Being a Consultant in the Pacific

This one has been on my mind a lot recently…and probably because my wife, Shauna, has been talking about how consultancies can be localised as part of some work she’s involved in.

Seeing the hardships around here in Fiji as a result of the pandemic, including lost or reduced employment, and great uncertainty isn’t easy.

We are going through extraordinary times.

It hasn’t been lost on me that we’ve been fortunate during this time to continue to work and have a demand for our skills and experience. Both in the company Shauna and I founded, Traseable Solutions, and in my sole-trader consulting business, Katafono Consulting.

So, I thought I’d share some of my journey so far in the consulting world in the hope that it may help someone else in the Pacific gather the courage to boldly pursue the same path.

A little context …

At Traseable, we push innovation and digitalisation in the Pacific agriculture and fisheries sectors. We try our best to create opportunities for ourselves and carve out a niche in these sectors. We provide consulting services in the areas of ICT, agriculture, and fisheries, and have worked on projects for regional governments, regional agencies, international development agencies, international universities and agricultural research organisations, and local businesses.

In my consulting work outside of Traseable, I get to do interesting work across the Pacific, and internationally, that utilises my skills and experience. This is often work that doesn’t align with Traseable’s mission or work that requires an individual consultant to do. Through this I’ve advised regional governments, developed a regional information management strategy for the Pacific, designed a fisheries surveillance center for the Marshall Islands, and co-authored a study for the FAO, to name a few.

Currently, I have a long-term consultancy for Pacific Connect, a DFAT-funded project geared to strengthening Australia – Pacific ties through digital projects, while doing work for UN ESCAP on designing an e-commerce training programme here in Fiji, and about to start work relating to how governments around the world can move to a digital value chain in the fisheries sector.

How I got started

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

Lao-Tzu

I started my first consulting gig in my final year of my undergraduate degree over 13 years ago on the back of my strong technical skills. I had very little work experience other than part-time work for the university.

Throughout my professional career working a full-time job I’ve often held one or two consulting roles on the side. Not just to earn more but to do interesting work that I wouldn’t be able to do in my day job. Since leaving formal employment in 2017 I split my time between consulting and Traseable.

The consulting work provided for my family’s livelihood while we built up Traseable to profitability. Up until last year I wasn’t paid by Traseable and relied solely on my consulting work. Now that Traseable is in a better position I draw a salary from the company.

There are really only 2 ways to get into consulting in the Pacific:

  1. You find an opportunity, take it, and learn as you go.
  2. You get introduced into it as part of a broader team and hopefully have a mentor along the way.

It’s not easy to get either.

But once you get an opportunity, do good work, and show reliability then people will know you exist in that world and may remember you for future opportunities.

It’s not easy to break through

Around 2018, I met a friend and former colleague in Suva who is very well respected in his field and held leadership roles at regional organisations. As we reminisced, he lamented the fact that he had worked for and led organisations his whole life, had amazing skills and experience, but was finding the transition to the consulting world difficult.

He asked me something along the lines of –

“Why aren’t we Pacific Islanders getting the big consulting jobs that our regional agencies are dishing out when people know us, we have the skills, experience, and know the region and its challenges better than anyone?”

Lightheartedly, we came to the conclusion that it was because we couldn’t write 100+ page reports that would serve as doorstoppers in offices around the Pacific.

It’s not easy to break through into consulting.

It also isn’t easy to transition from a full-time job into consulting either. And perhaps harder if you’ve been up at the top of an organisation that had a whole bunch of people below you to do all the work and achieve results.

So, what can you do?

Here are some tips with examples from my journey that may help you land a consulting gig in the Pacific.

Master your craft

Despite everyone thinking that I fix computers (or printers or mobile phones or Internet connections or any computing device) for a living, I actually studied Computing Science and Information Systems and chose to be a software developer. Over the years I learnt about all the other associated areas related to ICT from policy, organisational and people management, network design and operation, server and hardware maintenance, procurement, to cybersecurity.

More importantly, I think, is understanding how your technical skills translates to the real world and how you can apply it in areas outside of what you’re comfortable with.

At 32 with only 7 years of full-time work experience behind me I led the IT team of a regional agency, FFA. I was the youngest person on our 8 member team and probably the youngest IT manager of a regional organisation in the Pacific.

This wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t extended myself and mastered my craft.

If people don’t know you, they can’t hire you

Mastering your craft and being renowned for your technical skills doesn’t automatically grant you entry into consulting.

You need to learn to market yourself and be in the right circles of influence, and connected to the right people, where you can hear about opportunities. At least at the start when you’re trying to break through into consulting.

Once you do a few consulting jobs people will know you and remember you and are more likely to get in touch with you at some point in the future with an opportunity. Most of my consulting jobs have been because people knew me from previous work or I was referred to them by someone who knew of me and my work.

“The entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.”

Peter Drucker

Networking with others, especially outside of your field of work, is very important. Look for opportunities.

Communication is important

To network effectively you need to develop your communication skills. This is also important when you need to communicate with your consulting team or the people paying you.

