Matt Gemmell

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work & consulting 14 min read

I recently wrote an article about my seven and a half years of experience in working from home full-time, which seemed to strike a chord - it’s been read by more than 80,000 people so far, and extensively linked to.

The one aspect of my situation that I didn’t specifically talk about was the nature of my work. I’ve made a change of career this year, but for the seven years ending last December, I was a consultant software engineer and user experience designer.

I learned many lessons (some of them the hard way) about what goes into being a consultant, and I’d like to share my thoughts on that topic.

Many people consider throwing off the yoke of employment, and becoming a consultant. If you’re one of them, good for you. There are many benefits.

But there’s also a cost: the standards are higher. You’re charging more money (yes, you are), and you’re being brought in instead of using someone in-house, so you have to be very special indeed.

To be a consultant, you both need to refine existing skills and probably acquire a few new ones. You’ll be involved in situations, and have to make types of decisions, that you didn’t as an employee. You’ll be handling the business side of things, for example, and there will be different expectations placed upon you. It’s those new skills and expectations that I want to focus on.

Most of what I’m going to talk about also applies to effective, modern team-members, as well as consultants proper (and running your own business generally). My own experience is from the software development world, but this article isn’t specific to the technology industry.


The biggest ongoing challenge you’ll probably face as a consultant is managing your communication with clients. There are two sides to communication: yours, and the other person’s. On your side, you have a few things to pay attention to:

  • Conveying meaning in a capable, efficient and accurate way. Business writing, which is a kind of directed terseness, is a skill you need to learn. Know what you need to say, and say it without waffling. Be specific. Make recommendations; don’t just offer options alone.

  • Making a positive impression. No matter what service you provide, the one job we all have is professional communication. Spelling, grammar, punctuation and accuracy are crucial. You’re the face of your business, and your credibility will initially hinge on the impression you give, long before your work is judged.

  • Being able to respond coherently when questioned. Preparation is essential, for clarifications and follow-up questions. If you don’t know enough about something to give an unscripted, knowledgeable response, don’t bring it up. Correspondingly, if you are asked something you’re unsure about, say so immediately, and promise to obtain an answer.

  • Maintaining the same standard of communication whether talking or writing. There shouldn’t be a substantial difference in style or tone between your phone calls and emails. Each should be tailored to the relationship you have with the client, but they should be consistent. It’s amazing how many people I’ve worked with who get immediately ultra-casual on the phone, but write emails as if they were part of a legal document.

When handling communication from others, your main challenges will be:

  • Reading for understanding. Everything is written by someone, and everyone has a motive and a context. Client briefs are notoriously vague, ambiguous, incomplete and inconsistent, because they’re written by humans. I always approach documents as the output of people, rather than as artefacts. With a bit of empathy and intuition, it’s possible to glean useful insight even if information is sparse.

  • Dealing with ambiguous statements. Ask for clarification, every time. Resist the temptation to nod sagely and say “No problem”, because that helps no-one (least of all you). The only situation in which you won’t need to ask for clarification is when you both completely understand what the client said, and you’re completely confident of your own interpretation of its meaning. That will almost never be true without a few rounds of questions.

  • Identifying and questioning assumptions. People make assumptions implicitly, because we find it difficult to remember that others don’t have access to our own inner world. We also make assumptions due to our lack of awareness of consequences and complexities. As a consultant, it’s your job to be on top of those things, and to raise awareness of issues. With practice, you’ll start to hear the phraseology that usually accompanies assumptions: it’s stuff like “then we’ll just”, or “then they will”, and “it’s only”, and words like “simple” and “straightforward”. Those are all red flags, and indicate the need for questions.

  • Identifying goals and problems. Most clients don’t have a clear goal in mind. They know they want something, and they know that they want you to provide it. They rarely have any concrete idea of how they want you to get there - and that’s fine, because finding the goal is the first part of your job. You will never, ever be given a ready-made goal that’s usefully specific. I always handled this by asking the golden question: “What do you want to achieve?”. It’s incredibly useful, because it removes the burden of planning and definitiveness that would come from asking something like “What do you want me to do?” - nobody has a useful answer to that one. By instead asking what the client wants to achieve, you allow them to think about the problem in their own terms, and allow you to do your job.

