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.

By Chip Camden

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...