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.
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.