Fog Creek Software
Discussion Board




Advice for Student Turning Consultant

I've been writing code for ~16 years, 8 professionally starting out in high school (Win16 VxDs, etc).  Anyways, I'm finishing up with my MS and income's now a priority.  But, I've got some good ideas for software apps that I'd like to do as well.

So I'm thinking of consulting part-time to pay the bills while I get my app(s) written.  Only thing is, I don't know any consultants and don't know how to get started or where to find business.  Some people are keeping an eye open for me, but I'm not sure it'll suffice (maybe I'm just being paranoid).

Any suggestions?  Most of my experience has been in things like embedded and realtime controls systems, desktop and palm applications, etc., not the ever-popular web app development.  I've got some java, HTML, PHP, and WebObjects experience, but they're not nearly as impressive as many others out there.

I'd really rather not sign up for one of the big DoD contractors around here (Washington DC), I'm pretty sure they'd demand an employment contract that owned everything in my head.

Thanks in advance guys & gals.

H. Lally Singh
Thursday, October 30, 2003


You will need to find a company.  In most cases, part time is going to hard to do, because clients want full-time workers or they are not looking.  [Ask Philo, even the ones without 40 hours of work want you there for it.]

The reason you need a company is two fold. First, you have no consulting experience so unless you can find someone local who knows you, a company buying your service will want some guarantee.  As Solo, you cannot make much of a guarantee without a history of success. 

Second, they have clients.  You can go and get clients, but that is a bit a work, again with no experience.  It can be done and someone will tell you they did it, but it is uncommon. 

Find a local temp company.  Recognize they are going to get you for 50% or more on your rate and get a year or so behind you.  Learn their business and you will see how they get clients, make connections and such.  You may be able to flip a client at the end, but watch your contract.  A lot of places forbid their customers from hiring you without giving them something.

MSHack
Thursday, October 30, 2003


What kind of code were you writing in high school 16 years ago, specifically?

Tell us a bit more about those 16 years and how they interleaves with college.  Were you working full-time and then going to school at night part-time for the last 10 or so?  How did your BS/MS get earned? etc?

Basically, if you want to consult, I would suggest either:

(1) Working toward consulting by way of your day job (Making contacts, networking, etc) for 5-10 years, then moving into consulting with your networking base.

(2) Having a really brilliant product or service that everyone needs that is unique, or for a niche, untapped market.

It sounds like you're a #1-er, so, unless you can leverage those 16 years, you may need to get a job for a few.  (A job at a consulting company, with a correctly-worded contract, might be the best bet ...)

Matt H.
Thursday, October 30, 2003

Thanks for the feedback.

The highschool job was at a research lab.  I was given a 486 and a analog/digital converter board.  I wrote a windows 3.1 frontend application in Borland OWL (anyone remember it?), a VxD to handle the IRQ on acquisition, and a C-based Windows driver to connect the VxD and the frontend app.  That was during the summer.  Then I spent 18 months during two summers and after school every day doing Java dev and lots of system administration on WinNT, Irix, and Linux. 

College: During the summers & breaks (& sometimes at school telecommuting), I wrote a library to talk to a GPS receiver on a serial port, decoding the data stream (nonstandard binary protocol) & managing cacheing.  The library's a C++-based, multithreaded DLL with bindings for C++ and Matlab. 

At college, I wrote two controls systems for experimental vehicles.  One an electric Chevy Suburban, another hydrogen-electric Chevy Lumina.  That and some Motif and PalmOS during the way.

Now I'm doing an MS thesis modifying GNU G++ to add compile-time type introspection.

Although I'm proud of my experience, it's not in the seemingly 'hot' consulting areas. 

From the feedback so far, I think I'd be better off with a fulltime job and squeezing my product dev on the weekends.  I'm just afraid of my employer seeing the product & saying "it's mine!"  I also recently finished bartending school.  Maybe that's my best bet.

Again, thanks everyone.

H. Lally Singh
Thursday, October 30, 2003

You sound like one of Joel's superstars!

So anyway, what's bartending like? I'm so sick and tired of computers I could just die.

Fred2000
Thursday, October 30, 2003

The school was fun.  I've been stuck in 'gdb cc1plus'-land ever since I finished it, so no time yet for employment.

From what I hear, it pays pretty well, $300-500/night for 2-3 nights a week.  You just have to spend some time at a hotel or restaurant gaining experience before moving onto a nightclub where the aforementioned $$ is at.

In retrospect, perhaps consulting's not where it's at?

H. Lally Singh
Thursday, October 30, 2003

My city doesn't have nightclubs. Well, they have these things called nightclubs, but they are nothing of the sort. Oh well.

Fred2000
Thursday, October 30, 2003

Apparently good $$'s still there from bars that are popular after working hours.  The regulars tip well.

