After many years at a job, many people are finding themselves suddenly unemployed. On top of that, finding a new job is becoming increasingly hard. If they're trained in a specific area and have a a lot of experience to back them up, this might be the right time to turn unemployment into a small business. Consulting allows professionals to offer their skills to someone in need, for a price.
Then there is TechProse. They willingly work to connect independent consultants within their system with businesses that need their expertise. It is their business to help other companies fill their consulting needs in a variety of areas, including technical documentation, communications, instructional design and training, and organizational change management. By using independent contractors, they create a win-win situation for both parties, the company in need of help and the consultant looking for some work.
To help answer a few questions about the company and the consultant opportunity, Steven Laine, the President of TechProse, was kind enough to take the time and respond to a few questions.
Who was the founder of TechProse? What was their inspiration for launching the company?
Meryl Natchez started the company 26 years ago in order to feed her kids, the traditional story. Meryl was a technical writer herself and a good one. I don’t think she originally thought of herself as an entrepreneur or even knew that she was one. She started as a single independent consultant doing projects for Tandem (remember Tandem computers?) and did so well that she had more work than she could handle herself. Those were times when she never said no to any request for help. (Hmmm, some things never seem to change.) Meryl always focused on helping clients integrate technology with the way people did their jobs so that meant technical manuals, online help, training, etc. As the technology and tools of the trade improved, the manner in which deliverables could be created and delivered also improved and became more effective.
How has it grown since 1982? What are some of the biggest changes it has seen?
After a slow start in the early days we hit our stride and added clients and consultants, products and infrastructure. The last 10+ years have been good for the company. We rode the Y2K and dot com mega-growth periods to new levels of success, and then saw an ebbing in the crash. We were able to maintain the basic structure of the organization in spite of the economic contraction in the early ‘90’s. We remained committed to our niche specialty of documentation and training and added organizational change management, a complementary offering that continued our focus on helping our clients navigate change. Last year we were recognized as among the fastest growing privately held companies in the East Bat and in the San Francisco Bay Area over the previous 3 years.
The biggest change of late is the formation of an ESOP, an Employee Stock Ownership Plan that allows the employees who help the company succeed to, in effect, buy the company with profits that they helped generate. The employees are now the owners and it shows in the way we operate. All eligible employees, including consultants, participate. This structure provides real long-term benefits to participants while incenting employees to really own each interaction with the public.
How does an independent consultant apply with your company?
We know a lot of consultants. Most of the independent consultants we work with have been with us for many years, on a wide variety of projects. We are always adding to our team, but ultimately, we are a consulting company and not an employment agency. We won’t be able to find everyone a project. We’ll certainly do our best to help out though, by suggesting alternative approaches, networking events or other companies that may lead a consultant to an engagement. Even when times are not as tough as they are right now we’ll do our best to help someone find a gig. There are a number of ways to meet us:
- Have someone we already know and work with introduce you to us; a referral from a known resource gives us a lot of confidence and comfort when we start a new relationship with a consultant.
- Meet us at various networking events we attend or present at like STC, IABC, ASTD, PMI and others.
- Check out our website (www.techprose.com) and look at the projects we are recruiting for — email your targeted resume in response.
I suggest you make yourself stand out form the typical applicant who sends a generic resume to us. If there is a specific project you are interested in getting involved with, make sure your resume reflects experiences that map directly and clearly to the needs of the project. Add a brief cover letter or email that highlights your interest, qualifications and experience.
What qualifications are you looking for in a potential consultant?
Skills and Professionalism.
1. Skills include a number of factors:
a. Functional expertise — our projects require expertise in technical writing, training development and delivery, instructional design, organizational development and change management, communications, project management, graphics. We work with people who have done it before, in large corporate environments, and probably for a variety of companies, industries and projects
b. Years of experience —we need consultants who are at least mid-level practitioners and more frequently are considered senior to expert level. This translates to a minimum of 5-7 years of experience with our typical consultant having 10 to 20+ years.
c. Subject matter expertise - our projects are mainly in the High Technology, Bio-Medical, Financial Services, Government/Transit and Retail sectors. Experience in those sectors with brand name players is always a plus and sometimes required.
d. Specific Tools — Much of our work takes place in your brain but projects ultimately need to be delivered in a variety of formats using tools that fit the client’s needs. We are deliberately tool agnostic so we can flex into a clients environment or make truly objective recommendations. Common tools we use include MS Word, PowerPoint, Visio and Project, Adobe FrameMaker, Articulate, Captivate, Flash, XML, HTML and a variety of Distance Learning packages, and LMS and LCMS’s.
