This is our second podcast in a series about working as a consultant in the healthcare IT industry and talking about the differences between working for a consulting firm and being an independent consultant. Our guest today is Jerry Queen. Jerry comes from the health insurance payer side of healthcare; many of our guests in the past have been on the hospital provider side. He has 25 total years of experience working in the payer IT space with three different health plans, 11 of those years in consulting. He primarily provides his expertise in operational management, configuration management, system integration and operational leadership for payers in the IT area.
Listen here or download from Stitcher or iTunes above: Healthcare IS Podcast
What originally attracted you to consulting?
As an employee I had the opportunity to work with a couple consultants that I looked up to and who have actually become important people to me mentorship wise. I was intrigued with it in a couple of capacities, part of which it just seemed like an opportunity to make a difference in a different way versus just as an employee.
The second part was you can make a reasonable amount of income in a shorter period of time and that afforded me a little more flexibility in my schedule as well as I was able to do a little bit of travel within those roles which I enjoyed at the time.
It was a variety of things that were all very attractive to me and at that point in my life I was very interested in trying something different as I had been with my second healthcare organization for some time.
When you first got into consulting why did you feel like joining a firm was the best thing for you?
When I think back at least to the initial time where I went from an independent to a firm, I was actually working independently for a firm. Which sounds a little strange but I had developed some relationships with a few firms while being independent and had finished up a couple of engagements and was on the hunt for my next contract.
One of which was through a firm. It afforded me the opportunity to work with them but in realizing even with doing independent work for that firm I wasn’t necessarily given the largest amount of work because the cost for them was greater to have me work independently versus having me work for them as an employee.
At the time it kind of made sense because I had good relationships with them and there were benefits, vacation time, training and various things you are able to have as an employee of a firm that seemed attractive at the time. I was also filling out my ‘dance card’ with work. It was attractive at the time and worked out really well.
If you haven’t worked for a firm it’s easy to buy into what those firms are offering and if those are perks that you don’t have as an independent, they will seem attractive at the time.
There are ways to work through that as an independent where it’s not so critical. Things like benefits which you can buy and vacation time which is just a matter of planning. All of these things require a lot of forethought. I was young in my career when I learned how to balance them out so that working as an independent contractor isn’t as scary.
What do you do differently today as opposed to back then when you started as an independent consultant to make sure that you have more consistent work?
Well, what I’ve learned over the years is, having a strong network within the industry, knowing where the work is and how to plan that out it’s really about establishing partners and keeping relationships strong.
There’s a better chance of alignment with your availability as an independent as well as with the clients particular need which is a critical component because there’s budgets and initiatives and strategy. All of which clients struggle with so while there’s a lot of work that could be done they’re not necessarily going to be signing up for stuff unless it makes sense for them at the time.
It’s all about alignment and most things don’t align in my experience. So you have to plan for that and essentially have a better hit rate for something aligning when your availability is there. Almost like fishing, the more bait you have out there more fish you’ll catch.
Can you elaborate when you say building your network? Some of that of course is going to come with time, but is there anything looking back that you did strategically to build a network or is it just something you established over the years?
There’s definitely a strategy to it just knowing somebody doesn’t necessarily create a network.
I think it’s important to maintain connections even if it’s just a couple minutes a year for instance. I chat with you Dave once or twice a quarter and it’s good to catch up and it’s also good to keep people front of mind and keep them aware of your name for potential opportunities.
So part of my strategy is to just maintain contact in some fashion with the right people in organizations that align with potential opportunities that I can provide services.
Knowing what you know now do you recommend people to start with a consulting firm the way you did? Yes or no? Why or why not?
I think it depends on the individuals degree of tolerance for a little bit of risk. I think that to some degree if folks are risk adverse for instance, and are worried about how they are going to pay their bills, maybe going with a firm is more appealing.
If you have an individual who is well seasoned in being able to tolerate the ebb and flow of revenue as it relates to engagements then I would recommend them to give the independent route a shot. I find it to be very valuable to be independent because I’m not necessarily beholding to a particular position or a particular set of opinions. Sometimes when you can think freely as a professional, clients like that versus having the firms opinion on something.
Having been in both positions over the years, even with all the benefits that come along with a firm, I still prefer the independent route.
What are the top two incentives that you receive personally from being an independent consultant?
The biggest incentive is being able to choose my opportunities. When working with firms often times they pick the engagement they want you on. It may not necessarily align with the things that you like to do, it may not even be in a location you like to go, so I like the ability to pick the opportunity.
The second, being more obvious, is that a firm has to make a margin and you can’t blame them, but it’s been my experience that clients would prefer to have a more competitive rate and I find that it’s easier on the client as well as yourself because it’s a win/win. The client can have a lesser rate and you get more money.
What general advice would you have for someone who's thinking about becoming an independent consultant?
Timing is everything, so relax, the opportunities are typically there you just have to put the time in to find them.
The second big point is to enjoy networking. It’s not like it’s a task, there’s a lot of information that you can learn, gain and realize about what the market place is doing that will give you foresight on where you might take your own practice. It’s a great opportunity with benefits but you can’t be afraid to take a risk because it usually pays off. So the advice I give to people is to relax and have fun with it.
You may also like: Ep 5 - How To Get Into Contract Consulting - Dave Wolfe