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by Vault Consulting Editors | March 10, 2009

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As big IT consulting firms struggle with slow growth projections and an unfavorable economy, the experience requirements for joining one of them becomes increasingly demanding. Jobseekers hoping to break into IT may find creating or joining a small, independent IT company a more attractive choice. They may also find it beneficial to incorporate themselves and do freelance IT work (more on how to do that in the section on companies below). Smaller IT consulting companies can thrive in the markets below $100,000.

John Running is the founder of MobiusWEB, an IT consulting company that creates and sells content management systems, database architecture, and web sites. MobiusWEB has made the web sites of the American Ballet Theater (http://www.abt.org), Junior's cheesecake restaurant in New York City (http://www.juniorscheesecake.com), and Blender (http://www.blender.com), a magazine in the Maxim Magazine franchise. His company consists of three mainstay people, with Running the chief engineer and programmer. Depending on the day, Running's waking hours can be monopolized by anything from coding to sales.

A non-engineering day

Like many consultants, Running first learned how to engineer and program. Then, he decided to incorporate himself and become an independent consultant. With his new job title came the need to learn many business skills.

"Eighty percent of what I do is not programming," stresses Running. "In my business, I have to be everything; CTO, CEO, salesman, everything. I multi-multitask." Consequentially, most days, John Running is not an engineer.

"When we do a project, we have a workflow," says Running. "I wouldn't start developing a program for a company until they sign off on the design schematics and the information architecture and everything, so we'd know exactly what it is that we are supposed to do."

Thus, Running says he uses non-development days "to go meet up with clients, where I'll spend a lot of time with them. Possibly having multiple meetings per day, going all over the city."

Meetings

Sales meetings will be particularly challenging for newcomers in the field of IT consulting. Customers only want to deal with consultants they know are reliable. Consultants who do not have name recognition must work to impress customers in a very short amount of time or else lose a contract. Even beginner consultants must have a web site and a portfolio of successfully completed projects, even if the projects were done in school.

Most importantly, newcomers should have references ready. "The [American Ballet Theater] checked four of my references very thoroughly," says Running. "I provided them with four, and they checked them all. And all of those people had positive things to say. That was the reason I got that job."

Once a consultant makes a sale, he or she must meet with the client again to plan the project. Surviving such a client meeting takes more than technical know-how. "If I had to point at one thing that has caused me to be in any way successful in this business, it's having some skill at understanding the requirements of my clients, with a scant amount of input," says Running. "With very little input about what their business is, I have to make a system that will somehow accommodate them or will meet their requirements completely."

Running relates his learning experience planning the Junior's cheesecake restaurant web site:

"Selling cheesecakes over the Internet - I'm sure that sounds like a very simple kind of IT problem. Right? But, for a number of reasons, it wasn't. Most people wanted to buy cheesecakes as gifts, to buy multiple items, and to send them to many different people. And they also wanted to specify - if they were giving them as gifts - when the cheesecakes would arrive. They didn't want to just buy them and have them shipped out that day necessarily. And because shipping is generally based on weight, it's not really feasible to just associate one, fixed shipping price with any given product. We had to set up a system that accounted for them being able to fit six different cheesecakes in one package.

Such client meetings can be a perilous place for the inexperienced. "Unless you are diligent, or are in a position to know when there's a real gap in the understanding, you're at the terrible risk of creating something for them that doesn't meet their requirements at all," says Running. "And what happens is that either the contract changes, or you, as the unlucky developer, have to do way more work than you ever anticipated doing, and are at risk of going out of business."

The rest of the day

In between the meetings, traveling, and pitching, Running is still working. "I've written a lot of documentation, and that breaks up a lot of my day too. Writing up scopes of work, reviewing bills, making sure those are correct."

Having all these duties makes the independent consultant's day much longer than the usual programmer's. "I keep kind of crazy hours. I have to wear many, many hats. It's a lot of responsibility, but I have to do all that. I charge $100 an hour, and generally all my time is filled."

An engineering day

"A typical day, when I'm in my programming phase, is to sleep in late, and start coding as soon as I get up," says Running. "I code in spurts of three to four hours, eat sometimes, and code until two in the morning or three in the morning. Trying as best I can to have as little contact with any of my customers as possible."

Maintaining a small IT consulting firm can result in odd hours, in addition to long hours. Running keeps odd hours on purpose. "If I only really start working towards the middle of the day, then that's only a certain number of hours in which clients are around to talk to me," explains Running. "So I'm still around to answer them, so I don't come off like a derelict. But then I have all those hours after they go home to work on stuff, and I'm still rested."

This can be a challenge if the IT consultant does not have help. "That's one of the reasons why I took on my current business partner," says Running. "He was willing to work very hard and take on so many of the roles of dealing with these customers, allowing me the time to program when I have to."

With administrative concerns taken care of by others, engineering days still offer their own hardware and programming challenges. For Junior's, each box shipment could hold six cheesecakes. However, "because of the legacy database system the company used, we could only have as many as five different kinds of cheesecakes in any one box. So we built a database to store all this information," relates Running. "And the different shipping prices didn't fit an algorithm, so we had to create an array that pulled in prices for each one." These are typical problems; IT consulting firms are often hired to deal with legacy or out-of-date systems.

With experience, day-to-day engineering should become simpler. "Once I have a bunch of code written for a bunch of clients, and they all essentially have the same problems and requirements, then it's a whole lot easier to recycle the old code than it is to write new stuff from scratch."

Day after day

For people running small IT consulting companies, these long days are the norm. "I work pretty much every day of the week," says Running. "I've worked over 100 hours a week for as long as I can remember now."

Running warns that this can be rough. "Do I think that many people would want to live the life that I've been living? No! I don't think it's very suited for most people," clarifies Running. "I'm willing to work for a very long time, because I believe that what I want is hard to attain. But I'm also pompous and crazy enough to believe that I can get it."

But Running says that he is willing to endure these days for the non-economic reasons too. "I enjoy writing ASP, I enjoy writing database models, I enjoy spending time with editors of magazines. And if people look at the web site, and it's useful, and it doesn't crash, and the customers are happy, then it's a big success," explains Running. "That's the kind of thrill that I feel like most people never even have. It's the kind of thrill you get from having tried very hard, spending a lot of energy, and empathizing, and caring, and having all of that really work out in a very meaningful way."

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