That is the question…
In an industry as technical as mine, the question often comes up on whether or not technical certifications are worth their cost and effort. Unfortunately, the answer is not so black and white.
A brief history of a certification exam
Before I give a quick history on one of the most popular technical certification exams in my world, let me begin by saying that my information comes from several folks who used to be employed directly by that software firm, and may not represent the reality of certifications in all types of industries.
Back in the “good ‘ole days”, one of the (no-longer) prestigious certification exams was written by a combination of the software employees and partner consultants. The team worked together to create true tests of a person’s knowledge and skills. Real questions from real-life scenarios were posed. The required passing score was higher than what is required today (but to be fair…there were also fewer features available in the technology than what you see today). In addition, the exam was not always computer based, nor was it entirely multiple choice. (Imagine that – a testing world where technology was not the vehicle for administering a technology exam!) It was challenging back then. It was also free. And…you had to be a software partner to take the exam. Having a certification meant something. It was a status symbol and it actually carried weight. At that time only a fraction of the folks (compared to today’s world) were in the industry, so those who were both in the industry and certified meant something.
Fast forward about a decade…we saw huge changes in the certification exams. Suddenly, multiple technologies were granted certifications. Anyone could take them – no prerequisites necessary. The test became completely computer-based, which means that it also became multiple-choice. Fees were charged for them in order to compensate for the overhead required (proctors, computers, etc.). Certifications were becoming commercialized. They were being put out at breakneck speed so that it became increasingly hard to synchronize the certification version with the latest software version. They were seen as a means for generating extra revenue for the software vendor. The weight of a certification’s importance began to shift.
Looking at the past decade…we now have homogenized exams that are “easy to pass”. You go to a proctored site hosted by a third party. You sign into a computer and answer basic questions about your technology of choice. If you’re lucky, the answer bank is actually based on the real product guides. Before you leave, you have a print out of your exam scores. You can even buy the answers off the internet (yes, I’ve looked). There are “banks of questions” that folks secretly capture…and share. Some people even try to garner friendships by posting answers on public forums. We’ve seen it numerous times. All you need to do is memorize a list of 100 questions and answers, pay a fee and then take the exam. The once precious certification became bastardized and can now be bought. No experience necessary!
So…what is the value of a certification exam?
Based on this history (which more than likely sounds jaded at this point), you might be able to discern why the answer to this question is not so simple. For clients…yes, sometimes a certification matters. Clients who may not be aware of the standards of certification offered today may easily read two bios and pick the one that has the certification, not realizing that it means very little to us consultants in the field. I’ve actually sat in an interview process at a past client and witnessed this selection process.
For those in my industry who are considering the certification path – I would say that this is not a valid test of technical ability. The challenging exams from way back when were meaningful, but those versions are now nonexistent so even they have little value in today’s world.
It is for the above reasons that my firm (and many others) no longer value certifications. Some may argue that it is also a reason why software companies like the one my company is partnered with, no longer put as much weight on certifications for partner status.
Then…what is a worthwhile alternative in this industry?
If you’re in the wonderful world of EPM, there is a honor bestowed upon a select group that I feel is worth all of the blood, sweat, and tears paid. It is hard-earned and carries a lot of weight. In my world this is called the Oracle Ace status. It comes with 3 levels: Director, Ace, and Ace Associate (the latter was just added in the past 2 years). Because the program requirements are a bit vague, have evolved quite a bit over the years, and are not publicly outlined (and I have no personal experience to comment upon, myself), it’s hard to give all the specific reasons why I hold this distinction in high regard. However, I am fortunate to count several of my friends amongst those in the Oracle Ace program. I have interrogated a few of them (and received a few blank stares – the program can even be elusive to those in it) and have a good idea of how hard they work, the effort they put in, how closely they work with Oracle to make our EPM technologies better, and the value proposition that this program recognizes and rewards. Now I understand why the prerequisites are not posted. As one of my Oracle Ace friends commented, “It’s vague for a reason. If you give a checklist of requirements then people just do the checklist. This way is more qualitative”.
To all of my friends out there who have achieved Oracle Ace status, I applaud you. I’m sure it was a long and challenging road to get where you are, and I have a clue about what it takes to keep the your status each year. Thank you for all that you do for the Oracle community.
One final set of comments…
Let me attempt to soften the blow to those of you who got certified the “right way”. If you actually worked hard and really studied for a certification and did not buy the answers from the internet…good on you! It is unfortunate that your efforts are being cheapened by the money-making schemes of today’s world. You may not even be aware of the reality that I pose in this blog post…and I’m sorry that you had to find out this way.
For those of you who took the easy road…there may be many reasons why you chose to do this, and it would be unfair of me to stand in judgment of all of you. However, you at least ought to know that there is a stigma that exists out there and people have caught onto what has been a reality for far too long.
That is the question…
As a follow-up to my last post, I’ve added a part II to my contractor profile blog. I thought it would be important for anyone interested to get the contractor perspective directly, sans personal commentary. What you’ll find below are the questions asked and the responses given. Personally identifying details have been removed. In addition, when the responses were similar or unanimous, I combined them.
1. What do you think are the advantages to being independent?
I can pick the projects I want, where I want, when I want. In other words, I have control, something that consulting company employees simply do not have. Employees go where the consulting company has work.
Freedom to pick and choose projects and choose the number of weeks of vacation I want each year.
Every week is a very different proposition.
