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Hitting the Mark with Hired Guns

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Today's demanding IT environments often require specialized talent that's hard to find and even harder to retain. This fact is forcing many organizations to consider short-term "purchased" labor. Understanding some of the overlooked benefits and hidden drawbacks of these "hired guns" can help you keep them on target while avoiding a shot to your foot. This article is adapted from Rich Schiesser's forthcoming book, IT Systems Management (Prentice Hall, targeted for publication fourth quarter 2001, ISBN 0-13-087678-X).
This article is part of the Harris Kern Enterprise Computing Institute Series. Placing special emphasis on a comprehensive approach combining organization, people, process, and technology, Harris Kern's Enterprise Computing Institute is recognized as one of the world's premier sources for CIOs and IT professionals concerned with managing information technology.
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Infrastructure managers needing to fill specialized positions today often use consultants and contractors. Their use in IT environments in general, and in IT infrastructures in particular, is increasing at a rapid rate for a variety of reasons. Outsourcing, company downsizing, acquisitions and mergers, and global competition are leading to significant reductions in full-time IT staff. This trend toward reduced IT staffing, especially in larger, more established shops, is also feeding the supply of ready consultants. Many displaced IT personnel elect to become independent consultants. These former workers often enter into service contracts with their previous employers. Others market their skills to companies with similar IT environments to ensure a good fit between the skills they offer and the technical requirements to be met.

The explosive growth of the World Wide Web and the flood of Internet startup companies have also contributed to unprecedented demand for IT consulting services. The integration of dissimilar architectures such as database software, desktop operating systems, and networking technologies often requires specialized skills. In many cases, managers find it easier to contract with a consultant for these specialized skills than to attempt handling them from within. A heightened awareness of the benefits of new, replaced, or migrated systems is pushing implementation schedules forward. Accelerated schedules are well-suited for the immediate availability and short-term commitments that consultants and contractors can offer. The shortened project lifecycles of open system applications, the rapid deployment of web-enabled systems, and the growing intensity of global competition are some of the forces at work today that fuel this demand for accelerated implementations.

What Constitutes a Consultant/Contractor?

Consultants come in a variety of types, and they contrast slightly with the notion of a contractor. Understanding the differences can help ensure a better fit of consultant and contractor skills to the business requirements to be met. The term consultant normally refers to someone hired to do an analytical task such as a capacity study, a security audit, or a reengineering assignment. The term contractor generally refers to someone hired to perform a more specific task, such as coding an interface or developing a software enhancement.

Consultants are commonly supplied from one of the major accounting firms, or from major computer hardware or software suppliers. Contractors, on the other hand, are more likely to come from software development companies or are in business for themselves. Consultants tend to be oriented toward issues of strategy, service process, and management. Contractors tend to be oriented toward issues of coding, documentation, technology, and deliverables. These orientations then determine the specific type of consultant or contractor to be hired.

Knowing the specific type of person to be hired helps in one other important area, that of teaming with onboard employees. For example, a consultant hired to develop IT service levels with customers needs empathy toward these customers. Similarly, a contractor hired to work with an existing team of onboard developers needs to be able to fit in with the members of the group.

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