  • Handling the very many people who feel the need to talk, even if they have nothing definitive or meaningful to convey. This is a social balancing act, and you’ll do it with practically every client you encounter. Some people do it from feeling they need to provide direction in order to justify the cost, but the vast majority of people do it from insecurity. You can short-circuit this by asking questions that can only be answered unambiguously. Start with small, simple questions, and work your way up towards the fundamental issues.

Be a professional

Being a consultant isn’t the same as just doing the work as an employee; it’s at least two or three or four more jobs on top. The primary difference is that your responsibilities multiply overnight, and you have to do due diligence to each of them. Everything is now your problem, and the only way to keep abreast of things is to take it all seriously.

Here are some of the things that are now your problem, and require immediate and constant attention:

  • Having well-maintained, fully functional hardware at all times. You’ll also need redundant hardware that’s ready to go at a moment’s notice.

  • Keeping everything secure. You almost certainly have client data on your machine, so it needs to be (automatically) locked down, encrypted, and fully backed up at all times. You will never leave it on the bus.

  • Backups. You will never, ever lose data due to a lack of backups. You will have multiple, off-site backups and the ability to restore a working configuration within half a day, in the worst case. You won’t work on documents for more than a minute or two without saving. If you fall foul of any of these, your credibility evaporates instantly.

  • You will be reachable, and you’ll respond in a timely manner - within the boundaries of not allowing clients to abuse your responsiveness.

  • Above all, you will insist that others be professionals too. It’s a failure of your own professional diligence if you allow sabotaging behaviour on the client’s part to go unchallenged. Clients are their own worst enemies, and it’s absolutely your job to identify and change those situations, as they pertain to your work.

Protect yourself

Being an employee carries a lot of benefits that we aren’t always aware of, and you’ll need to replicate those protections for yourself before you get going. A few things to put on the to-do list are:

  • Handling taxes. Get yourself an accountant, and ensure that everything is up to date - particularly your government’s understanding of your work situation.

  • Liability. Look into limited liability, and discuss it with your accountant.

  • Consult a professional to determine how your employment status will affect life decisions. Notably, self-employment will have an impact on mortgage applications and such, requiring a more extensive income history.

  • Obtain professional indemnity insurance that’s appropriate to your line of work. There may also be relevant industry bodies you may want to join for that purpose.

  • Obtain income protection insurance, in the event of illness or other circumstances preventing you from working for a period.

  • If you’re in a country without socialised healthcare, you’ll obviously want to look into obtaining health insurance.

  • In every case, check your client contracts carefully. Employ the services of a contract law specialist, to ensure you’re protected. Query anything you’re not completely comfortable with.

Respect yourself

As a consultant, you’ll probably start out hungry for work, and grateful when it arrives. Those are both healthy feelings, but they have to be managed, because they can become damaging. It’s important to set expectations on the client’s part that will help you to stay in business.

  • Raise your rates. You’re almost certainly not charging enough money, particularly given the vastly increased demands on your time compared to being an employee. If you’re not getting pushback on your rates, they’re too low. Add fifty percent for the next client, then reassess. Raise them annually regardless of other factors.

  • Get paid. Set clear payment deadlines, and chase payment on the following day. I rarely had any trouble, but my formula for late payments was to send a gentle reminder the following day, then a stern reminder one week later, and then (as appropriate, depending on previous responses) a lawyer’s letter one further week on. I’d also advise breaking projects into milestones, not just for deliverables but also for payment. Ensure that the payment schedule is in the contract too; not just part of your invoices.

  • Demand respect. You don’t have to kiss ass, and it’s better if you don’t. Be respected and valued, or be elsewhere. You’ll very quickly get a feel for any personality clashes during the initial approach and negotiation with a client; take any warning signs seriously. You can’t function effectively without mutual respect. Change clients instead.

