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Computer Consulting

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


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W K Winters & Associates
21 S. Easy Street
Edmond, OK 73003




This is the beginning of my eighth year (1987) as a computer consultant. As I look back on it, this was something I had always wanted to do. I had dreamed of being in business for myself for many years before I did it. The reward has been so great for me that I want to share it with you.

I gave a speech to a computer users group recently. After the users group meeting I had several individuals come up to me and ask me if I had ever thought of writing a book about my experiences and what advice I would have for someone who wanted to do the same thing. The thought of doing this so excited me that here is the fruit that has grown from that seed.

I want to share with all of you, who have talents that you know you possess, a way to convert those talents into your own business and the freedom from a salaried job. I want to share in this book the things I have learned, the things I have experienced, so you might have a road map to follow. If you travel very much you know just how much time a road map saves you. It takes you directly from point A to point B without having to use trial and error and having to experiment in getting through the maze. A road map can be the difference between getting there and not getting there.

After fifteen years it takes a lot of rethinking and recollection to remember just how things happened for me and how I made things happen. You have probably heard the saying "Some people watch things happen, some make things happen and others just ask, what happened?" It makes a big difference if you can use someone else's description of what it's like, to give you direction, without having to make that mistake yourself. This is very difficult to do. It is usually far easier to make your own mistakes. Try, however, to use the road map in this book to keep from having to experiment and make mistakes in order to learn.

One of the first things that I want to tell you at the outset is that only you can know if you want to be a computer consultant in your own business. Even before this, you need to know, yes, computer consulting is a business. Some people actually get into computer consulting without realizing that it is a business. In fact, it is not much different a business than the business a doctor, dentist or lawyer is in.

So how do you determine if you really want to be a computer consultant? Would you like to be in business for yourself? You see, it is important to view yourself as a businessman first and then a consultant.

As I look back on the salaried jobs I held for fifteen years before I became a computer consultant, I now know that those fifteen years were my training period, my training ground to prepare me for this business. I am assuming that in the years of your training at a salaried job that you have picked up certain skills. No matter what these skills are you had to have the talent to make yourself capable of developing those skills.

If you intend to be a professional golfer, you most certainly need the skills necessary to play par golf and a portion of the time below par. The difference between one individual and another may be the amount of talent an individual has to attain the highest level of skill for him.

If you are considering going into computer consulting you do need to have certain skills in the computer field. In this respect, however, you are more like a doctor where the doctor specializes in certain skills such as, internal medicine, surgery, general practice. What I am trying to tell you is that you do have to identify and recognize the kind of talent that you have developed into a skill. You have probably done this while you held a job. The first thing to recognize is that those same skills you have learned at the job can be applied to a consulting practice to generate income dollars.

At this point you may ask....What kind of a market is there for my skill (my kind of talent)? You'll find that there are probably two kinds of answers to this question. One is that there may exist a ready-made market for your skill already. The other is that you may be able to create a market for your skill.

Let me give you a couple of examples to clarify this. When I started in l980 there was a ready-made market in the banking industry for ANSI 74 COBOL programmers. My first couple of contracts were with banks in this area. In l984 I started doing workshops in Lotus l-2-3. The demand for this kind of training has been steady even up until today. For the last four years I have trained thousands of individuals in the use of the microcomputer. I created a market for my tape "What you should know about a personal computer" by using advertising and direct mail. The market wasn't there until I created it through marketing.

If you are at all like I was when I first started, I had lots of talent but I was unsure of the direction to place it. One of the most important things you are going to have to learn as a computer consultant is marketing. You're going to have to learn how to market yourself, yes yourself. Clients pay a fee for you. It is assumed that you have the talent and skills. If you don't, you won't get paid and you won't last long.

Marketing, particularly to technically trained people, seems to be something that's not too important, something that you don't even think about paying attention to. As you gain experience with consulting you will begin to understand why it counts for almost everything. It is very deceiving. It is something like the way politics works. It doesn't matter how talented and brilliant you are, you can't exercise or show your talent until you are elected to office. In a similar vain, it doesn't matter what your talent may be in your area of computing unless you land the contract so you can get paid a fee for your service. That's what marketing yourself is all about - landing those contracts.

