Getting close and personal – pitfalls of long term consulting

I’ve been consulting for quite a number of years now – mostly in and around service delivery – so have been exposed to a number of different types of projects. Needless to say, both good and bad, however isn’t that why consultants are called in? If things were always easy and straight forward, would there really be a need to for a consultant? probably not, so you’ve got to take the good with the bad…and vice versa.

Most projects are of a short term nature, meaning, you’re called in to sort out a small specific piece of the puzzle, whilst rarely stay long enough to see a project reach completion.

Consultants come in many shapes and sizes, but the most common traits are:

  • Subject matter experts of various platforms, technologies or business related topics
  • Skills resource to subsidise excisting pool of resources

The main benefit you can get by taking up consulting is the width of exposure you get to a large number of industries, challenging scenarios and people. It’s a great way to build a huge repertoire of experience, in relatively short periods of time. The second benefit I see is that you don’t get terribly personally involved with the projects you’re working on – generally there really isn’t time to get attached.

But, once in a while you’ll end up either going back to the same project again and again, or you could stay with a project for years on end.

Here’s where the line between consultant and project member tends to blur. As most who’s dealt with developers would know, they’re a passionate bunch (and at times can have huge egos). A developer can become very attached to the project, and in relation also to the work they contribute. There’s a certain pride amongst developers in what they do (both good and bad) and I guess this pride is what often makes them excel in their chosen line of work. Basically if you don’t care your work often reflects it.

As a consultant you really cannot afford to become too passionate about things – and here’s where long term consulting can become rather bad. Whether or not you’re part of service delivery or planning, it matters not. But alas, consultants are merely human, and getting involved on a personal level will happen once you’ve spent years on a project – it’s inevitable really. The difference between the short and long term gigs are that you start to see yourself (read: the consultant) as a project member. You spend more time on the project and on-site, than you do at the company you’re working for.

Your client office/location is where pictures of your kids appear, where that favorite coffee mug has a permanent home in the cupboard etc.

Well, is this a bad thing? You’re a gainfully employed member of the industry – secure enough that you dare take out that car loan, settle on that mortgage, raise a family. All things that generally requiere stability.

I guess it depends greatly of where you’re sitting and the pros and cons has to be weighed up carefully.

Rather than going into the personal benefits of long term consulting, there’s a few points that can raise danger signs everywhere…

  • A blurred disconnect between employee and employer (note, not consultant and client)
  • A deep personal involvement by the consultant

These two points are very hard to compensate for. By being away from your “colleagues” and place of employment for long periods of time, a natural disconnect occurs between the employee and employer. Questions such as “Who do i work for?” will pop up more and more frequently. So a certain amount of investment has to be put into maintaining that cord of loyalty and feeling of belonging to a company. If that isn’t done, chances are that, that once the project is complete (or contract runs out, whichever occurs first), that the consultant would be amenable to other offers from possible competitors.

The second point, which i touched on briefly above, is just as dangerous – but more from a personal development perspective – if the consultant whishes to continue to be a consultant – this must simply never occur and it’s detrimental to maintaining a continued professional exterior. As a consultant you cannot have a too deep personal investment into the projects you’re contributing to or frustrations will bubble up and take over, again, making you amenable to seeking for other pastures.

So, the cold truth of long term consulting is that there’s very high probability of the consultant looking elsewhere for employment.