It is important to understand that not everyone is a good fit for technology
consulting. There are many good reasons for this, and this chapter focuses on
the five main reasons you may want to consider not being a technology
These enumerated factors, although not exhaustive, are typical reasons why
consultants either burn out quickly or never really manage to get their careers
into a trajectory that allows them to have success.
Indeed, whereas trying something out and discovering it isn’t for you may not be
as career limiting as, say, surfing for pornography at work or serving
time for fraud, choosing to become a consultant when the career isn’t a good fit
can be quite a mistake. Going down this path when it isn’t a good fit presents
risks of continually being frustrated, weary, and possibly left unemployed at
inopportune times. Although not career ending or, for that matter, even
limiting, there is a serious risk of its wasting time and giving you a lot of
avoidable grief if you are ill-suited to consulting.
Sign #1: Lack of Risk Tolerance
Talking about lack of risk tolerance might strike you as odd when I have made
the case in this book that in technology consulting, your actual level of risk
is lower than working in an IT position. Although I believe this to be true,
based on the kinds of networks you build over time supporting you regardless of
company, the apparent risk, based on the clarity in which your position is
directly related to revenue, will feel high at times.
The “Corporate Bench”
You might be surprised to learn that in IT jobs at non-IT companies, there are
periods when you are at great risk of job loss. Especially, but not
exclusively, during budget time during a recession, because most companies look
at software developers as a cost, software developers, middle managers, project
managers, and many others who have advanced in their career and look expensive
on the budget spreadsheet are at acute risk of being laid off.
I call this situation the “Corporate Bench” because what happens, prior to the
big layoff, is that many low-impact projects are created for IT staff only to
give people something to do while the decisions are being made. These projects
feel like work, and therefore they feel productive. However, the bottomline
impact in many cases is simply not there to make the CFO overlook the position
when cost-cutting time comes around.
Let’s face it: For good reasons, nobody does profit cutting. In most cases,
working for a company in an IT department, you are considered a cost
center(note that many believe this designation to be a mistake).When it’s time
to cut costs, that means cut those who work in the cost center. This especially
means people with titles that, if there are no new projects and everything is
in maintenance mode, are probably not really needed.
Why Technology Consulting Feels Riskier
What’s the difference in technology consulting? Frankly, it’s more honest. When
you are not billing, you know you are not generating revenue. Because the
question as to whether you are earning your keep in technology consulting is
more cut and dry, there is little choice in this business but to realize that
if you are not billing, selling, or owning, you probably are not contributing.
Working in IT masks the risk because you may be on the bench for months or
years and not even know it because nobody will tell you that you are vulnerable
(see Table 10-1). In consulting, you know that when you hit the bench, the
clock starts ticking. In IT, you probably don’t even know where the clock is!
Of course, on a case-by-case basis, some consultancies are far riskier
propositions than certain IT departments, so this rule is more of a guideline.
Consider technology consulting firms with weak demand-generation capability—
for example, a sales department that isn’t getting out and meeting customers,
or worse, cutting bad deals. Staying at a consultancy like that is probably
riskier than almost any other situation you could ever work in. By contrast, in
some IT departments all jobs are probably pretty much secure. The guy who runs
servers for Google is probably in a pretty secure position!
Why Avoid Technology Consulting Then?
Why should the risk-averse avoid consulting? The answer really has to do with
the fact that there are many people for whom blissful ignorance of their risk
is probably a better choice. If the thought of hitting the bench and having
daily, visceral fear that you might be let go is going to prevent you from
sleeping at night, working in an IT department or for a software company might
be a better career choice.
“Thriving,” to really be effective, you have to feel somewhat secure in your
job to be able to do your best work. Of course, almost nobody is truly 100
percent secure. That said, if you are constantly feeling at risk—be it lack of
self-confidence or, more likely, lack of confidence in the ability of your
company to keep you busy—you will be miserable, and you probably won’t succeed.
Rest assured, nobody does good work for very long when suffering from insomnia.
Refuge for the Risk-Intolerant?
Of course, if you happen to be risk-intolerant, and you have just read this
section and decided that maybe neither consulting nor IT departments are the
right place for you, should you avoid technology altogether? Of course not. On
the risk continuum, for software developers, the least risky position is to be
a software product developer for a successful company that sells software.
Although this position is not completely without risk, you could be on a team
that makes a less than successful product and again find yourself out of work.
On balance, this position combines the aspects of being in a revenuegenerating
capacity but provides a business model that has less of a “feast or famine”
The downside to this plan is that there are, sadly, far fewer jobs as software
product developers than there are jobs in IT and technology consulting. For
every software company with a product that is selling well, there are probably
10 consulting companies and 50 IT departments in companies writing software.
And just like everything else, there are proportionally as many poorly run
software companies with bad products and miserable owners who hate software
developers as there are consulting companies that fit the mold of the Seven
Deadly Firms.That said, if you love software but simply hate risk, this is
probably the best option for you.
