Thoughts On Working As A Consultant For A VAR

One of the questions I’m frequently asked via e-mail is how to get started in networking and/or whether or not a particular job change is a good idea. Those are always hard questions to answer intelligently because everyone’s individual situation is different. In addition, everyone’s personality is different. Different jobs work for different people. It just depends on what you’re up for.

I’ve had jobs in several different kinds of organizations over the years: state government, higher education, a technology firm, and even a VAR. (Actually, the same VAR, but on three different occasions with other gigs in between. It didn’t end well. No, I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s just say they still owe me money.) I might talk about these other environments in turn, but I want to take a look at what it’s like working as a consultant for a value added reseller, at least from my own experience.

Highest on my list of things to understand about working for a VAR as a consultant is that it’s definitely not for everyone. If you’re used to working on a single network with a limited number of changes, well…working as a consultant is not like that.

  • You’re supposed to know everything. The idea is that when you walk into a customer site, you’re the technical authority on pretty much anything and everything. If you show up at a smaller company, this isn’t too challenging of an expectation to live up to, as their in-house competence is probably low. They’re there to run a business, not build a network. That’s why they need you. Now, if you’re walking into a larger firm that needs some folks to temporarily augment staff, you’re expected to be a hot shot. Uh, no pressure. No matter who the customer, you’ll need to get good at saying, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I will find out for you!” The fact is that no matter how good you are, there will be things you don’t know. Being able to gracefully admit it without looking like a tool is the key.
  • You’re a commodity. As a consultant, your company makes money off of the hours you bill at a customer site doing work. Therefore, they want you billing as many hours as possible. Generally speaking, your billable time will be in the form of projects with a defined scope of work written into a contract, break/fix where the customer has bought time from your firm to do work as needed, and general consultation where the customer calls you for advice on a given situation. There is pressure on you to bill. There is pressure on you to uncover additional opportunities to bill. You have to be self-motivated to keep the hours going sometimes. And if the hours aren’t coming, that’s a sign that something is probably wrong. Either the sales are drying up for the firm in general, or you aren’t salable. Bad spot to be in if you’re a person who gets stressed out about such things. But more to the point is that *you* are part of what your firm is selling. Your ego might find that weird. Or wonderful.
  • You see something new every day. Depending on your point of view, this is either a dream come true, or a waking nightmare. If you thrive on fresh challenges, weird (awesome!) problems, vendor changes to their products, unusual (i.e. totally screwed up) configurations you inherit from some incompetent boob, unpredictable product sets, and business owner cluelessness about their own IT processes, then hey – you’re in luck. Consulting might be your gig. But if you get stressed out in unpredictable situations, consulting might be a tough slog for you after a while. For me personally, I want to get back into consulting eventually. Not now. I know the stress of consulting does take a toll. For that reason, I’m sticking with jobs that are a little more predictable so that my family can have as much of me as they need without me always being on the ragged edge of sanity because I’m supporting customer projects that are insane.
  • You’ll sacrifice your body if you’re not careful. Assuming you’re a successful consultant, over time you’ll build up a good reputation and trust with your firm’s regular customers. You won’t have to think much about your billable time, because you’ll be booked weeks or even months out. You’ll have a ton of work to crank out, sometime against difficult deadlines or in the face of unexpected circumstances. Go to the gym? What’s this “gym” of which you speak? Eat healthy? I’m stressed. I want a burger…with extra cheese…and yeah, throw the bacon on there, too. And yes, I *would* like to add an apple pie to my order for only fifty cents, thanks for asking. A year of this behavior, and you’ll pack on the weight. Living that way takes a heavy toll. And if you drink and/or smoke with any frequency, you could really be putting yourself into harm’s way. Clearly, being a consultant doesn’t require this sort of bad behavior. But for many I’ve known personally (and for me myself), food becomes a stress-coping mechanism. You eat because you’re facing a steady stream of challenges. You want to bill your time. You want to please your boss. You want to please your customer. You want that upgrade to go smoothly. You want to pass that certification exam. (SEGUE!)
  • You’re gonna know your local testing center well. A big part of being a VAR is the relationship your firm has with vendors like Cisco, Juniper, HP, F5, etc. The higher the number of certified hot shots your firm has on board that can install a vendor solution, then the more attention your firm will get from that vendor. That attention might come in the form of training, advanced briefings, deeper discounts, or being brought into customer sales opportunities. Therefore, you’ll have a never-ending pressure to obtain certifications and remain certified. If your company is difficult about comping you for exams, this can be frustrating. Certification exams are difficult, and the likelihood is that you’re going to fail any number of them along the way. If you only get comped when you pass, that’s hard, especially when you’re on a budget. Now, this might be no big deal if you just love tearing into exams and certing up. I know people like that. But if you agonize over each and every exam, this aspect of the job can keep you up at night.
  • On the plus side, you’ll learn a lot in a hurry. There is *nothing* like consulting to expose you to new technology. If you love new stuff, squeal at bigger & badder toys showing up on the dock, and live for the vendor’s next release, then working for a VAR is an endless supply of technology narcotic you can mainline to your brain stem. You’ll learn and learn and learn. If that’s your thing, then consulting is probably the best place for you. In a consulting role, you won’t have any choice but to learn.

