What's more important to become an IT consultant: education or experience?

Discover how Chip Camden answers this member question: "Is there a special course you have to take to become an IT consultant, or does it depend on what computer skills you have?"

A TechRepublic member recently e-mailed me this question: "Is there a special course you have to take to become an IT consultant, or does it depend on what computer skills you have?"

The topic of education vs. experience comes up a lot in the TechRepublic Forums. I don't think there's one answer to this question; in my opinion, you need a good mix of book smarts and on-the-job knowledge in order to be an IT consultant -- with a dash of something else. I'll explain in more detail.

To my knowledge (and under the guidance of the Great Google), no institution of higher learning offers a specific course on how to become an IT consultant. The word consultant implies that you possess extraordinary knowledge and insight to share with your clients -- for a fee. Those assets are usually only acquired through the school of hard knocks.

Colleges and universities offer programs for studying aspects of IT, but they expect you to take that degree into the workforce and gain real-world experience before becoming an IT consultant. Various organizations offer seminars for consultants or certifications in specific IT disciplines.

A college education will undoubtedly introduce you to concepts, terminology, and techniques that will give you a head start on dealing with the real-life problems that you have to face in order to gain valuable experience. You'll also learn how to analyze problems and think about how to think about a solution, but I don't believe your degree has to be in Computer Science in order to derive that benefit from it. In fact, a degree in another discipline often provides a perspective that illuminates the tunnel down which everyone else is gazing.

I may be a bit biased; my degree isn't in Computer Science or any related field. I learned everything on the job, where I was an operator, a programmer, a researcher, a manager, and a director before striking out on my own as an IT consultant. My only computer-related course in school (Systems Analysis and Design) didn't teach me anything I didn't already know from working in the field.

When I think about what I would have learned if I had pursued a Computer Science degree, I see "structured programming" and working with the limited data structures available in the languages of that day: Fortran, COBOL, Pascal, ALGOL, and Assembly. I learned a lot about those topics from independent learning and from correcting students' programs -- although those skills were practically obsolete before the students graduated. Technology is advancing even more rapidly today. Now, when you google a programming language feature, if the information is more than a couple of months old, you make a mental note that it might not be up to date.

However, you can't become an IT consultant based solely on experience. There are plenty of IT consultants who have been doing things the same way for many years and haven't learned much. Self-education and self-improvement are extremely important; thanks to the Internet, this has become relatively easy to maintain. Back in the old days, you had to read book after book and subscribe to a monthly pile of trade magazines. I still like to read a book sometimes for deep knowledge in a specific topic, but for the majority of my learning, I do online searches and subscribe to blogs that target my areas of interest.

But experience and knowledge still won't make you an IT consultant. You might be the next Niklaus Wirth or Paul Graham, but it ain't worth a damn until you build a reputation and potential clients find out about you. I'm lucky -- I landed my first big engagement before I quit my previous employer, and I've had a pretty steady stream of clients ever since. Most of these clients learned about me by word of mouth, although my Internet presence is increasingly drawing in new clients. But what if your reputation is nonexistent? How do you build one? I'll save that for a future post.