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What Does It Take To Be A Great “IT Consultant”?

penguinI am an Information Technology Consultant. Yes, that’s my day job. I manage, maintain, repair, and work with all kinds of technology in the Greater Toronto Area. I’ve, in the past, mused on the different aspects of what it takes to be a Consultant (self employed or not), whether it be the dark side of the craft, various essential tools, or tips on how to work better. But, one topic I’ve never broached is: What does it take to be a great IT Consultant?

What are kinds of skills and qualities do you want to work at to be the best you can be in this (at times) difficult line of work? Are you interested in starting your own business in IT and wonder if you can do it? Well, you’ve come to the right place.

Listen
Probably the most important and valuable skill you need (yes, even more important than your tech knowledge) is the skill of listening. Try out this interesting puzzle. Be honest, were you wrong the first time around? I was. The key is learning listen to your customers, co-workers, employees, suppliers and other networked professionals and simply understanding what they want. But, this seems so simple! And yes it is – but, you will be a great consultant when you learn to let your customers tell you what they want. Help them express what they want. A great consultant listens to a customer closely, understands what they need and is able to say: “I can do that”.

Patience

You’re a great listener, and you know it. That’s amazing, because you also know a lot about patience. Defined simply as “The capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.“, patience is such a fascinating concept, especially in the context of the great IT Consultant. Systems in companies are generally a serious focal point when problems occur. If you are tasked with fixing errors in a system – you become that focal point. It seems like there are days that every single event exists to test an IT Consultant’s patience. The great Consultant is confident and learns to have a zen-like focus on what it takes to make progress. Patience is that secret ingredient

Do what others won’t
With this very self-explanatory phrase comes an idea that, as an IT Consultant, you need to be called on to handle things in a variety of situations. I always think of this in context of others in my line of work who have, in the past, refused to attack projects because all of the information wasn’t available or they weren’t given the entire scope of a project from the beginning. A great Consultant will engender massive trust if he or she can walk into situations where others have failed or simply won’t go. A healthy dose of fearlessness will help on this one.

Embrace new technology
You’ve fostered an environment where customers will give you chances and you you take those opportunities, but you need more knowledge in the craft. Do you read more books? Take a course? Gain a certification? While all of these are great options – I tend to tell those that are starved for the kind of knowledge that gives them the confidence to fact challenges in IT, they must truly start to embrace new technology. A big aspect this is learning to play with new stuff, but to truly embrace it takes you into an understanding that just playing won’t give you. Take on a project (on the side of course) and fully fulfill that project to fruition. Buy a new smartphone and make it your everyday phone. Setup a server and attempt to replicate how your customer might use it. To gain the kind of knowledge you want – that path to this is your best attempt at embracing all of these beautiful changes that come along in today’s world of computer science.

Diversification
To really embrace new things, you’ll also need to expose yourself to a varied list of ideas, technologies, operating systems, tools and paradigms. This tends to run counter to prevailing wisdom that says “Do one thing really, really well”. In many ways this is an opinion borne of experience, but when you take the restrictiveness of “Hardware guy” or “Software Guy” off the table, there is a great deal of opportunity to find new and interesting lines of business. While spreading yourself too thin is always a danger, you’ll also find it easy to stay in step with the changing flow of technology when not locked to one idea.

Learn to code
Another snippet of prevailing wisdom tends to be the advice of learning to code. In this case, I think it’s genuinely useful that you become well versed in one or two programming languages (and able to read many others). Keep creating stuff with code and continue to learn how algorithms shape the technology we use. The course of all processes are tracked through the creation and manipulation of code. And so, like a musician learning to understand written music, IT Consultants who can understand, read and write source code tend to make themselves indispensable in situations when true understanding of software is required.

Talent
All of this list so far has included skills and qualities that you can work on and improve. This last one isn’t like that. You really can’t make yourself more talents (in my opinion). What you can do is discover more and embrace the ones you’ve already found. The more you see and do, the more likely you expose the talents you already, or will, possess. Finding what you’re good at is the patch to being able to truly do what you love.

Certainly this isn’t the most exhaustive list, but it’s a good starting point for anyone who wants to be in the field – but doesn’t know what to focus on. If I could go back ten years and tell my younger self some of these things, I might have save a lot of friction. That makes me think about the nature of stubbornness and, in contrast the friction caused… ahh, that’s a blog for another day.