H. Lally Singh
Thursday, October 30, 2003

The "problem" with looking directly for consulting work in SW development is that EVERYONE and his brother is saying that they want to do it, too. It's also a "bad money driving out good" phenomenon. There are so many failed bozos and multisyllabillic offshore shops waving their hands going "me! pick me!!!" that anyone offering "programming services" drowns in the ocean of competitors.

A few data points:

As stated, companies tend to demand 40 hr/wk, even if they don't need it, generally demand that contractors be FT employees of a "shop" (agency), and are completely inflexible about the working arrangements.  Black and white thinking. 

HR tends to get involved in programming contractor selection and injects the same standards such as "internal equity".  See above.

"Consultants" tend to be utilized in the programming world as temp workers and contractors. Believe me, there is incredible resistance to being perceived as an "expert  solo problem solver."

Temp agencies and "brokers" are generally the scum and trash of the business world. They will treat you EXACTLY like they treat blue collar temp labor.  If you are an expert, these places will be to you as a magnet is to a floppy disk. They will do any and everything possible to demean you as a commodity lookalike.

Now, that's the bad stuff. It can be a heck of a ride.

But you will have to find your own work. Forget agencies. They suck very, very badly and most of them are unethical and VERY condescending toward techies.  The best and really, only way to be a consultant is to be trusted by decision makers and invited to help solve their problems.

So: attend local technology user's groups and become known as a local expert in a speciality. Get some business cards printed up and hand them out. Try to find an area of *business*  - a vertical market such as real estate, medical instrumentation, construction, etc - that interests you, and try to find a way to use what you know within that area of business. (No, "VxD" is not an area of business, it's a geek term.)

Think more of "specializing" than of "generalizing". If you specialize, you will attract interest from a few highly qualified parties. If you generalize, you will be lost in the shuffle and non-descript. (even though you CAN do other and many things, your best bet is to specialize so that you can attract *some* attention.)

That's only for starters. Just some rambling thoughts. Hope that helps some. Any thoughts?

Bored Bystander
Thursday, October 30, 2003

H Lally Singh, join associations roughly relevant to the sort of consulting you want to do, and that have meetings you can attend. For example, if you think your future is in real estate software, join some real estate association.

When someone has a need for something, they'll often call you in. Also, write some useful articles for magazines in your desired field. You won't notice any effects, but 1,000's of people see the articles and store your name away.

Taking a staff job would probably kill your plans to develop products.

.
Thursday, October 30, 2003

what you should do is read the books "million dollar consulting" and "managing the professional services organization" and "consulting demons" and not spend too much time on this message board, because it is mostly the province of failed men.

don't listen to anyone who says "you need to specialize, not generalize" or "you need to generalize, not specialize." none of that makes any sense. don't "follow the market."

what you need to do, is just do whatever you think is cool, then convince someone to pay you for that work. if you aren't working on something you think is cool, you'll turn into a whiner like the pontificators on this board.

its not impossible to make a good living doing stuff you enjoy. you just need to work out the sales and marketing skills to make it happen. the main concept i've learned is to work on projects so that I make a good salary ($150K+ yearly) but target customers so that my products are a drop in the bucket. Find people and companies for whom $10K for 2 weeks worth of work is less than their yearly toilet paper bill, sell to them.

rz
Thursday, October 30, 2003

say "YES" to everything. no matter what people ask for say "YES". then deliver something...anything, but you must deliver. And be professional, look professional, bring around a good looking women.

Tom Vu
Thursday, October 30, 2003

If I was younger, I'd consider the bar tender route if you are serious about your project.  Bar tending can be hard work, but it is hard in a way that programming isn't.  Once you take on other people's programming projects, your own will suffer.

But, this is a big but, you have to have discipline.  I live in town, Lake Tahoe, NV, that consists of people who thought they'd just do this bar tending thing for a few years, and it has become a way of life.  Basically living the college lifestyle well into there 40s.  They surround themselves with equally motivated people, hence they don't feel bad when the wake up with a hangover at 3:00 PM the 5th time this week just in time to shower for work. 

If you slip into that you are a goner. 

Well I best get back to work myself ; )

christopher baus (www.summitsage.com)
Thursday, October 30, 2003

> If you slip into that you are a goner. 


Says who?
http://www.theonion.com/onion3836/temp_hides_fun.html

Bella
Friday, October 31, 2003

rz: reading million dollar consulting now.  Thanks a lot.

Bella: there's too much truth behind that joke :-)

Everyone: thanks for your input, it's been invaluable.  And if you're looking for a good subconsultant, lemme know :-)

H. Lally Singh
Sunday, November 02, 2003

*  Recent Topics

*  Fog Creek Home