|Consultants: This gunâ€™s for hire|
|Written by Jeff BarbianHits : 482|
|Thursday, 31 December 1998 19:00|
In major league sports, when a team needs that extra piece of the puzzle to stay competitive, it will often acquire a free agent to fill its needs. These hired guns specialize in coveted skills and demand top dollar from teams willing to bank on their services. This brand of outsourcing in sports is similar to the business world. Many IT professionals are defecting from the corporate environment and entering the lucrative free-agent market; that is, hiring themselves out as consultants. And companies keen on keeping pace with the jet stream whirl of technological innovation are courting outside consultants more than ever before.
"Consulting is where the action is, and weÕre targeting it for 50 percent of our total revenues in three years," says Philip Laskawy, chairman of Ernst & Young International. This article will discuss the trends that are supercharging this industry, and also the dynamics that are redefining the role outsourcing plays in the business landscape.
The Gartner Group estimates double-digit growth in IT consulting by 2002. One reason is that companies have moved away from the large management information service (MIS) staffs that characterized the '80s, and have taken a more strategic business approach to their information systems (IS) staffs. As a result, downsized firms are turning to consultants for work they no longer have in-house talent to perform.
"In the past six years, we have seen major technological advances every six to 18 months," says Greg Scileppi, executive director of RHI Consulting in Menlo Park, Calif. "Previously, these sweeping changes came at a much slower pace. No longer is it justifiable to maintain large staffs that must be constantly trained in new technologies."
Rather, says Scileppi, corporations now maintain a stable core of full-time employees who are intimate and loyal to that company's business model. That staff is then augmented with outsourced expertise to affect IT change in a much more efficient manner.
The net effect is a glaring shift in the traditional IT job market. "This shift," says Scileppi, "has afforded many IT professionals the opportunity to take on careers in consulting, and a more career-friendly lifestyle."
Within this new IT model, consulting professionals enjoy a more controlled environment. They have greater flexibility over their careers, while earning a premium for their skills. Plus, there's an attractive profit margin. "I see the trend toward money, money and more money," says Max Han, a consultant specializing in e-commerce and Web architecture. I see consultants following the technologies that are hot in order to get paid top dollar."
Scileppi calls the transformation of the IT worker into the just-in-time expert a win-win situation for all involved. "Corporate America benefits," he says, "by gaining control of fixed costs, reduction of turnover through staff stability and access to key technology expertise, allowing an efficient knowledge transfer from consultant to core staff."
A second explanation of the rapid growth in consulting is the unbridled evolution of the Internet. An online presence allows even the smallest of firms to compete on a global level, which has generated an entirely new playbook of strategies for businesses to adopt. In turn, this has carved out a variety of consulting niches that didn't exist a few years ago. The message is clear for companies wishing to maximize their performance and potential: "Those companies who have a vision for technology and how it can be used to gain a competitive advantage in their respective markets are leading this trend," says Scileppi. "Those who do not have a vision for the strategic use of technology risk being left behind by their competitors who do."
That vision includes an effective Web presence that integrates such things as online advertising, brand management, client-server management, data warehousing, security from external intrusion and hacking, a multimedia platform and an ecommerce strategy. Consultants privy to this new electronic economy and online architecture are in high demand.
With the mainstream e-commerce successes of Amazon.com, CDNow and others, more companies see the writing on the wall. "The Internet has the world population as its landscape," says Han. "Should there be any reason why other small businesses and start-ups can't enjoy the same success? Many consultants and IT professionals agree that another, more ominous catalyst is pressing companies of all sizes to outsource: The Year 2000 computer problem. Many companies are finding themselves overwhelmed by this ticking time bomb and are relying heavily on consultants who are adept at assessment and contingency plans. A recent report by the Gartner Group predicts that Y2K expenditures will represent 44 percent of the average companyÕs IT budget, compared to 29 percent in 1998, and 5 percent in 1997.
Because of the inherent complexity of Y2K, old school IT workers with knowledge in outmoded mainframe languages like COBOL are precious commodities, and the fallout of Y2K should keep them busy far beyond January 1, 2000.
Staying in shape
The main challenge for consultants is to stay on top of their game, which can be quite a chore in the chameleon atmosphere of IT operations.
"There is a huge amount of pressure for consultants to constantly upgrade," says Joe Buzhardt, a senior consultant and principal of NetProCon, a networking resource for consultants.
The flexibility enjoyed by independent consultants allows for such training, whether they teach themselves or take advantage of the copious training resources available at consulting firms that farm out talent. In fact, consultants have been known to join consulting firms just for the free training.
Steve Gunner, president of Comforce Information Technologies (Woodbury, N.Y.), has a way to remedy this. "We offer an incentive program where consultants accrue training dollars based on their billable time, and when they reach a certain plateau, they can trade that in for free training.
In the relationship between consultant and company, consultants often must possess more than just technical wizardry to be effective on their assignments. Says Steve Burg, owner of SB Consulting (Fresno, Texas), "An understanding of the fundamentals in addition to depth of knowledge in the overall computer industry is far preferable to those with only skills in the latest and greatest."
Both Burg and Scileppi feel that a consultant with experience is most important. "But communication skills and raw knowledge are a close second," says Burg.
Along with technical competence, consultants who have deft skills in management and client service build trust. After all, consulting is a service profession and key to its success is the relationships forged among clients. According to Scileppi, a trend in recent years is for a client to pair its own management staffÑfamiliar with its own IT needsÑwith outside consultants, rather than completely outsourcing projects and subsequently putting key IT initiatives in the hands of those who may not be aligned with corporate objectives "This way," he says, "our customers get all the resources of a strategically staffed IT department without having to give up control of the process to outside help."
Independents need diverse skills
As a consultant, you're faced with a choice: Do you lend yourself to an outsourcing firm that finds you work, pays your benefits and even hones your skills with onsite training, or do you go it alone as an independent? In many ways, IT professionals choosing the nomadic path of an independent face all the challenges of a small business. The key is knowing whatÕs in store for you.
In his article "The Independent Consultant as Equilateralist", Harvey Bergholz, president of Jeslen Corporation, an independent consulting firm, writes: "Many [consultants] do not see themselves as business people. They might see themselves as consultants, as human resource development professionals, as system integrators, as management theoreticians, as performance technologists; as most anything but business people running a small business out to earn a profit."
In other words, as an independent, you must grace more than technical competence, but also business management competence. With independence comes rote duties that many IT professionals are happy to let others deal with, such as budgeting expenses and earnings, retirement plans, health benefits and, most importantly, finding work through marketing.
"Most individuals begin their independent consulting careers with excellent technical expertise and little knowledge of how to get new business," says Joe Buzhardt, principal of NetProCon (http://www.netprocon. com), "Technically, they are competent, but can they get enough business to make a living? The risk is great."
As an independent consultant, youÕre under significant time pressures, and clients may be querulous and unreasonable. Remember, youÕre a problem solver, first and foremost, and this boils down to the relationship you have with people. A consultant must be able to take charge and take orders with equal aplomb.
"As an independent," writes Bergholz," you answer to more people than if you worked for someone in a company." What you will enjoy as an independent, however, is the control that comes with running the show, and the freedom to make the decisions that affect your future. "That is the reason I went into my own business in the first place," writes Bergholz.