I've met many IT professionals who have thought about becoming a consultant. Some believe they can earn more money, some just have an entrepreneurial spirit and others are simply tired of working for "the man." Having worked for myself for nearly one-half of my working career, I can say it is very rewarding, but it is also incredibly challenging.

Before you jump in, there are

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many factors to consider. Let's review the most important ones.

Understand yourself. Start by clearly defining the IT jobs you like to do and what you're good at. Do you like to troubleshoot? Design? Do you like to implement? Would you like to be an outsourced admin -- or maybe a combination of all these?

It took me a while to determine what I wanted to do, but once I realized that I love performing information security assessments, my path was crystal clear.

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Know your value proposition. Ask yourself: What can I do better than anyone else? Also ask, what do I bring to the table that can serve as a competitive advantage? Determining why you are the best fit for your prospects is essential for success, especially these days when many unemployed IT professionals have become consultants. Once you answer these questions, you can start focusing on your specialty. And in your own unique way, your career will catapult to the next level.

Know your limits. When I first started my consulting career, I was a jack of all trades. I soon realized that I was spreading myself too thin. I was doing everything for everyone (sometimes for ego, sometimes for the money) and was only serving to let everyone down. My advice: Don't be what I call a "bandwagon jumper," one who jumps on the latest and hottest technology just because it's cool. You can easily end up pigeonholing yourself and sometimes, down the road, there is not a lot of business in that area. I have known many who have made that mistake and had to go back and re-learn a lot of things before they could earn a living as a consultant.

Instead of hopping from technology to technology, focus sharply on your foundation skills. As much as we like to think things change quickly in IT, the fundamentals do not. Basic skills will serve you well regardless of what you specialize in moving forward.

Be confident and enthusiastic. Simply knowing a lot about your IT specialty won't cut it. You have to be able to communicate well with customers both verbally and in writing. When it comes to dealing with management and some hardheaded IT professionals, being able to hold your own in a conversation becomes very important.

In addition, learn how to market yourself. You have to understand the essence of networking as well as getting (and keeping) your name out there. One of the hardest parts of breaking out on your own is maintaining a stream of business. Understanding and practicing the concept of "who knows you" rather than just "who you know" is a vital part of staying connected and generating business.

Learn the business side of consulting. Understanding the roles and responsibilities of consulting, such as setting up a company, properly insuring yourself and managing cash flow is crucial. Most consultants including myself learn what's important and what's not the hard way.

As an IT consultant, learning time management skills will pay off big when you can focus every minute of every working day ensuring you get the most valuable use of your time. People who struggle with getting things done are not cut out for consulting. But by focusing only on the things that matter and realizing that your time is all you've got, your income earning potential will become endless.

Be a risk taker. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase." If you're willing to put forth the effort and have a strong set of goals and lots of self-discipline, you can do it. It's simply a matter of choice.

Working for yourself is a game of chance, but if you have faith in your abilities, the rewards can be grand.

Kevin Beaver, is an information security consultant, keynote speaker and expert witness with Atlanta-based Principle Logic LLC. Kevin specializes in performing independent security assessments. Kevin has authored/co-authored seven books on information security, including Hacking For Dummies and Hacking Wireless Networks For Dummies (Wiley). He's also the creator of the Security on Wheels information security audio books and blog providing security learning for IT professionals on the go. He can be reached at kbeaver@principlelogic.com.

This was first published in May 2009

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