Outsourcing

What it takes to be a consulting expert

IT consultants who want to be considered experts should stop worrying about their shortcomings and start talking about their experiences, insights, and aptitudes.

In the Consultant Journal article "Who you calling an expert?", Andréa Coutu writes:

Becoming a small business or independent consultant may seem out of reach to some of you because you just don't think you're enough of an expert to be a consultant.

Let me tell you right now that becoming an expert is not as complicated as it sounds. When you're a consultant, you are offering your clients something of value –- your expertise. But expertise doesn't have to mean that you are the world's foremost expert in your field. No, expertise just means that you have more insights than your client does on your given area of expertise.

I prefer a cautious humility over blind hubris. It's good to know your limitations. But as Andréa points out, it's easy to let an awareness of your shortcomings keep you from accomplishing all that you might be able to do for your clients. From the novice's perspective, an expert may look like a demi-god and his experiences like the labors of Hercules. From the other side, though, the distance between novice and expert does not seem nearly so far.

For some of the technologies for which I provide consulting services, I've been working with those technologies for two or three decades. I've helped to create some of these, and participated in their design and development over the years. On those technologies, I can call myself an expert, as you'd be hard pressed to find another person on the planet better qualified to consult in them.

But I also consult in technologies that I have not personally influenced, and in which I possess sometimes less than a year's experience. Yet I am still able to provide an almost equivalent value to my clients in these other technologies in which I could reasonably qualify as a novice. How can that be?

You might chalk it up to cumulative experience in the field, which allows me to recognize patterns of development wherever they occur and apply general principles of due diligence and good design. I'll grant that's a factor, but I don't think it's the whole story, or even an interesting part of it. In fact, the opposite has often been the case: the old way of doing things often hampers rather than helps. Adapting to new paradigms requires me to retain a youthful perspective on development, rather than getting set in my ways. I need to be a learner more often than a teacher.

Expertise is more about your ability to learn than it is about what you already know. Our industry changes so rapidly that yesterday's knowledge may be good for perspective, a good war story, or a Wikipedia article, but it isn't going to meet your client's needs without adapting to their present problems. As a result, we're all novices.

Back to what Andréa said: to offer expertise to your client, all you need is to "have more insights than your client does." The first step in gaining those insights is to find out what you do and do not know. Next, determine what you need to know in order to be helpful. You probably don't have to know it all. For instance, if your client wants to use a specific programming language to create their new product, you may not need to have a thorough understanding of that language's underlying implementation of hashes. Sure, it might help, but how much? Much more important would be a good grasp of its available idioms for whatever you're trying to do. Identify sources for any information you lack, and explore those sources until you know where to look for anything you need. Finally, play with the technology. Satisfy your curiosity on any questions that you can anticipate.

Malcolm Gladwell has become famous for (among other things) the 10,000-hour rule: If you want to become an expert at something, you need to put 10,000 hours into it. That's about five years, full time. While that amount of time would probably qualify you for most technologies in most people's eyes, I prefer to think of expertise on a scale relative to your client's needs. As Andréa said, "more insights than your client (has)." Perhaps instead of marketing our "expertise," we should be talking instead about our experiences, insights, and aptitudes.

Also read: Evaluate your consulting expertise using the Dreyfus model.

About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

33 comments
GregMiliates
GregMiliates

Obviously, you don't want to shout "Look at me! I'm an expert!", but instead you want to show potential clients the value that you can provide. Something that's worked well for me and has netted me roughly 30% of my clients is posting answers on forums--specifically, niche forums where potential clients are asking questions. If I know the answer to a question, I'll respond to the post, along with my contact info, including e-mail, phone, and website URL. The person asking the question is happy to have an answer, and as I answer more questions, I become known as an expert. This isn't necessarily the fastest way to get clients, but it's certainly been a very fruitful marketing strategy for me. I have more tips, tricks, techniques, and tools on my blog (http://www.StartMyConsultingBusiness.com), where I show you how you can start and run a successful consulting business on the cheap.

alcoutu
alcoutu

Chip, thanks for the mention. Actually, it was more than a mention! One thing I should add is that going around telling people you're an expert is likely to meet with poor results. A kick in the teeth, even. It's one thing to position yourself as an expert and achieve expert status - but quite another to run around proclaiming that you're an expert when no one wants to pay attention. In fact, I think perhaps I should give that subject its own post.

alastair
alastair

Nothing stays the same. Can I claim to be an Andriod developer with 20 years experience? No. Its too new; there might be a couple of individuals with two years experience. Likewise I have been a UNIX sysadmin consultant for 20 years and its amazing how varied the gigs can be even within this confine. Chip has perfectly defined the consultant in his piece; its about experience and having an open mind to learn new things. Also be prepared to throw away any theories or concepts you build up along the way; you will do a gig that completely turns around your theory on how something should be done! Expert=has alot of experience and has seen things done many different ways to be able to add value.

harryem1
harryem1

When I think "What value can I add?" to an enterprise, small start-up, whatever, I come back to what I call The Basic Rules, things I've learned over my 25+ years in IT as a consultant as well as an employee. The first is to remember that systems, apps, technologies are brought in or contemplated to do something, in business / organizational / human terms. As others here (Chip, Robin, Jan) mentioned, I think of my cumulative experience, and I focus on my ability to ask the right question, questions about the goal(s) and objective(s) of using the particular technology / language / app. Or questions about the problem my {prospective} client / boss is having. Then, I use my Expertise in listening. For positions specifically calling for expertise, I discovered (a) true expertise really takes the afore-mentioned long chunk of time, but (b) based upon your prior experience and homework on the technical area of focus, you can determine if it's an area you can wrap your head around with a few days - a week of intense research or if it's an area that really does need months. I have personally used the (b) approach successfully. I also have not used it where I knew I'd be stepping in over my head. Knowing the difference is a matter of personal experience. Harry Mishkin

