Want job security? Be a consultant

Your job title may read "IT" or "Windows administrator," but chances are that you are a de facto consultant too, especially if you make decisions, negotiate contracts, or manage a staff. Joe Webb is a trainer, application developer, network manager and author of "Start to Finish Guide to Becoming a Consultant," published by Netimpress. The book is helpful on two fronts. First, as 300 IT workers at John Hancock Financial Services in Boston learned this week, job security for IT professionals is not a sure bet. The IT pros were told their jobs would be outsourced. So it's a good idea to know your options. Second, the book offers advice, not just for those who want to take their Windows admin training and put out a shingle, but also for those who are very much employed but who may want to tweak their human relation skills. Webb spoke with SearchWin2000.com recently about what Windows administrators can do to polish these skills.

Why do you think that it's important for IT administrators to hone their consulting skills? As technical people, we focus a lot of effort on improving our technical prowess. We go to conference seminars, we take certification exams, all at the expense or neglect of the soft skills required to succeed. These are our people skills. You may be the brightest guy in the world, but if you can't communicate, you won't be valuable. You need...

marketing skills and technical skills. Can you give some examples? It's learning how to avoid or resolve conflict within an organization. In being a better employee, the first step is learning how to self-manage your activities. Learn how to go to your boss and say 'here are areas within my job responsibilities that I think need attention.' Ask how those compare with [your boss's] goals. We need to think of ourselves as service providers and educators whether we work for someone or whether we work for ourselves. Unfortunately, that's not the stereotypical relationship you see between IT departments and the people they serve. So how did you come to give advice to the IT consulting wannabes? A few years ago, the job market had been so good, and changing jobs was lucrative. Many people thought [that] becoming a consultant was a good idea. People were asking me about legalities, benefits and other considerations, as well as how much money they should expect. Now the economy has gone in the other direction, and the job market isn't what it used to be. People need to know their choices if the axe falls. On the surface, being a consultant sounds riskier than being a full-time employee, but even as a full-time employee, you are one downsizing or merger away from being unemployed. How can being a better consultant help you work more effectively with Microsoft? No matter who you are dealing with, I think it helps to keep [the other party's] perspective in mind. I think Microsoft is concerned about the IT community. They may not have the best mechanisms in place, so some administrators feel neglected. Administrators should join and participate in a variety of forums. It's easy to gripe, and that has a negative effect on all of us. Perception becomes reality no matter how great the product. So whether you are active in a news group or a local user group it helps. Microsoft can't listen to a bunch of individuals very effectively. But if we can roll that up in a concerted and constructive way, our voices are more likely to be heard. What mistakes would IT managers avoid by learning these skills? I imagine there are some common personality traits which IT managers share that contribute to what makes them so good at working with technology. We as IT people want to get to the bottom line quickly. So we tend to throw out our best offer quickly. But if you are in contract negotiations, the people on the other side of the table view these negotiations as a game. We don't get as much as we would have if we had started from a higher or lower position. When resolving conflicts, it's important to picture yourself on the same side of the table [as those you are negotiating with]. I've learned that unless both sides are happy, it's going to be a short term agreement. That's too short-sighted an approach. It's better to have a far reaching agreement and to establish trust with your boss so they know you have their best interests at heart. Are you seeing many IT pros make the transition to consulting today? I'm seeing fewer than I did three years ago. In the years prior to Y2K, there were a lot. But with the economy today, and with so many projects completed, there has been a slowdown in expenditures of IT shops.

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