Consultants are no better than internal IT departments

Justin James responds to Erik Eckel's recent IT Consultant post in which he states that consultants are pros, and corporate IT staffers are minor leaguers.

Erik Eckel recently wrote that "consultants are pros, while corporate IT staff are minor league." I found his post to be highly offensive and incredibly inaccurate. The reality is, the consultancy that he owns and runs may be more agile than the typical corporate IT department, but it doesn't mean they are "pros," and corporate IT folks are "minor league." Far from it. In fact, Erik contradicts this argument whenever he complains that his competitors in his local area have done a poor job.

To summarize Erik's post, here is the comparison he makes:

  • Corporate IT departments are big enough to allow the workers to specialize in individual technologies. Consultants need to know many technologies, which makes them superior.
  • Corporate IT workers don't work nearly as hard as consultants.

To both of these points, I say that he is completely mistaken.

Consultancies have just as much specialization as a big corporate IT shop once they get to the same size. If you look at any of the "big boys," you aren't going to see the same person fixing Exchange and looking at Oracle in the same day. In fact, many consultancies are very specialized. At the same time, the IT workers in small organizations have just as much variety in their skill sets as Erik boasts that his workers have. For example, I work for a small company, and I handle everything from issues with desktop PC apps and networking issues to running databases, Web servers, and mail servers. When I am not doing all of that, I am writing software to integrate with our backend systems. Does that mean that I am a "pro," while the Oracle DBA is "minor league" because they specialized? Absolutely not. It means that I can do a lot of non-Oracle tasks that the DBA can't, and the DBA will know a lot more about Oracle than I ever will.

Simply put, "jack of all trades" always means "master of none." I've seen specialized IT staff (consultants or internal) find stuff that I never would, simply because they are experts and have a lot more hours using the product than I do. It's the same thing when you call a help desk for support; the idea is that the help desk has a lot more experience in the product than you do, and therefore knows something you don't. Erik's consultants may be able to do a lot of different things, but I doubt they can do any of them better than a specialized expert.

Regarding the "volume" issue, Erik is entirely off base. Here's a quote:

"Because of consulting's nature, the need to get the business back up and running fast is critical; it's always a stressful environment; there's no time to learn on the job; and there is rarely time to grab lunch or even hit the restroom."

I've seen this in corporate IT too. When Walmart's email servers are down, does he think the IT staff punches the clock at 5:00 PM and says, "oh well, I guess we'll fix it tomorrow"? If corporate IT was as stress free as Erik makes it out to be, no one would become a consultant. Erik is talking about break/fix work, and it is like this regardless of if you are internal IT or a consultant.

If you look at the beginning of Erik's rant, he talks about his difficulties in hiring, that the people in corporate environments are scared of the breadth of knowledge needed and the volume of work. You see this all over. I've met plenty of consultants who couldn't switch gears, and consultants who melted down when they were asked to do more than one thing at a time or had a heavy volume of work. Why Erik seems to think that "consultants" are magically in love with this is beyond me. I've worked 55 hours straight as an internal IT person. I've had situations where I was sleeping on the couch with the cell phone in my hand, so I could be immediately notified of progress while I was internal IT. There are many occasions when I worked 60 - 80 hours a week as internal IT. Why Erik thinks that consultants are so special with regards to stress and volume is beyond me.

The differences that Erik cites are mostly the differences between being working for a large IT shop and a small shop. The business model (internal vs. consultant) isn't a legitimate difference, other than comparing the head of an IT department to someone managing a consultancy. For the workers on the ground, the work is the same. Bigger shops (regardless of the business model) specialize and smaller shops generalize. It's that simple.

Calling corporate IT pros "minor league" is not accurate. It sounds to me like what happened is that Erik interviewed people who work for a corporate IT department who aren't able to cut the mustard and get raises and promotions internally, and are now trying to score work with a consultancy to get some big bucks. What he's running into is the supply/demand issues of IT labor. There is a serious shortage of qualified, hardworking labor in the market. But to think that it is unique to corporate IT and that it doesn't exist in consultancies is pure fallacy.



Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

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