Should Your Small Business Work with a Moonlighting IT Consultant?

by demtron on Monday, November 10, 2008 02:38 PM
Small businesses depend on numerous facets of technology to improve productivity, facilitate communication with clients and vendors, and promote their products.  For many business owners, hiring an outside consultant to handle web site design, web marketing, networking, software setup and telephone systems are a must.  Small businesses, in particular, often use moonlighting consultants to help them with their IT needs but may not consider the numerous pitfalls to such an arrangement.  How can one determine whether hiring a moonlighter is the right fit?

One of the greatest appeals is the consultant’s fees.  Many times, the consultant is employed elsewhere at a full-time job.  Since he doesn’t depend on the income from the sideline work, he can charge a lower rate than a full-time independent consultant.  Small businesses may find that a moonlighter charges fees of at least 30% less than full-timers – certainly worth considering, especially for a business with a tight budget or a long-term project.

What about the downsides?  Depending on the nature of the work and its time sensitivity, there could be a lot at stake.  Here are some of the questions that must be answered to make an informed decision.

On-site or off-site consulting?

Any work that can be done off-site is a better fit for a moonlighter.  Web design and custom programming are good fits for off-site work.  Remote connectivity tools such as Terminal Services, PC Anywhere, and VNC can allow a consultant to access resources while off-site.  Also, the consultant may prefer to use his own tools and equipment and may be more productive if working in his own environment.

Networking, computer setup and maintenance of other office equipment usually requires on-site work.  If the consultant has a full-time job during regular working hours, he may need access to the office environment after-hours.  Are you willing to give him keys and access codes to allow him to work alone?  If not, are you willing to stay at the office after-hours for as long as he’s there and during the times that he’s available?

How Long Can You Wait for Help?

A part-time moonlighter will likely be available when his time permits.  IT professionals are often required to work 45 to 50 hours per week or more, be available on-call during evenings and weekends, and handle maintenance tasks during late hours.  Juggling these demands with a family and personal schedule can be a big chore, especially for staff that supports mission-critical applications and services.

One of the biggest concerns I hear working out in field is moonlighters who can’t help their clients in a timely manner.  Problems don’t just happen after hours – from my experience, they tend to happen at the worst times right in the middle of a big project with a looming deadline.  Depending on the nature of the consultant’s full-time job, he may not be available to help you when you need it, even by phone.  If his day job is as a consultant for a consulting company, he may risk his job by helping you while he’s providing billable services to his employer’s client.  For that reason, it’s important to know what you can expect for his availability and responsiveness.

What If Big Problems Occur?

There’s peace-of-mind in knowing that your business has a knowledgeable resource available to fix big problems.  Sometimes, these problems take several hours or days to fix.  If your computer network fails at 4:45 PM and your moonlighter works a full-time day job in IT, he might be able to come over after work to help out.  What happens if the problem requires a 5-hour backup, reinstallation, and testing process?  Will your consultant be agreeable to work until midnight to help you get back up and running the next morning?  If not, would you be willing to go without your network for a whole day until he can come back the next night.

Collaboration among Multiple Consultants

As a business grows, it will likely need more than one consultant to handle different disciplines.  For micro-sized businesses in the range of 1 to 10 employees, one consultant may be able to handle networking, computer setup, office machine repair, basic programming and applications support.  This will change as soon as you introduce new specialized technologies to support your expanding business.  For my clients that have 10-100 employees, they use 5 or more consultants to cover their needs.

There’s often a need for one consultant to discuss configuration, processes and system architecture questions with the other in order to complete a given project.  A moonlighter who’s not available for this interaction on a project may delay its completion and force another consultant to make on-the-fly decisions as a critical juncture that create unforeseen consequences later on.  At minimum, each consultant should know the availability and areas of expertise of the others to help them plan their efforts and minimize complications for you.

What If Your Moonlighter Leaves?

When a reputable consultant decides to leave the marketplace, he’ll often create an exit strategy to turn over his clients to another consultant or help them find another consultant.  It’s a decision that’s been considered over a period of time and there are likely numerous other consultants that able and willing to step in.

With a moonlighter, it may not be so simple.  In my experience, the onset of apathy and disinterest is a common situation.  The consultant may slowly become less responsive, acquire additional responsibilities at his full-time employment and discover that he has decreasing time to devote to his after-hours clients.  If you’re not in constant contact with your consulting resource, his decreased availability may not be apparent until you have an urgent need, which is probably the worst time to find out.

So, you decide to seek out another moonlighter.  Can you assess the skill set that’s needed to fill the role?  Will another consultant be willing to work at the same rate or pay?  Are you able to keep your business systems running for weeks or months without a reliable resource?  For some of my clients, this was not an easy transition.

Conclusion

Choosing a moonlighting IT consultant can be a great fit that’s easy on the pocketbook.  Before jumping in and hiring one, be sure to honestly discuss these questions with your candidates.  Balancing your needs with your consultant’s availability is crucial to forging a relationship that works.

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