn overtime pay for putting in the extra hours needed to keep clients happy. Even though full-time salaried IT staffers often put in extra unpaid hours, the pressure on consultants to get clients' projects done on time and on budget can be more intense. After all, a disgruntled client can choose another consultant or contracting firm next time around. Challenges Ahead Still, these added pressures can make consulting a more challenging and stimulating, albeit competitive, career, says Chris Kido, an IT strategy consultant for DiamondCluster International who has worked as a consultant for about a decade. When consultants are teamed on projects with internal IT people employed by the client company, the consultants often get the meatier work, Kido says. "You're expected to deliver success and provide value," Kido says. "You excel, or you don't survive." Consulting companies looking to hire are seeking talent with key skills and experience. There's lots of competition for hot job titles, including senior project managers, business analysts, systems architects, customer-facing people, and those with creative skills and dashboard skills to help executives manage a company, says Scott Santoro, director of global resources management at Keane, a global professional IT services firm. Then there are lifestyle issues to consider, including frequent travel or relocation, which are possible drawbacks for IT pros with families. For its part, Keane has been addressing the travel issue. "Some people love it, and others don't," Santoro says. Many Keane consultants in the past worked one week at a client's site and then one week home. Now many work virtually, spending Monday through Wednesday at the client's site and Thursday and Friday working from home. But when travel is required for a client engagement, the trip is often much farther. "Before, travel meant going from New York to California," Santoro says. "Now it might mean going from California to Bangalore." Lessons Learned Pay Off On the plus side, the experience gained from working with an array of clients can fortify an IT professional's future job security. "They're much more marketable because they have a deeper, broader scope of expertise and background," Santoro says. "The more industries you've worked in, the more diversity you bring, the more marketable you are." DiamondCluster's Kido has worked with a variety of technologies in the financial services industry, and he finds that experience is useful because some of those technologies are moving into other industries such as health care. "There's convergence taking place, and I've got valuable lessons learned" that an IT person in a health care IT organization might not have. For instance, new health care spending accounts require knowledge of both financial services and health care, Kido says. Despite the better pay and diverse experience, those who've worked in IT consulting for long stretches often consider making the jump back to the corporate side. Kido says he's decided to eventually make the transition, but so far he's had cold feet--mainly because he still has more to learn. "There's a depth of new experiences in business and technology and diversity of work in different industries" that contract work brings, he says. Others empathize with Kido's dilemma. "The last company I worked at didn't have much opportunity for growth," says Mike Sonneville, a consultant for contracting firm Hudson since last July. Sonneville has been in IT for about 10 years doing mostly software testing and quality assurance work for the drug and health care industries. "I find the work challenging and the money better in consulting," he says. "There are lots of projects to choose from, and when an assignment ends, there are other projects waiting." Still, Sonneville admits that consulting has its perks and pitfalls. Sure, full-time IT pros tend to get burdened by more bureaucratic, political, and administrative work issues, but consultants need to have tougher skins and be willing to forgo feeling like part of the family. Sonneville offers some sound advice for sensitive types considering consulting: "You can't mind taking risks or sometimes being treated like a second-class citizen."


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