If you are a techie in a field like IT this means that you need to know how to speak to non-technical people. People’s eyes glaze over when you start spitting out words like “hierarchical tree structure”, “heuristic algorithm”, “in the cloud”, or acronyms like API, HTML, JSON, etc.

Many times I’ve seen our fellow Pacific Islanders look searchingly at the sky when someone in IT mentions that something is in “the cloud” or “cloud storage”.

You also need to know how to communicate effectively with people depending on the situation, their level of experience, knowledge of the subject matter, their seniority, and the organisations they represent.

Writing is an essential skill

I’ve deliberately separated this from communication because, sad to say this, you need to learn how to write effectively. Not eloquently, but effectively.

I’m yet to come across a consulting job that didn’t involve any kind of writing – but I will continue to search for one in the hope that it exists!

Writing, like any other skill, can be developed over time with a lot of practice and patience.

To get started, learn to read a lot and widely. News articles, studies, technical reports, etc, will all help you to be a better writer. And then practice your writing – volunteer for writing assignments in your work or team, start up a blog, contribute on technical forums online, etc. There are many ways to develop this skill.

This is something I still struggle with today as I often have to feel inspired to write but I still try to learn how to get better at it through reading, learning from others, and practice.

Managing your time

As a consultant, you need to meet deliverable deadlines.

You have to track your time because you often estimate a total number of hours that you think you’ll work on a job which is tied into how much you bill for that work. If you underestimate your time, you’ll essentially be working for free to meet deliverables. If you overestimate your time, you run the risk of making your client feel like they aren’t getting value for money.

“The key is in not spending time, but in investing it.”

Stephen R. Covey

At the start you’re likely to be putting in more hours than you bill but as you become more experienced this will get better and you’ll have a good idea how much time it really takes to complete tasks.

On a consulting job, I track my time with a simple spreadsheet as accurately as possible including any communication (email, in person, etc) relating to the assignment. This takes discipline and helps you to build an accurate estimate of time on certain types of jobs which is useful for future opportunities.

Figuring out what to charge

This is a tricky one.

It’s difficult to estimate your work’s worth at the beginning and you may need to charge less just to get a consulting job. Once you’ve established yourself then you’ll be in a position to demand a certain fee.

Some considerations when you are figuring out your fees:

  • Is it a local or regional/international assignment – depending on who you are working for you may charge differently because they will have different abilities to pay, for e.g. you may charge a local business less than you would charge a regional/international organisation.
  • Who is paying – the Australians, Kiwis, Americans, and Europeans all pay differently and typically have standard consulting rates that are tiered based on experience.
  • Is it for a specific project – there may be different considerations for a short-term, project-based, assignment versus an assignment that might lead to developing a longer relationship with your client.
  • Have you previously done work for the client – if you have a relationship with them then you may have some leeway to negotiate better terms. If not and you want to build a relationship, then you may choose to take what they are offering you.
  • Do you have a unique skill/experience – if you are an expert in a certain field then you’ll be able to demand a fee and not take what is offered.
  • Is it interesting or will it help build your profile – some opportunities will pay less at the start but are of personal or professional interest to you or will be good for your profile and might lead to future work.

I’ve known consultants in the Pacific (and not from the Pacific) paid up to US$1,500 a day in fees and often consultants will have multiple jobs running concurrently with different organisations.

Look for collaborations

Often you’ll find that consultants who know each other will pool their expertise into consortiums on bigger assignments or when they need additional help or certain skills on projects.

This is also one of the 2 ways you can get started in consulting by working as part of a team and then building your experience from there. It is a good way to gain experience from more seasoned consultants and to grow your network.

At Traseable, we’ve been fortunate to collaborate with experienced Pacific consultants Marita, Matt, and the Talanoa Consulting team on a lot of assignments recently from things as varied as agri-logistics to gender equality and social inclusion (GESI) work. It has been refreshing working with the very professional Talanoa Consulting team and to see them helping develop other local consultants.

Look for efficiencies in how you operate

While you could do all the administrative work yourself, it helps to get others to do it for you, especially your finances and record-keeping.

It will give you peace of mind especially when it comes to your tax obligations and remaining compliant with all the regulations. Being a sole-trader consultant I’ve often struggled with this but am in the process of outsourcing these functions to others which should ease my burden a bit.

I learnt the hard way at the start with huge tax bills but over time I’ve learnt to optimise how I handle my consulting work.

Ok, so what does this all mean

When I started writing this I didn’t realise I had a lot to say about consulting.

The gist of this is that as a Pacific Islander you can get consulting jobs that are well paid and rewarding but it may not be so easy to get a start.

If you don’t try, you will never know.

When you do get that opportunity, make the most of it.

And good luck!


Image credit: The feature image used is from this blog post about Pacific Connect’s 1st Anniversary and shows me with my Australian and Samoan colleagues from the International Centre for Democratic Partnerships.


8 thoughts on “Being a Consultant in the Pacific

Add yours

  1. Was contemplating on how to do a breakthrough (should I decide to venture into Consultancy) and came across this piece… Very articulate and resourceful writing and advice… Thanks wantok, for sharing your experience… wish you well!

    Like

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