Programmers tend to be solitary personalities who have grown accustomed to the luxury of sitting down at their desk, screening out the rest of the world, and focusing on programming for as long as they can stay focused on the job. They might have to, reluctantly and sometimes scornfully, engage in a certain amount of overhead work; Filling out time sheets, filing progress reports, updating project tracking software and even engaging directly with other human beings in meetings.
Many programmers will perform those unpleasant tasks almost as an afterthought and with the minimum amount of passable effort. There are two primary reasons for that: First, to programmers, those tasks are unproductive. They don’t do anything to move the project toward completion. Software development is expensive and client companies are constantly pushing for tighter deadlines and that pressure eventually comes to focus on the developers.
The other reason programmers chaff at overhead tasks is they’re not fun. When waiting for QA test results or compiling, no self-respecting programmer wants to fill out paperwork, they want to blow off steam playing with Nerf guns, Foosball, or stalking each other around the office with remote controlled battle tanks.
Unfortunately, if you want to advance in your field and work into consulting, you’re not only going to learn to do those tasks well, you’re going to need a whole new skill set that will be even less fun than project related paperwork.
One of the first and most difficult skills you’ll need to develop to make the transition is sales. In consulting you’ll need to be in sales mode all the time and spend a significant amount of time developing new business. Business development could include looking for new projects, pitching current customers on upgrades or new services, participating in proposal development and software demos, and working trade shows or other promotional events.
Adding the business development skills will be painful for many programmers because it involves doing things they don’t normally enjoy doing. Dressing up is one example of one change many programmers will resist. You have to look the part to be a consultant and that means dressing the part. Professional dress takes time, costs money and it’s not optional.
A hugely valuable skill programmers will need to make the jump to consulting is understanding contracts and contract law, which goes along with business development. Even if you have attorneys to help with the contracts, they may not understand the technical issues. You will have to understand contract law well enough to at least spell out the technical realities for both the legal team and the customer.
Another difficult skill set for developers making the transition to consultant will be public speaking. Being able to put on a presentation or software demo that’s both informative and entertaining is an art that a good consultant will want to master. We’ve all sat through a dry, monotone engineering presentation. Putting on a quality presentation is harder than it may appear and takes practice.
Anyone contemplating the transition to consulting would do well to look into their local Toastmasters chapter or take a class in public speaking at a local community college. The best way to get good at presentations is to simply do a lot of them. The best way to be more at ease is to get in front of crowds on a regular basis. You’ll learn tricks for making it past those first few moments of nervousness, to connect with your audience and to structure your presentation toward a specific goal with a call to action.
In the process of becoming a better public speaker, you’ll also have a chance to practice seeing technical issues from the perspective of a non-technical audience and learn how to package technical material for audiences of different technical skill levels.
For programmers many of these skills will be both foreign and difficult to master, but to be successful in the transition there are no other options. Don’t try to learn everything at once, just start chipping away at it. You might surprise yourself at how fast you progress.