This is sort of a shocker, but an IC [“independent contractor”] has a more stable employment picture than just about anyone. How so? If I’m on a gig with a PO [“purchase order”], unless the client site burns to the ground, I’ve got work till the PO runs out. Client or consulting company employees are much more at risk as all sorts of things can happen to them whilst working on a project. Of course at the end of the project they have work and I don’t but that’s just my cue to find the next engagement.
As consultants age, they tend to have families. Significant Others and the usually-inevitable offspring have this weirdo expectation that said consultant will be around for the things that supposedly count more than work. Which is pretty hard to do if you are on the other side of the country. So I tend to hold out for more local projects because it gives me a better quality of life.
Sometimes totally awesome projects drop into your lap, sometimes the gig is a stinker. I don’t have to take those stinkers unless I either need the money or think I’ll pick up a valuable skill. I get to decide.
Neutrality (a.k.a. “You are not threatening”)
I put together what I like to call “science projects” that span people I know in the EPM world. They tend to be consultants and work for a variety of companies. I think if I tried to organize this and worked for consulting company X their managers wouldn’t allow the work.
Compensation tends to be higher and self-employment allows for much greater pre-tax contributions to retirement plans.
2. What do you think are the disadvantages to being independent?
(Lack of) Health Insurance
The lack of health insurance and other benefits.
The uncertainty of future project work and needing to find your own work.
If you work for a consulting company you don’t have to find work — your practice manager/sales rep/company management finds it for you. I do have to find work and it’s just about my least favorite task — finding work, wading through the bottom-feeding body shops that all advertise the same gig with ever-increasing percent of bill rate taken out, negotiating rates, hoping that the job is somewhere near to the same timezone I live in — fun, fun, fun.I find the finding of work and the self marketing to be time consuming things I wish I didn’t have to do but such is life.
The lack of formalized training.
There is no magical EPM training facility that gives out advanced tool training for free. You get this as an employee — when I did work, briefly, for a prominent consulting company I was astounded at the quality and depth of the training practically shoved down our throats. I was equally surprised at how little my fellow employees appreciated what they had. I suppose that was a case of not knowing what you have. So I spend a LOT of time on the boards, searching the web for answers, forcing myself to blog about stuff, being really innovative at clients so that they agree to me doing mini science projects. In other words, I have to hustle to keep myself even mildly abreast of all of the changes coming out of Oracle. I have to say that for me, this learning hustle is the only way I really learn. When I worked for that unnamed firm, I found that the training was a good introduction to the subject but I only really learned how to use the tool by doing. So that’s the same for me as an independent and I guess a bit of a wash.One thing I am free of is a consulting company forcing me to do technology X when I have no interest in it. A firm with a brain wouldn’t do that anyway to an employee if for no other reason than it’s a terrible way to motivate someone but I have heard tales.
When you’re an employee, you’re on the team. I am a team of one. Oh sure, I meet people through projects but that isn’t the same. I have to use user groups, the web, my blog, etc. to reach out to other people and have that resource I can ask minor favors of from time to time.
I am both the president of the firm and the person that buys stamps at the post office all at the same time. There’s nowhere to go up or down — short of hiring people this is, within my job, as good as it gets.
Over time my role in projects has changed but if I wanted to manage people, or run multiple projects, or deeply interact with Oracle, there simply isn’t the scope. I find the user groups and the web (blog/twitter, boards, etc.) to be a substitute for the normal growth path in a firm. It works for me, but I suspect that is a personal view and all of that does take time. Who needs sleep, really?
3. In addition, the following information was offered in the category of “Neither an advantage nor a disadvantage”
This is a tough one. There is the expectation by everyone who is not an independent consultant that we make the big bucks. My good years are just that — good. Take a guess re: the bad years. Let’s just say that fiscal discipline is a big, big, big part of staying in the IC game. I have over a year’s worth of living expenses in cash? Over reaction? Think about what happened after 9/11. That was a very bleak time for ICs.
Once all of the expenses (there are others — payroll, accounting, training, miscellaneous) are figured in and a few years are averaged the pay is roughly equivalent to what a senior technical consultant would make at a decent consulting company. It is no path to riches but it is certainly a comfortable life.
What no one quite gets are the taxes. I pay double Social Security because I have to pay my personal and corporate SS taxes and I have state and local taxes that individuals don’t have to worry about. As an example, New Jersey has a $500/year foreign corporation registration fee. It goes on and on and it does add up.
Then there’s the insurance tied to the business: liability, workman’s comp (which I can’t even really collect on), errors and omissions, and of course the big one — healthcare. You may complain about having to contribute to it — I pay the full price. And before you think, “That’s before tax” I’ll tell you that isn’t enough to offset the cost, not by a long shot. There is nothing like getting a 31% rise in health care costs which I will absorb 100%.
Those contracts I sign all go through a law firm for review. Hourly rate, as a favor to me because I am high school buddies with one of the partners, $380/hour. They are worth every penny — I have been in bad projects with, in my opinion at least, less than honest people and a good contract got me out. Again, another expense employees don’t see but their employers do.
4. What type of corporation did you open for yourself?
I did not create a corporation, though many people do so.
If you don’t incorporate, someone can sue you for your personal assets. This is a risk, though I don’t know of it happening to anyone at any point in time in my network. An individual can get general liability insurance, just as someone who is incorporated. The truth of the matter is that consulting firms carry insurance that cover you in most cases. When they don’t cover you, they may request that you have your own insurance.
When I started there was no Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) so I am incorporated as an S Corporation. No one will deal with an individual/1099.
