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How to go from coder to consultant

Matthew Heusser | Sept. 11, 2015
If you've had it with office life – or office life has had it with you – maybe it’s time to become an IT consultant. Here’s how to avoid the pitfalls along your path…and some tips to get started.

Sometimes you’ll be faced with telling the client things they don't want to hear. You will be tempted to temper your words, to provide other options, to take the work that is offered instead of the work that you think needs to be done. True consultants have the option of declining work, or reframing scope as "I'm really interested in solving the time from test-to-production problem, less than a specific way to implement it." Sometimes that means you don't get the assignment. 

As an internal consultant, you might appear to have no choice. Yet there are ways to assertively say that something is not acceptable to you. You might risk your job or a relationship – but learning to not accept situations passively is the first step toward professional growth. Richard Bach wrote in his book Illusions that "If it's never our fault, we can't take responsibility for it. If we can't take responsibility for it, we'll always be its victim." 

Step one is taking ownership of our work process. From there, giving advice is only a second step away. Once people think of you as an internal consultant, you are one. No title change is required. 

Next steps 

I also want to point out a third way, beyond heads-down technical staff and line management. You might call it a player/coach, or "contractor plus." My friends in compensation analysis tend to call it a coordinator, administrator or "internal consultant." Either way, there is a role for someone to study the whole, provide insights, advise about tradeoffs and often, stick around to see the ideas made real. You can do it while keeping your title and day job, more than working in the process, it is working on the process. 

If you'd like to add a bit of that to your day job, well, start with the next change and lead the way. Give it a shot. If you have more ambitious goals, and want to transform the world of work to make everyone function as a team member plus consultant, I admire that, too, and wish you the best. Being internal balances job risk, but it also creates a perception risk – it can be hard to influence change when people have existing preconceptions of you. If you want to go external – well, we'll talk about that in my next column. 

For now four simple questions: What does your project need right now? What are you going to do? How did that go? And, finally, what’s next?


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