The New Wave of IT Consultants

by Anya Jennings on August 31, 2009

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IT consultants don’t fit the old stereotypes anymore. Things change fast in the tech world, and IT people have learned to adapt just as fast in order to survive. For the first time, young people are immersed from birth in technology that was once available to only a select few. The result is fierce competition for plumb jobs. Today’s independent IT consultant needs more than just technical skills to compete. The time has come for IT to break free of the single-minded programmer outlook and learn to be an effective co-worker.

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IT specialists used to be an elite breed who spoke another language and lived in caves surrounded by wires and strange devices with hypnotic blinking lights. They performed mysterious rituals understood by no one outside the profession. If a mere mortal tried to speak to them, they would unleash an intimidating storm of tech-speak designed to deter even the most dedicated conversationalist. Those days are gone. The IT specialists best able to communicate are the ones in highest demand.

The bottom line is that companies must be able to communicate with IT. Budgets are tight and things have to be understood and implemented correctly the first time. IT does not have the same luxury of time to fail and try again that it once did. Techies have to evolve into business experts in order to understand and anticipate the needs of the business.

If there’s a single sure-fire way to build a successful IT career, it’s to develop strong interpersonal skills. Valued skills include problem solving, decision-making, and the ability to plan, prioritize, and finish projects. Managing a project and preventing scope creep is entirely reliant on communication. Since consultants often work directly with clients, a well-rounded candidate also needs presentation skills and the ability to write well.

The good news for consultants is high demand and high pay. IT specialists who have a good track record are always in demand – they can ask for and get top dollar. The wider the trail of success you leave in your wake, the higher you wind up on the food chain. Age is not a factor, but willingness and ability to accept change is crucial. One thing an IT specialist can absolutely not do is stagnate. Think of it this way. On the day you begin your first programming course in college, the subject is outdated and the industry has moved on. Education gives you a solid base for knowledge and an understanding of how things hang together. It’s up to you to keep up with constantly emerging technology, and to determine how best to integrate that new technology into the needs and structure of your projects.

Studies show that, while IT people are motivated by money like everyone else, retention often depends on a certain amount of creative freedom, opportunities for continuing education, and the potential for advancement. A Computer Weekly reader survey found that people ranked softer benefits, like recognition, interesting work, job security, and autonomy higher than salary as their most important considerations.

This puts employers with outdated legacy systems in a bad bargaining position, unless they are ready to invest in system-wide upgrades. The IT consultant working long term within outdated code puts himself in danger of hurting his own market share by knowledge stagnation. Legacy systems are often found in companies with the deepest pockets, so their best bet is to simply outbid smaller companies for talent, and then do everything they can to retain their employees. The bottom line is that the IT consultant stuck cobbling together antiquated code needs to stay on top of technology on his own.

If you want contract work as an IT specialist, follow industry trends, keep your education up-to-the-minute, and pick up some communications skills so you can understand the needs of the business and of the client. Beefing up your communications skills will translate into a much richer and more rewarding career.

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