Other consulting roles include helping to work on the product roadmap, the portfolio process, a specific function (development, test, analysis) or even developing a plan for a new line of business or expansion. The two most dangerous traps I've found in these types of assignments were in either taking very specific direction (turning into an over-priced contractor), or worse, doing the work in a corner. A brilliant plan in a fancy three-ring binder that never gets read or used does not creating long-term value. It might make for great billables today, but isn't the kind of thing you can build a career on.
For me, the three years leading up to going independent were fantastic. First, I was working for Socialtext, a social, web-based company…so being involved in online communities was part of the job. Employees at Socialtext were treated as internal consultants; we were given a responsibility and expected to own it. As a venture-capital funded startup, every three months we had a quarterly earnings update, which could mean either layoffs or champagne toasts. The company did a good job of keeping us aware of what was going on, but still, the beginning of each quarter was nail-biting time.
Working for Socialtext allowed me to develop a tolerance for uncertainty and risk. That was fantastic preparation for being a consultant. My friend Adam Yuret, who consults mostly in Portfolio Management and Strategy, told me a similar story: that his three years on a boat in the Pacific allowed him to understand how to live for an extended time on very little income, which was good preparation for the consultant life.
One last lesson I learned as an employee: Focus on the client.
Focus on the client
It's easy enough to get carried away, thinking of yourself as special, outside of the work itself, creating reports and analysis for other people. You start to talk at lunch about yourself and what you’re working on. It's flattering.
It is also a trap.
The job of the consultant is to improve the client's condition. It's not about you. If it becomes about you, strange things start to happen in conversations. You start to "miss." Worse, change doesn't happen. The client’s condition is not improved. People start to ask what it is you do all day – talk? Really? Is that the job, talking and writing reports?
So find out what the client (your manager, your project team, your peers) would like to do, and help them be awesome. You know you've done the job well when you walk away and feel bad – they become awesome, but you didn't get the credit! That’s an amazing thing. It’s truly great. Give yourself a pat on the back, and recognize that you were actually a real consultant. Your advice was used. Keep doing that enough, build a reputation for it, and the work will come find you. Best of all, you can pick and choose between the work that is most interesting to you and the clients you enjoy the most, who are most apt to listen and take you seriously.
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