IT consultants are essentially the equivalent of baseball's major leaguers, while corporate tech staff members are typically minor league professionals. And before you start the inevitable flame war, know this: minor leaguers probably possess more talent, experience, and know-how than 97% of most people. That's impressive.
I've owned and managed an IT consultancy that has experienced double-digit growth every year for six years straight, and the experience has taught me many lessons. The single biggest factor restraining my IT consulting firm is its ability to hire qualified support pros, administrators, and engineers. Unfortunately, corporate IT staff recruited to serve as consultants have been intimidated by the sheer volume of work and variety of projects our consultancy must complete every day.
Corporate IT professionals' ability to transition into consulting is a critical issue for two reasons. First, corporate IT staff members need to know what they're getting into if they're thinking of changing jobs or opening their own consultancy. Second, consulting offices need to properly understand typical IT pros' limitations in order to successfully recruit corporate professionals and teach them to become effective consultants over time.
Why IT consulting is the major leagues
Corporate IT pros typically work for organizations that fulfill a single business model, serve one or two project managers, report to one CFO and one CIO, support only a handful of remote sites, manage a few constituencies of users, and maintain a finite number of applications. This is a lot of work, and only a professional can meet all of those demands. However, our IT consultancy completes work for hundreds of commercial clients, each with its own CFO, CIO, office-manager-in-charge, remote sites, budget, business model and requirements, thousands of users in dozens of states, and a unique mix of applications.
In the corporate world, an IT pro might be responsible for managing a site relocation, managing the project through six months or a year of meetings, scheduling, preparation, and, ultimately, the site relocation. My office sometimes gets eight hours notice for the same project; this includes the responsibility for managing telecommunications circuit relocation, telephony migration, server rack needs, power requirements, physical equipment relocation, new router specifications, and workstation breakdown, moving, and setup.
Here are the two primary elements to keep in mind when corporate tech professionals attempt to transition to IT consulting:
- The volume of work is intimidating. On any given day, consultants must respond on-site, identify a complex software issue, obtain replacement hardware, implement and test a fix, all within 45 minutes or an hour, and then get on to the next call. You'll repeat the process four or five times a day. 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.
- The vast range of required technical skills is complex. In the corporate environment, there are often specific individuals who troubleshoot failed backups; another set of individuals might manage difficult site-to-site technical routing issues; and other staff might be responsible for remotely walking users through troubleshooting failed VPN connections. There might also be a specific group of administrators who manage physically changing failed disks in critical servers, rebuild the failed array, and determine the best virtualized server solution and network setup to support 25 locations working on a shoestring budget. One tech working for an IT consultancy might be responsible for knocking out all of those tasks in one day.
I realize that it's bold to state that seasoned corporate professionals aren't major leaguers, but consultancies too often must slow down and train corporate professionals on simple and basic processes. These are fundamentals that I think it's fair to claim any big leaguer should have mastered.Real-world examples
Here is a sampling of tasks I've seen corporate technology professionals struggle with that IT pros must master in order to work for an IT consultancy:
- Configure a common telecommunications provider modem to authenticate a PPPoE session or work in bridge mode.
- Program a Cisco or SonicWALL router to support a new VPN connection.
- Recover a corrupted Microsoft Exchange email database.
- Properly license and deploy a Microsoft SQL Server.
- Physically remove a failed disk, reinstall the new drive, and rebuild a disk array.
- Run and terminate a category 5e cable in a pinch.
- Physically migrate servers between sites, accommodating reverse DNS, DNS A, and MX record changes in the process.
- Meet with a client, listen to their needs, and recommend and price a complete solution within 5% of the ultimate project cost.
- Diagnose and fix the cause of a failed driver on a 10 year-old, no longer supported software platform.
- Correct backup errors on systems using a variety of backup applications installed by numerous third parties backing up to a wide variety of media, ensuring all backups can recover all business operations should a failure occur.
- Recommend and implement email solutions for companies with 100 users, spending only $20K.
With the correct expectations, and patience dedicated to bringing corporate IT pros up to speed, though, the transition to working for an IT consultancy can be made successfully. Corporate staff simply must learn to hit these myriad and frequent "curveballs" clients throw when you work at an IT consultancy.
Do you agree or disagree with my points about the challenges many IT pros face when trying to transition into IT consulting? If you found the transition process a breeze, tell us about your experiences. Join the conversation.Also read: TechRepublic contributor Justin James has written a response to this post: Consultants are no better than internal IT departments.
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.