Independent consultants are fast becoming an indispensable asset to organizations. And yes, there is a shortage of skilled IT talent. As a matter of fact, a 2019 State of IT Careers report states that organizations will increase contract spend by 29% this year. In general, large organizations (over 1,000 employees) tend to seek expertise in AI and security know-how. On the other hand, midsize companies (500 to 999 employees) are more likely to seek candidates with DevOps skills. Smaller companies are more likely to prioritize hiring IT pros with end user hardware and infrastructure expertise. This finding comes as small businesses plan to significantly boost their hardware budgets.
While being an independent consultant can be a rewarding career choice, it is also one that requires diligence in creating, growing and maintaining a network of professional relationships. Many consultants who are highly skilled in a specific technical domain can find it challenging to secure meaningful work if they are not also adept in growing their professional network.
Here are 3 key lessons independent IT consultants must bear in mind to ensure that they can continue to stay in demand.
Lesson #1 — Cultivate a professional network
Many independent consultants believe that only “important” people can make hiring decisions. So, they will often ignore a recruiter or an individual contributor on LinkedIn or via an email introduction because their title does not seem influential enough. Instead, they will work to impress only managers or decision makers. The problem is that decision makers are busy and constantly bombarded by people wanting their time. In many cases, decision makers will delegate tasks to people they trust. These are the people who will give their feedback to the hiring manager.
So, make it a rule to nurture a network of contacts from all levels. You never know who may become an influencer one day. That individual contributor you just ignored may actually be on an advisory board that meets with the CEO of a company. He or she may bring up your company during that meeting. He or she may be the spouse of someone in a related industry that is looking for your skills set. That recruiter may be chasing a much larger deal that you don’t know about.
So, think of a person you have the most respect for and would be polite to under all circumstances. Treat everyone you meet professionally this way.
Lesson #2 — Be professional and respect boundaries
Many independent contractors will typically find work through an upstream broker or larger company that carries the required insurance and satisfies the regulatory requirements. These larger companies, for example company A, hired the independent consultant as a subcontractor. In many cases, company A paid for certifications or sponsorships to hire you as a subcontractor for their project.
As you work on the project, you may do an exceptional job and develop good rapport with your company’s client. As you get better at your job, you may also develop exceptional IT skills. Your company’s client may complain about company A to you. At this point, it can be tempting to think company A does not provide any value. It may also be tempting to get a few more dollars an hour by going direct.
Some independent consultants may even dangle their expertise in their former employer’s market place and try to get direct work with similar clients. However, in the long run, it is not worth the enormous financial and reputational risks.
First and most important, most subcontracting agreements include non-compete and non-poach clauses that are far reaching. If company A believes they have recourse, they will start with a series of legal actions that may result in a lawsuit.
Also, many industry markets can be small. Many buyers and sellers, especially in the IT space know each other. Word can spread like wildfire among influencers in the marketplace, which can result in an informal and collective blackballing of a consultant in that market.
Lesson #3 — Know Your Market value
One of the main reasons why people choose an independent consulting career is freedom to pick and choose what they want to work on. They also want to get fair market value for their skills and see if they can make more money as a contractor than as an employee.
Sometimes, consultants pass up perfectly good jobs with stable organizations and a great team because they perceive the rate to be too low.
As an independent consultant, think long term. If the goal is to be free and work for yourself, then think about what you would need to earn in order to maintain that freedom. Granted, you should have a minimum and not short change yourself by putting yourself in a job where you are overqualified and undervalued. Even if it is not the ideal rate for you, if it keeps you comfortable and in the independent consulting game, by all means consider it.
Before signing a contract, consider these factors:
Is the job you are looking with a stable organization?
Do you like the work?
Is the rate within a 20% tolerance?
Is the client a good paymaster?
Independent consulting can be an incredibly rewarding career choice. If done right, you can maintain the freedom you want and make the money you want to make. It requires you to be diligent in fostering and maintaining relationships — treat every business relationship as an opportunity, be professional in your dealings with employers and co-workers, and identify good jobs at a fair rate. Master these 3 key lessons and being an independent consultant can yield a satisfying career for a lifetime.
About the Author
Marshall Graves is a managing partner and CFO at the Stone Door Group, a Cloud and DevOps consulting company founded by independent consultants for independent consultants. Stone Door Group takes all the guesswork out of Ibecoming an independent consultant by providing opportunities to certify on new technologies and offering a pipeline of meaningful IT consulting jobs. To learn more, drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.