Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Snips and Snails or Sugar and Spice? Just what are Consultants Made of?

"What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails, and puppy dogs tails
That's what little boys are made of!

What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice and all things nice
That's what little girls are made of!"

Mother Goose Nursury Rhyme

Have you ever heard the phrase: "It takes all kinds to make the world go 'round?"  Well, it does.  Especially in Information Technology.  But, I'm of the opinion that IT people come roughly in two flavors.
  1. Technicians (or Engineers)
  2. Consultants (or Analysts)
What's the difference you say?  Well, here's my definitions:

Technicians are technical.  They understand the *how* of a technology, how to make it run, how to service it, install it, create it.  They're great with machines, coding, and complex troubleshooting.  Often they're the kind of people that just can't stand to *not* know why something broke and want to fix it no matter how long it takes.

Consultants look at business process and are more interested in why and where and who and what rather than the how of a particular technology.  They may also be very technically capable, but they generally marry superior customer service, business analysis, and communication skills with that technical capability.

Here are some common questions I've heard about technicians and consultants:

Q. Can you train technicians?

A. You can give people knowledge about a technology, but it's much harder (if not impossible) to train the intuitive grasp of *how* technology works.  Contrary to what most people think, the creation, operation and support of technology is as much an art as it is a science.  It changes so rapidly and the complexity is so overwhelming that if all you have is book knowledge and you don't just "get it" you're not going very far.  This is one of the real advantages young people have in growing up with technology that their parents did not... they just get it since they've been dealing with it their whole lives.

Q. Can you train consultants?

A. You can train consulting skills for sure.  You can teach people to look at business process and to consider the business implications of using one technology or another.  You can train people to be good with customer service and you can educate them in the use of written and verbal language skills.  But, once again, there's a certain something that separates good consultants from technicians.  You have to not only "get it" the same way a technician does but you need an intuitive grasp of how people think and how they interact with technology.

Q.Can a technician become a consultant?

A. Certainly!  I did!  I think we all begin as technicians.  You only develop an ability to see the larger picture and the business savvy required for consulting over time and with experience.  It requires development especially of your communication skills, both verbal and written.  If you didn't learn to spell and your grammar depends on Microsoft Word's spell checking you're in for a hard ride as a consultant.

Q. What's wrong with being a technician?

A. Absolutely nothing.  We need both technicians and consultants.  Technicians do things with the actual technology that consultants just can't.  Someone has to make this stuff!  Someone has to code the applications and build the servers.  But would you put a technician in front of a client and ask them to deliver a presentation to C-Level management?  Definitely not.  It's not a good use of their skills and they probably wouldn't enjoy it.

So, which is better?  Technician or Consultant?  It depends on your business needs.  And since I'm a consultant, would you like a presentation on the topic?


  1. That's a reasonable argument as far as it goes and there are clearly engineers who find it difficult to present or display an awareness of business as distinct from hardware/software/infrastructure.
    But 'consultant' is such a horribly overused label. In many cases it's been hijacked by sales departments who will send in sales staff who have been trained on a particular product or service, without having earned their stripes in a technical discipline first. A good consultant will ideally be supported by a good technical department, to which he/she would defer - but unfortunately many will advise and suggest beyond their capabilities.
    Unfortunately there are plenty of examples, on LinkedIn and elsewhere, where individuals with little experience avow a desire to become an IT Consultant. Just working on your own doesn't make you a consultant - it requires a knowledge of the technology, awareness of the solutions you're proposing and ideally a background in business that scales well with your client. In short it requires experience and there are no short cuts to that.

  2. I agree. The title "consultant" in as far as it describes the type of employment you enjoy is different from being an actual "Consultant." The job title is overused by recruiters and the title is often assumed by those without sufficient experience to deserve it. This is a discussion I continue and expand on somewhat in my next blog entry, Job Title Soup.

  3. I agree with you guys, "Consultants" now a days are sales guys with very limited insight of technology as well as business process providing recommendations based on higher cuts from the sales or commissions from any particular technology.

    Irony is Salesman have turned into "Technical Consultant" or "Technical Sales Consultant". This also creates huge issues for true consultants to get things straight with the clients who previously approached by some Technical Sales Consultants. I personally experienced it.


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