Tired of workin’ for the man? Want to live the glamorous life of jet setting around from place to place, working on really challenging problems, and eating at foodie restaurants? You just need three things.
1. A price.
Right now, people probably don’t put a value on your time. You can’t exactly put up an hourly rate sign, but you can start to put in some gentle barriers to make sure people respect the worth of your time.
When I was a DBA and people walked into my cube asking me to do something, I pulled up my task list in RememberTheMilk.com. The cool thing about RTM is that it even works on mobile devices, so I can access the exact same task list from anywhere. I would show them the list and say:
“Here’s what I’m working on right now. If I push these aside, see the names next to each request? That’s the person who I’ve promised it to, and here’s the dates when they need it by. Can you run interference for me and get them to delay the dates on theirs?”
It worked magic – people suddenly understood that there was a cost to my time. Often, they were even completely willing to pay that cost. They’d put skin in the game by going to these other executives and bargaining for my time, and they’d be forced to use political favors in order to get what they wanted. Even though I didn’t profit directly, there was still a new cost to my time, and I wasn’t the one paying the cost. I stopped acting as the go-between – I left it up to the consumer to pay for my time.
Later on, I got gutsier with meeting invites I received, too. I’d reply back (without accepting the invite) and say:
There’s not an agenda attached to this meeting invite. Can you give me a quick rundown of the decisions that we need to make during this meeting? I’d like to make sure I come prepared, and I might be able to get the work done even earlier. If you’re not sure what will be discussed, I’ll need to skip the meeting – I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire right now.
When I did get the meeting agenda, I busted my hump to do whatever was required ahead of time, and I’d send it to the meeting holder and copy all of the attendees. My goal was to give them whatever they wanted without actually having the meeting. It worked wonders.
But if I didn’t get the answer I needed, I didn’t attend the meeting. If somebody fired off an email to my boss and said, “Dammit, Brent’s presence is urgently required,” I had my boss trained well enough to ask, “For what deliverable? He’s really busy.”
2. A service.
In the beginning of my IT career, my service offering was “fixer.” When something expensive and technical was going to hell in a handbasket, I wanted to be the first number on everybody’s speed dial. I specialized in reverse-engineering stuff I’d never seen before and figure out the root cause.
That worked great as a full time employee of small to midsize companies, but it doesn’t work for consulting. To understand why, you have to know the difference between consultants and contractors. Consultants advise you on what to do, and contractors do what you tell ’em. If you’re a great fix-everything guy, you end up as a contractor there for the long term. (There’s nothing wrong with contracting – but remember, this post is about consulting.)
Over time, I ended up specializing in turning around SQL Servers in bad shape. If you had a SQL Server problem that nobody else could solve, I was your Winston Wolf. I got even more specialized and focused on SQL Servers that used storage area networks (SANs) or VMware. It’s good to have a generalist background, but if you focus your service really tightly, you can do an amazing job at that service. This is especially true when you specialize in an expensive technology. If you’re having SQL Server CPU usage problems on a 40-core server, and Enterprise Edition costs $7,000 per core, then my services look pretty darned cheap.
Often, I’m brought into shops where a few local generalist consultants have struggled with a problem for months. I parachute in, use a few slick proprietary scripts and tools, and get right to the root of the problem in hours. I’m able to do that because I just specialize on one product (SQL Server) and I know that product forwards and backwards. It’s the same reason your general practitioner refers you to a specialist doctor when you’ve got ear/nose/throat or back problems – even though it’s all just the body, there’s specialized skills for different parts of it.
I don’t wanna fix the printer. I wanna be the one guy who gets called in when there’s a specialized SQL Server problem – and that’s where the final piece comes together.
3. A reputation.
When people are having a problem, and your skills are the answer, you want them to immediately say to themselves, “Man, there’s only one guy we need to call, and I know exactly who he is.” It takes a long, long time to build up that reputation. If you don’t have it, you have to rely on advertising and marketing, and then you’re in competition with a big pile of other consultants who are doing the exact same thing.
You have to start building your reputation right now – and I don’t mean by blogging, I mean by your own coworkers. When you walk into a meeting, are they excited to see you? Do other departments call and ask for you by name? Do they say, “We gotta get so-and-so in here because I just know she’ll take care of this once and for all.”
You can’t get this reputation by being a jerk. You can’t be the one who has all kinds of rules and always says “NO!” You have to understand the difference between positive and negative reinforcement, and you’ve gotta use the former way more than you use the latter.
Every coworker and manager you have – they’re your test clients. Right now, they’re not paying anything at all for your services. Use them as your test market by becoming an internal company consultant for SQL Server. If you can get raving fans inside your company, you’ve got a chance at becoming a consultant.
Probably the best gauge of future consultancy success is to ask yourself, “If I quit this job tomorrow, and I offered my former users a contract with a price and a service, would they make budget room for me?” Don’t think of asking your manager, because one of your manager’s jobs is to make you feel welcome and loved no matter how bad your personal skills are. Think about the users. They’ve got real budgets, real business needs, and real feelings that they’ve probably expressed to you. If they’d gladly – excitedly – hand you their budget money, then you’re ready to take a shot.
If not, go buy the book Secrets of Consulting: A Guide to Giving and Getting Advice Successfully (or the Kindle version).