Becoming an IT consultant: Do's, don'ts, disasters to avoid

Thinking of striking out on your own? Ex-CIOs who have made the jump share their hard-won advice.

As companies continue to cut costs, consolidate staffs and eviscerate executive salaries, more and more senior-level IT professionals are eyeing corporate exits -- or being shown them against their will.

For many such tech execs, the next step on the increasingly rocky, do-it-yourself 21st-century career path is independent consulting.

But do you have what it takes, or even know what it takes, to strike out on your own? Where do you find clients? Should you specialize? What about marketing and finances? Where can you get decent, affordable health insurance once you're cut loose from corporate benefits?

How do you navigate the enormous cultural changes of minding your own calendar, developing and building your own marketing presentations and, horror of horrors, scheduling your own economy class air travel? How do you make your mark and find paying clients fast, when it seems like every other laid-off IT exec is setting out his own shingle?

To answer those and other questions, Computerworld rounded up a boardroom's worth of former CIOs and other high-level IT professionals who successfully made the transition to IT consultant. Here are their hard-won answers and practical advice.

Find your niche

Whatever your depth and breadth of experience, simply switching your title and business card to "IT consultant" isn't likely to land you a single client. Specialization is absolutely critical, according to successful CIOs-turned-consultants.

Eileen Strider, a former CIO at Universal Underwriters Insurance Group (since renamed Zurich Direct), is now a partner with her husband in their own consulting firm, Strider & Cline. Strider's niche is reviewing large, often troubled ERP projects in the higher-education segment.

Jack Tugman, former CIO at the US Army's Fort Monmouth base, has leveraged his military and US Department of Defense experience into a specialty: He now helps companies develop their IT infrastructures in such a way that they can become suppliers to the DoD or other government agencies.

And Hernan Tocuyo, former CIO at FedEx Services (now called FedEx Office) who is now an independent consultant in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, specializes in nonprofits and small companies with no in-house IT staff. "They don't have the expertise or the money for a full-time CIO. They may have a systems administrator or IT manager, but that person doesn't know anything about accounts receivables systems," he notes. So Tocuyo markets himself as a specialist who can come in and implement a system, then train those who remain on the job to run it.

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