  • Don’t get too comfortable. You don’t have to be the client’s friend, and it’s better if you aren’t. Be efficient, driven, and effective - then leave. You’ll almost certainly be consulting on an hourly or otherwise time-based rate, and you’re definitely being judged by your output: burning time on too much social lubrication is literally costing both you and the client money. You’re also damaging your ability to maintain the necessary detachment to give definitive, difficult answers with a weight that’s born of impartiality.

  • Eliminate dead weight. You’ll encounter resistant or lazy people amongst your client’s workforce, and they’re obstacles not only for their colleagues, but also (much more dangerously) for you. You aren’t constrained by the interpersonal difficulties of skirting around the issue, so go directly to the root of the problem. Identify, question and flag individuals who are a drag force on whatever you’re being paid to do. People do make mistakes and have bad days, but a two-strikes-and-you’re-out policy is sensible.

  • Don’t compromise on tools. Your living is based on the tools you use, and you’re charging the client for your productivity. Now isn’t the time for the crappy two-year-old laptop, or the good-enough chair (or bag, or pens, or whatever you use). Invest in yourself and in your business. If there’s a tool that costs a thousand dollars and will save you a day of time over the course of a few months or a year, it would be counterproductive not to acquire it. There are efficiencies and savings you can make in your business, but not by short-changing yourself on tools.

Manage your time

Consulting is death by a thousand cuts, in terms of your time. Emails, travel, video calls, phone calls, context switching, clarification, reporting, liaising… and a thousand other things. You are now the one setting your schedule and actively managing your projects and workload, so you need to get very serious about it, very quickly.

  • Get a tool, right now. You need time-tracking and task management: actual, dedicated software for both. It needs to be synced between all your devices, all the time. You need to know how to use it. You’re not just going to need it for invoicing and auditing purposes; you need it just to keep your head above water. If you’re on a Mac and/or iOS devices and need a recommendation, I’d point you to OmniFocus (and OmniPlan).

  • Have a routine. You can’t survive self-directed work without structure to your day. I wrote about this in my working from home piece too. Get into a regular sleep-wake pattern as quickly as you can, and don’t deviate. You need regular office hours, and a predictable energy pattern.

  • Having said that, serve your creativity, focus and energy level intelligently. Office workers probably never achieve optimum productivity precisely because there’s no flexibility available. As a consultant, your output efficiency is a critical measure of the health of your business. If you can recharge or make better progress by taking advantage of flexibility, it’s your duty to do so.

  • Play hard too. You’ll be working brutally hard; make no mistake about it. Hopefully, you feel energised by that fact. You also need to compensate by not working every bit as actively as you work. If you’re going to survive emotionally and psychologically, you have to become a professional at leisure and socialising too.

Be confident

You’re going to be paid substantial amounts of money in exchange for your unique expertise, which your client implicitly doesn’t have available in-house. If you’re going to make that work, you absolutely have to be confident. There are two different types of confidence, and they’re both important.

  • Know your stuff. Your diligence, background, research and preparation have to be above reproach. As a consultant, you’re not just the person who knows better, but also the one who did the most homework: about the problem area, the company, its products, and the people you’re meeting with. You need to walk in there like it’s your final exam. Confidence isn’t something to be faked. It’s a consequence of being better informed.

  • Confidence also means being honest, and being comfortable with that honesty. Nothing breeds respect more than someone who can (1) admit they don’t know something or were wrong about something, and (2) seem unfazed by the admission. Consulting is based largely on trust, and that means both in your knowledge and your boundaries.

Be a specialist

This is a lesson I learned from my friend (and fellow conference speaker) Marcus Zarra: be a subject matter expert. You can ask Marcus for his own specific thoughts on that, but for me it means a couple of things:

  • Don’t be a generalist. Anyone can do whatever it is that you do: write words, write code, make music… whatever it might be. So, do the thing that no-one else can do. Whether that means being the go-to girl for ARM compilers, or the one guy in the industry who can weave corporate microcopy into something to make the reader weep with admiration, find your niche. Expertise is your goal, not capability. Be the person they come to because you were the first and only one on the list; be the inevitable choice. When companies came to me for consulting work, it was because I was the guy for OS X and iOS custom GUI controls. I got to do the work I loved, and I was paid well for it.

