Guest Perspective: Be Your Own Boss as an Independent Consultant

by David Goldstein

Independent consulting has been my career choice for entrepreneurial rewards without all the risks of offering products.   As a “software guy” I couch this in terms of a software background, but everything mentioned can be applied to consulting in diverse fields, from finance to movie costuming.  I compare this career to two others’ of mine: software engineer and entrepreneur.  I discuss consulting in terms of expectations, realities and the skills needed.  Because consulting requires specialized expertise, this career may be your second or third job out of school, instead of your first.

What does an independent consultant do ?

I provide  contractual services to organizations independent of large consulting firms.  Both independent consultants and consulting organizations charge a premium for their services – but independent consultants are their own boss, keep more of the fees they generate and “wear many hats.”  One of the greatest advantages that I have found is your clients can be all over the country, from Richmond, VA to Oakland, CA. I have consulted for many organizations in the Fortune 500.  The key is to be aware that engagements can end at any time; this is a high-risk, high reward career path.

What does it take to be an independent consultant?

The key elements are expertise, professionalism and business savvy.  Your expertise determines what the client would pay, your professionalism keeps engagements going, and your business savvy affects the percentage of that amount you keep.

My expertise comes from a computer science Ph.D.  Each client – as well as hobbies, volunteer work and other endeavors – also provide valuable expertise.  For example, working at Freddie Mac provides credibility in the mortgage business.  Expertise within a field can be as valuable technical skills.

Business skills are important for anyone but are essential for consultants.  Everyone should be able communicate with executives, speak publicly, and write well. Consultant’s skills also include entrepreneurial skills to acquire and manage business, such as contract writing, accounting, marketing, and negotiating.

What are the rewards of independent consulting?

Consulting can offer a great salary, which should be a part of any high-risk career path. Robert Half’s “Salary Guide 2011” gives the median income for a software engineer at $92,750 per year.  A staff consultant’s corresponding income is $75,500 and a senior consultant’s is $99,250.  As a consultant with specialized skills in (1) Business Process Modeling and (2) Business Rules Management Systems I have always billed at several times these salaries.

All of these characteristics are applicable to consultants in other fields.  For example, my friends in finance report that consulting rates as independent consultants range from $150/hr to $1000/hr.

Consulting also offers frequent change, which exposes you to a lot of people and businesses.  I’ve met people from around the country.  I understand many industries well; I could pursue a career in banking, insurance or other client fields if need be.

Independent consulting also hones many entrepreneurial skills.  My small software firm sold its products in the U.S. and abroad, but being a consultant has taught me a lot about building software and businesses.  Consultants see numerous firms create, sell and service products.  Thousands of things can destroy a company: learning from other’s errors is important for building a company that makes products, instead of mistakes.

What challenges independent consultants?

An independent consultant trades many things  for increased income.  Some of these factors include:

  • Travel: Many students relish the thought of travel.  However, most consultants would prefer to see their bedroom and spouses on weekends instead of hotel rooms and co-workers.
  • Stability: Independent consulting is very susceptible to economic trends.  Consultants can find it difficult to get their desired rate.  Most contracts are also “at will”, whereby either party can end an engagement at any time: bad corporate news, office politics, leadership changes, etc. can end an engagement.  Traditional consulting firms allot overhead for non-contract time and independent consultants should have a “rainy day” fund.
  • Bureaucracy: Every company has policies and systems for accomplishing mundane tasks, such as time tracking and purchasing.  While employees learn such policies and systems once, a consultant may need to learn many such systems each year.  Similarly, when working through third parties consultants may have to deal with extra levels of paperwork.  Even simply getting a client may involve dozens or hundreds of pages of documentation.

These three factors mean consultants need patience and self-confidence to overcome being on the road, worrying about engagements, and dealing with bureaucracy.

Independent consulting is a good high-risk, high-reward career path for many individuals. All consulting practices involve travel, flexibility, and workplace variety.  Working independently offers more compensation at the cost of stability, bureaucracy and other factors.  Bright, savvy professionals often choose independent consulting for its entrepreneurial feel and high income.


