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Do I have the technical skills to be a consultant?

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009 by Nigel Jones

My previous post on being a consultant addressed the issue of how to market yourself. Today I’ll look at something a little more prosaic – how can you tell if you have the necessary technical skills to be a consultant? This post was motivated by an email I received from Victor Johns who basically asked the aforementioned question.

Before I answer this question, I should note that while technical skills are essential to being a successful consultant, they are by no means sufficient. I’ll leave it to another day to discuss the sales and business skills required to run a consulting business.

Anyway – on to the answer. Well my first and rather sardonic observation is that you don’t need to be technically competent at all. Just about every engineer I have ever met has unfortunately experienced the case of the clueless consultant – that is someone that does more harm than good. While these individuals do of course exist, they are by no means ‘successful’ as they have to spend an inordinate amount of time winning new business as no one ever hires them a second time.

If we ignore the aforementioned clueless consultant, then I think my answer depends a bit on what sort of consultant do you want to be? Some consultants are specialists and others are generalists. If you are a specialist, then essentially you are marketing yourself as the ‘go to guy’ in a narrow field. A good example might be Bluetooth. If you are promoting yourself as a Bluetooth expert then you had better know pretty much all there is to know about Bluetooth. However, what about the majority of consultants who are more generalists? In their case absolute knowledge is not as important as the ability to learn fast and to apply skills learned in one field to the field they are currently in. The reason I say this is because no sensible client will expect you to know ‘everything’ needed to do a particular job. Rather they expect that you have the fundamental skills upon which you can rapidly build in order to solve the problem. It’s for this reason that my ideal project is one with 30% ‘new stuff’. That is I know exactly how to do 70% of the project, whereas the remaining 30% will require me to learn new tools / skills.

This of course brings up the issue of how does one stay up to date? While there are many ways of doing this, I find textbooks to offer the best bang for the buck. Simply put, a $100 text book that saves me an hour on a project is a good investment. One that saves me a day is an outstanding investment. It’s for this reason that I have a stellar technical library.

As a parting comment I’ll note that we have all run into the occasional engineer who ‘knows’ they know it all – while actually being pedestrian. In my experience it’s the engineers that have a lot of confidence in their ability – but still realize that they can’t hope to ‘know it all’ that ultimately will succeed in this business. I’m talking about you Victor!

3 Responses to “Do I have the technical skills to be a consultant?”

  1. Scott says:

    Then vs. than. What is it with then vs. than. A compiler would certainly find the error.:)

  2. Nigel Jones says:

    Beats me! Fixed.

  3. Jérôme Radix says:

    Hello,it would be nice if you could share with us the books you like the most.

Leave a Reply to Jérôme Radix