How to get a job in IT consulting

Whether it's for a global giant like Deloitte or Capgemini or a small boutique firm, working as an IT consultant is never dull. Here's how to nab a coveted position.

Do you have cutting-edge IT skills? Are you well-versed in an industry that's hot, like healthcare or finance? Are you feeling underappreciated, and wouldn't mind being fussed over, courted and enticed? Then it might be time to think about pursuing a career in IT consulting.

"There is absolutely a war for talent in consulting," says John Reed, senior executive director for recruiting firm Robert Half Technology, who estimates that the unemployment rate for IT consultants is between zero and three percent, with salaries going up. "There's a lot of pent-up demand among consulting firms looking for resources."

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment outlook for management consultants (though not necessarily those specifically in IT) "is projected to grow 19% from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations. Demand for the services of these workers will grow as organizations continue to seek ways to improve efficiency and control costs." According to the BLS's 2012 statistics, the most recent available, the median salary for management consulting services was $84,300.

In IT, the salary outlook is even brighter. According to Computerworld's most recent IT Salary Survey, compensation for senior-level technologists in the computer services/consulting space averaged $147,000 for director-level positions and $151,000 for VP-level titles.

Sound too good to be true? Even long-time consultants freely admit that there are some potential downers to being an IT consultant, especially if you're a fan of work-life balance -- hours can be long and travel extensive. And there's the pressure cooker of being on the firing line at a client company that's looking at you to solve the problems it couldn't handle itself.

But if that's your idea of fun -- and if you're both articulate and able to listen, able to work both self-directed and collaboratively, and understand both business and technology (just to mention a few frequently opposing characteristics) -- then employment at a consultancy may be right for you. Read on for pros and cons of the consultant life and tips for transitioning into the field.

Pros: New technologies, new opportunities

IT consulting's biggest plus, according to both consultants and those who recruit them, is the variety of work the position offers.

Kay Meyer Deloitte

Kay Meyer, senior manager, technology recruiting leader for Deloitte, says project variety is one clear benefit of working as an IT consultant.

"If people are working in a corporate IT environment, they're working with the same system every day," says Kay Meyer, senior manager, technology recruiting leader for Deloitte, In consulting, on the other hand, projects change constantly, says Meyer, who has been recruiting for Deloitte since 2000.

"You not stuck doing repetitive things," agrees Gerard Verweij, U.S. technology consulting leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers, who started with the company in 1992. "One project you might be doing cybersecurity, the next one management consulting, the next one mobility."

Another benefit: Because enterprises frequently rely on consulting firms to introduce cutting-edge technology to their organizations, IT consultants are typically on the forefront of emerging tech.

From a career standpoint, consulting offers the opportunity to move in almost any direction in the future. "When you work for an IT consulting firm," says Reed, "you get to see a lot of environments and industries. You see what works, and you see what companies struggle with." Another upside: You're working with a large number of people that can become key contacts going forward.

And while consultants are outsiders in the organization, there can be an advantage to that status, Reed says. "You don't get caught up in the water-cooler talk. You can ignore it and focus on the work. You get all the benefits of working for a firm and doing rewarding work, without having to deal with the internal politics."

Cons: Long hours, volatile work environments

But that doesn't necessarily mean that you're always able to sidestep turmoil. It's entirely possible that the enterprise attempted -- and failed -- to do what it's now brought in a consulting firm in to accomplish. "They're frustrated and struggling because of that delay. You could be in a hostile, pressure-packed environment because you're working shoulder-to-shoulder with people who failed," Reed warns. "Your presence is a reflection of their inability to get it done."

Consultants themselves cite a lopsided work-life balance as the most common disadvantage of the position. "We live for our clients," says Verweij. "That sometimes means we have to make sacrifices because our clients are in need. Overtime, weekend work and travel are all part of the job."

"Our clients can be anywhere, so most of our practitioners are road warriors," says Deloitte's Meyer. "In the client-facing practices, consultants might travel 80% of the time during the week. That's the most challenging aspect for a lot of folks -- although for some people, that's also the appeal."

Kanak Rajan Mercer

Kanak Rajan, a partner in the talent practice at Mercer, says consultants often have to learn on the job and execute quickly. 

Kanak Rajan, a partner in the talent practice of human resources consulting firm Mercer, describes other issues: Sometimes, there may be no time for family, while at other times consultants are sitting around waiting for a new assignment. Then when that new assignment comes, it can be like being thrown into the deep end of the pool.

"You sometimes have to ramp up and learn as you go. The work is more challenging [than in an enterprise IT shop] and you have less time to execute. That's why you get paid more -- the hours are longer and the regimen is tougher." Another drawback, Rajan notes: Because consultants are typically involved in the planning and design phase of a project, they can miss out on the ultimate execution and the satisfaction of seeing their work through to completion. "You don't get to see how it runs," he says.

