Six survival strategies for technology consultants

By now, well over a year after the recession has started in the U.S., we have all had it beaten into our heads that we have to do "everything we can" to survive this recession, which due to its perceived severity, some are calling "The Great Recession". Others are saying we have "green shoots" and are in the midst of starting a recovery.

I will leave economic prognostication to the experts. However, my anecdotal evidence – namely knowledge of skilled colleagues who aren't finding jobs quickly – tells me that we still need to think about survival, at least for now, until we start complaining about those "nasty recruiters who keep offering us jobs" again.

[ Enter the drawing for a chance to win one of 5 copies of The Nomadic Developer: Surviving and Thriving in the World of Technology Consulting by Aaron Erickson. ] Strategy #1: Avoid the bench

One of the nice things about consulting is that, unlike working in an IT job writing general ledger applications, you have a lot of economic value to the consultancy you work for when you are billing. While some bench time is inevitable, you certainly don't want to do anything that might cause you to hit the bench earlier than planned.

In other words, this is not the time to demand to be moved off of a boring or merely mildly unpleasant project. Sustained boredom can cause burnout, but so can sustained unemployment, and the former is probably better for your career than the latter.

Strategy #2: Demonstrate loyalty

During down times, you don't want to be seen as a flight risk. When the consulting assignments are being handed out, the people who are seen as likely to quit are either going to be passed up or are going to be given the most marginal – and replaceable – roles. No firm in its right mind puts someone who might leave in a role where the engagement might be at risk.

Strategy #3: Make rain

No, this doesn't mean you have to be the salesperson or account executive for your consulting company. Nor does it mean you have to learn how to play golf (my own personal best is 144 – sadly higher than my best bowling score). However, you would be surprised how often work can come from people like:

  • Former bosses (both from prior companies, and prior clients)
  • Current and former colleagues
  • People in your software development community

Consider taking people like these folks out to lunch from time to time. And when you go, listen more than you talk. By all means, talk shop – and get a sense for the problems they need to solve. You never know where an opportunity may come up. Don't be afraid to tell such people that your company offers services that might solve some of their problems.

Strategy #4: Be visible

This isn't the time to be working from home four days a week. You don't have to be the guy who comes in each day at 6AM and doesn't leave until 7PM (losing balance in your life isn't a good strategy). Just make sure people know who you are, what you are doing, and that you are eager to help in any way they need, going above and beyond your role if possible.

Strategy #5: Get extended

Getting an extension at your current client is probably the single best way to give yourself some job security. Yes, rotating through clients is a good way to get lots of varied and useful experience. However, now is not the time to do that.

During a downturn, new clients are generally scarcer than old ones. Sales cycles (the time it takes from an initial indication of interest in consulting services to a contract being signed) grow longer. Staying at your current client will generally mean work that is at higher rates (often negotiated during better times) and more secure (they know your work better and see your value). Starting over at a new client, all other things being equal, will tend to make you less valuable during a downturn.

Strategy #6: Keep your skills up

Lastly, during a downturn, people often become dejected and so survival focused that they forget to get excited about new technologies. It is easy to get cynical and believe you have seen everything and that learning can take a back seat.

I urge you to avoid that line of thought. There are important new technologies coming out that are likely to change things – things like cloud computing, multi-core technology, domain specific languages, just to name three. Like all other occupations where there exists a vibrant research community, new technology constantly emerges that can help companies lower costs or address new markets, and being conversant in those things is a great way to give yourself some real job security.

Conclusion

If anything should be taken away from this article, it is that there are many things you can do to create your own job security. While there are no guarantees in life, these strategies will almost certainly put you in a better position than you would be in otherwise.

Nomadic Developer

Aaron Erickson is the author of "The Nomadic Developer – Surviving and Thriving in the World of Technology Consulting" (http://tinyurl.com/buynomadbook). He is a Lead Consultant for ThoughtWorks Inc., where he helps the world's most ambitious companies get the most from their technology investments.

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