The 24-7 Consultant

FRAMINGHAM (07/17/2000) - Vanda Collis was sitting in the late-night glow of her PC, answering e-mail from her home office at 1 a.m., when the telephone rang. Her first thought was that it must be a fax; her second was that it was a possible family emergency. But instead, it was a business call - a consultant in Korea who wanted to line her up as a U.S. business partner for his fledgling Web venture.

Collis laughed, with relief and then surprise. The caller apologized profusely for not realizing the late hour stateside. And they spent the next hour discussing a potential business deal.

Such was the end of another typically long day for Collis, an independent information technology project manager who, with her husband, R.C. Collins, runs Waltham Park Resources International Inc. from their home in Ridgewood, N.J.

Since Collis gave up full-time employment early last year to join her husband as an independent consultant, her personal and professional lives have merged into a seamless whole, with little demarcation between where one ends and the other begins.

"A typical day is a very rigorous day," Collis says. "We are our own support team, sales team and business development team, the strategists and the implementers, the bookkeepers and the mail room. We have to project-manage our lives."

Collis isn't alone. While those who choose the consulting life find that it often offers greater financial rewards and more interesting technical opportunities, they also find that it means being on-the-ready 24 hours a day, seven days a week. An average week for Collis illustrates the round-the-clock nature of the job.

The first thing Collis does in the morning is try to rouse her three children - ages 9, 7 and 5 - for a sleepy goodbye before she heads out the door. She's on her way just after 6 a.m. and catches a 6:24 train bound for Manhattan, where she's managing afinancial services firm's Web site redesign at consultancy iXL Inc.

By 7:30 or 8 a.m., Collis is at her desk in Atlanta-based iXL's New York offices on West 14th Street. For the first hour, she works on a client presentation or updates the project management plan. Then she's on the phone, confirming costs with suppliers, coordinating with other functional groups supporting her project, touching base with engineers and the creative department and nailing downdetails with project leaders on her team.

Next up is a review session or presentation with the client. "I'm on stage for two hours," she says, "taking the client through what we've done and showing them what we'll do next to make the project succeed."

For the rest of the afternoon, she's working on project definition documents, preparing action plans, reviewing current processes and assessing where best practices can be applied. That involves researching best practices for the financial services industry - much of which Collis does on the weekends.

On a good day, she's out of the office by 6:30 p.m. and home by 8 p.m. to read to her kids, ask them how their day was and tuck them in for the night. After eating a quick dinner and bouncing some new ideas off her husband, she's in front of her PC. She wraps up e-mails, responds to inquiries from past clients and potential customers, and makes notes for the next day.

All told, Collis and Collins each put in about 50 to 60 billable hours per week. On top of that, they commute into New York together a couple of times each week (though they typically work for separate clients) or grab a dinner out so they can review upcoming projects or brainstorm new ideas for the business.

Weekends are just as full. In between soccer games, two Girl Scout troop meetings (she's the troop leader for each) and church, Collis makes time to do research and continue discussing new business development and strategy with Collins.

On Sunday nights, when the kids are allowed their only weekly television time, Collis and Collins go over the books, pay the bills and enter their expenditures into QuickBooks. "That's our wind-down time," she says.

But Collis says she thrives on the challenge of keeping everything together.

"I've had the option to take a year off and just breathe, but I enjoy being busy and doing what I'm doing," she says.

That passion, in fact, is spurring her to add more pressure to the mix: She's pursuing a Ph.D. in project management at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.

Although she's actually working more than she was as a full-time employee, Collis says she feels like shehas more options as a consultant. One of those options: No matter what elseis going on, she can drop everythingto see her kids in a school play orother activity. "I'm there for them. That's the only exception I allow myself for not working," Collis says.

Goff is a freelance writer in New York.

Up Close & Personal

Vanda Collis:24-Hour Consultant

Previous IT experience: Fifteen years in financial services with employers such as J.P. Morgan & Co., The Chase Manhattan Bank and, most recently, Fleet Bank, where she worked in retail banking IT.

Education: A master's degree in organizational psychology, Brooklyn College, 1990 (thesis explored the impact of computers on individuals); MBA in MIS, State University of New York at Binghamton, 1987.

Skills: IT project management; quality assessment and testing; applications development in mainframe, client/server and e-commerce environments.

Why consulting? "I wanted to do heavy-duty work in e-commerce, and New York City is the mecca for that. At Fleet, I was doing some high-level e-commerce work, but I wasn't managing actual projects - I was more involved with the customer relationship management and channel-changing aspects."

The best thing about it is: "I'm working for myself, and I'm extremely happy as my own boss."

The worst thing about it is: "You're constantly on the go. You must know when to take a time-out, and sometimes that's pretty tough."

Typical workday: 5:30 a.m. to 12 a.m. or laterCurrent client/project: Working with consultancy iXL, managing the redesign and development of a financial services company's Web site.

Other commitments: Getting to soccer practice and games for two of her children (her husband coaches one of their teams); leading two Girl Scout troop meetings (one daughter is a Daisy; the other's a Brownie); organizing a one-week Vacation Bible School program each summer; attending weekly classes at the Stevens Institute of Technology in pursuit of a Ph.D. in project management.

She couldn't do it without: Her live-in childcare provider.

If her husband weren't her business partner: "He'd have to be very, very understanding."

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