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Becoming an IT consultant: Do's, don'ts and disasters to avoid

Thinking of striking out on your own? Ex-CIOs who have made the jump share their hard-won advice.

February 19, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - As companies continue to cut costs, consolidate staffs and eviscerate executive salaries, more and more senior-level IT professionals are eyeing corporate exits -- or being shown them against their will.

For many such tech execs, the next step on the increasingly rocky, do-it-yourself 21st-century career path is independent consulting.

But do you have what it takes, or even know what it takes, to strike out on your own? Where do you find clients? Should you specialize? What about marketing and finances? Where can you get decent, affordable health insurance once you're cut loose from corporate benefits?

How do you navigate the enormous cultural changes of minding your own calendar, developing and building your own marketing presentations and, horror of horrors, scheduling your own economy class air travel? How do you make your mark and find paying clients fast, when it seems like every other laid-off IT exec is setting out his own shingle?

To answer those and other questions, Computerworld rounded up a boardroom's worth of former CIOs and other high-level IT professionals who successfully made the transition to IT consultant. Here are their hard-won answers and practical advice.

Find your niche

Whatever your depth and breadth of experience, simply switching your title and business card to "IT consultant" isn't likely to land you a single client. Specialization is absolutely critical, according to successful CIOs-turned-consultants.

Eileen Strider, a former CIO at Universal Underwriters Insurance Group (since renamed Zurich Direct), is now a partner with her husband in their own consulting firm, Strider & Cline Inc. in Kansas City, Mo. Strider's niche is reviewing large, often troubled ERP projects in the higher-education segment.

Jack Tugman, former CIO at the U.S. Army's Fort Monmouth, N.J., base, has leveraged his military and Department of Defense experience into a specialty: He now helps companies develop their IT infrastructures in such a way that they can become suppliers to the DoD or other government agencies.

And Hernan Tocuyo, former CIO at FedEx Services (now called FedEx Office) who is now an independent consultant in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, specializes in nonprofits and small companies with no in-house IT staff. "They don't have the expertise or the money for a full-time CIO. They may have a systems administrator or IT manager, but that person doesn't know anything about accounts receivables systems," he notes. So Tocuyo markets himself as a specialist who can come in and implement a system, then train those who remain on the job to run it.

If you specialize in everything, people won't know who you are.
Laraine Rodgers, Navigating Transitions

"It's important to specialize, and you should lead with those two or three things that you are best at. If you specialize in everything, people won't know who you are," says Laraine Rodgers, founder of Navigating Transitions, a Tucson-area consultancy, and former CIO for the city of Phoenix and Xerox Corp.

In addition to specializing, would-be consultants need to frame their services in the context of real-world needs, Rodgers says. "I created a business plan and tried to figure out my core value proposition. I first listed the 50 things I do really well, and then made a list of the things I really love to do, and then another list of what's needed in the market," Rodgers recounts. Because "if what you're passionate about isn't what is needed, you ain't gonna make a penny."

Although it may be tempting to take on whatever work comes your way, it's a real mistake to do so, according to the experts. Stick to your specialty. Otherwise, you run the risk of doing long-term damage to your credibility.

Companies also hire consultants for very specific reasons, notes Thomas Pettibone, a former CIO at Phillip Morris USA Inc. and founder and managing director of Transition Partners Co., a national management consulting company in Reston, Va. "Consulting is quite a bit different than being a corporate CIO," he says. "The corporate job is all-encompassing and focused on improving all aspects of the company. The consulting role is very focused to an engagement, which is written in a particular way to solve particular problems in an organization."



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