Should you be a consultant?
SPRING, 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
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 start-up 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
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
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
Yet the move to consulting is a gamble, and IT pros must weigh the risks and
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
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
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
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