03 November 2009

Embedded Consultant

I have been working as a consultant for the past 12 years. I spent the first five years of these working full-time for three different employers, each of who sent me on client assignments ranging from 3-6 months. Business was good, the sales teams were doing their jobs and I did not have to worry about the next assignment.

Since the past 7 years, I have not had the luxury of a sales team to support me; I’ve had to undertake my own job hunt. I got my first independent assignment courtesy a friend who did his best to dissuade me from taking the job even though he himself had given me the job lead. The reason that he tried to dissuade me was that I was married and I had a young family. Consulting is not kind to family life, nor is it high on stability.

The project was initially scheduled to last 6 months; it went on for 3.5 years. I was contracted to work for the ‘direct client’; there were no middlemen involved. I worked almost like an employee – my commitment to the client was not less than that of an employee. In turn, the client treated me like an employee; my contribution was not measured by the time that I spent in the office at my desk, but by the work that I did and by the quality of that work. If I put any overtime on my timesheet, I did not have to have prior approval for that; my manager generally approved it without asking any questions. I was, as I call it, an ‘Embedded Consultant’.

In these tough times, I am sure that all independent/ small-business consultants would love to be embedded consultants. So, what is it that makes you an embedded consultant? How do you reduce your 'redundancy factor'? To zero, if possible?

The first thing, as I have already noted, is the commitment to your client. If something needs to be done, it needs to be done. Be prepared to go the extra mile; even if you suspect you are not going to be paid for it. Do it once, do it twice, and you’d have established your bona fides. The next time you are required to go the extra mile, it will not be the unpaid extra mile. Your client will definitely recognize your contribution.

Second, do not draw boundaries, artificial or real. Let me explain what I mean. My expertise (?) is primarily in the area of Oracle Applications. However, I have a ‘knowledge surplus’ in other areas as well; meaning that I know more, than the average Joe, about stuff in other areas as well. So, when average Joe walks up to me and asks me for help in formatting an excel worksheet and/ or plotting the data on a suitable graph, I try to help. Of course, I let average Joe know that (1) I am not an expert on Excel, and (2) more importantly, I am taking time away from my Oracle work to help him. Maybe, it just earns me brownie points, but these are invaluable brownie points that I earn. When the time comes to renew/ extend the contract these brownie points could suddenly be the difference between extension and termination of the contract. If I were to ‘jargonize’ this, I would say that it helps to have transferable skills and a ‘knowledge surplus’ in multiple areas.

What do you think? I’d love to hear back from you.


  1. The IT Consultants are as professional as it is much like a "glorified" labor in industry now. It started with much hype since common people thought of this as something close to be a scientist, however, IT has taken a long journey now and has established itself like many other skill sets in the job market. While I am not disagreeing with your experience and suggestions what you have put in your blog, here are my assessment of IT industry:
    1. There is no full time and consultant differentiation in IT, with change in technology and preference of any alternative technology, often IT professionals have to make way for others more "suitable" professionals.
    2. The entry barrier is becoming very easy for younger professionals to challenge the old ones since with newer technology coming up every couple of years, it is literally impossible for the old timers to keep pace and the newcomers have an advantage.
    3. Majority of organizations have been using IT for a significant period of time and have "learned their lessons" first hand (read they realize that they have overspent on "hyped" IT solution to get something similar when they turn around and compare with what their other competitors achieved in their domain for a similar solution). The IT budget is shrinking and very competitive service offering models and providers have started mushrooming in the industry. It has resulted in two distinct consequences:
    a. IT has commoditized and budget is not driven by any "specific or unique perfect" solution for the companies but "get me a workable solution for this $ within this timeframe" approach is being imposed on IT department to be achieved.
    b. With widely successful outsourcing with offshore/near shore models, the organizations have either have firsthand experience or have cognizance of the fact that others in the industry have had success. The requirement for "managing IT" is slowly shifting to "manage IT budget" by identifying the deliverables and SLA with service providers put in place.
    Having said these, in my opinion, the new "onsite" IT professionals need to do following for the survival:
    1. Develop domain/business expertise and align with what the business is looking for (how can the pain areas be addressed). Much like partnering with the business managers who eventually sponsor for projects and need to justify the $ spent on IT budget.
    2. With business/domain expertise being the core, veneer it with all the latest technologies to enable to get a solution working. With ever reducing IT implementation time, more and more organizations are looking for customizable "shrink wrapped" kind of approach which is proven and reliable. That said, look for opportunities where one can learn on how to implement such solutions available and build upon that.

    I myself am learning to take the baby steps in the world of giants so by no means I wanted to sound anything even close to be an expert on this subject by these are my two cents.

  2. Alok, we call it cross-team learning in our office. Since last quarter, a new working model is being implemented here too. All of us are required to be working on all things that were once used to be called as 'other' team's work. At first look, like always happen, we had been reluctant to work in this model. Reasons were galore. Most of us have been reporting to two superiors, both of which are managing two different projects. When we shared our problem with them they said they too are doing the same up in reporting ladder. When I said that in that way it would be difficult for me to maintain quality because I could not give my 100 % concentration on one job, they said it was okay. We do not need experts rather smart people is required who know all. So here too, I keep working on my projects and keep helping others too. Here we are no more tied to technology but are trouble shooters. Domain experties is left to other people.
    Of course helping anybody helps us in turn and this is a general principle in every walk of life.

  3. This is very good from survival perspective. Survive by any means I mean.

    To excel, you have to be ruthless and harsh on everyone around you. Helping others comes nowhere in the list. In the top echelon, it is "smart consultant eats nice consultant" world.

  4. Technology is also leading to skills convergence. It will not matter anymore in near future you are a DBa/Admin Architect or what ever.