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Computer Consulting

Tip of the Month: Your skills are as you know them in your own mind.

Chapter 1




The main purpose of this book is to provide a successful model for the computer consultant starting out. The Small Business Administration has identified those factors that contribute to failure in start-up businesses. In the first year one of the major factors contributing to failure is the lack of direction, not knowing where you are going. By studying the model in this book it is the hope of the author to provide others with the direction and knowledge to make it.


So then, how does one prepare for becoming a consultant? The first thing to do is to identify the desire within yourself to want to become a computer consultant for the right reasons. You should recognize first that it is far better to move toward something rather than moving away from something or attempting to get away from something. The lesson here is to want to become a computer consultant because you understand what it is about and that is the lifestyle and profession that you dream of entering. The worst way to get into it, is to choose it because conditions are so bad at your job that anything can be better than that job. In other words you choose being a computer consultant by default and as an alternative. You are running from a salaried job that you dislike and are pushed into computer consulting as a way out.


The first step in preparation is to learn what computer consulting is all about. Know what you are getting into. Do it for the right reasons in your mind. If you take this approach you will optimize your chances for success as a computer consultant.

One thing that often happens to salaried employees on the job is that management may hire one or more computer consultants to participate on a project that the salaried employee is working on.

As a salaried employee you observe a number of things about the consultant. First he doesn't have the supervision that you have imposed on you. He seems to come and go as he wants. He seems to get all of the attention and his ideas seem to be listened to by management. He has that air about him, that as a salaried employee, you don't have. You learn that he is making two, maybe three times as much money as you are. Not only that, when he gets through with the project you've heard he is scheduled to go to the Bahamas for two weeks. Are all of these things true or are they myths? They are real in your mind as a salaried employee and they conjure up in your mind the feeling "Wouldn't it be nice to be able to do those things". You think, boy, are those guys lucky, do they have it made. But wait! If you let this picture remain in your mind without looking behind the scenes you will not understand what computer consulting is really like. You will have a limited picture and that can be dangerous because it doesn't include all of the things that it takes to get there. Let's take the olympic athlete that you see win a gold medal on TV. You think, boy, is he lucky, he's got it made. But let's look at the five or ten years prior to the event which he won, what did he do to prepare, what did he have to know, what did he have to practice, how much of a commitment of time, energy and dedication did he have to make? What are the things in his life he had to forego in order to train for this olympic event?

Viewing the conditions of a computer consultant can be much like viewing the winner of an olympic event. If you think only of the glory aspect, then you have no real understanding of the preparation stages and effort it takes to position yourself for the event.


The best training ground for becoming a computer consultant is preparing for it mentally while you're being paid at a salaried job. Make the decision to become a computer consultant. Then you can create for yourself a completely new attitude at your job. You can view yourself in a different light. Because you have set this new goal for yourself you can now come to work with a new sense of excitment. You have a new attitude. You now want to learn and experience everything that you possibly can. Instead of being concerned about whether it's 5:00 p.m. and quitting time you now want to know if it will be alright to stay and use the equipment and software after work. When you write code now, you don't just write what's easiest to make it work. You now think about whether your code is written in such a way that if you left it to someone else after you are gone, would they understand clearly how and why you coded it that way. Would it be maintainable by different staff at a later time. Now you are training yourself to think like a consultant in a new professional way. You are concerning yourself with aspects of working as a computer consultant, not as a salaried employee. You can do all this while you're paid as a salaried employee. You can do this because you have a dream, you know what you will ultimately do. A word of caution at this point, if you don't already know it. You do not share dreams you have with everybody and anybody. You keep your dreams to yourself. The reason for this is simple. The conditions will be completely different if you tell other people about them. There is nothing that can kill a dream a person has quicker than to tell it to someone and have that person steal your dream because they can't picture you doing it.

Get your training while you are on the job, while you are earning a salary. Make your job a training ground to perfect your skills, to perfect your new attitude, the new you that you will become when you are a computer consultant.


So let's now talk about those things you need to consider and become aware of in the preparatory stages. The first thing, that I have eluded to earlier, is the fact that if you become an independent computer consultant you will be going into business for yourself. Now, what does it mean to go into business? Well, it means first off that unless you have thought about it or experienced being in business that there are alot of things that you must be concerned about, that as a salaried employee never concerned you or did you even care about. As a salaried employee you were concerned about two things. Would you get your check on time and did you get all of the net pay that you were due. (That is, they didn't mess up your deductions.) In this mode of thinking you are about as far from an attitude of "being in business" as you could possibly be.

