What is it really like to be a consultant?

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Do you at times find it difficult to follow the directives of your management? Do you even know who they are? Do you wish you could have complete control of your time? Would you like to eliminate your commute? Would you like to live where you really want to? Have you dreamed about having your own business? If your answer is yes, maybe it's time to think about becoming a consultant.

I became a consultant in 1993 after working as an executive in a software company specializing in communications software. Five years of running as fast as I could on a treadmill, with stock options always in the ephemeral future, convinced me that I had to do something different. I became a consultant, and it was the best decision of my life.

Work finds me

I run a successful consulting business specializing in wireless and Internet communications. My work spans from architecture design to network deployment and market research. Now that I have become established, work finds me and one project leads to another. I work on a wide variety of projects with a diverse group of clients, and I love my work. I live in a beautiful little town in Oregon, and work from the comfort of a home office.

In this column I will report on what has worked for me and other consultants I know. My motivation is not that writing a column pays better than my consulting practice but that I am constantly asked what being a consultant is like and how to become one. I would like to see others benefit from my experience and improve the quality of their lives as I have. Though I work hard, my job has given me huge freedom with respect to when and how I work, how I live my family life, and how I pursue my other interests. Ironically, though I have no permanent job, I feel greater job security than when I had a full-time job. I also derive a huge sense of satisfaction from having created not only a business but also a true balance between work and personal life.

Consultant vs. contractor

Who is a consultant? I am referring to experts in a field who in the course of a year will typically work for more than one client and often for more than one client at one time. Last year I worked for 18 different companies. I differentiate consultants from contractors, who usually work for extended periods of time as virtual employees of one company. Much of what I will discuss will also apply to contractors, but my emphasis is on consulting.

This bimonthly column will cover a variety of topics. In the next column, I will look at who can be a consultant, since it requires the right set of skills, personality, financial situation, and personal objectives. Many people take up consulting and then abandon it because it's not a good fit for them. Future columns will cover strategies for starting a consulting business, how to find work, and the importance of managing and tracking time. Then I will look at how to choose projects, developing agreements with clients, diversification strategies for maximum job security, how to set and justify rates, how to take advantage of technology, how to stay abreast of your field, and the importance of maintaining your image. Stay tuned.

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