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Looking For A Career Change? Try Consulting

May 24, 2014

After working for 6 years at Goldman Sachs (GS) doing a mix of software development and project management, I felt like I needed a career change. I was also doing my MBA while working at GS (a post for another time), which encouraged me to look into technology consulting.

I felt that it would allow me to stay technical, solve interesting problems and work with people outside the tech world. After interviewing at a couple of consulting firms, I decided to work in the consulting arm of a financial software company.

A year has passed and having worked on close to 9 different client projects in the past year, I feel like I have a good understanding of the consulting job genre. I didn’t have many people to talk to before considering my current job. I hope that this post will help you if you are in the market looking to do something different.

First, lets get a couple of caveats out of the way :

The consulting I refer to is not the typical Boston Consulting Group or McKinsey strategy type consulting, but specifically software vendor consulting. Although, I hear that there are more similarities than differences between the two jobs, so a lot of what I write here should apply broadly.

I don’t recommend consulting as your first job. The reasons below should give you a better idea why, but it comes down to this one point - learn to crawl before you run.

And finally, the most important of all. I am not referring to the consulting gigs where you are on your own, finding projects by yourself and not working for a software vendor who owns a product. Finding contractor type jobs these days on your own seems quite hard. The competition is cutthroat. Once, when I posted for an hourly consulting job on behalf of a friend on, we received close to a hundred respectable resumes. Not that this type of consulting is bad, but you end up spending a lot of time making yourself marketable. Time that could be spent solving cool problems. If this is your cup of tea, all power to you.

Being Your Own Boss

Clients spend quite a bit of money when they hire a consulting firm, so they inherently trust you to know what you are doing. You are not just allowed, but expected to drive the show for things you are responsible for. This has its risks. Anything you do, good or bad has amplified effects. Sometimes this can mean that the clients have very high expectations for the work you deliver. What you get instead is freedom in design choices, control of your work day and power to make things happen instead of helplessly taking orders.

Most consulting firms have a pretty thin management layer. It is because professional services make their revenue by having employees deployed at client sites. This has two great side effects:

  1. Your managers are usually also involved in projects at a client, instead of just “managing” you. So they are quite hands-on and can help you solve problems instead of becoming one.
  2. No unnecessary meetings with your managers.

The only meetings you attend are the ones you create. You have the freedom to set up a 11 minute meeting (if you want), set a clear agenda, invite only the people you really need for the meeting and assign ownership for delivery. You are in control.

Professional Development

Anyone who has worked in a company with more than a 1000 employees knows that the real learning curve takes place during the first year at a job. After that it can be very easy to “glide” through your career unless you take complete charge of it. As a software consultant, you have to be an expert in the area they bring you in for. You need to keep up with the advances in the area and it is an ongoing process.

As a consultant your work is measured by the hour. This is a great way to stay accountable and not fall prey to Parkinson’s Law. You focus more on getting things done vs “finding the best solution” where you could have diminishing returns beyond a certain point.

Your projects only last for about a month or two at a time and you cannot rely on your past accomplishments. You have to gain the client’s trust with every new project. This could be quite de-motivating sometimes but it’s also an opportunity to hit the reset button and learn from your past mistakes. This problem dilutes over time as you spend some time in the industry. Clients that like you want you to come back for other projects.

Consulting firms need to invest quite a bit in you before they put you out in the field because they aim to present a consistent level of expertise. In my case, we had a 4 month training program with topics ranging from finance to the architecture of the product combined with a mock implementation of the product judged by the senior management at the firm. Think about it, since graduation, when was the last time you had the opportunity to really focus for 4 months to learn new skills? And all this while you are getting paid!

Tighter Feedback

Since you are so close to the action and you can measure your output day in and day out, you get immediate feedback on your work. As a software consultant, you are brought in to solve very specific problems. You could be migrating a client off another vendor software by building functionality in your own software, or you could be building interfaces for the client to connect to an exotic data provider. You don’t spend months and years building something that the users may or may not like. If the client doesn’t like what they see, you will know very soon. There is no ambiguity in your output and the value you deliver. You are happy when the implementation goes well, or you learn from your mistakes and try to do better the next time.

Personal Development

Traveling sucks. After the initial rush of feeling like George Clooney from Up In The Air, it all goes downhill. Almost 75% of the flights I have traveled on were delayed. You could spend hours stuck in traffic. Yes, you could get some quality work done on the flights, but this is only effective 50% of the time. When you are going some place from home. The laptop is the last thing you want to look at after a long day with the client. I’m usually brain dead at that point.

During the initial months of consulting, I had to travel every week to Boston for 10 weeks straight and was only spending the weekends at home. You build a special meaning for home and you start to appreciate the little things . Being able to go on a run with your significant other. Being able to have a home-cooked meal. I can’t imagine how much harder this can get if you have kids. All the travel miles, fancy hotels and expensive dinners are not worth any of this.

Thankfully, all my projects after the initial burst have been in and around New York, so it hasn’t been as bad for me. Plus it is much easier to work remotely as a software consultant than any other type of consultant.

There is no sugar-coating it. Traveling sucks. Pick firms that don’t make you travel as much.

With consulting, every day is a new challenge. You walk into work with a fresh set of problems. There are too many variables to predict and prepare. You do your best and come up with a framework to deal with unexpected situations which you internalize over time. This is exactly the kind of thing I never learned from the days at GS working exclusively as a software developer. As a software developer, it is very easy to get reclusive and stay in your computer cave. With software consulting, you obviously have to be good at software development, but aside from that you learn skills like conflict resolution, negotiation, writing and speaking. As a result you push yourself to be a more well-rounded person.

You also meet people who are very different than you. It becomes a natural networking opportunity. ‘C’ level executives, sales people who sold your software product to the client, traders, portfolio managers, tech people at the client firm and other software vendors like Bloomberg or MarkIt. This is a great way to learn cross-functionally. You get to see other job functions and compare your job to theirs. It’s always interesting to know the small details of what other people do in their day job.

You are pushed to become more emotionally-balanced and professionally mature as a result of working with so many people. Over time you start to become more thick-skinned. This could be a good thing. As a society, we worry too much about what other people think of us anyway. You’ll be more sure about yourself and be open for constructive criticism because you know to weed the good feedback from the bad.

Doing What You Love

Consulting is not for everyone, and it is especially not for you if you already love what you do. I found software consulting to be refreshingly interesting after working for a thirty-five thousand person company. Your experience may be different, and you can find exceptions to every point I mention here and I respect that. I encourage you to get in touch with me if you feel differently. A role of a software consultant is just not as concretely defined as, say, a web user interface developer.

If you are thinking of making a career switch, I hope this post will give you a slight nudge to consider consulting as a career option, if you haven’t already.

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