I participated in the Consulting Careers forum last night in Charlotte, NC at the WFU SsOB campus. It was a well-attended event with about 30 students and 6 panelists (5 alumni) representing other consulting companies such as The North Highland Company, Carlisle and Gallagher Consulting Group,  Techcheck Inc., and Mercer Health & Benefits. It was my first event as an Alumni (now 18 months out) so I was excited to get involved with the WFU community again.

Consulting companies at the WFU Alumni Event

Consulting Companies Represented at the WFU Event on June 10, 2011

I enjoyed the discussion. Mainly student Q&A, it covered questions on the typical consulting day (not that there it is such a thing), how to break into consulting, what industries are served by the consulting industry (essentially all of them), what skills are most valuable to be a good consultant, and the pros/cons of working for bigger vs. smaller firms. There were a few points that really stood out to me as being insightful from the other panelists. I’ll share them here.

First, on the topic of getting introduced to a consulting company, the point was made that it can be very helpful to make an informal introduction of yourself to the company. This can be done by leveraging whatever personal connections one might have with a company, alumni connections perhaps, to simply have lunch or coffee with a company rep which would hopefully give a sense of the culture/lifestyle that might be the norm at a given firm. Consulting is a field which relies on personal touches and comforts, and different firms will have different slants on these softer aspects of the work. The experience at Vision Point Systems, an example of a small boutique technology firm, is going to be much different than at a mega firm like Accenture.

Second, on the topic of what skills would stand out when applying for a consulting position, we all seemed to agree that the things that matter are not the things that come through on a resume. In fact, when discussing certifications such as PMI, or Six Sigma Black Belt, it was raised that these may not just simply be not valued or ignored, they can also become liabilities at certain firms, because of the potentially negative connotations that come along with them. (i.e. spreadsheet jockey)

The last major takeaway I had was on what the definition of “consulting” actually is. There were a few differing perspectives on the panel. Some were close to mine – a consulting is about problem solving end-to-end while leveraging expertise in a particular business aspect and/or industry. Others had the background of consulting being tied closer to sales. My point was that a true consultant differentiates themselves from an integrator, salesperson or technician by not only being an expert in a field or product, but by knowing how the immediate problem is impacting the overall business of the client. In my opinion, there is where the MBA really becomes valuable and why MBAs are so often associated with the consulting field

I look forward to continuing my involvement in the WFU Alumni community, and it was great to make connections with the students and other panelists in the Charlotte area.

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Here’s an actual transcription of a Voicemail message I received yesterday

Good Morning, Jim. My name is Matt. I’m calling from Northern Virginia. I had spoken with Kevin from the Fairfax office, and he directed me to you. I was referred to Vision Point a few weeks ago. It was actually regarding a couple questions that I had.  I wanted to follow up with the Blacksburg . He said that would probably help a little more versus the Fairfax office so if you can give me a call back, my number is…

Naturally, the suspense was killing me.

I called him back later that afternoon.

Matt: This is Matt.

Me: Hi, This is Jim, you left me a message. How can I help?

Matt: Oh, Hi Jim. Thanks for calling back. I had a few questions. I ran into Vision Point a few weeks ago at a networking event.

Me: I see. Are you wanting to buy something from us or are you trying to sell us something?

Matt: We’re a hosted Voice-Over-IP provider.

Me: I see. So do you do like SIP Trunks or a hosted PBX-type thing?

Matt: All of our data is in the cloud, on the same network as 80% of all the traffic on the east coast.

Me: I still don’t follow. What business problem of mine are you trying to solve?

Matt: Oh, you can have your phone system hosted by us, and if your building burns down, your phone system will still work.

Me: Ah, I get it.

Oh boy. What a disaster. We’re not in the market for that type of thing right now, so we agreed to part ways, but this was an eye-opening event. First, some people just shouldn’t be doing sales. Second, If you can’t just come out and say what you’re trying to sell and how it will help me, then your business has a problem.

My business isn’t the shining example of marketing brilliance (yet), but at least we don’t make cold calls. 2011 is a year of marketing focus for us, and this event is going to be in the back of my mind the whole time as we are formulating our pitch and sales process. We’ve got some exciting new stuff coming up. I apologize for my silence.

If you’re a Roanoker, you may have heard about the launch of RoanokeOutside.com. It’s been well publicized on Twitter, Facebook, and now some other media outlets such as Star City Harbinger and WSLS. Beth Doughty, Executive Director of the Roanoke Regional Partnership does a good job summarizing the site in their latest press release:

“Making the outdoors an important part of our region’s narrative starts with a comprehensive Web site that catalogues our natural resources and makes it easier for people all over the world to learn about and enjoy our region’s natural resources.”

My company, Vision Point Systems, is behind the development of this site. We have an interesting task ahead of us balancing the demand for an objective catalog of the region’s offerings with the desire to build a dynamic community of outdoor enthusiasts and casual participants. This is one of those instances where social media can seem like a buzzword. It’s tempting to decorate the page with Twitter feeds, Friendfeed streams, etc. There’s a real risk of getting too hung up on the social aspect and burying the real purpose of the site. There will be some much needed traditional web features such as a hiking trail database, links to local outfitters, events lists, and other guidance and tips. The last thing we want to happen is create a feeling of exclusivity because of a passionate core group of outdoor enthusiasts.

The great part about the process we’re going through is that we’ve launched the site as a completely temporary entity to act as a preview and feedback mechanism. We’ve got a clear deadline set for Sept 30 to get the real thing built and we’re thrilled about the buzz the site is getting so far.

The RoanokeOutside.com temporary page

The RoanokeOutside.com temporary page

I’d personally welcome feedback on this subject, but the best course of action is to take the survey on the site itself!

Roanoke Career Fair Report

January 1, 2009

Brian Alexander and I manned the booth for Vision Point Systems at yesterday’s 2008 Roanoke Holiday Career and Lifestyle Fair put together by the City of Roanoke and Stuart Mease. My takeaways from the event really boil down to the following:

  • The industry we are in – Software and Business Consulting – is definitely not a good representation of the general population
  • There is very little trained talent out there for software related work that don’t already have good jobs.
  • Yes, there are a lot of people who are jobless, but a large percentage of those people are nowhere near suited for anything resembling a professional career.

In all of the business association and groups I participate in, it’s always a common topic that recruiting for tech jobs is near impossible, especially in the Roanoke and New River Areas. Yesterday’s event did nothing to dispell this thought. The only attendees that had specific experience or training in computer related fields consisted of some computer/electrical engineers with specific experience on a narrow field, and at least one college student studying technical writing. The vast majority of people were noticeably intimidated and quickly ran away any time I mentioned “design specification”.

I don’t know how unique VPS’s position really is, but we’re getting ready to hire multiple people going into 2009. I know many other local tech companies are looking for similar recruits, as evidenced by the NCTC Job board. I think this again shows that there is a dearth of talent stateside, especially in this region. I hope that one of the result of the pending “correction” in the economy is to get our youth into programs in the universities that would be helpful to the NewVa Corridor Tech community.

My other point about the preparedness of population for work really centers around professionalism and, frankly, laziness. I know the lifestyle is different in the white-collar, shake-hands, business community I’m a part of, but even if I was interviewing to be part-time dishwasher at a famous fast food franchise, I still don’t think I’d meet with the hiring manager wearing a Nascar jacket and cut-off shorts. I’m embellishing a bit, but not much. I don’t know how things got this way, but you’ll never see the local news channels comment on the people who apparently seemed to show up to the fair expecting jobs to be handed to them.