Now some of you will have read through my pages and decided that becoming a consultant is what they want to do. So I'll explain how to do it starting from when you're at university (maybe some school students are reading this). Feel free to skip a paragraph or two until you get to the part that applies to you.
When at university high marks are not the most important thing. In fact you only need to pass, but I recommend that you get marks that you consider to be "good". Keep in mind that your university marks won't be on your resume for long. It's been years since I've had my marks on my resume, I just say that I have a B.Sc majoring in Computer Science and Software Engineering. Don't waste your time doing extra subjects (unless they are fun). Most companies will not be more likely to hire you because your degree includes "co-operative education" (6 months of work-experience at half pay) or because you did extra subjects in your Christmas holidays (if they do beware - they'll expect the same degree of dedication when you're working for them). Try to actually learn things when at university, spend time reading good text books in the library. Skim-read manuals of relevant software packages. Marks that you get at university won't matter a few years after you graduate. The things that you learn are much more important.
Don't do post-graduate studies unless you want an academic career or a senior research position (both career choices are under-paying but fun if you like that sort of thing). A post-graduate degree will get you slightly higher pay, but spending the same amount of time working and getting practical experience will get you more.
When you graduate keep in mind that no sane project manager would hire a university graduate in a consulting or contracting position. I don't get criticised for being too modest, but I don't believe that I deserved consultant pay straight out of university (for the record I didn't get it - it wasn't until I had 3 years commercial experience that I started getting good money). So don't expect to finish your university degree and get a large hourly rate. Of course you could get lucky, if so then make the most of your opportunity. I know of some graduates who started out on significant hourly rates. Some of them get convinced by their parents and other people who don't know much about the computer industry that they should get reliable permanent employment (see my writing on the point of being a contractor for the issue of stable employment). Ignore them, make good money while you can, you can get a job that pays less at any time. Other graduates who get such contracts start to believe that they are actually really skillful and deserve the high rates they get. This is dangerous as they then tend to ask for more money and threaten to quit if they don't get it. That is something you should not do unless you know for a fact that you can get another contract on the same money. For a graduate-consultant there are two ways of doing this, one is to get another contract offer (unlikely), the other is to stick around until you've got a couple of year's experience before looking for something else. Of course you can always feel free to disregard my advice. If you've got 6 months of commercial experience as a consultant and feel that you're god's gift to the computer industry then please quit and try and find another position, then tell me about it for the amusement value. ;)
Really the most likely way to become a consultant is to spend a few years working for consulting companies. If this is your aim then you don't want to work for a large company. If you do so then you will probably only work in a specialised area (which means you won't get a range of experience), and you will not get a chance to learn much that's not directly related to the work you are doing. From a strategic point of view working in a smaller consulting company is the best thing to do, but to be practical take what you can get. Getting your first job will be the most difficult, so just get started somewhere and look for opportunities for advancement later.
I have been told that it used to be that you needed around 8 years of commercial experience before you could become a consultant. When I started I had 2.5 years of experience which is probably about the minimum. Initially I didn't get great rates, easy work, or a guarantee of 40 hours work per week (NB when you are paid by the hour you want to work more than 40 hours not less). I did not become a consultant because of any great plan, I did so because the company I worked for wasn't paying me as much money as I felt I deserved and I didn't get enough opportunities to learn new things that were interesting. I believe that those reasons are typical among consultants. I can only think of one person who became a consultant as part of a career plan, but if you are capable of planning such career changes then I think you're making the right decision to become a consultant as you have the personality for it. This would also give you the option of becoming a consultant when there's a good opportunity and when your plans are ready to get good money right from the start (rather than being relatively poor for the first 6 months as I was).
Once you've passed the above stages in your career then you have to get your first contract. In most countries this requires first setting up a company to manage your income (seek advice from an accountant not me). This shouldn't take too long so you can start looking for work before this is complete. One issue that you will face is what rate to ask for. This is very important. If you apply for a contract and don't ask for enough then you may be ruled out immidiately (after all if you were good then you're expect lots of money). Ideally you would already know some consultants who could advise you on what the going rates are. Sometimes job adverts list rates but that is very rare in contract positions (and probably not representative of the market rates). So if you don't know any friendly consultants then the best thing to do is to guess at a large amount, phone up an agency and ask for that much. If you are asking way to much then the agent will say that they can't offer that much and can't help you if you expect that much money. If you ask for slightly too much then the agent will say that you're asking for a lot and they will find it difficult to get work for you. If they just go through the motions of trying to talk you into accepting less money then you're probably asking for the right amount. I generally tell the agencies that I'll accept a lower rate if the work is interesting enough. That way I get to have the higher rate put to the client, and I won't get immidiately excluded from consideration if the client won't pay the high rate.
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Copyright © 2000 Russell Coker, may be distributed freely.