15 reasons why you might not want to be a consultant

The term consultant gets tossed around a little too freely these days, but the core definition of a consultant seems to be “someone brought in from outside a company to give advice.”  Consultants, of course, come in many different packages.  There are consultants who are themselves employees of other companies, there are long-term contracted consultants and there are by-the-hour or by-the-project types of consultants.I’ve been a consultant of each of the three types above for 12 of the last 15 years.  I spent a few years “working on the inside” and didn’t care for it too much.  Even when I was a consultant with an employer I got a little uneasy dealing with my consulting companies’ internal politics and rigid rules and policies.  I have found my comfort zone doing contract consulting; I have one client at a time for periods as long as a year at a time.  I don’t have multiple clients, and I don’t have a “consulting boss” – just clients.

I have learned, though, that many people who are employees dream of being a consultant.  Being mentally prepared is key.  I have seen many people broken by their preconceptions about what consulting entails or how they should be treated.  Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years about the downside of consulting:

1.  More importantly than anything else, be prepared to be treated ridiculously badly
2.  But also be prepared to be treated ridiculously well.  Most clients will have a love-hate relationship with their consultants.  One week you’re golden, then someone gets yelled at by their boss or hears rumors of a takeover and suddenly you’ll be a threat to their cushy cubicle.  You are always at the bottom of the food chain.  Even at places where I’ve worked for a long time, gained the trust of client over client, gotten glowing recommendations, etc. I never forget that depending on which way the corporate winds are blowing I can be lauded or spit on.
3.  Get ready for the worst desk, the worst computer and the worst supplies.  I have been put in closets, empty conference rooms, and forced to work without a computer for weeks at a time (and for a variety of reasons I never ever offer to use my own “work” laptop).  The intern will get a nicer desk.  My current client, one year in, has yet to give me my own extension or voicemail.
4.  Don’t think, even once you’ve been at a client for a long time, that your co-workers think of you as a fellow employee.  You are always an outsider.  Despite the fact that you both work for the same employer, but just get paid differently, you will find that you will always have the Scarlet O (for outsider) on your chest.
5.  Get ready to work without any sort of support staff.  When I was still an employee I had a veritable army of people working for me.  At one point I had an admin assistant and a secretary.  What does a secretary do in this day and age?  Get your dry cleaning.  I had a staff of 25 at one point.  Once you have that many people working for you, you don’t have to lift a pen or type out an email, practically – you spend your whole day in meetings and directing others.  As a consultant, it’s all gone.  I have to grovel to get a client’s admin assistant to book a meeting with their boss – as a consultant I am usually priority number 836.
6.  Any staff forced to work with you will treat you like you’ve been assigned to work for them.  Employees simply believe that they are entitled to order a consultant around simply because they get paid hourly instead of receiving a salary.  They also want to make sure that there is no chance that someone will realize that, as equals, you might actually do a better job than they would.  If I have a staffperson or manager who is ‘equal’ to me in the corporate hierarchy, there is no way they EVER allow me to go to a meeting by myself.
7.  Any staff forced to work for you will resent you.  I have yet to meet an employee who thinks they should be working ‘for’ a consultant.  At my last client I had 5 staff assigned to me, and it took a long time for me to get them to shake off that reluctance.
8.  Everyone will assume that you make more money than they do for doing the same work.  It’s true, because if you get paid $5000 a month but work 80 hours a week you’re making more than the consultant who works for $30 per hour – but only if that consultant works 40 hour weeks.  If that consultant works 80 hours per week, he earns about $12,000 per month (at least in New York, where time-and-a-half overtime is required by law).
9.  Your ear will get bent at least twice a week by people telling you that you need to get a “good, safe, stable job with benefits.” These will be the first people to go when downsizing, outsourcing or mergers occur.
10.  Despite the fact that your hourly rate may be astronomical when compared to a salaried worker (who works 80 hour weeks) you’ll always be the first one assigned to make copies.  I never complain, but it always amazes me beyond belief that the company wants to spend my time (and therefore their money) this way.
11.  If you leave late, someone will accuse you of trying to pump up billable hours.  On the other hand…
12.  …if you leave early, someone will accuse you of slacking off – even though as an hourly worker you aren’t costing the company anything, as opposed to a salaried worker cutting out early.
13.  Almost every company you work with will be a mess.  In my experience, a company that is functioning well and has happy employees probably doesn’t need highly-paid contract consultants around except for the sake of their extremely specific project skills.
14.  You may have to spend time selling yourself to clients.  A lot of people think they can do this but when they actually try doing it, they hate it.  It’s definitely not for everyone.
15.  Unless you work on a very specific project that is completely done when you leave, people will always blame the consultants for problems that arise – even 6 months after you leave.