5. Do you feel contractors have a positive or negative connotation associated with them (and why)?
Contractors generally have a negative connotation in the minds of the customer and consulting firm. The customer has a fear that a contractor may be somewhat less committed to seeing a project through to a successful ending point. In addition, a contractor may not be available after the project has completed. Consulting firms have financial incentives to utilize their own resources, which are generally less expensive. In addition, consulting firms are incentivized by Oracle to retain minimum numbers of certified consultants. In my case, I am usually as dependable and loyal as any employee. I keep email access with multiple consulting firms so that a client can reach me years after a project has ended. Though I may be a more expensive resource, if business is slow for a consulting firm there is no worry of carrying a bench.
Clients (and hiring consulting companies) are only interested in “Can he/she do the work, on time, and on budget”? If I can point to a series of projects, with clients that will act as references, I’ve answered the question.
6. Do you feel discriminated against when you’re working with regular consultants and/or clients?
I have only had the discrimination experience during the beginning of one project. The project manager wouldn’t listen to my advice and even forced application design decisions on me. It really back-fired on him and he did a complete turnaround mid-way through the project. It is also not unusual to be treated better than some “real employees” at times.
Consulting companies typically are decent to me because:
- They hired me — why would they then treat me badly, especially when I can leave at the end of a contract?
- If I am not a complete idiot on the project, they usually want to hire me. Okay, sometimes they don’t but that is up to me not being a complete idiot.
- A happy IC on a company project = a productive resource which is what they want.
- It’s just common sense, see points 1, 2, and 3.
Have I ever had a clash be it technical or project-related? Sure, I’ve had differing opinions and sometimes I’ve been right and other times I have been 100% wrong. I try to own up to my mistakes.
7. Do you feel that being technology certified makes a difference in landing gigs?
My certification has not had an impact on me landing gigs.
I don’t think that certification makes a difference. I like to think that the years of experience, etc. make up for the lack of current certification. Maybe all that does, maybe not. Also, the tests are a joke, not because of their material, but because it is trivial to buy the results and every bottom feeder buys it and then claims “certification”.
8. What would it take for you to work for a company/consulting firm again (or would you not)?
I think that I would work for a company/consulting firm if I was offered a truly unique opportunity that I thought would be a good learning opportunity. I would also consider it if I was in need of medical insurance.
For me the big issue is travel. I love my family. I understand how consulting companies work and the need for a body wherever one has been sold. But that’s the consulting company’s concern, not mine. So would I work for a firm again? If it were local, or if I really and truly was not going to travel all over the country, then maybe, if the technical challenges were there. Also, I would have to balance that with the lack of control. I don’t control very much as president and chief bottle washer of my firm, and the mistakes I make are sometimes real howlers, but they are my mistakes. There is something almost transcendentally satisfying about making decisions that affect you all by yourself.
9. Without going into specific reasons for why or why not, do you think you’ll be able to retire early based on your choice to become an independent?
I don’t think I will ever be able to retire, but I may be able to start my dream job earlier.
As I’ve detailed before, the money simply isn’t there.
10. Who do you feel are your biggest threats as an independent?
I was afraid that off-shore resources might be a threat, but that has not been the case. I guess other independent consultants would be my direct competition, but there is enough work for all of the experienced resources.
Keeping up with technology, training, the US/world economy going into the dumpster forever. I have to decide which products are going to be worth my time and which ones are going to make the test of time. It isn’t easy and I don’t have close relationships nor the resources to spend lots of partner time with Oracle. I’ve branched into some tools that seem to stick around and I’m doing more than I did in the past. So I guess that means I find keeping my skills up to date and relevant to the market as my biggest concern.
11. How do you go about finding gigs? What percent (guesstimate) is through subcontracting through consulting firms vs. other avenues?
Almost all of my work (90%) comes through consulting firms finding work for me. If I am slow and I need work, I will reach out to old clients and the few consulting firms that find me the most work. I also reach out to friends in the business and let them know if I have availability.
Subcontract is about 75% of my work. Otherwise, I do a lot of professional outreach that keeps my profile out there. Most of it is volunteer work but there is some name recognition because of it. Of course the best is a direct to client engagement both because there is no middleman and because I have no layer between myself and the client. I don’t, as a rule, use brokers any more.
I love reading the very realistic, contemporary comic, The Oatmeal. Unfortunately, I’ve been lax on getting my Oatmeal fix lately. This set of comics about flying had me in stitches.
For the record, the most awesome thing I’ve ever heard on an airplane is “Wow – you’ve got the whole aisle to yourself! If you’d like to stretch out and sleep, just make sure to put your seatbelt on first and I won’t bug you.” Flight attendants are great.
Note: this post comes to you with a light heart and a warm smile. Some of my closest friends are contractors and they are fantastic at what they do. Therefore, please keep an open mind to both sides of the story when reading this.
…Also, I originally intended to do a single post on the subject. However, after pestering two of my contractor friends to death, I thought I would approach this differently. Therefore, Part I is written from my point of view and Part II will be in their “own words”. Enjoy!
The Contractor (a.k.a. “independent” or “subcontractor”) can be a hotly debated role. Some clients associate negative feelings with this career path. Others are happy to have lighter wallets. And those that get the right combination of skill sets and price feel like they’ve hit the Holy Grail with Contractors. In the end, just like with Consultants, Contractors can be hit or miss.
But let’s back up a second. Some of you may be wondering what a Contractor is…and how do they differ from Consultants?
