Should You Be a Consultant?

SAN MATEO (03/06/2000) - Sprint, the season of renewal, was in the air, and Carl Lucas was bored with his job as the senior network engineer for a financial company in San Francisco.

"I was frustrated with the corporate environment," says Lucas. "It was bogged down in bureaucracy, and I wanted to move faster, to explore the frontiers of technology."

So Lucas, like many of his peers in corporate IT, ventured into the brave new world of technology services. Consulting, systems integration, and application services all represent different flavors of the services industry.

Xuma, the San Francisco startup that wooed Lucas outside the corporate mold, is a new breed of company that combines consulting, systems integration, and application hosting for the new Internet economy. "We do 'build to order' e-business," says Lucas, who is now Xuma's senior architect.

Whether IT pros want to work for a new breed of player such as Xuma or one of the established firms such as KPMG Consulting, now seems to be an opportune time to explore the options. As varied as the service firms are, they all have one thing in common -- a shortage of skilled professionals.

"It is absolutely a terrific time to be thinking about consulting as a career," says David Flaxman, managing director and co-founder of AnswerThink Consulting Group, in Miami. "Services are the fastest-growing area of our economy. We are growing at 50 to 60 percent a year, so staffing is always one of our greatest concerns."

Working in a business IT department can be a great place to acquire the skills that consulting organizations so badly need. And many have gone from being a loyal staffer at one company to the high-octane environment of consulting where loyalty is fluid. It is the kind of move that, for the right person, can mean greater career satisfaction, more money, and simply more fun.

But it's not for everyone. Consulting, although it may require many of the same skills that make up a successful corporate IT worker, is a different world. "If you like stability and don't want a lot of change, consulting is not a job for you," says Marianne Hedin, an analyst at International Data Corp. (IDC), in Framingham, Mass.

Don Thompson, a partner at Deloitte Consulting, in Toronto, agrees. "This is a fast-changing environment," Thompson says. "It can be a big adjustment to move from working for a single IT department to working with a consulting staff for a wide variety of clients. So if you are just looking for a new career ... this is not an easy one."

But consulting brought Lucas to the technology frontier that he had only dreamt of in his corporate IT job. "I am involved now in designing hardware, software, and networking systems for Xuma's clients," Lucas says. "We are constantly looking for the leading-edge technology that will help them grow their e-businesses."

And Lucas likes serving several masters. "At my previous job, I had one client, namely my employer. Now my clients are legion -- we have done some business-to-consumer stuff, but now we are focusing more on business-to-business. All of these business models are different, and you have to learn them very quickly. I got a crash course, an instant MBA really, since I came on board," he says.

Another professional who made the leap from corporate IT to consulting is Tom Cozzolino, a manager in the e-commerce applications group at AnswerThink.

"I worked in the IT department of a chemical company," says Cozzolino. "I had been everything from a graphics programmer to a Web evangelist."

Cozzolino got into consulting as a result of the Internet boom. "As a network manager I became an early adopter of Internet technology. So I started looking around for a place to better exercise my enthusiasm."

He found it at AnswerThink, a firm that was started by 12 ex-KPMG consultants in 1997. "I had heard that AnswerThink was one of the new breed [of] consulting firms," says Cozzolino. "Smaller than the giant consulting firms, these new players are also more focused on the e-business market."

Cozzolino joined AnswerThink in 1997, and he has been impressed with the company's rapid growth. "When I started we had 75 people," he says. "Now we have 1,800."

He says the fast pace and variety of work was a big change from his corporate job. "In the first 12 months, I worked for huge telcos, the services industry, and a financial company. This was a challenge, but also one of the things that drew me to consulting."

AnswerThink's Flaxman, who previously worked inside a corporate IT department on Wall Street, says that the right kind of corporate professional will make an excellent consultant. "One of the things that corporate IT people bring to the table is a solid grounding in what it takes to see a business problem through to the end," Flaxman says. "Career consultants, on the other hand, are not always around to see a project through."

IDC's Hedin says that working as a consultant for one of these newer companies will be very different from working for an older, more established firm. "If you go to work for a [consulting] firm, you will probably encounter a totally flat organizational structure [with] no sense of hierarchy or bureaucracy," Hedin says.

This structure, or lack thereof, only adds to the sense of change accompanying consulting jobs. "You can expect an environment that is even more creative, flexible, tumultuous than what you would find at an older consulting company," Hedin says.

Xuma's Lucas certainly found that to be the case. "We have new clients come in every day. I am constantly looking at new technologies, and learning about new industries."

Yet the move to consulting is a gamble, and IT pros must weigh the risks and rewards.

For Lucas, so far, it has been worth it. "There are real risks with switching from a conservative IT shop to a consulting start-up. It is not uncommon for me to work 16 to 18 hours a day," he says.

At the other end of the consulting spectrum are firms such as PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC). Steve Higgins, a systems integration leader for the Americas at PWC in New York, knows the start-up mentality, and says his firm offers would-be consultants an alternative. "When you go to work for a start-up, you know that you will be a warrior for the firm. That is a choice you make. We offer our people a more balanced lifestyle."

One of the reasons that smaller firms are able to woo talent away from big five firms such as PWC is IPO fever.

"You definitely need to look before you leap," says Lucas. "You could easily go to work for a consulting start-up and take a big cut in pay, hoping that the IPO will more than make up for it. You could end up having worked 15-hour days for a bunch of worthless options."

Lucas is hoping that won't happen at Xuma. "Eventually I would like to have a life outside of work," says Lucas. "If we have a successful IPO, then I will be able to do that."

Meanwhile, the bigger firms realize that they will have to find new ways to compete with the start-ups. The traditional model of paying your dues, drawing a salary for several years, and slowly working your way into a partnership is starting to show signs of age.

Clinton Smith, senior manager of advanced technology at Grant Thornton in Chicago, says his firm is exploring the possibilities. "We realize that we need to come up with alternative methods of compensation for our consultants," says Smith. "Everyone realizes that to stay competitive, you can't do what you did a few years ago."

This is good news for would-be consultants, as traditional firms don't change their stripes unless they have to. For those with the right skills and temperament, now may well be the time to think about a consulting career.

"This [consulting] industry tends to be pretty self-selective," says Ted Kempf, an analyst at the Gartner Group in Boston. "If you're the right kind of person, you will know."

Food for thought

If you think you're consultant material, here are some questions you ought to ask yourself first.

* Would you enjoy working with many clients?

* Are you service-oriented?

* Are you open to change?

* Do you have strong research skills?Do you enjoy travel?

* Would you enjoy working with many new technologies?

* Do you have a voracious appetite for learning?

* Do you have excellent presentation skills?

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