Nice work if you can get it

Picture the set of Let’s Make a Deal. Monty Hall is dressed in his requisite two-button suit, holding a puffy-topped microphone. You’re dressed as a bunch of grapes or a hobo or a cow, and are deciding between two prizes.

Behind curtain number one is a job with a reputable, well-established company. The workdays are nine to five, except when deadlines are lurking. You get a decent yearly salary plus benefits. Tax is taken off your cheques regularly by the accounting department, you get three weeks of vacation every year and you receive annual invitations to company picnics and holiday parties.

Behind curtain number two is the opportunity to work as an independent consultant. You’re responsible for finding your own work and job security, but you’re also responsible for determining your worth by setting your pay rate and work hours. You have control over what projects you work on and which ones you pass up. You can take a summer off to travel without clearing it with a boss, but if you need a root canal you either have to buy into an association’s benefits plan or foot the bill yourself.

For Joseph Siahou, director of Toronto-based Shore Consulting Group, there would be no contest in this game show scenario, despite the occasional risk associated with independent consulting.

“Even if there are periods when you’re not employed, the way to look at it is like this: you can be employed someplace for $70,000 a year and get four weeks holiday, or you can contract as a consultant for five months and get that same $70,000,” Siahou explained. “In consulting I can put a premium on my time.”

After working for large companies such as IBM and Nortel, and consulting firms such as Andersen Consulting and Atkinson Tremblay, Siahou has struck out on his own with Shore, a boutique consulting firm focused on developing business applications using Java and wireless technologies. Instead of working for the man, Siahou is the man, and it’s the way he likes it.

In independent consulting, it’s not a boss who you have to please, but a client who is paying the bills.

“You have a client that you have to make happy,” he said, but admitted that there is an element of control over each project, which he sees as a direct benefit.

“One of the things about consulting is that you can see the return on your effort,” he explained. “In a company, it’s very difficult to see the bottom line of what you’ve done, but in consulting, you can easily trace the benefit of your work. You see the scope of what needs to be done. You track time and progress, with all sorts of measurable benefits and deliverables. You can get an better sense of accomplishment.”

Scott Meredith, a principal consultant at Shore, agrees with Siahou’s assessment.

“You develop a better sense about the value of your work,” Meredith said. “You have a very real sense about what you’re putting into your work and what you’re getting out of it.”

Another aspect of consulting that appeals to Meredith is the range of experience that working with a company like Shore offers, as it works on engagements for both the private and public sector. This is important to Meredith, who became involved in consulting shortly after completing a Masters degree at the University of Toronto and considers himself at the beginning of his career path.

“Consulting offers me a whole lot of different kinds of opportunities, and different environments. It’s a good way to get a lot of varied experiences,” Meredith explained, but admitted that it is probably not the most appealing working environment for people who require the promise of a severance safety net.

According to Joel Garfinkle, founder of Dream Job Coaching in San Leandro, Calif., it takes a particular personality, aside from skill and knowledge, to succeed as an independent consultant.

“You have to have confidence and conviction in what you do if you want to be a good consultant,” Garfinkle said. “And you have to have a lot of chutzpah.”

These qualities are particularly important for an independent consultant in today’s soft economy, where heavy-hitting large corporations are scrambling for contracts, but this slowdown is not a real concern for Siahou, who has not had any trouble finding engagements for himself and the consultants that work for him.

“In the late 1980s, there was lots of consulting and lots of money. The early 1990s, things were a little rougher, and consulting companies started laying people off, but then it picked up in 1994 or 1995 and there was a boom leading up to 2000. Now it’s starting to slow down, but it’s a cycle, and things will pick up again,” Siahou predicted.

Chutzpah indeed.

Shore Consulting Group can be reached at