Firstly we must define what a "consultant" is. My dictionary says the following:
dict consultant
1 definition found
From WordNet (r) 1.6 [wn]:
       n : an expert who gives advice [syn: {adviser}, {advisor}]               
That matches the typical description of a serious consulting role, which is not what most people who use the job description "computer consultant" do. Most consultants do what I do, that is contract programming and systems administration roles which involve ~40 hours work per week at an hourly rate. When I am talking to other programmers I call myself a "contract programmer" as they know what it's all about. When talking to people who aren't seriously involved in the computer industry (this includes many managers of computer projects) I use the term "computer consultant" which is less confusing to a lot of people (it also seems to impress women ;).
From now on I will use the term "consultant" to refer to someone who is hired on a contract basis and is supposed to be an expert and gets paid accordingly. In this document I'll focus on independant consultants - I cover consulting companies here.
The point of hiring consultants for an employer should be to get the services of people who have skills that their employees don't have. The consultants should be expected to train the permanent employees in those skills with the aim being that permanent employees should be able to take over the work in a matter of weeks or months. When a consultant has trained the permanent employees and solved most of the difficult technical problems then their contract should end. They should then be either offered work in a different area (one in which there are difficult problems to solve and staff to train) or should be let go. This is not a big deal for a consultant, when you get into this work area you get used to the idea of moving around and doing different things.
The point of being a consultant is to get more interesting work, learn more skills, and earn more money in the process. If you are a permanent employee then you will get assigned to a project and maybe spend years working on it. Some people like that as it's not too strenuous or challenging and it's supposedly a more reliable form of employment. If you choose to become a consultant then you will have contracts lasting between 3 months and a year. If you don't mind applying for a new job every few months and have the skills then consulting may be for you.
Unfortunately many consultants are just like permanent employees but with greater pay. This situation is not good for the consulting industry, not good for the companies they work for, and not so good for them either as they get so stressed when it comes time to get a new contract. To be a consultant you should have some specialised skills so that you are capable of being the expert who gives advice. You also have to realise that there is only a finite amount of advice that someone will need and that you should move on once that advice has been given.
On the issue of employment stability. As a consultant you'll get lots of practise at applying for work and you should get quite good at it. Then if the industry was to experience a down-turn you would be a lot better off than permanent employees made redundant because of your job-seeking skills. I don't find job interviews to be stressful. They require concentration and effort, but in the end you either get the job or you go somewhere else and do similar work for similar pay so there's no need to worry about it. If a contract ends and I can't immidiately find another then that becomes a holiday for me!
If you have the skills and the right attitude then you'll find consulting to be fun and profitable, and it will give you the opportunity to learn lots of new things.
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Copyright © 1999 Russell Coker, may be distributed freely.