What are the key features of an IT consultant? Do you have what it takes?
The IT industry requires specialists. IT budgets demand generalists. So how do you keep subject matter experts’ skills current when it is too expensive for most employers to keep all of them on the payroll indefinitely. This, my friends, is the basis of the consulting industry, welcome to my world!
I’m often asked for my opinion on consultancies. Often the question comes from people who haven’t completely grasped the value proposition of a true consultancy as compared to a recruitment agency. I recently came across a mail blast to many of our clients requesting contact details for people with highly specialized skills. This type of agency adds negligible value to an organization’s human resources department. A true consultancy nurtures its people and shares skills and experiences across the entire client base.
A consultant has to enjoy constant change. An employee can map out their career by plotting the corporate structure, the time it generally takes to transition from one tier to another and the politics about whether an organization responds to upward or downward management. The consultant has to react to the demands of the industry at any given time, reacting to the supply and demand of certain skills.
To write this blog, I thought about some of the great consultants who have represented JP Reis and I finished with this list of the traits that add up to great.
People are different but can be placed into natural work-style categories. Adopting the style that you are most comfortable with can succeed for you as an employee because there will be a natural tendency to place you into a team where your style is balanced out by other people’s. The consultant does not have this luxury. You need to develop all of your styles to fit into a client team seamlessly in whatever way is effective. This is something that most of us don’t possess naturally and it needs to be learned through experience.
It goes without saying that you should be up to date with your core subject matter. Take the courses, attend the seminars, join the forums and sit the exams, whatever it takes. It can be challenging to make an investment in yourself, especially when you may have to move into another area of focus without getting a chance to use what you learned. The best consultants don’t resent investing in their skills when they may not be able to effectively apply them on any given assignment, they love to learn and have wider interests than their current core specialisms. I look for that inquisitive streak and the willingness people display to learn and understand different skills and perspectives.
Whether it’s knowledge of a technology genre, a process, or a transferable methodology, a true consultant needs to possess a large amount of relevant information that is both current and informed by an extended period of professional experience. Alternatively, it could be that a true expert has gained his or her knowledge away from a relevant professional environment. It is still possible for them to deliver a high level of genuine consultancy if their knowledge is easily applicable and they can draw on the other traits listed here.
I used this word to represent people who are personable, honest and realistic. An ambitious employee can get ahead by defeating their peers and seeking promotion. A consultant is there to do a specific job, make everyone look good and move on to the next project. As well as being easy to get on with, it’s also important to have integrity and to manage expectations. Great consultants share good news and bad and don’t let optimism and confidence morph into delusion or dishonesty.
I certainly expect confidence, assertiveness and persuasiveness from top consultants but it’s a careful balancing act. A client is likely to be passionate about the success criteria of a project or assignment and will have invested time, effort and pride. The successful consultant will pick up a project or problem with the mindset to deliver a successful solution without disrespecting this investment. They will challenge opinions to help the client make the right decisions and they will manage groups of stakeholders who are challenging them. A collaborative management style is widely accepted as being more effective generally as it makes contributors feel more invested in the outcome of a task. A good consultant can’t be afraid to introduce a dictatorial style if needed as they will generally be brought into a project when it is in jeopardy, but must do it with empathy and respect.
6. Lateral Thinking
In IT, there are always problems to solve and the best people will always find a solution. How elegant and resilient that solution is depends in part on the ability to think laterally and draw on approaches that have proved successful in different circumstances. The history of science is littered with examples of lateral thinking providing the Eureka moment. In the world of IT it happens every day and although the outcomes may be less celebrated, the consultants who perform these feats will certainly find themselves in demand. You will generally be working amongst talented IT staff who have considered all the available options from the existing technologies and methodologies of the organization, the successful consultant will be able to bring new ideas from their experience of other organizations and through networking with the other consultants in their practice.
Sometimes the task is just plain laborious and sometimes you’re waiting for that lateral moment of inspiration to come along. In either case, a consultant who cares and is motivated to make a difference will get the job done and may well deliver an extra level of value. The discipline and desire to persevere in difficult circumstances set the best consultants apart. If the consultant tends towards obsession, that’s fine by me, provided they’re happy and looking after themselves. A true passion for the subject is particularly useful in this industry and a consultant who spends his weekends doing much the same as they do during the week can be among the best. This is the moment to refer back to my original point: a good consultant is motivated by outcome and adding the most value, they are not there to mail in a bill and fulfill a contract, feel free to use an agency if this is what you want.
So, here’s my world! How do you stack up and what did I miss out? Let me know and if you’re trying to get your consultancy career going then by all means forward your CV to firstname.lastname@example.org to make sure you’re on our radar.