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How IT consultants are different from contractors

IT consultants must be more versatile than IT contractors, according to Erik Eckel. He discusses other differences between the two types of technology pros.

What's the difference between an IT consultant and an IT contractor? Some technology professionals use the terms interchangeably, while others insist there's a very clear delineation separating the two entities.

Contributor Meredith Little covered this topic on TechRepublic more than 11 years ago. She concludes that "a contractor essentially acts as a temporary employee," whereas "a consultant is brought in when the company has a need and either isn't able, doesn't wish to, or doesn't know how to take care of it -- and doesn't have time or desire to figure it out." She adds that consultants analyze problems and decide how to solve them.

Guest contributor Chip Nickolett took a crack at defining the two almost eight years ago. He states contractors "are focused on a single type of mid-level activity" and lists programming in a specific language as one example. Consultants, he states, fulfill a much more layered role than that of a contractor. He adds that consultants typically manage multiple projects concurrently, add increased depth and breadth of technical expertise, and suggest proposed solutions.

Liz Greene with MBO Partners, referencing Little's article, questions such contractor classification and notes the resulting confusion. She concludes it is important to make a conscious choice how services are positioned to clients. I think she's right.

Most jurisdictions debate only whether an individual is an employee or an independent contractor. When it comes to human resources and tax ramifications, that's a critical distinction to make, yet people are going to argue the differences. But why?

Over time tech pros have come to view the two types differently. Nickolett's and Little's observations bear that out, as do writings from others. For that reason, I think it's fair to conclude the following:

  • Contractors usually fulfill specific projects with distinct start and end dates.
  • Contractors typically work under the close supervision of specific client staff.
  • Contractors don't often analyze business issues and complex problems in order to present strategies and plans for correcting problems and deploying new technologies; instead, clients usually present contractors with the specific project steps to be completed.
  • Contractors sometimes, but not always, work a single project at a time.
  • Contractors usually have a few select areas of expertise.
  • Consultants must typically possess expertise with numerous technologies.
  • Consultants usually manage multiple projects simultaneously.
  • Consultants typically provide ongoing service and support.
  • Consultants frequently analyze critical business factors and determine.
  • Consultants usually develop strategic technology initiatives independent of client staff input.

Consultants must be more versatile

It may be best to think of consultants as wearing more hats. Consultants must determine project scopes, develop budgets, identify and procure hardware and software, deploy new technologies, maintain existing platforms, and troubleshoot failed systems. Contractors, typically, are assigned a specific project, work closely with the client for direction, and work toward a single goal.

Does that mean consultants are jacks of all trades and master of none? I don't think so. But I am an IT consultant, so few would believe I'm impartial.

Nickolett may have summed it best when he wrote that he often tells "people that it's necessary to know a lot about a few things and a little about many things. The reason is not so that you can pretend to know everything, but rather that you can have a good working knowledge of what is going on around you. This knowledge provides a better overall understanding, helps you theorize and make assertions, and, most importantly, gives you the ability to ask intelligent questions that may lead to answers more quickly.

About

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 o...

15 comments
l.kobiernicki
l.kobiernicki

Aren't we wrangling about the difference between the generalist, and the specialist ? As I understand it, the generalist attempts to conserve a dynamic overview of the IT-based enterprize by tying together all the constituent parts, whilst the specialist delves deep in a single or two or three closely-related areas of application .. Specialists follow a deeply-rutted career path ( eg. programmers ), whilst the ultimate generalists are the SysOps/SysAdmins who make sure all the dependent parts work together in a harmonious whole, bundled up together as the User experience .. the latter are almost by definition more likely to develop as consultants, than the former - at least, that's what I've seen happen.

sissy sue
sissy sue

...just call me a lowly contractor.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

This argument has been going on for as long as I can remember (and I've got a very long memory). I still prefer the definition that's common in construction. A contractor does it wrong. A consultant tells him why. The reality is that most IT consultant/contractors switch roles as often as they switch socks. In one day I may be functioning as a consultant for half the day and a contractor for the other half. If our client's don't understand (or care about) the difference why should we care?