Sign #2: Incompatible Personality
There is a mostly negative stereotype of a software developer who is a
cavedwelling creature that doesn’t like people, doesn’t shower or shave, smells
kind of funny, and is otherwise socially not the most desirable person to be
around. This stereotype is so common that in the 1990s Saturday Night Live used
to do skits in which the “IT Guy” would go around helping people in a rude and
gruff manner and after helping them, respond to their lack of thankfulness by
saying sarcastically, “You’re welcome.” Indeed, this stereotype is so common
that a national television show was able to do a skit about it, and lots of
people—outside programmers—were able to get a good laugh from it.
Is this stereotype true? Well, there is probably a certain segment in any given
occupation that could be characterized a certain way. Given that effective
software development demands people who can shut out others for long periods of
time to solve complex problems, it should not surprise anyone that this
profession may attract more than a few people who generally do not have strong
Don’t Like People? Then You Probably Won’t Like Consulting
One of the main differences between a typical programmer and a good consultant
candidate is that the latter doesn’t mind networking and other “people” aspects
of the job. To consult isn’t just to code; it involves getting into a position
to advise, which requires building trust. In the best of all worlds, gaining
trust would simply be a matter of doing good work for a period of time. Sadly,
as imperfect people, we do not always appreciate the work that someone quietly
does, but rather we notice the more visible. Good consultants make an effort to
assure that their work has visibility, and that requires learning how to
promote the work of your team as well as your own so that others see the value
If this aspect feels too much like brown-nosing or self-promotion for you to
feel comfortable, chances are others will grab that spotlight from you with
their successes; thus, someone other than you will be “building trust.”You may
survive for a good deal of time working in a consulting company, but don’t be
fooled: Consulting is an act between people. If you rarely or never interact
with people, and interaction with people is on a “definitely only when
required” basis, you probably aren’t really consulting.
Answering yes to one or more of the following statements means your personality
might be incompatible with consulting:
• If I can’t wear shorts, sneakers, and sweats while I code, I can’t do good
• The only small talk I want to engage in is related to the computer language,
not conversational techniques.
• More often than not, I find other people annoying. I really only want to work
with people who are mostly like me.
• I don’t really care about business results that much; just let me code.
• When I find a code base that someone else worked on, it is almost always
inferior to the work I would do.
• Writing documentation is always a waste of time. If the code was hard to
write, it should be hard to understand.
• If someone can’t figure out how to use an application I wrote, that person is
probably too stupid to use a computer.
The key to knowing whether you are a fit is to be honest with yourself and
decide whether, despite perhaps some inherent introvert tendencies, those
traits got you into software in the first place. If you are willing and able to
decide that interaction with the broader marketplace around you isn’t just the
job of other people, you might have better luck in this business.
Introversion Isn’t Universally Bad
For some people, no matter how hard they try, they are going to be awkward in
social situations, including those in the workplace.This does not mean you are
doomed and unemployable as a software developer. If the trends tell us
anything, there are plenty of people who meet that profile who make a fine
living in software.The place for people like that is, again, probably in IT or,
better yet, in the contracting marketplace. Contractors, who get paid to code
by the hour on contracts working on projects designed by other people, can do
very well. Although contracting isn’t consulting, with the right agency to help
find projects, it is a great way for a risk-tolerant developer who simply wants
to code for money to make a nice living.
Sign #3: Incompatible Lifestyle and/or Responsibilities
The day-to-day realities of consulting, while they can be rewarding, almost
certainly go beyond what most think of as a typical 9-to-5 existence. The
thriving consultant probably spends at least 40 hours in a week billing for a
client but then spends some measure of time doing the following:
• Working for the consulting company, attending company events, helping on
• Working on side projects, doing open source work, authoring articles
• Spending significant time learning new technologies
• Commuting to clients that may or may not be particularly close to home
Needless to say, depending on the situation, the burden above 40 hours can be
heavy. Especially during recessions when there are fewer opportunities and more
need to distinguish yourself with side work, chances are, you will spend 50 to
60 hours on career-related activities in a given week (see Figure 10-1).
Be aware that some people somehow manage to coach little league, hold the PTA
presidency, and do numerous other things, all while still having avid hobbies
on the side. I am not saying it is impossible, but a word of caution should
apply: If you have a lot of nonwork, noncareer activities you want to be
involved in, you need to think long and hard before you pursue a career in
technology consulting. Although some manage to do it all, I personally am not
convinced they are not secretly abusing methamphetamines (or at least a lot of
coffee!) to give themselves 22 waking hours each day.
In consulting, it is not a guarantee you will have to travel.However, if you
ever want to work for one of the bigger consulting firms, where the job
security is better, you will be working for a firm that probably operates in
more than one city. If your firm operates in more than one city, chances are,
you will be at least asked to travel occasionally.
You can survive in consulting if you refuse to travel. However, doing so, at
least in most firms, puts you on a much slower track than those who are willing
to travel, at least in the earlier career stages. The reality, as hard as it
may seem, is that you are as valuable as you are marketable for the firm you
work for. Being capable of travel opens up a level of flexibility in what you
are able to do for your firm, therefore putting you on a faster path. If you
can’t travel, you have been on the bench for two months, and others who can
travel are getting projects (albeit elsewhere) and you are not, you will
certainly feel the heat!
