Who needs a Linux consultant? As it turns out, lots of people. Consultants we interviewed for this article are providing a range of services, largely focused on small businesses and small to medium-sized ISPs. Their service portfolios include Web and database design, system administration, networking and systems implementation, and programming projects.
Linux consultants appeal on price, creativity, flexibility
Linux consultants fill a variety of roles: supplementing in-house IT staff during crunch times, augmenting the experience of in-house staff, completing custom programming tasks and offering small businesses a cost-effective way to stay technologically current.
"My business has not grown because I have positioned myself as a Linux consultant, but because I can frequently go into a bidding situation and do a project for 30 to 60 percent less than my Windows competitors," says Dale Laushman, principal of The Uptime Group, Inc., a consultancy focused on networking and systems. Laushman recounts a particularly memorable project in which he won a contract to replace La-Z-Boy Furniture Galleries' outdated frame relay network with a Linux-based system and commodity off-the-shelf PC components. With a competitor quoting $60,000 for a Cisco-powered network and T1 service, the advantages of Laushman's $20,000 open source system, which also enabled the compression of traffic between stores without additional hardware, were clear.
Linux consultants also win by helping clients get out of "fire extinguisher" mode and into the habit of preventing problems. Sean Reifschneider, co-founder of tummy.com, a Linux consultancy offering system administration, Python programming, and the custom KRUD Linux distribution among other services, sees one of his firm's roles as "instead of just reacting when there's a problem, trying to come up with appropriate countermeasures to ensure that either the problem doesn't happen again, or if it does the impact is reduced."
When called in by an ISP experiencing outages in the Ethernet connection on their main Cisco router, tummy.com was able to reduce the average network outage time from one hour to three minutes. During the several weeks it took for Cisco to fix the problem in its IOS code, this ISP experienced many fewer angry calls from its own clients than it would otherwise have.
Success demands technical, business, interpersonal skills
With Linux consultants reporting billings of $75 to $250 and up per hour, while working flexible schedules and freeing themselves from the strings of a large employer, consulting seems an appealing field to enter. At the same time, successful consultants stress that entrepreneurship requires a mix of skills that is often the opposite of what's appealing to a corporate employer.
Jeff Schroeder, a Linux consultant providing Web and database development, email and Web site hosting, and network services through his businesses neoBox, BitRelay, and Red Wire Networks, says," I might be the smartest geek around, but if my clients don't understand what I'm doing, it's a sure bet they won't come knocking when the next project arrives. In addition, almost everyone I deal with on a daily basis is non-technical." Schroeder goes on to stress that while running one's own business, or in his case, three businesses, is demanding, the variety and rewards often exceed his expectations as well. "My schedule is my own to command, and I take vacations or days off whenever I feel like I need a break. The industries in which I work -- natural foods, record labels, real estate, online sales, software, architecture, music groups, security, and design firms -- are quite diverse, which makes for a lot of exciting opportunities."
While a day's work for an in-house Linux specialist might consist largely of a single task such as writing code or doing system administration, Linux consultants multitask between technical work, project management, sales and marketing, accounting, collections, and customer relations. Falling short in any one of these areas can mean a loss of business. Laushman says, "The keys to running a successful consulting business are doing what you do well, but also meeting a customer's needs on time and on budget. Linux consulting is not just about the technology. If you don't have outstanding people skills, you need to find someone who does to represent you." In addition, the stakes in the consulting market are much higher than merely being passed over for a raise or promotion. As Reifschneider says, "At the large company, I watched while a few people around me worked hard and the rest mostly were waiting for retirement. When you're a one-man show, EVERYTHING depends on how well or how poorly you do your job, and I'm not just talking about the technical side."
Skills outside the technical realm are especially important, given that many Linux consultants find most of their clients through networking rather than advertising. In Reifschneider's case, "I found our first client at a local Linux Users Group meeting." Schroeder says, "Virtually all my projects come through word of mouth." Reifschneider also credits tummy.com's Web site and its large array of useful Linux-related content yielding "naturally" high search engine ratings.
Still, there is hope for those who aren't naturally gifted salespeople. In Laushman's case, he was fortunate enough to marry one of his former vendors in July 2003, and her sales, marketing, and technology experience resulted in doubling The Uptime Group's business in two months.
Advice on breaking into the field
While most Linux consultants report a steadily growing market for their services, it's important to consider practical factors before quitting your day job. Laushman recommends, "Do any work that is reference-able, even if it means not getting paid, like setting up a Linux server for your father's friend's small office. Call everyone you know and let them know what you are doing, and ask them for leads." As for financial planning, Reifschneider advises, "Figure on at least three months of living expenses to get started. That allows a month to get going, a month to do work, and a month before the payments for that work come in. For software, we've found that it takes about six months."
Is the effort required to break into the field worth it? All of the Linux consultants interviewed for this article would answer "yes," and many say that after cutting the corporate leash and tasting the freedom of working on rewarding projects, on their own schedules, from home or from the local coffee shop, they've never looked back. Schroeder encourages aspiring Linux consultants by saying, "I know that the market will only continue to grow. The most frequent need of my clients is for Web, file, mail, and database needs, but at the same time I push Linux desktop solutions because I feel they're finally becoming ready for prime time." Reifschneider says, "To quote Joseph Campbell, 'Follow your bliss.' Do something you enjoy doing and you'll do it better and enjoy it more."