Now that I’ve covered all of those negative points, tomorrow I’ll cover the 15 GOOD things about being a consultant!

Creative Commons License photo credit: joelogon

18 Replies to “15 reasons why you might not want to be a consultant”

  1. I’m guessing you work as a consultant… I’d be interested in learning how you decided and made the jump to consultant life. Sorry if you already covered it in the past, if so just link me to it.

  2. So true, so true. I have one guy at my current client who actually said he wants an all new contract staff. He’s a jerk and we don’t take him seriously, but that one hurt! They honestly don’t want to deal with the documentation that we require and they’re used to just walking up to a developer and telling them what to do. Sorry, can’t do that and cover your butt on the contract at the same time!

  3. Here’s another reason – Depending on the industry you’re in you may go a long time between jobs. You need to be able to budget yourself very well. While working you may make a lot but that can disappear quick when you haven’t worked for three months or longer.

    One more related to my first – You may have to find work out of the city or state you’re in. You might get a per diem and such but you could be away from your family for extended periods of time.

  4. I was a “consultant” once. The funniest thing that happened to me was when I tried to use the coffee machine they informed me that because I was a “seasonal employee” I couldn’t drink coffee from the machine.. It was very funny that they let me access confidential info but wouldn’t let me drink coffee.
    The person that told me that (a middle finance manager) prompted me to write up a certain memo to upper management about how certain people spend their workday ( checking how much coffee is being used vs doing what they were hired to do) and to give some process improvement suggestions.. 🙂
    Never be rude to consultants. They could always get back at you 🙂

  5. I highly recommend the book “The Secrets of Consulting” by Gerald M. Weinberg (ISBN 0932633013). I’m myself a web developer and do quite a bit of consulting work besides my main job. The principles and advices in the book is very helpful and give my a much better idea of how to offer my service at higher quality, making more money while keeping both parties happy. I strongly believe that your work reflects the efforts you put in it. Your relationship with the clients depends on the communications and the level of trust that you can build. The more you invest in, the more you will get out of it.

  6. Anyone starting their career should avoid consulting unless it is the industry norm. The best way to learn about business is by doing it and learning from your mistakes. Consultants advise but rarely implement. Its hard to learn a business that way and how can you advise if you never worked “in” a business?

    Its a different ball-game if you have worked for some time and then become a consultant.

  7. Great advice, Steve! I turned down an opportunity to become an independent consultant (even though, at the time, I was a well-regarded ‘staff’ consultant for one of the most prestigious companies in the IT world) because I knew my income would be capped to:

    # hours in the working week – # hours no jobs available – # hours prospecting for more jobs – # hours administering paperwork – # hours wife wants the kids minded – # ???

    In other words, it’s a ‘business’ (or a job, if you’re doing it for somebody else) with no real upside … UNLESS you hire other consultants to do the work for you!

  8. Thanks for all the comments! I’m not sure everyone realizes that I’m going to talk about the upside tomorrow… there are a lot of negatives to consulting but I think there are some positive upsides, too, which I’ll cover tomorrow.

    Thickenmywallet has it right. Consulting is a good way to make a living if you’ve got a lot of industry experience. If you don’t, you’re just an impediment.

    @FFB: It depends on where you live and what you do. Concentrating on the financial services industry and living in New York I have ZERO need to travel unless I feel like it – which is a nice luxury.

  9. Count me as one of those “long time employees who resent the consultant” types. 🙂

    It’s interesting to hear from the other side though.


  10. Bad news before the good news.

    I agree with your list, though part of (2) should be in tomorrow’s list.

    Look forward to that.


  11. #5 can sometimes be a positive if you’re self-directed – you no longer have to spend your time pushing people. Instead, you can get tasks done.

  12. @Four Pillars: I certainly can understand – I’m a consultant and a lot of consultants grate on my nerves, too!

    @Fathersez: You’re right, #2 seems like a good thing. By “ridiculously” I was trying (not clearly enough, apparently) to say that consultants sometimes get a goofy level of treatment that makes regular employees resent them. But yeah, for the consultant that’s not always a bad thing!

    @Trent: You are completely right – #5 shows up in my list of positives, too. I liked managing people, but it made it much harder to get things done sometimes.

  13. You’re right, I’m one of those people who knows little about consulting but sees it as something I would love to do at some point (which makes no sense). Can’t wait to see what you have to add today!

  14. I don’t remember a time when I felt that consultant is just a temp. I always regarded consultants as highly specialized agents. But maybe it’s because they never worked in my department and I had to deal with them only on a project-based level.
    I, however, felt slightly more superior towards temps. But then again, some of the temps were eventually hired to a full time positions and got more responsibilities.

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