Software optimize

Why the cloud won't kill IT consulting

Even when clients move apps into the cloud, they still need IT consultants to check on things from time to time and make sure that they're getting the most out of the services.

TechRepublic member Scott Billups sent me the following question by email:

How do you feel the cloud boom is effecting traditional IT professionals? Mainly in the small business world? I mean, it seems like if small businesses outsource their business to IT managed company, or use cloud with them (email, web, applications, share point...etc..) there is no need for traditional IT Consultants to help. They have the cloud service provider to call.

For example, a client of mine, I put them on hosted Exchange with Microsoft. Really though if they needed to control users, add users, distribution lists, resetting passwords, they could really do this themselves. I was thinking of transforming my services to cloud, but not sure how to charge for something that is being held somewhere else. What are your thoughts Chip?

Cloud is the dominant buzzword du jour and, as with most buzzwords, it's susceptible to many different meanings. From Scott's example, though, we can gather that he's referring specifically to the use of hosted services to replace traditional desktop and small business server applications like email and document management. By moving these apps off of their own servers and into the cloud, they no longer require the same level of maintenance they did when they were in-house. Perhaps the business could do with fewer servers, or none at all.

Even though this isn't the sort of consulting I do, a number of ideas spring to mind.

First, even though these systems virtually run themselves, many users will have no idea how to get started with them. Recommending which services to use, initially setting up the accounts, organizing shared resources, and training the users are all activities for which a business would readily pay a consultant.

For any generalized tool, the possible use cases may be infinite, but each business needs to establish its own standard practices. Not only so that everyone knows what tools they're expected to use, where to find everything and how to access it, but also to maintain data integrity and security. You can help your users formulate these plans and procedures.

Naturally, you will observe how well various policies work for each of your existing clients, so you can help them revise their policies accordingly, as well as provide that wisdom to your new clients. If you serve a specific industry niche, your growing knowledge of how these services best benefit that niche can become a highly marketable skill. Perhaps you'll develop a turnkey approach to setting up a particular kind of office, complete with an implementation plan that provides everything they'll need, with minimal downtime.

Finally, we all know from experience that entropy extends its withering influence into any system that isn't actively monitored. Your clients may not need the kinds of regular maintenance you're providing today, but they'll still need someone to check on things from time to time and make sure that they're getting the most out of the services they're using. Revise, but don't eliminate, your maintenance contracts.

As technology progresses, the services that consultants perform today become irrelevant tomorrow. It's uncomfortable to realize that your customary service model may soon be obsolete. But technology will never eliminate the IT industry, any more than the next programming language will eliminate the need for software engineers. People will always need help from someone who has been there before and knows what they're doing. Automation may simplify many tasks and eliminate others, but that will only open the door to new activities that will require their own expertise. That's where the consultant will always find a place.

More about cloud computing on TechRepublic

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...

7 comments
JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

As someone who deals primarily with small & medium businesses that cannot afford or justify a full-time IT staff, outsourcing everything possible permits businesses to concentrate their limited IT resources where it matters most. I can focus on application development and end-user support instead of constantly babysitting e-mail, web & database servers. Few small businesses can economically justify the kind of reliability and redundantcy they can buy as a service, where day-to-day maintenance, backup and babysitting is someone else's problem.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

OK, lame joke -- sorry. How do you see cloud-based services altering your consulting business?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Do you need more SMB clients now to generate the same revenue, or do you find other ways to provide service?

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

I didn't get into the business to maintain infrastructure, but to create capability that didn't exist before so my clients could be more capable and efficient. Over the years, more and more of my time got diverted towards maintenance (mainly because of the complexity and unreliability of Windows) which zapped both my time and client resources from developing new capability (applications). So the less time spent babysitting Exchange databases and public-touchable servers that have to be monitored realtime against all kinds of threats means more time focusing on new, fun stuff. Better for client. Better for me. It doesn't mean that I still don't have issues to manage, but it does mean that I don't have to loose as much sleep at night. It's better reliability at lower cost. Everybody wins. I feel that so much of IT has fallen into a trap of reliable maintenance-driven fees. For example, every month, Microsoft reliably pushes out a new set of patches with the potential to send everything to hell. So we've got to spend hours a month testing them and then carefully seeing to it that they're deployed to clients lest they fall victim to unseen bad guys. Yes, it's reliable income, but it's not what I got into the business for.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

It's all part of my love-hate relationship with Microsoft. In the early days (80s for me) software was relatively simple and hardware was hard. But once you got something up and running well, it usually stayed that way until the hardware failed. (which was usually too frequent) Once something worked, you could then focus most of your energy on the next project. It was exciting and fun. By the later 90s, hardware got more standardized, easier to configure and incredibly more reliable compared to a decade earlier. But then Windows went mainstream. Under Windows, once you got something up and seemingly stable, there was absolutely no guarantee that it would stay that way for very long. Then the Internet happened (mostly a good thing) and soon after the security/vulnerability crisis (a bad thing). Good thing was that vendors could deploy patches at will. Bad thing was that vendors would deploy patches at will. Any one of them had the potential to send your formerly stable empire to hell. Not deploying them meant that bored teenagers in Romania might turn your client's PCs into a botnet. Dealing with these kinds of problems soon started to take over my consultancy. I know I'm not alone. So over a 10 year period, I found myself going from spending roughly 80% of my billable time working on deploying new capability to spending nearly 80% of my time just keeping everything working and secure. In other words, I went from spending most of my time (client's money) on making it possible to do something they couldn't do yesterday to spending most of it on just getting them back to what they could do yesterday. This is regression; not progress. If the IT industry wishes to remain respected and valued, it needs to continually find ways to add value to the client's existence; not just new revenue streams. Just becoming part of an expensive army of rent-seeking capability-static cable-swappers and patch deployers isn't why I got into the business.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... a business plan based on filling a technological gap with billable hours is doomed, because eventually someone will fill the gap with technology. It means that we consultants have to keep moving ahead, but if we didn't we could hardly merit the name of consultants.

apotheon
apotheon

> I didn't get into the business to maintain infrastructure, but to create capability that didn't exist before so my clients could be more capable and efficient. Good. I see too many people in IT consulting talk about MS Windows as some kind of job security, precisely because it requires so much attention to keep everything running -- as if intentionally setting up clients with systems that require additional expense just to make more money isn't scamming clients. That approach sickens me; your preferred approach is what consultants should provide. I refuse to put myself in the position of owing my livelihood to maintaining an operational balance with the low quality of software coming out of Redmond.