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Is IT Consulting for You?

Like any career path, the road of an IT consultant is a mixture of smooth sailing and bumpy rides

By John Edwards

Not so long ago, one had to join the military to find a career that combined excitement, personal challenge and travel. Today's grads can experience these same attributes by working for an information technology consulting firm.

Angela Haywood, college recruiter for Greenbrier & Russel, a network consulting firm located in Schaumburg, Ill., says a consulting job can serve as an excellent career springboard, since consultants are exposed to a broad range of technologies in a variety of industries. "In a corporate environment not only are you stuck in one particular industry, but you may be stuck with technologies that are outdated or projects that are limited in scope," she notes.

Haywood explains that a consulting firm provides an ideal environment for recent grads to sharpen and develop burgeoning IT skills. "To save money, many companies using new technologies outsource projects to consulting firms," she says. Additionally, to help their employees keep pace with emerging technologies, some consulting firms offer specialized training. "In a corporate environment, issues of training and career growth would be the responsibility of the employee, not necessarily a company mandate," says Haywood.

Mona Eliassen, founder and chief executive officer of the Eliassen Group, a computer consulting firm based in Wakefield, Mass., says most consultancies expect applicants to have some real world job experience as well as solid academic credentials. "Companies equate consultants with experts, not beginners. While ongoing learning and training is important for consultants, they must also have the adroitness to begin work on a new project immediately."

Eliassen notes that most of her company's clients are looking for consultants with abilities in the hottest technologies, such as Java, object-oriented programming and C++. "You can obtain these skills in a classroom or out of a book, but clients also want to see that you know how to implement these technologies in a real-world situation," she says. Eliassen suggests picking up some experience prior to graduation through a summer job or after-class work.

According to Haywood, consultants can command significantly higher salaries than corporate workers performing equivalent tasks. "Consulting firms are in a better position to offer higher salaries, because clients are being directly billed for consultants' services," she notes. "In a corporate situation, it might be more difficult to justify a higher salary."

But working for a consulting firm also has its perils, says Drew Traver, chief operating officer of System Design Group, a computer consulting firm based in San Diego. "When working for a consultant you're really wearing two hats: technical expert and businessperson," he states. "You're bringing your technical expertise to the client, but you're also placed in the position of having to sell yourself and your company. This can be an uncomfortable situation for someone who's not accustomed to the world of sales and business."

Other negatives to the consulting lifestyle include irregular hours, mandatory overtime and a working environment that's in a state of constant flux. Even travel—a requirement at many consulting firms—can become a nuisance. "Living out of a suitcase quickly loses its appeal, especially once you have a family," observes Traver.

Eliassen notes that consultants sometimes miss the camaraderie of working in a central office. "Consultants don't spend a lot of time swapping gossip around the water cooler, so the job tends to appeal to people who like to work independently," says Eliassen.

While many consultants work for companies that offer salaried employment and a lucrative benefits package, others opt to operate as independent consultants. These "contract workers" typically sign up with a placement agency that matches the consultant's abilities with a client's needs.

Independent consultants generally have more flexibility in accepting and rejecting assignments than consultants who work at a traditional consulting firm. "It's easier for contract workers to pick and choose exactly which jobs they wish to tackle," says Traver. "You can also adjust your schedule to meet your needs."

Consultants rarely spend time worrying about job security. Salaried consultants have the same general comfort level as technical experts who work in the corporate world. Independent consultants typically commit to assignment contracts that range from a few weeks to six months or longer.

"The demand for consultants appears unquenchable," states Eliassen. "The question is, do you want to become one?"

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