In a nutshell, a contractor is an independent consultant. Most of those from America (note that I’m intentionally excluding offshore contractors from this post, as that is a whole other animal) exhibit the following traits:
- Do not work for any multi-person company (although most of them are “incorporated” for tax and liability purposes)
- May work under 1099 forms (self-employed), if they are not incorporated
- Are responsible for their own work or subcontract through a firm
- Do not get the benefits offered to those working for a multi-person company (holidays, PTO, 401K, health, etc.)
- Get paid more than your average Consultant, per hour, for the same job
So how do they find work? Some Contractors develop a strong bond with a single client and stay there for years. I’ve worked at plenty of clients where it was hard to distinguish the Contractors from the employees – some had even been there longer than the employees. Those Contractors are really like the employees – they have their own cubicles, badges, bosses, computers, etc., except that their hours are capped since they are paid on an hourly basis. Sounds like a perfect gig, right?
Why would clients pay more for a Contractor (vs. an employee)? Contractors, like Consultants, offer a specialized skill set that is hard to hire. At several of the government clients I’ve worked for, Contractors were plentiful. Why? My theory is that government firms don’t traditionally pay well for these roles. They may offer great benefits, but the wages are generally low. So Contractors are hired to supplement skill sets that these firms simply can’t hire in at the established (“fixed”) salary ranges. And since the market demands these specialized skill sets, it’s a win-win for Contractors.
I’ve also known many Contractors who subcontract through consulting firms. Yep, you read that correctly. In this highly competitive world of talent, consulting firms don’t have every skill set for every project at all times. So Contractors are treated like temporary employees – hired to ramp up the workforce when demand is high…and not utilized when demand is low. These are called “subcontractors” at consulting firms. As the consulting season is often unpredictable, this staffing model becomes a necessity. But subcontractors come at a premium price, so consulting firms have to use them sparingly. I would imagine that the margin on a subcontractor ranges from 10% to 33%, whereas the margin on a Consultant can be upwards of 33%.
When Contractors are hired through a consulting firm, do clients know whether or not their Consultant is a subcontractor? More than likely not. Subcontractors are often asked to act as if they are part of the consulting company’s firm and they may even have their own email address at the firm. I’m sure there are firms that disclose this information to the customer, but there are many that do not. In all of the firms that I’ve worked for, this has been an off-limits conversation. Consulting firms don’t want to be known for hiring “outsiders”, as they are selling their own experience in the industry and “outsiders” would not be part of that track record.
Discussing Contractor skill sets is where this post becomes a bit tricky to navigate. Contractor skill sets are truly hit or miss, just as Consultant skill sets can be hit or miss. Because Contractors are independent, they don’t necessarily have a company watching them, assessing their performance, and vouching on their behalf. This is why it’s so important to get references in addition to Contractor resumes when hiring one.
In addition, Contractors can lack some of the important benefits that are otherwise gained when working with a company. For instance, if the company has formal partner access to vendor resources, a Contractor would not benefit from this relationship. Consulting firms are often partnered directly with software companies (at least in the line of work that I’m in) and this partnership can create valuable benefits to the employees of that firm. Software demo drives, partner training, and valuable resources are available to partners, in addition to preferential treatment for consulting engagements. Independents don’t have access to this information unless they’ve got a vendor contact “on the inside” or consulting friends who have access to that information and are willing to share (which is generally against the consulting firm’s policies).
Finally, Contractors may lack a couple of key elements that make consulting firms great:
- A methodology built from many hands
- Knowledge sharing
A methodology is a strategy for approaching a project and it usually incorporates standardized methods, processes, documentation, and successfully proven solutions. The methodology at consulting firms is generally built from the experience of many. This is not to say that Contractors don’t have their own methodology – it’s just that theirs may not be as deep (experienced) or wide (diverse). Sometimes this has minimal impact on a project, and yet sometimes this can make a big difference.
Knowledge sharing, put simply, is the act of sharing information with a group of people. The level at which knowledge sharing occurs is truly different at each consulting firm, but it can be the most valuable asset for a consulting firm. Knowledge is power, and the more knowledge you have, the more efficient you may be able to be. For instance, some firms keep internal databases on commonly known software bugs and/or common solution design approaches. To make this knowledge sharing successful, this information has to be crowd surfed from lots of different people, as there are way too many variables for a single Contractor to keep track of. But wait…can’t a Contractor just ask their consulting friends for that information? It’s generally considered “rude” for Contractors to hit up their industry peers for knowledge that is proprietary to their friend’s firm. And in some cases, this can lead to a lawsuit – it breaks the contract that the Consultant has signed with their firm related to intellectual property and confidentiality. Yes, there are other creative ways that contractors can knowledge share (through blogs, for instance)…it’s just not as direct.
From my personal experience, consulting firms dislike working with Contractors (minus a few notable exceptions). They make less profit off of them and…unless they’ve worked with the person before, they’re just not sure what they’re getting. But it’s not even the unknown and profit issue that drive this dislike…there really are just so many bad stories to tell about Contractors. The firms that I have worked for have subcontracted out many jobs before and out of all of the Contractors used (dozens), only a few are repeatedly staffed. I can probably count them on one hand. Unfortunately, it’s the bad Contractors that give the good ones a bad name.
Why Would Someone Want to be a Contractor?
Being a Contractor has its good and bad. On the positive side, you can take off as much time as you want. I’ve known Independents that literally work half of the year…they make enough to last a full 12 months so they travel a good portion of it.