How then can you determine if you really want to be a computer consultant? You can find an answer within you if you consider some of the following traits that you may have. Are you a self-starter? As you may or may not realize when you have a job, you have a boss. In this relationship you are paid to satisfy your boss. You don't need to be a self-starter.

If you want to know what to do next, just ask your boss. Believe me when I first started out in my business, the transition to being my own boss was absolutely great. However, the true test comes that morning when you ask the boss (yourself) what to do next and you find the boss doesn't feel like thinking through what you should do next. This is when you know what you are made of. You know real fast about your ability to be a self-starter.

I can honestly say that I have always been a self-starter. I have always enjoyed planning what I would do next. I didn't need to ask someone else what they thought I should do next. If you take a close look at yourself and can honestly say that you are a self-starter you know you possess one of the ingredients for being a successful computer consultant.

One other characteristic that I know now was a very important factor was my work habit. I remember as far back as childhood always working along at anything I did at my own pace.

I can remember getting in trouble with teachers many times because I wasn't moving at the pace they had in mind for me. Somehow satisfying a teacher's pace, for taking tests or moving between classes always has seemed synonymous with the jobs I have had in the past where the boss set the pace in which he wanted me to work. I have always preferred working at my own comfortable pace. As it turns out when I am highly motivated this pace is hard for others to keep up with.

Look within yourself and see if you are a person who functions best working at your own pace. Or do you need someone else to put the fear of God in you before you do anything. If you can satisfy this test then you possess another successful characteristic of a computer consultant.

On my first assignment as a computer consultant I worked on an internal audit system for a bank. The bank was in the process of making a major switch from one computer system to another. It was my task to analyze the system as it was implemented on the old system, keep the desired characteristics that management wanted and to introduce new characteristics that would enhance and improve the system implemented on the new system. Now I was working alone as an independent contractor on this system. It was my responsibility to take this system from design all the way through complete implementation and finally to train banking staff in the use of the system. I was to leave them totally capable of operating the system at the end. The bank staff was trained to operate and maintain the system on their own. Now the reason I'm telling you this story is that you must be capable of starting, writing and bringing a system to its entire completion. You must be able to stick with a project until you are completely finished. I remember as a child building model airplanes. I remember having friends who would start a particular model and then get part way through building it and then quit. It is absolutely necessary as a computer consultant or for that matter any kind of professional to have that stick-with-it-ness.

Can you imagine a doctor only going through one-half of an open heart surgical procedure. Or a lawyer only trying two-thirds of a case. How about a dentist filling only one-third of your tooth. I think you get the point, do you always complete what you start? If you can answer this question honestly by saying yes, then you have another characteristic in your personality that will help you succeed as a computer consultant.

So far, I have concentrated on personality traits that will be necessary for you to possess. You see you can't get a degree in computer consulting from any college or university. Quite simply this is because there aren't any colleges or universities that offer the degree. Now you can get a degree in computer science or data processing but, what this prepares you for is not consulting but a salaried job, usually with a large company. Or it prepares you to teach others. Now you ask "Don't I need academic training?" The answer is a most definite yes and no. Yes, most computer consultants do have academic degrees. No, not all computer consultants have academic degrees. I know several computer consultants who do not have an academic degree at all. In fact, they are probably some of the most competent consultants I know because they have gained everything they know through the school of hard knocks. They have more ambition, more drive, because they have more to prove and have had more to overcome. The advice I would have for anyone wanting to go into business as an independent contractor doing computer consulting is ask yourself what talent you have and what skills you have obtained. The academic degree is fine and I encourage you to have it but there is no substitute for talent and perfected skills in some areas of data processing.
If I had to answer the question: "How much experience do you need?" I would respond as follows. I believe that you need a minimum of five years experience and on the average of ten to fifteen years experience would probably be best. Looking back at my own career, I went through age twenty-five getting my college degrees. I spent fifteen years gaining experience, honing my skills and was forty when I went into computer consulting on a full time basis. That's the time I made a full time commitment to the computer consulting business.

