The future is calling—and it might have some serious dough attached to it. If nothing else, opportunities abound as business leaders, tech teams and clients scramble to figure out how to use AI tools, from ChatGPT to hundreds of others, to level up their businesses. In 2020, the World Economic Forum estimated that, by 2025, there could be nearly 100 million new roles related to AI. For some, those jobs look like consultants working with clients on how to integrate new tools. Others might even be called new terms, such as “futurists” or “future of work consultants,” among dozens of other labels.
People want to understand AI. In fact, in a new Calendly report called the 2023 State of Scheduling, a survey revealed only 64% of workers at large companies have tried AI, yet 94% are curious about it. That’s where AI consultants come in, bridging that gap.
If you have the know-how and the ability to pose meaningful questions back to the client, you might have a future in AI consulting.
How to become an AI consultant: Beyond the career “mold”
Unlike traditional career paths, you might need to rethink what mold you need to fit to become an AI consultant. You are writing the future as you figure that out yourself. Steve Tom, Adtalem chief customer officer, uses the tech at Adtalem’s institutions to help future counselors prepare for crisis situations.
“There’s no perfect formula for an AI expert—generally it’s a person who understands and can explain practical examples where they’ve implemented deep learning or neural networks, who is versed in Python and understands the major cloud AI/ML offerings,” Tom says. “AI experts can also be deep mathematicians and statisticians who focus on tuning and building models.” So, don’t count yourself out before you’ve given it a go; clients don’t care so much about what you majored in if you can leverage AI for profit.
You might not have to be a long-term collaborator
Some clients want you to run their AI tools. Others want you to consult, set them up, teach them how to use them and see yourself out. In this way, becoming a consultant can mean working with quite a few different clients, even across industries, to help teach similar lessons again and again.
Beth Simone Noveck, director of the Burnes Center for Social Change at Northeastern University and core faculty at the school’s Institute for Experiential AI, says, “Frankly, with time, we can all kind of teach ourselves. There’s plenty of information out there.” Yet, she adds that “busy people need help figuring out what these tools are, where they’re going and how that affects your industry.” She says the most important thing consultants or managers themselves DIYing AI should ask is, “What is the problem you’re trying to solve?”
Practice makes perfect when becoming an AI consultant
Luckily, your future employers or clients won’t necessarily expect a decade of experience, so you have the benefit of being a star in a new arena. However, that isn’t to say you won’t need to prove valid experience. In fact, that’s one of the best ways to show proof that you know what you are doing.
“Applied, practical experience—demonstrating a track record of projects and solutions built with AI. Sometimes not everyone can gain that experience on the job, so articulating projects you’ve done on your own to learn hands-on or examples you’ve implemented to convey proficiency [is helpful],” Tom says.
Stay abreast of emerging technologies
As an AI consultant, you need to know more about emerging technologies than your clients do and how those technologies might benefit their industry. “Build your knowledge of and keep up with the fast-evolving cloud tools as the major players make AI more accessible and easier to stand-up solutions,” Tom says. But you don’t have to pretend to know it all, especially in an environment where hundreds, and even thousands, of new tools appear each month. You can also show progress over time. “Demonstrate a lifelong learner mentality—showing over time how you’ve evolved your techniques and skills as new approaches and tools have emerged.”
Be ready for a test run
In any consulting position, it’s normal and expected for your client to want to test the waters before fully signing on for your services. This is where having an offering for them that doesn’t include a long-term commitment can lead to a quick “yes.” This doesn’t mean unpaid. In fact, ensure you are charging your typical fee if a client asks for a trial period. Tom says a typical test might involve the client asking you to “frame a solution to a potential need.”
“This tests the depth of their approach and also gives [their] internal teams the opportunity to review and ask questions when [the consultant] comes in to present it to determine how well the individual or partner has thought through the approach,” he says. He also warns that they might be asking multiple people to do the same thing to compare the robustness of their approach.
Market yourself as something more than an expert
Noveck says a sure red flag for companies is if you are calling yourself an “expert.” Instead, lean into other terminology and marketing that proves you know what you are doing. This should include thoughtfully constructed marketing materials that communicate your skills and background clearly. You can also lean on testimonials and references from others you’ve helped, encouraging new clients to check out case studies, talk to former clients and fully understand how you’ve assisted others before them.
Instead of framing yourself as an expert, consider phrases like “consultant” or “thought partner” or “collaborator.” “I’d be wary of anyone pretending to have a crystal ball and the answers,” Noveck says. Instead, opt for engaging in a conversation and asking hard questions alongside the company, thinking through specific scenarios and the implications with AI.
Still not sure how to become an AI consultant? Educate yourself first
If you don’t think you are ready to advise a company, invest in your own education first. In some countries, this type of skill-based education is becoming increasingly normal.
“These tools open up economic possibilities. It’s why you see countries like Finland and Japan and India all providing free AI training to the public in order to promote economic development,” Noveck says.
She recommends those learning about the industry read The Neuron, which she calls a great source “to help them become conversant” in AI. In addition, she recommends Grow with Google, which offers inexpensive career certificates, as well as Coursera, Udacity or LinkedIn for additional tools.
Before long, companies will be coming to you for wisdom on AI, and you will be a consultant of the future.
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