And, of course, all of my Contractor friends love the money. They may be the sole breadwinner in their household (it’s nice having a stay at home spouse when you’ve got kids), so they work full-time and make enough money for two incomes. Think about it – if the average Consultant in your line of work makes $75/hour (take home) and you charge $125/hour for the same job, then you’re better off (even after taxes, corporation fees, etc.).
Finally, all of my Contractor friends love the freedom. Not only do you have the freedom to choose your projects and your travel destinations, but you also don’t have Big Brother consulting firm breathing down your neck. You can do your own thing, as long as it keeps the client happy. And, if you don’t want to be on a project, you can just say “no” – assuming you have a great reputation. You are in control of your destiny – project technology, travel destinations, project team, etc.
Why Would Someone Not Want to be a Contractor?
Sounds like a good gig, eh? Well…not exactly. And below are the reasons why I have never ventured to become a Contractor myself. Again, the good and the bad…
Contractors have to find all of their own work. And if you’re unknown, this is hard to do. You have to have proven yourself before, have people vouch for you, and you have to be able to adapt to a variety of styles. This can be daunting during turbulent times. During the recession, work slowed in my particular line of work…I saw several Independents convert to formal consulting roles because it was just to hard to find gigs. The uncertainty of finding work can be very daunting.
In addition, many Contractors are responsible for all of their taxes, health care, retirement plans, etc. One of my Contractor friends keeps a separate bank account just for her taxes, as they are quite high. She also has to find affordable health plans for their family when her husband is not working. I sometimes worry about some of the risks she’s taken in the past, due to constrained, “affordable” health care.
Next, you have to handle everything yourself. And when I say everything, I mean everything. This is an overlooked area about Contractors that newbies forget about. As a Contractor, you potentially play every single role on a single project – the sales rep, the project manager, the architect, the junior consultant. This is a very unique skill set that not everyone possesses.
Finally, it’s recommended that Contractors incorporate themselves for liability and tax reasons. This means that you will most likely need a lawyer and have to file paperwork every year. But these two items are minor compared to the real issue here…protecting yourself from liability. Let’s say that you have to back out of a contract early or a project goes sour that you’re on. You can potentially get sued. And if you haven’t incorporated yourself, your client has the right to sue you for your personal assets. If you work for a Consulting firm, you are protected by your firm and, generally speaking, you are not subject to being personally sued. The legal aspect of contracting frankly scares me, and for that reason I prefer to be work under Big Brother.
Why Would a Client Hire a Contractor?
Most of this time this comes down to 2 reasons:
Contractors are cheaper than Consultants, unless your reputation precedes you in the industry (which, in that case, you may charge as much as a Consultant). Think about it this way…although a Consultant potentially takes home $75/hour, their firm may charge $200/hour for them. As a client, you may be weighing that against a $125/hour Contractor. If you’ve got a tight budget, a $75/hour difference is huge. A 3-month engagement results in a $38K difference! Those are not just pennies anymore…
The other common reason is old-fashioned networking. I’ve been told countless stories of Contractors who work for years at a firm because their friends are executives there and are throwing them a bone. In the stories I’ve heard, this does not always end well. Contractors are still more expensive than employees and will have to be cut one day…
If You’re Going to Hire a Contractor…
If you’re a client who’s looking to hire a Contractor, here is my simple advice:
- Ask for references – at least 2
- Interview them well.
- Ask about their experiences on both the technical and soft skills sides. Anecdotes about challenging situations tell a lot about their personality and approach to conflict.
- And…if you’re hiring for a technical gig, find someone who can grill their technical skills well – thousands of dollars can be saved with a simple half hour technical assessment phone call to find out if this candidate really does know their stuff.
- Ask them about similar projects they’ve worked on. Ask for specifics – technology versions, team make-up, specific industry challenges, etc.
- Make sure they’ve been working in this industry for at least several years.
- Ask for examples of past documentation and/or other project work.
- Write up a contract that protects you. If you work for a medium or large sized firm, this shouldn’t be a problem.
- Don’t forget to have them sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement).
- Do a background check. This is critical.
- Do a drug test. Not as critical, but you’d be surprised…every now and then someone doesn’t pass (Consultants and Contractors alike).
- Provide your own computers, security, and email for them (assuming the gig is long enough). The last thing you want to do is have a Contractor waste unnecessary time trying to get their laptop up to snuff on your environment.
If you’re not able to do the above (or feel uncomfortable about it) and can forego a few dollars, then have a Consulting firm spec out your Contractor for you. And yes, this does happen in real life and probably more often than you think. The better Consulting firms are hard interviewers and they have the experience and expertise to drive a good interview.
This profile exists in all work environments, not just consulting. But I’ll be honest – it’s rare in my line of work and frankly a little odd. Consultants just have too much pride and passion to fall into this category.
The “It’s just a job!” Guy/Gal
Definition: For those of you who are enjoying a career right now, you know who I’m talking about. This is the kind of person that makes you roll your eyes, huff out of frustration, and/or want to strangle someone. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s an excellent (and hilarious) NSFW explanation by Chris Rock (undoubtedly one of the best comedians of our time).
% of consultants that exhibit this trait: ~1 in every 250
Detailed definition: This type of consultant is one who’s just getting by. They are doing the absolute minimum. They don’t give back to their fellow brethren, you can’t expect them to go above and beyond on anything, and they live the consulting life as if it’s a 9-to-5 job. Once the clock magically strikes 5pm, they are out the door.