I suspect the tone of this post sounds a little negative. I don’t quite mean for it to. What I’m trying to do is point out some very good reasons why you might *not* want to work for a VAR as a consultant. If your personality is suited for it and you’re in the right place in life, nothing else will suit you. But if you find the negatives off-putting, then you probably need to stay away. Consulting is a really demanding role, especially if you’re trying to be good at it.

There’s more I could have gotten into. Things like internal politics – who’s gonna get assigned to that awesome project? Non-compete clauses. The massive amount of competition in the VAR space. The fickleness of customers. The ridiculous demands of customers, especially the ones who want everything for free. The frustrations of expense accounts and not being reimbursed like you ought. What working for a small business (which many VARs are) can bring if the business owner is a selfish, cheating, lying, thieving so-and-so who would probably end up in jail if the right group of customers and ex-employees got together and compared notes. (Oh, uh…I wrote that down…sorry. Some wounds never quite heal right.)

A lot of you that follow this blog consult. Please feel free to agree/disagree in the comments. What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking of the consulting life?

Ethan Banks
Ethan Banks, CCIE #20655, has been managing networks for higher ed, government, financials and high tech since 1995. Ethan co-hosts the Packet Pushers Podcast, which has seen over 2M downloads and reaches over 10K listeners. With whatever time is left, Ethan writes for fun & profit, studies for certifications, and enjoys science fiction. @ecbanks
Ethan Banks
Ethan Banks
  • will

    it’s interesting to hear other people’s stories about VARs. I work for one and its almost completely the opposite (in terms of your negatives) — they encourage and pay for training, we are almost completely project-based vs hourly-based, and usually its a great place to work — busy, but fun. But then again, we don’t sell Cisco :)

    • Paul A. Leroux

      yes, hourly based deliverables is a nightmare. My VAR tires to avoid that kind of work at all costs unless the customer is animate. Project based deliverables with a clearly written SoW is the best way to go.

  • http://twitter.com/maeltor Josh

    Agreed. Really depends on who you work for. Some var’s treat their engineers like meat and thus roll through them. Mine generally treats us really well and most stay a LONG time.

  • Magnus-troy

    Wowch, thanx for sharing! Currently i work for VAR and agree with all you mentioned (of course, i’m on this var side and theese negatives work well for me)) In fact it’s a great area for many talented specialists who can speak business language, i really found a new great interesting world here, got several new certs from different vendors. The main bullet in a head for me is a “new awesome technology that completely changes a paradigm”. Currently i’m trying to get into DCB, FCoE, OpenFlow, kicking-and-screaming at myself and not shure that it will be easy.

  • Mike McBride

    I wanted to give the sales world a ride so I worked as an SE for a large VAR for about 5 months. They treated me well. I learned a TON and had vendors contacting me all the time to get their free trainings/certifications. We relied a lot upon consultants, kept them fairly busy and they had the luxury of only being called upon for their specialty. If they were a wifi specialist they didn’t have to sweat over a WAN optimization customer meeting. I realized it wasn’t something I wanted to do long term, so moved on, but I think the key is choosing the right VAR for a good long term consulting gig. Maybe the key is to work for one of the top 100 VARs.

  • James Small

    LOL – that’s a pretty good synopsis Ethan. But not all VARs are bad. I’ve worked at several and the one I’m at now is great – they pay for all certs/training and are very supportive. You definitely have to be careful with the smaller ones though – some are great, some are frightening. I would say if you’re thinking about consulting you should thrive on and love to learn, be a hard worker (for 40 hour weeks look elsewhere), and be good at winning people over.

  • http://twitter.com/SomeClown Teren

    After having spent the better part of 12 years at two VARs, then moving back into an in-house enterprise role for the past 7, the old adage of the greener grass applies here. I recently wrote about this myself, as the internal politics, meetings, and slow pace of change can quickly spiral into frustration and boredom if you only ever see one network. I made the move *out* of the VAR world specifically so that I could make my mark on one network; finally do everything the “right” way; rebuild from scratch. I eventually have (mostly) but the pace was much slower than I anticipated, and the slow adoption of new technologies is sometimes soul-sucking. Oh, and did I mention that you are essentially a 24-hour on-call engineer if you happen to be the guy with the answers? That all said, I’ve seen it from both sides and I think you’re exactly dead-on in that it depends largely on your personality and what makes you thrive.

  • Paul A. Leroux

    I had an in-house networking job for a large federal department for 10 years. I left that cozzy union based job two years ago for to work at a VAR and I have had no regrets.

    the one thing that a VAR consultant needs to have is thick skin. I could have never anticipated how many buses I had to pull myself from under, grenades I had to jump on, and swords I had to fall on. If you expose too many issues with the customer’s network you are usually the one to get the brunt of it. Messenger always gets killed. Luckily I work for a great VAR that always has my back.

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