  • Add value. No matter how much of a specialist you are, some of what you do could have been done by someone else - so be the whole package. “End-to-end insight” is a phrase I like to use. In my own work, the value I added to clients was the ability to discuss a project from the user perspective, and take that focus from brainstorming, to specification, through design, implementation, and documentation. I was a software engineer with one eye always on the human side, and I could communicate effectively across both of those (usually segregated) worlds. If you can add value in uncommon ways, you present a very strong value proposition to potential clients.

Be presentable

This is something that shouldn’t need to be said, but here it is: dress for respect, and for your paycheque. Consulting is based on selling yourself, and that very much includes a professional image. No-one is asking you to wear a tie (though, actually, there are some clients who will), but it’s probably time to put the ThinkGeek or Helvetica t-shirts aside.

This isn’t a question of social stratification, or of repression, or the establishment; it’s actually about you. You’re putting yourself forward as a professional product, and your clients will expect the packaging to match. Enough said.

Promote yourself

The worst part of any consulting career (except marketing, perhaps?) is having to solicit work, and it’s probably the part you’re most afraid of. Take a long-term approach, and start planning for it before making the jump.

  • Be interested, or get out. If you plan to consult within your industry, you’d better be enthusiastic about it. You should be writing about it, tweeting about it, reading about it, and you should most certainly have done the job.

  • Show your work. It astonishes me how many people fail to understand this simple concept. You can’t consult in the software industry without releasing source code. You can’t consult as a designer without having a portfolio. You can’t be a consultant copywriter without a blog or other public body of writing work. You can’t be a web designer without a web site. It seems straightforward, and it is.

  • Advertise. Literally announce that you’re available for consultation work. Approach clients. Be active in the community. Parlay relationships into work. If you’ve already shown an interest in your industry and been active in contributing, you may find this step easier than you think. When I made the jump to consulting, I already had hundreds of users of my open source code out there, tens of thousands of readers of my blog on software development and technology, and a batch of Twitter followers. I announced that I was going into business for myself, and Apple got in touch with me two days later. You can start planning for this right now.

Be afraid

Being a consultant is a frightening thing, I’ll readily admit. There’s a good dose of impostor syndrome to be conquered, on an ongoing basis - particular the first time you meet with a new client. Fear is a great motivator, and it also keeps you honest about your own abilities. However, you need to manage that natural response, so it doesn’t limit you.

Try to stay just a little afraid in everything you do. Make sure that you’re reaching. It drives your best work, and expands not only your confidence but also what you’re actually capable of.

Don’t ever be afraid to say no, but don’t ever say no just because you’re afraid.

You can do this

Consulting certainly isn’t for everyone, but it’s also for a different set of people than you probably think. It requires you to be good enough at something that you can come in and solve the problems clients can’t see a solution to; no question about that. But the real defining factor is whether you can do more than just the job itself.

Being a consultant is about diplomacy. It’s about being a fact-finder for the client’s issues, and an interpreter for their wishes and business goals, and a translator between the domain of a difficulty, and the necessary steps to solve it. It’s also always about being an ambassador for the real stakeholders, which are usually the customers.

That’s the part I always found most rewarding; that sense of the being the bridge that brought together more than one discipline, or introduced a different way of thinking, or drew the connecting line between a problem and the solution that was previously hidden.

It’s a challenging type of work to do, no matter what industry you’re in, but it’s also enormously rewarding to arrive to a problem, and then leave having fixed it, riding off into the sunset with 100% of the credit.

If you can be that bridge - that subject matter expert, and diplomat - and if you go into it with your eyes open, you’ll find it’s a type of work that can give an unmatched sense of achievement and personal satisfaction.

If you’re interested in discussing this further, you can find me on Twitter.

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