I have met only a couple of people like this in my career. I believe I’ve encountered relatively few of these types because most consultants are very passionate about their work and, to be super honest, workaholics. However, having said that, I do feel that a person who starts with a great attitude in consulting can eventually drift this way…
Example 1: The first example is about a young and quiet sort of guy – he literally just faded into the background. You had to give him direction (i.e. micromanage him) or you would find him surfing the internet. Although we don’t have set business hours as consultants, we established some just for him on that project. He showed up ~15 minutes late in the morning and then was out the door a few minutes early. During meetings, I often caught him not paying attention – he looked like his mind was elsewhere. I think he was let go shortly after that project. I will never know what was going on with him – I approached him during a free moment and asked if everything was OK and then hinted that he didn’t seem to be engaged. But he brushed off the encounter and said everything was fine (not that it was really my business anyways).
Example 2: This second person was similar to the first. He was quiet, kept to herself, and was quite…boring. No real personality, no passion. One time our project team invited him to go out with us for drinks after work and he complied, although I have always wondered if he did it out of obligation. He didn’t talk to anyone during the happy hour – he spent most of his time watching the sports bar TV. I also approached him (I was in a management role at the time) and asked him to level with me about what was going on. He first seemed to hesitate but then relayed a personal story that was quite heartbreaking. The management team decided to look the other way on his performance and tried to support him as best as we could.
This story has a happy ending, unlike the first. After his ordeal was over months later, he did a 180. He was infused with new found happiness that spilled over into his career. He stayed with the firm for another 2 years.
Example 3: This example breaks from tradition a bit. In this one I’m going to discuss a client. By the way, the number of clients that portray this profile is much higher – I encounter at least one “jobber” on every project. I assume that this is due to a simple numbers game – corporate workers outnumber consultants by at least 10:1. Also, I have to state the obvious here – the story I’m sharing with you is an extreme example that just happens to manifest itself in a client persona. This story is not meant to encourage a stereotype of people on the client side. I illustrate it because there are some extreme behaviors that are worth noting.
I once encountered a business analyst who had been working for a company for over 10 years when we got there. He was rigid, seemed to be “held back” (i.e. not promoted), and very cantankerous. He was also the only person who could give us the stuff we needed, as it came out of a complex database system that he both created and maintained. At first, I had no clue what I had walked into. But then I saw him roll his eyes when I introduced myself. Instead of addressing it, I continued and asked if he could help us out, although it was clear to both of us that he was the only who could help us and would need to. He waved me away and explained that he “did not have time for this.” (When this happens, we have to go through the management chain to “motivate” people.) After he was given a talking to, we gave him the exact specifications of what we needed. Note that these specifications were based on a rigid document that he had defined and required us to fill out (my guess is that he did this to stall or stop our request). I made sure to fill in every detail and even put in a screen shot of what the final product should look like. But somehow his version of the end product did not look like mine. When I went back to him to request needed adjustments, he started yelling at me and then blamed me for writing a bad spec. We then went through the management chain again. After his second talking to, he fixed most of the issues. Needless to say, I worked with him several more times to finish the task. It was painful, especially since it was hard to get an inch from him on most things…and he left at 4:57pm on the dot everyday.
Aside: after reading the above, some of you may be thinking “maybe he just doesn’t like consultants.” No doubt, and I’m not going to speculate – there were obviously several things going on with this gentleman. Note that he behaved the same way with both peers and consultants. Also note that had been heard saying “It’s just a job!” to co-workers.
Why would a consultant behave in such a manner?
Based on the few people I’ve known, I am going to say there are a couple of causes:
- Personal reasons
- Lack of ambition
Consultants seek out this line of work because they have a specific type of creative need. They like to solve problems, be challenged, live the life of a road warrior, and/or exist on a plane that is constantly changing. There is a strong spirit that is alive and well in our community that propels us. People who try consulting and don’t like it leave almost immediately. Therefore, I think personal reasons are the #1 reason why someone’s spirit breaks. I’ve met consultants who have suffered personal loss and hardships during their consulting careers. They check out, but it’s only temporary. They bounce back. But those that don’t – they move on or are asked to move on.
The #2 reason is really directed toward the younger generations who don’t know what they’ve gotten into when they start their consultant path. Once they realize how much ambition and self-stamina you need to survive this career, it either makes or breaks them.
How do you know when a consultant is an “It’s just a job!” Guy/Gal?
The signs are pretty clear: they routinely look/act/talk like they don’t want to be there, they lack focus and attention to detail, they count down the hours before they can leave each day, and they consistently do bad work. In rare instances, you may actually hear them say “It’s just a job!” in defense of a job done poorly.
What can one do about the “It’s just a job!” Guy/Gal?
Clients, your course of action is to tell the consulting management team and let them handle it. It is really up to the consulting firm to deal with their own people.
For consulting firms, I think there are 2 true options here:
- Have a heart to heart with them and find out why they don’t value their job. Maybe they lack motivation, skill, or the necessary tools they need to do their job efficiently. Then support them.
- -and if #1 doesn’t work- Encourage them to leave that particular position or company.
The bottom line comes down to this…us consultants have a certain level of autonomy in our line of work and we are expected to create our own opportunity and then walk that pathway ourselves. If someone’s heart isn’t into it, this is most definitely the wrong career choice.
The Traveling Consultant
One of my friends posted a link to this article on FaceBook today and I couldn’t help but read the whole thing after the first few lines.
If you need a huge dose of reality, a swift kick in the pants, or just a major motivation push, I recommend that you take 30 minutes to read this article (and watch all of the crazy videos).