From the very first day you become a computer consultant you are in business. You will start as a sole proprietorship. That means you own the business and that you are responsible for the business totally yourself. Now the first question you ask yourself is, "Am I prepared for this?" If you can honestly say no to this question, then you have passed the first test. You are being honest with yourself. You are starting off on the right foot. Okay, now you believe and understand that you will be the sole proprietor of your own business.


Next, you will have to ask "How am I going to operate?" Whether you know it or not you are going to be what is called an independent contractor. Now you ask, what is an independent contractor? Independent contractor status has both a legal and a tax meaning. It essentially means that you are taking risk of failure in doing what you do as an independent contractor. If there is no risk in what you do, you cannot call yourself an independent contractor. A person with a salaried job takes no risk. He is sure to receive pay for his services as long as he puts his time in on the job. An independent contractor on the other hand has many risks to face up to. If he doesn't deliver he doesn't get paid. If he doesn't meet the terms of his contract or agreement, he is subject to a lawsuit and/or possible penalty.

The big difference you will face when you become a computer consultant is understanding the manner under which you will be performing work. In addition to the legal aspects of being an independent contractor, there is the IRS and how they will now look at you. In terms of completing your income tax, you go from the salary earnings box on the first page of your 1040 to a Schedule C, the business schedule in your 1040. You now have to consider gross income, all of your business expenses and everything that goes along with keeping track of them.


Now as an independent contractor you will be operating much like a doctor or lawyer does. You will be providing what is termed "professional services." You will be providing professional services and billing the client for this service. You will soon realize that as a businessman in your own business you now must think in terms of billable time and non-billable time. The first thing to be aware of is that clients will not pay for something they didn't receive or for something that you have no agreement with them. This means that you must operate as a business, and doing so, you must work out with each client the means by which you will be paid before you perform any work for the client. This is how you will determine billable time from non-billable time. A written contract or letter of agreement is very important in conducting your business. I will talk, in much more detail later, about a computer consulting contract.


Okay, now you realize that as a computer consultant you are a business person who is operating as an independent contractor and that now in everything you do, there will be the risk factor. Next, you must consider some of the things that all business people must consider. If you are a doctor or a dentist you will have your clients come to your office where you have all the tools and means to take care of them. You ask, will I have clients come to me or do I go to my clients? With a little thought you will soon realize that you will, in the great majority of cases, go to the client's location for most of your billable time. Realizing this, you then can decide where you will have your office, the place from where you will conduct your business.

Let me tell you a little about what I have done in this respect as a computer consultant. Fortunately, when I first started out, I had an extra room in my house that would be perfect for an office. The first thing I did was to turn this room into an office. I created the kind of office that I had always wanted. I wanted a large desk that I had never had before so I got an oversize mohogany door from the local lumber yard and finished the top. I bought two two-drawer file cabinets that lock. I then placed the door on top between the two file cabinets. I now had a desk that would fit all of my needs. My room had a microcomputer, calculator, in/out box and plenty of room to place stacks of material that accumulate with each project I worked on. I bought one file cabinet at first and also built-in bookshelves on the walls. As it has turned out for seven years I have had the same office in my home.

As I look at where my office is located and what it costs me I can tell you that I have kept my overhead very low. When you first start out in business, you will want to keep your overhead as low as possible too.

I have found that in my years of consulting my clients gladly furnish a location at their business site for me to work at. It can be a desk or terminal location and they always provide the tools that I need to perform my professional service. So you see a big portion of time I will not be in my office while working on projects.

In my business I perform professional services for clients on mainframes, minicomputers and microcomputers. Almost always when doing work on a mainframe or minicomputer I am at the client's site because that is where the equipment and terminals are located. In the last few years I have been working more in my office because I can develope software on my microcomputer at my office and then take the software on diskette later to the client's location and install it on their microcomputer. There are a few cases where I maintain software on minicomputers and mainframes from my office by using communications software and regular voice-grade telephone lines. I want to point out to you in this description that I very rarely use my office as a meeting place to get together with clients.