I'll have to admit that I did consult on a part time basis for several years before I went into it as a business. Let me share some experiences with you as a part time consultant. I first started consulting as a college professor. The consulting was very infrequent. It was usually through contacts that had some association with the university I was at. During the summer I was able to pick up more work than during the school year. I can honestly say that I didn't pick up any significant consulting work until I made a full commitment to it. I wondered for many years why I couldn't pick up any significant consulting work while I had a salaried job. It always bothered me why this was true. It was only after I was in business full time for a couple of years that I finally found out why this was true. What it gets down to is that anyone who hires a consultant to do a piece of work wants a full time consultant. If you think about it when you are a part time consultant your main interest, time and energy is dedicated to your job.

Therefore when you act in the capacity as a part time consultant your clients know this and they also know that you are only giving them your part time effort. Your clients are not stupid. When they pay hefty fees for consultants they want to know that they are getting your main full time effort. When you make a commitment to a full time consulting business your clients then know you are committed to what you are doing. When you have a salaried job they know you will give them only what you can spare. I have often thought that the analogy to church giving explains the concept very well. Those who give 10% of their income to the church make a commitment and the church knows it. Others, who throw whatever change they have left over in their pocket into the basket, are not making a commitment. They are only giving what little they have left after everything else is satisfied. The lesson here is to know that clients know when they are getting your best commitment and when they are getting what you have left over. It is easy to detect when a consultant is serving two or more masters. Don't underestimate how astute your clients are. Remember you will bill your client and he is going to have to rationalize paying your fee. There is nothing wrong with consulting while you have a salaried job. However, treat this as a learning experience. It is a good way to sharpen your skills and to get to know if you would like to do computer consulting for a full time business.

I look back many times and compare what I did and what I was able to accomplish at a salaried job. Then I compare this with what I can accomplish as a computer consultant. I then ask why is there such a difference.

First I have noted that I am the same person with the same skills and talent in both situations. So what is the difference? One of the first things that comes to mind is the whole question of accountability. When I had a salaried job there were always certain unwritten but felt forces in play. There was a sense of loyalty, dedication and duty to my boss on the one hand but, on the other hand there were my principles of speaking the truth and what seemed to me to be right. This whole idea can be described by accountability. In a salaried job many times you get in the accountability dilemma. If you are expected to carry out and do things that you know are wrong, dishonest or unethical, then with a salaried job your recourse may be only to resign the position or be fired from your position. If you bow down in these situations at a salaried job you must compromise your good judgment and principles to keep your job. Millions of Americans do and have made this choice. It is a hard one to make because you give up a part of yourself. You lose part, if not all, of your self-esteem. All this to keep your job. It is unfortunate but most people who keep a salaried job over a long period of time do make this choice. It is a choice that the person who does it has to live with it for the rest of his or her life.

One of the principles that you hold foremost in your life as a computer consultant is accountability. You are judged on every contract, every piece of work you do, to a strong set of principles that keep you doing what you know is honest, just, and right. Right for your client and right for you.

As a computer consultant I have always taken a position where I have been a neutral party who could give advice and recommendations based upon what was the best approach for the client. This meant not connecting myself with a particular vendor to sell or push his particular product. I have taken a similar position with software vendors. Now this does not mean that I don't recommend hardware or software. However, in all such situations I have analyzed what the needs of the clients were and then considered the options that were available to serve these needs. Usually the final decision is made by the client given the options laid out clearly before him.

Part of the mistake of getting hooked on a particular hardware vendor or software product is that you begin to sound and act like a salesman for that hardware or software. I do know consultants who do this type of thing however, because they develop particular skills that use that hardware or that software. If the market place is large enough for that hardware or software then you may find plenty of work in that particular niche. You have to be very careful in these cases to stay in your niche and not go outside that niche and present yourself in a position of conflict of interest.

