How would Hollywood treat the technology industry in an action movie? It is not that outlandish a question; recent movie thrillers have made heroes out of everyone from newsletter publishers to cold-fusion researchers. And technology workers are associated with glamour like never before.
John Travolta as a Silicon Valley start-up entrepreneur might work. Or perhaps Brad Pitt as a programmer specialising in international security software. But for a perfect action movie hero that stays true to reality, the best job description is undoubtedly IT consultant.
IT consulting offers all the Hollywood prerequisites. Consultants travel constantly, often to exotic locales like rural Mississippi or Southeast Asia. Consultants operate under tremendous pressure. Their basic competitive advantage is superior understanding of technology (action movies love experts). Consultants are often young and tightly wound, and they typically make huge salaries.
But life is not an action movie. Who would actually want to be a consultant -- living half the year in hotels, switching entire sets of colleagues more frequently than getting a haircut, and surviving more on-the-job pressure in a day than most people feel in weeks?
The answer, it turns out, is a lot of people, though not nearly as many as are needed. Hiring managers at such consulting behemoths as Ernst & Young, Deloitte & Touche, and Price Waterhouse all say demand for consultants -- especially experienced ones -- far outstrips supply.
This labour shortage is fuelling changes in the IT consulting industry, most of which benefit workers.
No longer able to woo prospective employees with elephantine salaries alone, companies are courting consultants with other perks. Andersen Consulting, for example, has introduced the concept of Solution Centres. Solution Centres are business parks equipped with extensive teleconferencing and remote technology capabilities. They provide a place where consultants can base themselves, avoiding some of the long-term travel commitments typically required in consulting jobs.
Innovations like Solution Centres help obviate some of the demands specific to IT consulting, but the job is still very much a breed apart.
In fact, many people in the field talk of the consulting profession as a unique culture, one that helps form their identity. In a career so encompassing, it takes a certain kind of person to embrace consulting as a way of life. Any list of reasons to work as an IT consultant should be separated into reasons to enter the field and reasons to stay in the field, according to working consultants. For most people, the first list is considerably longer than the second.
First and foremost for many consultants, the reason for entering the profession rather than taking a more traditional corporate IT job is money. Salaries often start in the $US60,000 to $US70,000 range, and many consulting company Web sites list salaries of more than $US100,000 for consultants with two or three years of experience, or with particular skills such as experience with a specific software package. In particular, consultants with experience implementing software from companies such as SAP, PeopleSoft, and Baan are in scorching demand.
But some consultants say an even bigger attraction is the nature of the work.
"Of course, there's the attraction of money, but even more important is the challenge of the work," said Koty Krishna, a managing consultant with system integrator Cim Case International. "Our dream is to keep up with technology and do those kinds of things that keep us excited, and that's a very big thing, even ahead of money."
Cim Case, with about 100 employees, is considerably smaller than the Big Six consulting companies, but Krishna is able to recruit hot consultants from his larger competitors by concentrating on the rewards consultants most value: flexibility, intensive technology training and, of course, large salaries.
Once a consultant has put in several years learning the latest technology and travelling the globe, one goal in particular can act as a compelling reason to stay: making partner. All the large and many of the small consultant companies are managing partnerships. As in law firms, becoming a partner in a systems integrator means big payouts at the end of the year when profits are divvied up. Becoming a partner means wealth, prestige, and a certain amount of job security.
Few consultants actually make partner -- it is a process that takes years, and there is plenty of room underneath the partner level for consultants to fashion a successful career. But the possibility of making partner keeps many overworked consultants in the game longer than they would otherwise choose.
"Definitely, the carrot is partnership," said Mark Zeiss, a middle-level manager at Andersen Consulting.
"That's what keeps people out in the field going. These are jobs that usually are high-pressure and demanding, requiring building a lot of skills in a short amount of time. And I think the market recognises that if you can do it for a long time, you have a lot of skills worth a lot of value. But five years out, there aren't that many people who can do it," said Zeiss.
To be sure, the attrition rate for consultants is notoriously high. Many managers don't expect consultants to stay on for more than a few years. Why the high turnover? The competitive marketplace for consultants is a big reason. The pressure of the job is another.
But equally important, say consultants, is that not all IT professionals have the skills and temperament to be successful at consulting.
"You pretty much have to be self-motivated and self-directed," Krishna said. "You are given an assignment and are responsible for that assignment. It's not a corporate environment, meaning someone isn't watching over you. You'll be judged by the final result."
Talk the talk
But the most important quality good consultants bring to the table is communication skills. Krishna calls it his number one hiring criterion.
"The success of the projects happens in the beginning, not in the end. The most important thing is to manage the clients' expectations in a way that ensures they will be happy in the end; being successful is knowing how to underpromise and overdeliver," said Matt Brocchini, president of Helium, a consulting company.
Consultants must be good communicators, thrive on short assignments and different locales, be steeped in technology, and understand the business logic that underlies technology implementations.
It's a wide range of talents, and it's not right for everyone. Action movies, it seems, offer one more lesson for IT professionals considering consulting for their career.
A lot of people enjoy watching a thriller on the big screen. Few, if they gave it some thought, would choose to live it.
High demand for skills
Intensive technology training
Track to management positions
Few long-term professional relationshipsHigh burn-out rateImmense pressureTendency to gain highly industry-specific expertiseTravelQualities of a good consultantCommunicates wellEnjoys short, varied assignmentsUnderstands both technology and business