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

Buy a cat and name it Ego just so you can stroke it. If they pay you to write these articles then bravo, sir. Bravo. Few people can pull off getting paid to talk about how great they are as compared to others. For most, this is merely a past-time that goes well with expensive wine and insincere friends. Take your hobby, turn it in to money and you can live a happy man. In his next article "IT Consultants rule the world" Erik explains how the very fabric of society would fall apart without the constant attention of good hearted geeks everywhere.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

When fetched in as a contractor it was because what and how were already decided and they just needed an X to implement it. So I turned up as guy who could program in X or a design a database in Y. As consultant I came up with and answer for what and how to see if why still made sense.. The thing is quite often as a contractor I would have told them they'd got it wrong if they had consulted me before hand... As a consultant I was often contracted to implement the solution, was this a demotion? Question if you are contracted to consult are you still a consultant.... Sort of gets to the meat of it doesn't it. If you want someone to do Delphi and SQL server 2000, all the skills you might have that might have persuaded them to use Java and Oracle instead or whatever, they don't want and aren't going to pay you for, so no point in trying to big yourself up about it.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

"Contractor" is an employment status, meaning you work on a contract basis. Most consultants are also contractors. However, to be called a "consultant" one needs to bring more to the table than the average contractor, as your article says.

mjmeikle
mjmeikle

Mr. Eckel, Excellent article sir. Unfortunately, during the Great Recession, clients are using consultants and contractors interchangeably because of wage depression. Consultants are going to have to do more to differentiate themselves in the marketplace so their value is communicated far better. I think the best resource on accomplishing this is reviewing the works of Alan Weiss or Brian Tracey. However, their concepts are hard to grasp for many IT consultants since marketing and communication skills are not normally cultivated by IT pros.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

because I can and have programmed in several languages on several different OSes, often at the same time. Programming is no more and no less of speciality than sys admin, or DBA, or network admin. Do I know how to set properties in active directory so my programs can access files, well no. I know that I need to, and I know that I'll have to learn it or get a man who can. That's a generalist, some who knows they don't know. Specialist often fall into the trap of thinking because they know X, then Y and Z will be trivial. A trap you appear to have fallen into big style. Programming is the art of describing a system in terms of it's parts not ignoring the fact that it's part of a system. You are programming when you do your role, I don't mean scripting or automation. Set up a new user in a system, there are number of things you have to do, some of them must be done in order, some are interdependant, some can be deferred. Instead of doing it in C# or Fortran you are doing it in OS functions.... That's why scripting is a powerful tool for an admin, because it's agood description of what you need to do.... Programmer, Sysadmin, network admin, DBA and web admin and occasionallly hardware guy. So I shall call your ultimate and raise you three. And no, you can't be the best you can be at all those things at the same time, that's why programmers and admins and dbas are specialists, crack hot tool X only people in any of them are people who know f'all else, and often assume they do....

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... is, I think, a different distinction. You can have consultants who are either. A specialist consultant would be an expert in that specialization, while a generalist consultant would be the "big picture guy" (or gal).

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

in corporate IT and be a minor league lowly contractor. There's always a bright side, followed by painful sunburn, and skin cancer. :p

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

My clients couldn't care if I called myself a mongoose. They pay for my attention, whether it's to advise them or to make something for them.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

colour this one, this one was a bit more subtle, mind you so's punch in the face compared the minor leaguers thingy. I did for some reason end up with the impression he was bigging himself up again, myself though...

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

But not so bad an anonymous downvote was required.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

"10 Reasons Why Non-IT-Consultants should be blasted into Space!" Second Draft: "101 Reasons Why Non-IT-Consultants should be blasted into Space!" Third Draft: "1001 Reasons You People Should just ShaddapAnLissen!" Fourth Draft: "How IT consultants are different from contractors" *grumble* *mutter* :D I agree, this is a giant step up the ladder... but from two giant strides down. But hey, the direction is about right, maybe he'll get here in the next life...

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

10 reasons why Eric Eckel is brill and you should pass lots of work to him in return for recompense that makes his brilliance worth while... Always been my experience that somepne who spends loads of time explaining why they are great, doesn't have much left to be great...