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Lessons Learned – Transitioning from an FTE to a Consultant

A little over 3 years ago I began what I would call an internal transformation as I started to reevaluate my career and personal life.  I had been working as a Full-time Employee (FTE) in two large corporations over the course of 10 years and I was very proud of what I had accomplished.  I had recently been promoted and I was excited for the future.  However, as I began to look around the organization – those above, below, and at the same level – I began to notice that many of those above me in the organization had consulting backgrounds.  It was at that time that I realized I may need to reevaluate my career path and determine where I want to be in the next 5-10 years.  Fortunately, I had always relied on a mentor/mentee relationship and I had a great mentor, at the time that I held in high regard.  I knew that he would help me think through my decision making process.  I also began working with a career coach to help me understand my career goals and personality.  She then helped me to translate those into roles and organizations in which I would be a fit.

To make a long-story short, I decided to make a shift from an FTE to a consultant – this is the reverse of what most people do and I had to field a lot of “why” questions during the interview process, but do not let that deter you from making the move.  I have been blessed with a great support system to help me make this transition and I wanted to provide a short list of some of the many “Lessons Learned” that I had encountered along the way.  This list is not exhaustive and is constantly growing, but I wanted create something to help guide other FTEs that are thinking of making the switch.  This list is in no particular order and you may see that in some points I am repeating myself.  This is something that I am very passionate about.  I hope you enjoy this list and can provide some comments on some of the “Lessons Learned” that you have experienced.

  1. Listen – Seek First to Understand, then Be Understood: to borrow Habit 5 from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Steven R. Covey.  I consider this to be a very simple yet effective.  I have learned (and read) that the more you show your audience that you are listening attentively, the more information that they will provide.  The key is to be genuine in your listening, do not patronize your audience just to “entertain” them.  Most people will read through this and you will immediately lose their trust.                                                                                                                                                                                       Understand
  2. Communication, Communication, Communication: to put a spin on one from real estate (location, location, location); the quicker you show the client the output of your work the better.  Do not worry about completeness.  It is best to display your work as quickly as possible.  This will allow you to adjust accordingly.  My experience has shown me that many times, what people say and what people want are two different things.  Displaying tangible work helps your audience better understand what the finished product may be.  Do not be afraid to over-communicate.  Just be careful not to be too pushy.
  3. Do not build a Ferrari when a Ford will do:  the idea that I am trying to get across here is sometimes, as developers, we may overbuild a solution because we are excited to demonstrate our skills.  However, it is not important to show-off our skills.  It is more important to understand the skillset of the client.  Remember, they are the ones who will be supporting your “output” once you leave.  You should always try to empower the client resources that will be supporting your “output.”  Do not make them feel foolish because they do not understand what you have done.  The client will quickly come back to blame you as a consultant for this mishap.
  4. Think 2 to 3 steps ahead: this one is difficult for me.  Given that I am a big communicator, I do not leave a lot to be assumed with the people around me.  I am very direct and I do not like things to be left unsaid.  However, not everyone is like this – in life or work.  As a consultant, you have a finite period of time for you to get things accomplished.  Therefore, you usually do not have time for all of the details to be discussed and you need make educated decisions based on the details that you do know.  As a side note to this, sometimes you need think 5 steps ahead because the pace of the organization is so fast. Other times, you need to slow down and move at the pace of the organization; which is difficult for high-paced people.  The point here is that the culture of the organization will dictate the pace.
  5. Become a Trusted Advisor…don’t perform Monkey See, Monkey Do: help your client formulate a solution. Do not just do as they say.  In my experience, this is very different from the corporate environment.  There is a tremendous amount of value in employees performing tasks as they are asked.  However, as a consultant/trusted advisor your role is to empower your client.  One of the “value-adds” of a consultant is that you have other experience that you can bring to the table.  You do not have that “this is the way we always do things around here” mentality.  Breakdown that mentality and challenge your client to think differently, think more strategically.
  6. Always provide documentation and complete Quality Assurance (QA) Testing: Unfortunately, two big deliverables that always seems to be chopped from the drawing table during price negotiations is testing and documentation.  Both of which are vital to the long-term success of the project.  Meaning, long after you leave a solid testing strategy and well documented process will help the client remain successful.  Try to help your project sponsor understand the importance of both of these.  Knowledge transfer (KT) sessions are thought to be a replacement for documentation, but I do not believe this to be correct.  If anything the documentation should be used to guide and complement the KT sessions.
  7. Understand the challenges of mixed team: working in tandem with both consultants from your organization and client resources can be very challenging.  It is vital to the success of the project that the roles and responsibilities be thoroughly outlined.   Additionally, sign-off and approvals must be received – also, perform check-ins as frequently as possible on those roles and responsibilities.  Document any meetings and KT sessions that were held and list the attendees.  Make sure to account for additional time for this while creating your estimates for your tasks.
  8. Review and Understand the Statement of Work (SOW): If you did not write the SOW ask your manager for it and review your roles and responsibilities with the project lead.  Be very careful deviating from those roles and responsibilities.  It is great to have the desire to always want to help out, but understand that you are on the hook for whatever is in the SOW.  Deviations from that are great and appreciated, but you could be on the hook for free work if you did not complete the agreed upon deliverables in the SOW.
  9. Complete weekly status reports: send it to the project and client leads unless the project lead is responsible for collecting and summarizing a single document.  At the bare minimum include, major accomplishments for the Week (completed, missed (and explain why), unplanned) and what are the major accomplishments are for the next week.  This may be something that you will need to do independent of the project lead as sometimes this is believed to be unnecessary – DO IT anyway!
  10. Have Thick Skin and Confidence: as a consultant you are expected to be the “expert.”  With that comes a high expectation.  However, it is acceptable to say you do not know the answer – you just need to find out.  With that, make sure to take advantage of your resources.  You may be engaged on a solo-project, but do not hesitate to rely on your fellow consultants.
  11. Don’t assume anything, ask!: this is especially true early into the project.  Do not wait too long to ask an obvious question as this may burn you.  In my experience, most clients are very happy to talk and answer questions.  Remember, most people like to talk and show how intelligent they are – this is not a bad thing.  Take advantage of this and ask people about what they know.
  12. Have fun: do not get too caught up in the craziness and stress that a client may try to put on you.  If applicable, think back to your time as an FTE and you worked with consultants.  You may have been harsh on them and pushed them to the brink, because it had to be done in “x number of days or else” (or else what???).  Lord knows that I foolishly did that.  To paraphrase a quote from a colleague of mine, “keep things in perspective, we are not performing heart surgery here.”

I hope you enjoyed this list and I look forward to your feedback.  As I go back and reread this list, it occurred to me that I have applied many of these lessons in my personal life as well.  Talk about “killing two birds with one stone.”  I am very happy that I made the jump to consulting.  I have met some amazing people and had great exposure to various people and parts of many different organizations along the way.  I am very passionate about the topic of career and personal growth.  You can find me on twitter (add twitter link) or LinkedIn (add LinkedIn link) if you would like to have a dialogue about this topic.

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