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Just because I'm too burned to actually pipe up with something new ... to summarize what has already been said ... 1. Don't underestimate your ability Your customers/clients have a higher opinion of you than you do. And they are closer to being correct. 2. Don't be afraid to brand yourself as an expert Recognize and publicize your abilities. They'll take you further than you think. Many of us have been around long enough to develop at least one expertice. Many of us a half dozen or so. Just because people want us in a box, doesn't mean we have to be in a box (just look like it). 3. Never actually use the word expert. People hate "experts". They love an experienced eye or an outside eye or ... you get the idea.

builder77777
builder77777

Isn't an expert someone who has the terminology down pat, the psychological moves down pat to avoid suspicion? I have seen a lot of these people who are not very adaptable to people but know how to get ahead. Much of the documentation is available for this stuff online and experts have to use this too. So an expert is someone who looks, talks, acts, has the experience to say it, and the BS to get through it? Oh well, we are all experts in many different thing, but companies choose to hire the wrong people for the wrong positions all the time - I think it is one of the most wasteful and non value added practice around. Of course, they sit back in their mansions somewhere and dictate this so it does not really matter, just so the job gets done!

kjmartin
kjmartin

Or a consultant has the time to google 'best practices for...'. My favorite was the guy who sat net to me reading from a step by step guide to installing a particular product. I later found out that guide was freely available online from the manufacturer. Dogbert Consulting is not a joke, its just good reporting.

jmarkovic32
jmarkovic32

Sometimes I suffer from "imposter syndrome" and refuse to call myself an expert in any area. However, you have to balance that with the fact that there's not one person on earth who knows everything about a particular technology or topic, especially since it changes every six months. However, let your experience do the talking.

ian
ian

In the old days back in the UK, we defined an expert as "an ex is a has-been and a spurt is a drip under pressure" (drip being a derogatory term for nerd - if there is such a beast). But seriously, An expert is someone who knows their particular subject well enough to overcome major complications. What an expert is not, is someone who knows everything about everything. A consultant, (for some unknown reason has become synonymous with expert - usually a technical person) knows enough to see the broader picture and offer direction. They would consult with experts before suggesting the right course of action to their clients. To be an expert consultant, I think four areas of expertise are needed. Interview technique - to know which questions to ask and how to ask them to get the information you need. Research technique - to know where/who to go to for specific technical advice Project management - to provide timelines, cost analysis and oversee the project from start to finish. Salesmanship - to sell your suggested course of action to your client. Consultants are not necessarily technical people but they should be experts in their field.

SecurityFrst
SecurityFrst

As a Security consultant myself, I find that most people are taken back with describing yourself as an expert. Security First & Assoc. www.securityfirstassociates. Author: Everything you need to know about the security clearance process, but are afraid to ask.

robin
robin

I've found that most people go into consulting because they have some degree of expertise in a particular skill or topic, but the ones who continually provide value over time are those who develop expertise at consulting itself, which is really what Chip is describing here. Part of that expertise is developing the ability to quickly acquire sufficient skill/topic expertise to provide consulting assistance in different client situations. Bravo for Chip as usual!

leszek.kobiernicki
leszek.kobiernicki

I must admit, I tend to agree with the prevailing reactions. Long experience in any field tends to bring about a profound humility in the face of extreme degrees of complexities and subject involvedness. It is only others who say this of a person - usually without knowing the problematics of calling them that. That said, some are freed by their very position in an org. to command an influence - whether technical, or commercial. It is the confusion of the two, which leads to simplifications and conflation. Expertism is about perception of others - or, worse still, self - leading down the slippery slope of self-overestimation .. Better to adopt the attitude of lets-fix-it-by-pooling-resources, be they experience of information. That is what works well in teams. Experts are for outsiders, not within the technical field.

kevinsting
kevinsting

I think it may mean that you know your subject backward and foreward, and inside out; and very few people can trip you up? I would give my eye-teeth to say that I was a Computer Information Expert. Kevin Sting aka (The Ghost Who Walks)

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Actions speak louder than words, after all. Looking forward to your post!

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

At least it looks good :D Useability Bah Who needs to use it!

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

before you find yourself ankle deep and upside down that seperates useful people, from mere experts....

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

BS always comes back around in the slinger's face, one way or another. Even though the BSer may "get away with it" and move on to another gig, they lost the opportunity of establishing a good long-term relationship with the client by forcing themselves to have to run from the lie.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

He was expert enough to know that he did not have to re-invent the world. As opposed to the person at the other end who did!

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Although it's hard to avoid placing yourself on a continuum from novice to expert, the truth is that experience has many facets and varieties.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

That's what I (for some strange reason) couldn't put a name on: "expertise in consulting itself."

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I treat anyone who describes themselves as one with extreme suspicion... Even when the accolade was deserved, they were proven to be useless for anything else....

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

"useful" -- too bad that doesn't stick out on a resume. But then again, if it did, it would probably get misused to the point of becoming meaningless again.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

this is IT, so change is a given. Now it means spent a lot of money on certs.....

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

expert (adj.) late 14c., from O.Fr. expert and directly from L. expertus, pp. of experiri "to try, test" (see experience). The n. sense of "person wise through experience" existed 15c., reappeared 1825. So the original meaning was directly tied to experience.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

What "expert" ought should have been - Veteran, seasoned.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

In my experience those quickest to claim the mantle of expert are usually the least deserving of it. Even when it's deserved, if it's in a tool, all that means is, is a one trick pony, most of the job requires an extensive repertoire.

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