The Challenge of International Consulting

This article was one of my MicroSoft Small Business Forum pieces.  

I am a fortunate man, indeed. I just returned from a month in Guyana, South America, where I was one of several consultants working on a Canadian-funded multimillion dollar public health project, focusing on HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases and Tuberculosis. I’m lucky not just because I spent the worst part of February in the tropics, but because the work I was doing is well beyond the magnitude of that typically given to epidemiologists of my relatively young career level.

It was, I believe, the fact of self-employment that garnered me this remarkable opportunity. I’ve been consulting on this project for five years already. But not till I severed all ties with the world of salaried employment a few months ago have I been able to afford the time and focus to apply all my skills and energies on foreign soil for such an extended period of time. Indeed, the act of consulting affords opportunities otherwise inaccessible to those who are traditionally employed.

Part of the project involves the creation of a national health information database. One of our programmer-consultants is fresh out of university. He commented that most of his peers are employed building small websites for grocery stores and such, while he has the honour of creating a national information system for a whole country, because he had the courage to accept the adventure. Similarly, I find myself in a leadership role in developing a national Tuberculosis surveillance system, a task that would have been given to a team of extremely senior individuals and organizations in a developed country like Canada or the USA.

Therein lies both the challenge and opportunity inherent in this kind of self-employment: by accepting the physical and emotional stresses of international consulting, coupled with its associated job insecurity, we are offered a world of professional opportunities and exposures that would have otherwise been held from us until after years or decades of traditional work. As a result, we are compelled to enhance our skills at an accelerated rate, and to add additional skills in project and time management, client relations and cultural sensitivity.

But this is not for the faint of heart. The terror of failure is palpable. With such greater professional challenges come higher stakes. In the case of international health consulting, the price of of failure or of doing a bad job is not just a poor review, but potentially the exacerbation of the poor health of the entire client nation. We are thus well motivated to succeed.