2. Professionalism is frequently thought of as a secondary factor — look where I put it on this list — but in my experience the consultants’ professionalism, style, attitude and demeanor account for at least half of their success in initially connecting with us and our client to begin a project, and more than half of the success when the project is underway. As a consultant, you must be able to fit comfortably with a wide variety of personalities and business cultures. Be able to listen, analyze and recommend. Be diplomatic and consultative, not domineering and inflexible. Understand the difference between how a consultant should conduct themselves compared to how an employee acts. Ironically, where we have found that people lacking a specific technical tool can frequently pick it up, professional social skills are much more deeply ingrained and harder to change or evolve.
What are the benefits of contract consultants over employees?
A corporation should be using both employees and contract consultants, in the right mix, on the right projects.
Consultants bring targeted skills and expertise to a specific project or problem, get it addressed, provide the necessary knowledge transfer to your staff, and leave.
Consultants allow a corporation to gain immediate access to skills that don’t have, or don’t have enough of.
Consultants are ideal for one time or special projects that have a beginning and end; bring in a team, do the work, and watch them leave when the work is done. Employees cannot (or should not) be hired and released without causing a lot of direct expense for severance plus indirect costs related to morale and reputation damage, lawsuits and other costs created when FTEs are treated as if they were disposable. FTEs have an expectation that longevity is part of the deal. Variety and limited duration projects are normal to a consultant.
And during rough economic times (look out the window and there they are) consultants are the ideal way to continue to get work done with fewer FTEs at hand while only paying for the resources while they are needed. We are seeing a lot of interest now as companies need help but can’t or won’t hire FTEs.
Those are some of the obvious benefits of working with contract consultants. I’ve also seen unexpected benefits arise from bringing in an outsider who has a broad perspective on how to solve your problems. Employees may not be able to see what a newcomer will find apparent. Consultants can diplomatically raise issues that may be difficult or sensitive for an employee to bring up. We have also been able to ‘cross silo’s’ where we are doing several engagements in different groups or departments within the same company. We can cross pollinate ideas from one area to another; many times doing so where there would otherwise be no natural communication across those groups. Other benefits include letting one client manager know that we’ve already done 80% of what they need elsewhere in their company, and by TechProse doing the introductions they get what they need faster and for drastically less money than building the deliverable from scratch. These benefits are more prevalent with clients who view the use of consultants as part of their strategic arsenal, rather than solely a procurement decision where success is measured by the lowest unit cost basis, a short sighted approach that leaves value on the table when using consultants.
What goals do you hope to reach over the next year? Any plans, big or small, that you hope to implement?
Given the economic news we’ve been reading on a regular basis, our big goal is to survive without laying off anyone on the team while we continue to provide excellent support and value to our clients and consultants.
We are still cautiously optimistic about 2009. We are focused on enhancing our Practice model which focuses on these areas:
- Learning (includes e-learning)
- Technical Publications
- Change Management and Communications
- Enterprise Software
- Project Management
- TechProse University
- Transit (as an industry practice)
Through your time and experience with TechProse, what have you learned?
- Don’t focus on the technology; focus on the people.
- The joy of the job is in the variety and the impact on our clients and our consultants lives; not the process behind assembling teams of experts.
- People thrive when given support, direction and encouragement. Micromanagement kills the fun and the creativity.
- Be a consultant and have an opinion; clients need us to be an expert in our business so they can focus on theirs.
- Know a little bit about a lot of subjects and look for the connections between them. My ‘Shallow but diverse’ philosophy leads to some great results when you have a team around you to execute and keep you on track.
What last piece of advice do you have for someone interested in becoming a consultant with your company?
Be patient. Be a partner. Communicate with us. Ask questions, ask for help, and keep us in the know. Use us as a resource. Do all of that and we will all benefit.