"Do you know how to do X?"
Prospects used to ask that question or its equivalent more frequently than any other, but times have changed. Back in the old days when scarcity of expertise shook hands with poorly documented and closed systems, consultants could find lucrative engagements on the strength of merely knowing how to perform a few tasks that we might consider simple today. At least three factors have changed all that:
- Google. If you need to know how to do something, just google it. Early search engines were not very helpful — if you were looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack, they'd provide each individual haystalk for your examination. Google took search to a whole new level of intelligence, and it spurred competitors such as Bing, Clusty, and others to try to find even more ways to improve searching the Web.
- Open source. Google only helps if there's something to find. Thanks to the open source movement, the Web is filled with free examples of how to accomplish sundry technical feats. You might even find a free, complete solution that you can download — just be careful about its license. In addition to source code, a great number of repositories of free technical know-how have populated the Web, from Wikipedia to TechRepublic.
- User-friendliness. Competition in response to user demand has made many tasks easier to perform over the years. We used to plan weeks in advance for an operating system upgrade — and forget about adding a new device. Programming languages, after straying into the swamp of over-simplification (e.g., VB and Java), have in recent years become more powerful and expressive while implementing as much simplicity as possible, but no more. Thus, it has become possible for the relatively inexperienced user to perform many tasks that used to require an expert.
So, why does anyone need to hire an IT consultant any more? Just tell the boss's nephew to google an open source solution and slap it in!
And then all hell breaks loose. Why?
- Although Google can lead you to the advice of an expert, it can also lead you down a path that's just plain wrong — or wrong for your situation.
- Google often provides the answer you're looking for, though it may not be the answer you need. In other words, you might be asking the wrong question.
- Because search results are ranked according to authority, Google encourages a "collective wisdom" approach to solving problems. Inspiration, on the other hand, comes from seeing connections that few have seen before.
- That's not to say that you can't have serendipitous moments with Google - I experience them frequently. But serendipity is in the eye of the googler. An intuition informed by experience will see the opportunity for relevance, while a novice will think "oh, that's not what I'm looking for" and move on.
- Freely available solutions may not solve the exact same problem that you're facing. A 10% divergence from the same goals or constraints may require quite a bit of expertise to adapt it to the purpose.
- As user-friendly as software and hardware have become, the cases in which everything "just works" are still the minority. Paradoxically, user-friendliness itself often makes diagnosing failures all the more difficult, because the interface "protects" the user from what's going on under the covers.
- The plan is not as important as how it is executed.
All of the above call for the help of someone who has been there, done that. It's only natural that as technology advances, the tasks that used to be hard have become easier — and that consultants aren't required for those tasks any more. But the growth of technology means that new challenges and opportunities arise constantly, and clients will always need the voice of experience to guide them into those new regions — at least until Google becomes intelligent enough to become a consultant.
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 blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.