Consulting means continuous learning

Tom Wilhelm needs a change. After a long stint as a top independent SAP AG contractor making US$200 per hour, he’s hit a wall with the number of incoming projects.

According to Wilhelm, president of MGF TEC Inc. in Dallas, it’s time to expand his skill base by learning a hot new SAP software module, taking a course in a related application or even considering one of the full-time consulting options being offered to him.

But when you’re a consultant, changing your business – whether by expanding your skill base, your geographic reach or the industry in which you specialize – requires a delicate balance of timing, preparation, good contacts and a little bit of luck.

First, you have to consider your timing. Right now, for example, Wilhelm could enrol in a course in software from Dallas-based i2 Technologies Inc., which would take approximately a month to complete. But he has to act quickly.

“In six months to a year, I’ll be [behind] the curve,” in terms of the other i2 talent available in the contracting industry, Wilhelm said. Plus, he said, “I don’t know if I want to take the entire month off.” It would take less time to brush up on a new SAP module, but he would have to wait a month to take the three- to four-week course. And what would he do if he was in the middle of a job by then? In addition, it could take a while to score a job after completing the course work.

Always be prepared

Wilhelm acknowledges that he should have been preparing for this situation months ago, when he was at his last long-term job. His advice: “When you’re on that great gig, be taking classes all the time. Every couple of months, go wherever you’ve got to go and take two weeks to get certified in that brand-new, hot module.”

Even when things are hot in your area of consulting, “keep your nose to the wind,” Wilhelm said. Pay attention to how deeply your software area has saturated the Fortune 500. If you find that most of the work is starting to come from second-tier companies, it’s time to hone some other skills, as consulting rates and job volume will drop from there, Wilhelm said.

Janet Ruhl, owner of, a Web site of resources for computer professionals, agrees. “The most successful strategy is to add skills that relate to your current skills but allow you to move in the direction the technology is going,” she said.

For example, if you’re an expert in a database that’s going out of fashion, get training in one that’s coming into widespread use and replacing yours, Ruhl said. Clients who used the database you specialized in will need people to do migrations, and you’ll be able to get practical, hands-on experience because you have both skills.

Keep in touch

To be ready for times of change, keep that Rolodex full and stay in touch with peers and possible clients. This is especially helpful if you’re expanding your geographic reach.

“Ask other professionals with similar skills to your own how business is in their area,” Ruhl said. “If you’ve taken the time to establish yourself as a competent professional, others will give you useful advice, tips and even point you to clients who could use your services in a new region.”

Indeed, your contacts can be everything – especially when a big career move doesn’t pan out. Take it from someone who learned the hard way.

Andy Wysocki is now a technical salesman in San Francisco. But three years ago, he was an independent contractor in Massachusetts whose partner really wanted to move to the West Coast. Wysocki finally agreed.

“I had a contact out in California, and I had done a couple of projects for him,” he said. “He told me, ‘If you were out here, I [would] have so much work for you. I can keep you busy.’ “

But after six months in the San Francisco area, it became clear that Wysocki would have to look for other work. Despite all the potential customers, no one was signing on the dotted line.

So Wysocki started calling contacts at his former employer, Natural MicroSystems Corp. in Framingham, Mass. After returning to the East Coast and completing a four-month stint at that company, he asked if the firm had West Coast consulting opportunities. That’s when Wysocki literally walked into his current job. “I just happened to walk into [an old colleague’s] office, and he was looking for someone to do technical sales,” he said.

The move will bode well for Wysocki should he return to contracting. “I’ll be able to gather contacts so I can jump back into programming if this doesn’t work out, and I’ll have gained some necessary sales skills,” he said.

Looking back, Wysocki said he realizes he shouldn’t have moved across the country with only one contact. “That was my setback,” he said. On the other hand, he used previous contacts – people who knew and valued his work – to find more work, even though his contacts were on the East Coast.

“You know, everyone laughs at business cards, but you’ve got to hang on to them,” Wysocki said. “You can always call and say, ‘Remember me? We met at that airport in Chicago ….’ “

Brandel is a freelance writer in Newton, Mass.