The requirement to travel is, like most things, situational. In some cases you
might work for a consultancy that is mostly local, a consultancy that sells
work that is mostly remote, and so forth. And if you find such a situation, by
all means embrace it. However, at least in 2009, this is not the norm, though
we would very much like it to be.
But What if I Have a Life?
There is room to have a life, depending on how you define “life.” Let’s put it
bluntly: If you have hobbies that take a ton of time, whether it is something
noble like working for a charity part-time 30 hours a week in the evenings or
something even more noble like running a guild full-time in World of Warcraft,
you may need to sacrifice part of that activity if you really want to thrive in
Of course, the alternative is to become very proficient at time management! Most
people waste a lot of time (I write this, of course, after checking Twitter for
10 minutes, checking Facebook for another 10 minutes, checking my Google
Reader…you get the idea). If you want to have time for work 60 hours per week;
kids 30 hours per week; your hobby 30 hours per week; and time on top of that
to occasionally eat, sleep, work out, and so on, you will not have another 30
hours per week to surf for funny YouTube videos.
But What If I Don’t Have a Choice?
It is one thing if your life choices are not compatible; at least you can change
that if you want to have a consulting career. There are others, however, for
whom spending 40 hours per week parenting or taking care of an elderly or sick
parent or spouse is not optional. Is a consulting career still possible in such
Yes, but having this career will be tougher for you than others who do not have
that level of responsibility. The problem for someone with this level of
responsibility is that you are operating in a marketplace where your peers
have, on average, probably less responsibility than you. As a result, in
situations in which you are competing for the best assignments, the sad truth
in most cases is that there is a good chance, at least in some firms, that you
might be at a disadvantage.
How do you get around this problem? Sadly, there is no real easy answer to
that.The choices really are to balance the responsibilities, settle for
operating from a position of disadvantage, and try to compensate in other ways
(for example, compensate for lack of schedule flexibility with outstanding
talent) or possibly try some means of being in technology that is less
time-intensive than consulting. There is no easy answer, but for those who
really want to make it work, there are ways to do it.
Sign #4: Desire for Single Product Focus
Some people, perhaps by instinct, perhaps by disposition, have a desire to work
on a single product flowing through their veins. If you are one of these
people, there are very good reasons why the consulting business really isn’t
If this description fits you, there simply are much better career alternatives
you probably should pursue. The role of consulting in your career, if any, is
simply to provide a means of acquiring cash so you have some “runway” (also
known as “living expenses”) that you need to launch a product on your own. If
you can manage to find a place in a software company that shares your mission,
has management you like, and has a product you believe in, you will almost
certainly be happier working in a software product company.
Unlike some of the other signs, if this is really the situation you are in, you
should keep in mind that in the rare event, as a consultant, you are working on
packaged software. It is very infrequent that a consultant will be named a
product designer, architect, or even lead developer of a software product. It
might happen occasionally, but to plan on it would be really hoping to get very
lucky on each and every engagement.
Even if you score such an engagement, chances are, the subsequent one is going
to be writing software for an IT department somewhere with an internal
corporate audience. The nature of consulting is that you are writing software
for consumers who work within large companies, for audiences that are typically
fairly small. Consulting, simply put, is not the place to go if your career
goal is to have every project on which you work be something that will be used
by thousands or millions of users. Even if it does happen occasionally, such
cases are the exception, not the rule.
Sign #5: Doing It for the Money
Consulting does, at least for those who position themselves well, offer ample
opportunities to make a reasonable amount of money. Even in bad times, a good,
seasoned consultant drawing a salary can make $100,000 per year in the United
States in most markets. An independent consultant who manages land a gig where
he or she can bring on two or three colleagues might do two or three times
that! Although this isn’t prefinancial crisis Wall Street money, it is
certainly better than a sharp stick in the eye.
The advice, however, in this context is that there are places where greed is a
great motivator. If you really want to make money, I would submit that training
in investment banking, stock trading, sales, or other more mercenary areas
might be a better fit. As you saw earlier, when greed governs engineering
decisions, the results can be disastrous.
Besides the tendency that strict money motivation leads to risky career
behavior, if you don’t have a strong desire to write code and work for clients,
this business can be a nauseating experience. The payoff for most of the
important career activities in consulting is brutally a long time coming. You
can do something extraordinary, like write a popular open source framework, and
not reap the rewards of that effort until years down the road.With such a lag
between work and payoff, most people who are strictly motivated by “filthy
lucre” will not make it through that gap in time between action and result.
Don’t get me wrong: Technology consulting is a great occupation. For people who
enjoy software development, are flexible enough to deal with some curveballs in
terms of schedule, are able to handle the risks, enjoy working on diverse
projects, and enjoy or at least tolerate working with other people, the
occupation is ideal. If those things are going to be issues for you, it may not
be a bad idea to look at some of the alternatives presented here or at least
think very strongly about what you want to do before proceeding down this path.