Another aspect of doing business is to consider whether you will hire a secretary, use an answering service, or use a remote telephone answering system. Let me tell you a little about my experience and then you can decide for yourself. When I first started out I bought a telephone answering system. It worked fine for the first year or so but as I worked with more and more clients I began to get feedback from different clients. I began to also realize that many people would hang up as soon as they knew they were talking to a machine. I concluded that all my clients were equally important to me and I wanted no reason to irritate any of them so I quit using the remote answering system. Because after two years my business had grown considerably I hired a secretary to handle the phone and perform other duties. However, for the last several years I use a telephone answering service that if you didn't know, you would think they were right at your office. The big advantage of the answering service is the cost savings you have over having a secretary. I have experimented, along the way, with various approaches to operating my office and because of the nature of the computer consulting business, I find that I don't need a secretary and I do need to keep my overhead down. You too may want to experiment with several approaches. No matter what approach you do take, take one that will keep your overhead to a minimum. Over many years in business I can tell you it is easy to add on overhead business expenses. Keep them to a minimum and you will continue to stay in business in good times and in bad.


Probably one of the most foreign things that I had to learn and you will too, if you are to become successful, is to learn the essentials of marketing and sales. Coming from a technical background I will have to admit that when I first started in business I looked down on salesmen and marketing. Let me tell you the lesson I have learned the hard way. Marketing and understanding what part it plays in my business is probably the most important thing I have learned while being in business. It is what has kept me in contracts and work, particularly for the last few years. It is what has kept my business thriving when I have seen others fall by the wayside and go back to a salaried job.

So you say, what is marketing and how will it apply to my business? How will I have to apply marketing to my business? What do I have to sell? The answer is so simple you will look right past it. I know I did at first. The answer is you have to sell yourself. Yes, yourself. Think about it. Your business is you and what you are capable of doing. I know you think at first that your talents will draw business to you. Wrong. You have got to constantly market and promote yourself. Look at it this way. A potential client, if they have never heard of you or know nothing about you will not be drawn to you. Consider the fact that they have no reason to. So to be visible to clients that don't know you, you have to use marketing techniques to make them aware of what you have to offer, your professional services.

As I took a look at marketing I remembered the one class I took in college. But as I began to take another look at marketing I found that everything presented in the textbooks was for large well-established companies. In fact, marketing techniques for large companies, I began to realize, were not the kind of techniques that are successful for small emerging businesses. In fact the large company marketing techniques completely throw you off the proper path. Because you are a small business, these are techniques that you will want to remove from your mind. Well then, what marketing techniques should be used. Let me tell you what I discovered. I have found that as an independent computer consultant that one marketing technique works better than all of the other techniques put together. That technique is "word of mouth". Sound too simple? Well, it is. It is so simple that it is overlooked. Okay you say I believe you. But how do I get other people to say good things about me and promote me. Well, think for a moment how doctors and dentists have always built there own individual practice. They have done it by word of mouth. One person likes the doctor and how he had such a nice bedside manner and how fast the person recovered from surgery. The person tells this to a friend who now calls the doctor's office and asks if he is taking any new patients and can I get in to see him. Of course this can work the opposite way if a patient has had a very bad experience with a doctor.

You can borrow this same concept for your computer consulting practice. You can use the same type of marketing technique. Now, how do you get this technique to work for you? The first thing that you do is to make an unbreakable commitment right from the beginning to perform the highest quality work that your talent and skills can provide. You always go the extra mile in terms of your performance on the current project that you are working on. The client's needs always come first in any work that you perform on a project. What I am trying to tell you is that you act like a professional in the way you handle yourself with your client. The product that you produce should always be of the best quality that you can possibly generate.

The word of mouth marketing technique always works if you go out of your way to serve your client in the most professional way with the highest quality work and outstanding performance. I have found that clients bend over backwards to pass your name on to others when you have provided them with a quality product that they can be proud of and can brag about to others.

I can tell you about instances where computer consultants have gone from a salaried job to computer consulting and never changed their attitude or concerns. I also can tell you that these individuals did not last long. It is absolutely essential when you go into your own consulting business that you take a very close look at yourself and your attitudes and where you find that you have weaknesses, you need to make a concerted effort to strengthen these weaknesses. One way to approach this is to ask yourself the question "If I were my client what would be the impression I would have of me?" With the shoe on the other foot you can now evaluate yourself from the clients point of view. If you were the client, would you think that your work and your performance was poor, average or excellent? Would you recommend "you" to others for the product you produce and the performance in which you produced it. If you can honestly give yourself an excellent rating then I can guarantee you that the "word of mouth" technique will work for you. The principle that you want to live by when you are in business for yourself is that the client comes first in your concerns, your attitude, and the product that you furnish him with.

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