The decision to become an independent consultant in the software world is not something to be taken lightly. Although the work you will be doing on the job is probably very similar if not identical to what you have done as an employee, you really need to conduct an honest and thorough self-examination to determine if you are cut out for the demands of running a successful consulting business.
After years of working with many independent consultants to help them find gigs, and in many cases serving as counsel for engineers considering the transition from employee to independent, I have compiled a list of traits that are necessary in order to thrive in today’s marketplace. Conveniently for me, the necessary traits are often associated with body parts (which helps with extended metaphors, bad puns, etc.) – so I give you “What it Takes to Be an Independent Consultant From Head to Toe (but not necessarily in that order)”.
The Stomach – Obviously it takes some guts to leave a steady job and take the plunge into independent work. You need to have confidence that your skills will be in demand by clients, and that you will be able to reach your target audience (hiring managers) either through your own network or via agents/recruiters that you can trust. It also helps to understand that sometimes independents will be ‘between gigs’ – many indies appreciate the ability to take a week or two off before starting a new assignment, but if not carefully choreographed the beauty of an independent’s flexibility can become an undesirable period of unemployment. Being able to digest some weeks without a paycheck is a necessity, even if it never actually happens to you.
The Teeth – Chances are you’ll be asked to cut your teeth on some new technology on every gig. Never expect to be using the same set of languages, tools, databases, operating systems, etc. on every project. The ability to learn new technologies quickly and ‘on the fly’ is essential to your success as an independent. Ask the client what tools you should brush up on a couple weeks before the project starts, and do a little research to hit the ground stumbling if not running. Invest additional time to keep up with trends and learn new tricks that may be valuable on future gigs.
The Head - We’ll assume you have the head for technology – if not, please stop reading this now and get back to your work! In addition to knowing your way around code, you’ve got to at last have some mind for business. Most tend to leave the tax and legal stuff for the professionals (a decent accountant and lawyer will save you time – good ones might save you jail time!). You also need to have at least some idea of the numbers behind independent work. What do I need as an hourly rate to maintain or improve my lifestyle? Did I factor in some costs that I may not have worried about as a salaried employee (insurance, mileage, parking, taxes)? How much time can I afford to take off without hurting my bottom line?
The Legs – Finding a great gig can take quite a bit of legwork, especially if you decide to go it alone and not use an agent. Even with an agent it can take some time and effort to secure a project, so be prepared to take the search for new assignments just as seriously as the job itself. Be organized in your search, reach out to past clients and touch base with an agent you know and trust. Finding a five year or even two year project is extremely rare, and many gigs are in the six month range. Thankfully, your job search activities should only happen a couple/few times a year at most.
The Feet – Unless you can find telecommuting positions, independents may have to be more open to locations that may be less than ideal from a commuting perspective. It is always better in the long term to take the project 40 miles away that offers a new marketable skill over the Cobol gig next door. Openness to a bit longer ride will surely enhance your ability to stay utilized/paid.
The Heart – You are the sole representative of your company, so you need to make every interview and client interaction a positive experience even if you don’t get the gig. Walking out of/canceling interviews, leaving assignments without proper notice, or presenting yourself as negative or unfriendly can get you a reputation with both hiring managers and agents, and that will hurt your chances of securing future work. Don’t burn any bridges! Show some love to your clients and they’ll keep you coming back for more work.
The Nose – Getting stuck on a doomed project will happen to almost every independent during their career, but having a nose to smell out rotten gigs will save lots of headaches. Ask the right questions in interviews to learn as much as possible about the team, management, customers, and expectations for delivery. Then decide if you have a chance to be successful.
The Elbows – Rubbing elbows with fellow software professionals and staying in touch with old contacts should keep you off the bench, and tools like Twitter and LinkedIn make it that much easier to keep connected. Foster relationships with other independents that could potentially find you work when necessary. If you are active in some open source communities, developing personal relationships with other committers and contributors could lead to referrals.
The Ears and Mouth – The ability to listen to and understand your clients’ requirements is perhaps the most important skill required to be successful as an independent. At the rates you are being paid, there is little margin for error. Get a good req and ask the necessary questions to be sure you are clear as to what is expected and when it needs to be delivered.
The Face - Many successful independents have a reputation in the community as having deep expertise in one certain subject, or while others are regarded as great and well-rounded engineers. How did they achieve that notoriety? Independent consultants often choose to be very conscious of their ‘brand’ and to proactively take time to help build and maintain that identity. Blogging, authoring books or articles, presenting at conferences and user groups, or simply being seen at certain industry events are ways to keep your face out there for potential customers to see.
Do you have the necessary traits to run a successful independent consulting business?
Note: If this content sounds remotely familiar, I originally wrote parts of this article for a newsletter in 2008. I made several edits and updates for this posting.