About the author:

David Goldstein received his M.S.E. from University of Pennsylvania and his Ph.D. from the University of Texas – Arlington.  He was a professor at several universities, most notably North Carolina A&T State University.  He has run several small businesses and is currently an independent consultant.  He specializes in building large financial systems using Business Rules Management Systems and Business Process Management tools. David serves as the associate director of Penn’s SEAS alumni board.


A Day in the Life: Consulting

Sara Fleisher
Sara Fleisher

Read Sara Fleisher’s archived tweet feed here:

A popular career of interest here at Penn is consulting.  Tuesday, September 21st is your chance to learn more about life as an Associate Consultant when Sara Fleisher, WH ’09, tweets for @PennCareerDay.

Sara Fleisher has been working at Rosetta, an interactive agency located in Manhattan, as an Associate Consultant since August 2009. In her first year at Rosetta, Sara has worked with two clients on several different projects. The first client is a major international Pharmaceutical company based out of Asia and the second is a large Canadian telecommunications company. Her projects to date have included performing qualitative and quantitative research in the United States and in Canada. Additionally, at Rosetta, she is involved with the Charity Team, Culture and Engagement Social Team, college recruiting, and currently ranked number two in ping pong at the New York office. Sara earned her B.S. in Economics from the Wharton School in May 2009, with concentrations in Marketing and Management. While at Wharton, she was President of the Wharton Retail Club her senior year and also worked at the Daily Pennsylvanian for two years in the Marketing and Production departments.

The Back-and-Forth of Transferable Skills

One of the things we constantly emphasize at Career Services is how you can ‘transfer’ the skills you’ve learned during your academic career to a job in industry or consulting. I recently heard from a PhD in Biochemistry who just accepted an academic position at a Florida University that the ‘transfer’ can sometimes go the other way.
In his email, he emphasized that what made the most impact on his selection committee was what he’d said in his “Statement of Teaching Philosophy” about how to get his students to approach a research problem. Instead of using a piece of academic research to illustrate this, however, he’d used something straight out of a workshop I’d led on ‘Managing the Non-Academic Interview”—how to answer an off-the-wall quantitative question like, “How heavy is a Boeing 707?”
First, he emphasized that the wrong thing to do would be to try to come up with the ‘right’ answer, as students might be tempted to do if they were facing an academic advisor or dissertation committee. Instead, he went into some detail about how the question should be clarified (“Before or after a flight?”, “With passengers or without?” etc.) and then separated into component parts, (“Let’s see…a Boeing 707 probably has 30 rows of seats, with 6 people in each row, except for first class…6 rows of 4 seats, so that’s 24 + 144…160 passengers with an average weight of let’s say 150 pounds, and average baggage of 25 pounds, so 175 x 160 equals 28,000 pounds. Then the plane itself is pretty light—less than what a car would be per passenger—let’s say 1000 pounds for 4 passengers, or 40,000 pounds for all of them. Then a gallon of fuel is lighter than a gallon of water, and that weighs about 8 pounds, so let’s say 6 pounds x 1000 gallons…”) You get the idea.
What made this so appealing to the selection committee was that it closely matched the spirit of inquiry and cross-disciplinary thinking that were fundamental components of the University’s mission. The ‘thinking-out-loud’ aspect of the description triggered a lively discussion of the candidate’s interview, and gave him much more of a chance to display his teaching style and techniques than any discussion of his own research might have done.
So the next time you’re in a Career Services workshop on the Non-Academic Job Search, keep your eyes open for something that might be useful on the academic side as well!

CareerCast: Finding a Consulting Internship

by Jaclyn Chen (W ’12) & Angie Luo (C ’11)

Introducing our first of many industry-specific videos!

As work-study students in Career Services, we were given the project to interview Penn students about their internships in certain industries: consulting, finance, public sector, and communications (we’ll be expanding to more industries in the future).  We asked different questions about how they found their internship, what their responsibilities were, what they learned, what skills they used, etc.  We tried to ask the kinds of questions we have ourselves about the internship process and we hope you find their answers as enlightening as we did.

The response we got was great, and we’ve started to compile the videos by industry and then by question. Here’s the first one:  “Consulting: Finding an Internship”

Enjoy – and let us know if there’s a specific industry you’d like to see explored in the future!

Want to watch on your mobile device? Click here!