Note that this is majorly NSFW and some of it is downright offensive (intentionally!)…
To follow-up on an earlier post, I decided to do a write-up that describes the different consultant roles on a project, in detail.
(Please note that the below information is specific to the niche software consulting I have been exposed to in my career, and may not apply to every type of consulting project.)
First of all, allow me to take a quick detour…
WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”)
So…this principle does not always apply when it comes to the fine art of selling and placing consultants on a project. Let me debunk some common myths when it comes to staffing:
- Staffing is product of both time and individual skill sets – not just skill sets. For instance, if there is a consultant who is not the optimal candidate for a project, but the timing of the project is just right…let’s just say that timing is the overriding factor in this case. This is why consulting firms do their best to hire excellent overall consultants – so everyone can fit almost every need at any time. From what I’ve seen, consulting firms will do their absolute best to staff the right person for each project. However, other factors come into play that complicate matters (besides timing): size of the deal, key player politics, potential future sales, etc.
- The experience and client list written on a consultant bio/resume that is sent in advance to the client for approval may be slightly embellished. I have never witnessed flat out lying (unless the consultant does it themselves – they write the bulk of their bio/resume), but I have seen plenty of embellishing. Remember: the goal of the consulting firm is to get the client to approve the consultant so the project can start and money can flow. Enough said. If you are a client and worried about staffing, set-up phone interviews with the proposed consultant team. Then you can ask the hard questions about background, experience, etc. In my opinion, clients don’t do this enough.
- In addition, the title on the consultant’s bio/resume may not represent the role the consultant actually plays on the project. This may be embellished to make the client feel like the fit is good. For instance, someone who is considered to be a Sr. Consultant at the firm may be listed as an Architect or a Manager on their bio. They may not have the expected amount of experience in that area. But keep in mind that a consultant firm’s reputation is everything. So more likely than not, they are not going to staff someone who they feel can handle the big task being asked of them. Consulting firms don’t like to fail.
- The consultant who initially sells you the project/software may not actually be on your project. There are special consultants who only do what we call “pre-sales” (someone who gets the client interested in the firm and/or software product). They have skills in other areas that are helpful – they are great sales people and can demo products well. They may not be the best consultants. In optimal situations, the consultant who does the initial interview is staffed on the project, thereby allowing for continuity and familiarity.
The sales person assigned to a client may be called a “Business Development Manager” (a.k.a. “BDM”), “Account Executive”, etc. They are the person you will hear from the most during the initial sales cycle. They may wine and dine you, get chummy with you, and act like they’re your best friend. Once the project starts, some will disappear – never to be heard from again unless there are: new contracts, change orders, issues with cost, issues with people, project parties, unpaid invoices, etc. If you’re lucky, you’ll get one who will be in constant communication with you throughout a project, developing a trusted relationship that you will come to appreciate over time. If you’re lucky…
What to look for: I will be honest – I don’ t have personal experience in this area. The closest I’ve come is being involved on the pre-sales side.
I imagine you may want to look for the following traits:
- Honest communication
- A likeable and trustworthy nature
- Continued presence throughout a project lifecycle and a genuine feeling of concern
- Advocacy for you when it comes to the consulting firm and the product vendor
Management usually encompasses any or all of the following titles: “Vice President”, “Partner”, “Engagement Manager”, “Project Manager”, “Project Lead”, “Principal”, and/or “Architect”. (Note: due to their specialized skill set, I have segregated Architects to the next section.)
The management team on a project includes the people the client management team interacts with the most. This usually includes a Project Manager and an Architect. The Vice President of Consulting may also make occassional visits. If there is an issue with the project it is up to this team to communicate it. They should be your first line of defense and your true consulting friend. You should have the utmost confidence in this team, and they should be your trusted advisor during the good, bad, and ugly. (Notice the overuse of the word “should” in the previous statements.)
Required role on a project? For whatever reason, there is a lot of controversy on this topic. Clients always want to shave costs, and this seems to be one of the first areas that get cut, especially the Project Manager role (probably because this is the most expensive area). I personally think that a project manager should exist for every single project, whether that role be fulfilled by the client or a consulting firm…no matter how small the project is. Sometimes this position is filled by a hybrid role – perhaps an Architect who is also the part-time Project Manager. I think there are many cases where this has worked well. In some situations, I think there may be a need to have several project managers – especially if there are multiple projects running concurrently.
Look at it this way – if no one is steering the boat, how will anyone know where it is going? And if there are multiple boats – how will you keep them all in line?
What to look for: Management can take a variety of forms and roles. Therefore, it’s hard to nail down a specific set of characteristics.
My personal opinion is that a good management team will have the following basic traits:
- Excellent, upfront, and honest written and verbal communication
- LOTS of experience in project management
- Enough technical knowledge to understand the potential pitfalls, risks, and issues that the consultant team will encounter
- Meticulous, detail-oriented nature
- Constant anticipation and pre-planning
- Tact and the keen ability to read people well (and react professionally)
- Works well under pressure
Side note on Project Managers: although a PMP certification is a plus, I do not think it is a requirement. This is an area where street smarts overrule book smarts (again, in my opinion). Also, not all project managers need project plans. I’ll probably get flack for saying this, but Microsoft Project is a beast. It can help steer a project in the right direction, but beyond that, it is just an organization tool. The real skill is the style and finesse that the project managers bring to the table.
The Architects are the “cream of the crop” at consulting firms. They can also be divas. Architects are paid well and I’ve noticed a distinct pattern of consulting firms turning a blind eye to their less than perfect antics. They generally have 10+ years of experience, although I’ve seen successful Architects with less experience.
