Technology consultants, if they're to achieve long-term viability, must successfully combine a unique blend of specialized trade-like skills and professional services acumen. The rare and necessary mix-required to perform hands-on infrastructure repairs, diagnose and replace failed hardware components, configure routers and administer workstations and servers-explains why technology consultants regularly battle heightened pressures and stresses compared to corporate technical workers and why consultants' hourly billing rates continue rising even in a tremendously recessed economy.
Trade skill underestimation risk
Specialized skills, such as those wielded by plumbers, electricians, mechanics, and others, are mistakenly becoming undervalued. Matthew Crawford, writing in Shop Class as Soulcraft, bemoans the number of high school shop classes being eliminated, ironically to make funds available for technology training. Without specialized trade skill training, Crawford quotes California Agriculture Teachers' Association's Jim Aschwanden as saying, "We have a generation of students that can answer questions, know factoids, but they can't do anything."'
Crawford adds "parents don't want their children to become plumbers. Yet, that filthy plumber under the sink might be charging somebody eighty dollars an hour. This fact ought, at least, to induce an experience of cognitive dissonance in the parent who regards this child as smart and wants him to become a knowledge worker."
IT consultants, of course, must exercise hands-on mechanical skills every day. Video cards require replacement, as do motherboards and RAM chips. Failed RAID arrays must be diagnosed and replaced. Network switches fail, routers malfunction and power supplies break. Cabling must be run, terminated and certified. Addressing all these challenges requires that consultants wield a mastery of trade skill talents.
Technology consulting requires more than mechanical skill
The trade or mechanical skills required of a technology consultant must never be undervalued. However, those skills alone are typically insufficient for a consultancy to obtain sustained success.
Corporate IT departments typically distribute tasks among salaried staff. A CEO might dictate strategy and direction. CIOs address budgeting challenges. Project managers tackle project management issues. Systems engineers architect networks. Network administrators manage servers. Support technicians field help desk responsibilities. Who manages all those tasks in an IT consultancy servicing numerous clients? You guessed it: the IT consultant. That's a lot of hats to wear, and the skillset combination may prove intimidating, but I believe it's the reason consultants experience such sustained demand. Technology consultants must marry both the physical, practical hands-on experience with the knowledge-worked capacity of a project manager and network administrator.
The December 2011 issue of Money, in reviewing the year's job markets, notes Information Technology as a bright spot. The magazine reports IT staff were among the largest recipients of raises, receiving an average raise of 5.3 percent. The magazine notes the technology field added some 18,900 jobs in 2011 and predicts an encouraging outlook, stating "businesses are beginning to invest again in software and equipment." This is all good news for consultants.
When you feel stretched or stressed, I encourage you to remind yourself that you're combining a rare mix of mechanical skills and knowledge-based expertise at a time when markets are valuing your skills even more.
Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president of Eckel Media Corp., a communications company specializing in public relations and technical authoring projects.