Wanted: Hot skills, broad experience, strategic vision

What skills are consulting firms looking for in their hires? Think of it this way: Enterprises don't engage consulting firms to handle the projects they can do themselves; they bring in consultants when they need short-term expertise in cutting-edge areas that would be hard to hire for.

That means IT pros who are highly skilled in in-demand technologies will rise to the top of the resume pile when consulting firms look to fill out their rosters.

"Are you up-to-speed in the latest technologies?" asks Reed, citing areas such as analytics, mobility, security and the cloud. "Can you show you're keeping eyes and ears on them, continuing your education with seminars and trade association events?"

Mercer's Rajan looks at a candidate's project experience. "What opportunities have the candidates had? I know what the complex projects are. Each one is a test, and the fact that someone was selected to be on a team that tackled something difficult" is evidence, he says, that someone would be a good hire.

Other positives include certifications, whether in specific technical areas, or in leadership areas such as project management. Even failure is fodder. As Deloitte's Meyer notes, she wants to hear how candidates collaborated when a project went sour, or how they managed to reel in a project that had developed scope creep.

Hiring managers stress that experience in more than just one technology is most meaningful these days. Kate Savage, vice president and North America people supply chain leader for Capgemini, started there as a consultant herself in 1998. She says the consultancy market has shifted over the last two to three years. Enterprises aren't focusing solely on technology implementations.

"They're looking for end-to-end solutions, someone to help them understand everything that's going on in their business and how [solutions are] going to help them go to market better." As a result, she argues, consultants (like CIOs) have to be able to implement multiple technologies as well as understand the culture and buying behavior of any given industry.

PwC's Verweij concurs that there has been a shift toward business-savvy skills. "Traditionally, technology consulting was dominated by engineering skills. But working with technology has become easier in terms of how you implement and integrate it. That's not to say [technology] isn't demanding, but applying business context requires creative talent as much as pure technical talent."

Gerard Verweij, PricewaterhouseCoopers

Gerard Verweij, U.S. technology consulting leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers, says business-savvy technologists are in highest demand.

For example, he cites the importance of creativity in designing user interfaces on mobile devices -- technologists need to understand not just the programming aspects, but how users will work with the software. (For more on what hiring managers value in would-be consultants, see Crossing over to consulting.)

The good news for job seekers: Consulting firms are looking for all kinds of technical and industry experience. As of mid-January, 2016, for instance, Capgemini had more than 3,700 open positions, 687 of them in management consulting. It's looking for experience in horizontal capabilities such as security, change management and IT strategy, and vertical industries such as oil and gas and retail.

"If candidates have enough technical depth in an industry," says Meyer, "we can probably train them" in how to interact with clients.

Required: Organization and communications skills

Technical savvy and business acumen aren't enough, hiring managers say, if candidates aren't good communicators and superior problem-solvers.

"As a consultant, you're there to solve a problem. Clients might think it's one problem, but it always ties into something else," says Capgemini's Savage. "You have to absorb large amounts of information and data, synthesize it, and then tailor your message to a variety of stakeholders."

Kate Savage Capgemini

Kate Savage, vice president and North America people supply chain leader for Capgemini, says communications skills are vital to successful consulting. 

Robert Half's Reed points out that consultants attend a lot of meetings, interact with clients constantly and are expected to document every aspect of their process. Consultants need to "understand what's happening, ask the right questions, document their findings and provide recommendations."

Consultants walking into an environment where a deployment has gone wrong need to be able to understand the real story of what happened and propose solutions. Reed says, "The ability to assess what's happening [with a project] may be even more important than technical skills. I hear this a lot: 'I can teach the technology, but I can't teach the soft skills.' "

As a consultant, you may find yourself working alone on a project one week, and then part of a group of 200 on another project the next week -- or working on both at the same time. That means employees have to be organized, self-motivated and highly collaborative. As Savage notes, "We need people that will be successful in a change-agent environment. In a consulting firm, things change on a daily basis." They also change over time, so you have to be adaptable. "We want someone fungible, who can move across industries and technologies as the market changes."

In it for the long haul

Though the sources for this story were on the hiring side of the business, almost all of them had spent more than a dozen years as consultants themselves at their same firms. They stressed the potential for others to have -- as they'd had -- an extended career at the same company.

"It's a myth that you can't build a stable career, because you can, especially if you stick with it, says Capgemini's Savage. "We want consultants to stay a long time and grow their skills. The more we can train people in technology and our delivery methodology, the more predictable our service is."

Consulting is a particularly hot area for IT professionals right now, sources agree. "There are an unprecedented number of tech initiatives," says Robert Half's Reed, "so it's a great time to jump into that world."

PwC's Verweij agrees: "It feels like the war for talent has been going on for a while, but I think it's only going to intensify."

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