The definition of an Architect varies from firm to firm. But the commonalities I’ve noticed include:
- Being stretched across multiple projects (and are therefore not engaged full time and/or from project start to finish)
- Strong ability to lead both consultant and client teams
- Fantastic selling skills
- Great written and verbal communication styles
- Industry thought leaders
- Natural mentors
- Excellent experience in what they do and know
- Work well under pressure
A good number of Architects also have large egos and can be argumentative and defensive if they are not listened to or are questioned. I guess you take the good with the bad. Architects are in their position for a reason and from what I’ve seen…they really do know what they’re talking about and have a wealth of experience to draw from. They are your bread and butter technically.
Required role on a project? Yes. Plain and simple. This role may not need to be full-time, but I feel that it is necessary.
What to look for: I’ve found the following traits to be most helpful:
- Excellent, upfront, and honest written and verbal communication
- Well rounded technical experience, with depth in several technologies
- Enough project management knowledge to understand the potential project pitfalls, risks, and issues that the consultant team will encounter
- Constant anticipation and pre-planning
- Great ability to translate technical speak to non-technical people
- Natural ability to mentor and train
Senior consultants are referred to as “Senior Consultant” – I really haven’t seen this title stray at the firms I’ve been with. Depending on the company, they usually have 5+ years of experience and have been “around the block”. They may have deep technical expertise in a few areas or a wide range of skills. They are not architect-ready, but they may stand in for the Architect while they are offsite. Some act as the Project Lead or take on the duties of the Project Manager. Some Seniors may never want to be Architects – they may shy away from big team leading (and the inevitable accountability that comes with it) and prefer to do the “doing” instead.
Required role on a project? Not always. Project budget and size are always a factor.
What to look for: In a nutshell, Senior Consultants are more experienced Consultants (see next section), but the distinguishing factors are that they can be left to their own devices and can lead small teams.
A good Senior Consultant has the following traits:
- Extensive knowledge and experience in 1+ technologies
- Works well without supervision
- Can lead and direct teams (but not extensively on a project)
- Effective, honest verbal and written communication
- Knows when to follow and when to lead
The Consultant is a bread and butter role on any large project. (Insider’s note: they also make the most profit for a consulting firm.) They have less experience than most of the other titles at a firm, but they know more than your average business analyst.
The Consultant has 1-5 years of experience. This role may require supervision and guidance. Their technical knowledge will be limited, but better than someone in the corporate world.
Required role on a project? Most of the time, but again – project budget and size are a factor. Consultants have a lower cost factor associated with them, so they fill gaps well when it comes to project budgets.
What to look for: Since these guys generally have less technical expertise, you should focus, instead, on the following traits:
- Decent experience in at 1+ relevant technologies (but at an intermediate level, not beginner)
- Strong technical or business apptitude
- A good understanding of how projects work
- Ambition and an eagerness to learn
- Lack of a big ego
- Willingness to share information with others
The Junior Consultant is the lowest level consultant at a firm. At most firms, the “Associate”/”Junior” Consultant has little to no consulting experience or little to no experience in the work place (they may have been recruited straight out of college).
Required role on a project? Not always. Project budget and size are a factor. Also, not all consulting firms hire Juniors. They have the lowest cost factor associated with them.
What to look for: Juniors are great to have on a project. Most of them are young, so they bring a certain level of naivety and energy to a project, which can be refreshing. (Sidenote: They can also make you feel old.)
Since these guys generally lack technical expertise, you should focus, instead, on the following traits:
- Ambition and an eagerness to learn
- Lack of a big ego (most Juniors have some ego)
- Willingness to share information with others
- Strong aptitude for technical matters
- Great documentation skills
- Willingness to do the “gopher” tasks
Referred to as Infrastructure or Technical consultants, this is a very different type of consultant. They are usually responsible for installing the software and/or spec’ing out the hardware. Their expertise is geared towards networks, operating systems, software optimization, and hardware. They are integral to existing client IT/IS/administration/support structures. Infrastructure consultants have a very short life on projects – they will be there in a full or part time capacity for a short time, usually just 1-6 weeks. They usually cannot have an intelligent conversation about software implementation – that is left to the remaining project team members.
Required role on a project? Depends. If you are a client trying to install the software yourself (yikes – God help you), then you may not need them. I would recommend hiring these experts to do your installation, but you should do the research first and go with a reputable company that has tons of experience.
What to look for: Because this is a different breed of consultants, I would recommend the following characteristics:
- Thorough written documentation of efforts
- LOTS of experience with software installations
- A meticulous and detail-oriented nature
- Excellent support network to turn to when there are problems (there are almost always problems – every environment is different)
- Works well under pressure
So, there you have an in-depth look at the players on a consulting engagement…at least my 2 cents worth. Although some of you out there may disagree (feel free to comment with your thoughts), this is my personal experience over the years.
There is one thing that must be said before I end this post…I have yet to be on an engagement where all of the planets aligned and the entire project team was made up of perfect consultants in each role. That is not reality. Therefore, if you are reading this post, taking notes, ready to unleash harsh interviews onto your upcoming consultants…basically hoping to fulfill a utopia of sorts – I’m going to burst your bubble right now. Life doesn’t work that way. BUT…you can get a fantastic team, even when a few of the consultants have hang ups, quirks, or inexperience. There is something to be said about the team dynamic and how it can win out over the perfection of individuals. I have seen that scenario played out more times than I expected to over the years…and it’s beautiful.
The Traveling Consultant