Challenges and Benefits of Consulting as a Career Options

I attended the SWE National Convention last week and had the privilege of co-presenting with Wendy Gillen, Vice President of Services for Microsoft.  She gave a great talk on consulting as a career or a  career stop.  Below are the notes I took during her talk broken into 3 categories:  The Richness of the Consulting Experience, The Challenges of the Consulting Profession, The Benefits for Women in Consulting, and QnA from the session. 

The Richness of the Consulting Experience

Consultants are typically brought in for a specific defined problem, although there is almost always a hidden agenda for the consultant to work with.  An example, might be that an IT project is out of control (2 yrs late and 3 million over) and they want to contain the damage.  Why are they hiring a consultant?  because it’s quicker, deadline driven, and the consultant can focus on the job at hand with fewer interruptions.

Diversity of Work

Consulting exposes you to a diversity of situations and assignments.  Wendy’s provided an example of consulting in the paper cup industry for SOLO cups.  She noted that in the paper cup industry “Who curls the lip of the cup better” is a core differentiator among brands.  This type of exposure is one of the benefits of a consulting career.

Gain Breadth and Depth across many Client Situations

Even the same assignment is different for different customers.  For example, if you’re creating a solution for a small company your approach would be to set up interviews with all VPs and CEOs and then return to them with a recommendation for their business.  The same problem at a large company would require a completely different approach.  At a large company, the approach would be to hold big focus groups which require thorough preparation.  Present the set of decisions to the key stakeholders and guide the decisions of the stakeholders.

Develop strong analytical, communications and influence skills.

Some keys skills gained include:  clear, concise communication, presentation, and teaming.  She noted that you quickly realize that the documents you produce have a life after you and stand as a representation of you and your work.

Challenges in the Consulting Profession

Maintaining a Work/Life Balance

Work, life balance is one of the biggest challenges and can depend heavily on the time of life when you are consulting.  For example, it’s easier to travel when you don’t have kids or your kids are grown up.  It’s more difficult when you have very young children or before you are married.  It’s important to talk openly with your employer to determine what type of hours and expectations they have.

Key Question:  What is their baseline measure?

Consulting businesses charge by the hour and organizations use a baseline measure to indicate how many hours you are expected to work.  For example, there are 2080 hrs in a 52-week, 40-hr baseline measure.  Many business strategy consulting firms use a baseline of 2100-2400 hrs while many boutique firms use a 2000 hr baseline measure.  Firms that focus on new technologies, may have an even lower baseline measure because they prioritize time for education on new technologies.  This will place very different demands on your work and can help you find a good fit with an employer.

Travel – time away from home

Consultants travel, it’s generally a part of the job.  However, many different firms have different approaches to travel.  Boutique firms often have customers that are local and therefore the travel would likely be driving trips or day-trips.  One of the professionals in the audience mentioned she was able to arrange with her employer to drive to her customers so that she could bring her two dogs along.

Wendy commented directly on her experience of raising three daughters on the road.  One critical piece, is that her husband did not travel making her travel possible.  She brought her kids on location with her every 3 weeks.  It’s fun for kids to travel to all kinds of places that aren’t as exciting for us as adults.  Her kids had fun exploring the different landscape of the country and learning new things.  Additionally, while she was remote, they faxed their homework to her to work together over a web-cam and she spent nights watching Little Mermaid remotely on the web-cam. 

Retaining a Social Network

Although online networking has improved the situation, retaining a social network while travelling each week can be tough.  With laundry, shopping, and cleaning piling up on the weekend, it can be challenging to keep in touch with friends in the area or to create a new social network in a new location.  Wendy’s example was a funny one from a plane advertisement about a business lunch dating service for business professionals.  This service set up lunches for professional men/women to meet one another.  From some challenges come other business opportunities  🙂

Benefits for Women in Consulting

Given the audience, Wendy touched on a few benefits she thought related specifically to women in the field of consulting.  She highlighted two things: 

1) Consulting provides a continued focus on networking.  This is especially beneficial for women, as she felt it is often something we don’t continuously prioritize. 

2) Confidence with ambiguity.  She generalized from being lost on a road trip: women ask for directions and men don’t.  Confidence with ambiguity is something that often grows over time and a consulting scenario presents plenty of ambiguity and opportunities for learning to deal with this ambiguity.

Some interesting QnA

What were the ups/downs of being your own consultant employer?

Two distinct challenges come to mind.  The first is that when you are heads-down on the current job, it’s very difficult to look for the next job so there were often breaks between jobs.  Second, as an independent consultant it can be difficult to collect payment for a job.  It’s not always clear who’s paying or who is ultimately signing the check.  Additionally, she found that she missed conferring colleagues and staying current through these types of discussions.

What professional consulting organizations do you recommend?

Institute of Management Consultants and Professional and Technical Consultants Association

How do consulting salaries compare?

Consultants typically bring in more salary than the median for IT, but this differs by industry.  The lowest of these is probably Industrial/Process Engineers because there are fewer distinct qualifications for this type of consultant to differentiate themselves from one another.  Non-IT consultants typically make around 10% above the median, strategy consultants make 40-50% above the median

Comments (3)

  1. Dbarselow says:

    I find your blog interesting and informative. I plan to complete the reading of your blog in the near future I only read a few paragraphs because of the business surronding the holidays and regular work hours.


    P.S. I’m a male and want to read what you have to say regarding the subject.

  2. HilaryPike says:

    Hi Dbarselow,  I think hope that many of the topics we write about are of interest to both men and women.  Many women’s conferences discuss issues relating to careers that I don’t find at co-ed conferences.  These are issues that face most of us at one point or another.  Happy reading and please keep the feedback coming!  –Hilary

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