5 Questions on Consulting With Karen N Johnson

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Karen Johnson is a Test Consultant based in Chicago who actively participates in the community through teaching, speaking engagements and writing. She also teaches her mobile testing course with us.

Here we ask her 5 questions on the realities of the test consultant lifestyle.

What gave you the courage to go independent as a consultant?

This is a great question and a question I’ve not been asked before. It wasn’t one factor but instead a combination of factors:

  1. I was absolutely miserable at my last corporate position.
  2. Over the years I was getting restless for change faster than I could get at employed positions. It seemed like within a year or two, I would be ready for something new and that desire for change has quickened, picked up speed and I now prefer to make changes every few months. Very short engagements (short engagements to me means a week or several days) are interesting but I find myself best suited to engagements where I join a team, lead a team or advise a specific client for a month to four months. I enjoy change, so much so that I dislike regularity- once an engagement or a contract feels routine, I get restless, feel less effective and want to move on. I’m pretty up front about this with prospective clients. But I digress, let me get back to another reason:
  3. I felt sure that if consulting didn’t turn out right for me, I would go back to being an employee. In fact, I still think that way. I also think there maybe a point where being an employee will be the right thing again and I would make that change but I won’t if it doesn’t feel right and so far, that right fit hasn’t happened. But I have to admit I would want somethings that may be hard to get within the confines of employment… I like my freedom.

What are the best bits about test consulting?

Freedom. I can choose the engagements I want, and I do.

Creativity. I have much more time and allowance to be creative balancing between clients, conference work, teaching, writing and other activities like webinars and such. The variety I have in my work is unlike anything I’ve had anywhere as an employee.

I’ve also had the chance to get to know my own ebbs and flows of focus, productivity and am better able to harness myself without feeling trapped or pinned to a schedule that doesn’t suit me. I have much more ability to command my schedule now as a consultant than I ever had before.

Travel. I am not told by anyone that I can’t attend a conference or go and teach a class. I let my clients know when I am not available to them and that’s the end of it. I bristle at the thought of having to ask permission, from anyone.

From the other side of the green, it’s easy for others to think consultants live a successful life, what have been your biggest challenges?

Another really great question. One frustration I’ve had, that I didn’t expect to have is how many activities I get invited to “participate in” that take time, where I actually lose income or billable client hours to do things like answer emails or join in other activities and people who are employed don’t realize (or do realize and ask anyway) how much time I spend every week addressing tasks like that … Those tasks sometimes have me working 7 days week, nights and weekends. When I tell people I’ve been busy they incorrectly assume that as a consultant I’m “raking in the money” but what they don’t realize is all the hours that are not billable. Or that even answering all the emails from within the community are incredibly time-consuming activities.

If you could choose a typical client, what would they look like?

I don’t have typical, nearly all my engagements are different from each other.  I guess the most likely scenario I am hired to do is to help lead a team, help with distributed testers and coach on exploratory testing.

An ideal client would be one that asks: what are you best at? And then looks to see if they have needs where my strengths are. This is actually how I steer beginning conversations with prospective clients and if there is match and I sense that I can help, then I know it will be fine. There have been plenty of times that I’ve told prospective clients, we don’t have a match. I don’t take work that isn’t right for me. I feel it is my ethical responsibility to not take work that I am not a good fit for and I don’t think I can help someone.

What is the best tool out there that helps you manage your consulting life?

Managing my calendar is probably one of the most important items I need to address. Not overbooking, looking ahead (and to the past) to balance client needs, personal needs and having time to address other activities I do within the testing community. It doesn’t matter which calendar app I use, in fact this year I switched calendar programs from Google to iCalendar. The tool itself doesn’t matter but keeping close track of appointments, commitments and deadlines is what’s important.

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