Another principle that you hold dear as a computer consultant is objectivity. You do not want to place yourself in a position of being so emotional about hardware or software you recommend that you lose the reality of the solution that the client really needs. I know that I have had to either disqualify myself or remove myself from the competition in situations where I knew I would be doing my client a disservice. My particular niche has been writing custom software for clients. In this day and age with so many canned software products in the market place, especially for microcomputer systems, I must always be able to detect whether the client will be best served by recommending some canned software that already exists or to recommend to the client that custom software is what would be the best solution to his situation. If I know that canned software already exists and will meet the clients complete needs then I always, without question, make this recommendation. Here is where objectivity comes in and even if I will lose a piece of business I have to make the recommendation.

As it turns out, I eventually will get back as many jobs as I lose. The reason for this is that computer store personnel as well as others selling hardware many times recommend canned software to clients when they have no real idea of the clients needs. The client later discovers that this canned software violates all the principles of how the particular business wants to operate. In these cases I get clients who I know from the outset are clients who fit into my niche and are unquestionably candidates for custom software.

Another value that you must consider as a computer consultant is "Am I an independent thinker?" Fortunately most people who are independent thinkers inherently know they are. However, if you are unsure you can probably determine whether you are or are not an independent thinker by asking yourself and answering honestly the following question. Can I work by myself or do I constantly need someone else to give me direction for my thinking? If you can honestly say that you don't need anyone else then you are probably an independent thinker. Now why is it so important to have the characteristic of being an independent thinker? Well, as a computer consultant you will constantly have to be "thinking on your feet", so to speak. You will be tested time and again with problems and situations that you have not come across before. In these situations you have to be capable of independent thinking. You have to reach within yourself for answers that will come from your experience and thinking power. One way to look at computer consulting is that you make your money by "thinking".
One of the other things that you will need to consider is the level of motivation that you have for becoming a full time committed computer consultant. This motivation has to be based on a deep-seated desire. I know for myself this deep-seated desire came to me over the fifteen years that I held a salaried job. Those values that I have just discussed became part of my desire over the years by establishing a set of principles for myself.

After many years I discovered that the only way to truly satisfy these principles was to go into business for myself, to perform the same skills using my talent by doing it as a computer consultant, an independent contractor in my own business, my own boss. Now this may be scary because, when you do it, you take complete responsibility and if you should fail you can only hold yourself to blame. On the other side of the coin, all of the successful computer consultants that I know, including myself, would have it no other way. It is this very attitude toward your commitment that makes you successful at it.

All right then, "Do you really want to become a successful computer consultant?" I think you can begin to see now that the answer to this question will come from within your heart. I know of no successful computer consultant who decided on this major decision in his career with a snap judgment, a spur-of-the-moment thing. It will become for you a serious evaluation of your set of values. It will be knowing who you are, what you want, and how you want to live your life.

Chapter 2 - How to Prepare for Becoming a Computer Consultant

Chapter 3 - Recognizing Your Talent

Chapter 4 - The Steps to Take to Know If You are Ready

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Some quotes from Chapter 4:
One of the most important things that you can do while considering whether you are adequately prepared is, to sit down and write out on paper a description of your niche. There is something powerful about being able to put down on paper a description of what your skills and capability really are. Ask yourself honestly, and answer yourself fairly, what your skills are as you know them in your own mind. Then ask yourself whether these skills are skills that potential clients will be willing to pay for. Ask yourself, am I the best at what I do in my niche? You must have confidence and know in your own mind how good you really are.
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Chapter 5 - Doing It

Chapter 6 - The Survival Techniques for the First Six Months

Chapter 7 - The First Three Years

Chapter 8 - Do You Keep a Consulting Practice or Do You Go Big

Chapter 9 - The Key to Success - Marketing Yourself

Chapter 10 - The Rewards That Could Be Yours

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