When contractors become consultants

You might remember treats like Fruit Salads and Blackjacks and how your weekly pocket money could purchase a Mars bar and a Wagon Wheel, with enough change for a Sherbet Dib Dab and a bag of Flying Saucers.

But it's not just penny chews that have been the subject of rampant inflation. Nowadays, every contractor likes to be known as a consultant. Perhaps to impress the opposite sex during a glass of NZ Sauvignon at All Bar One, or maybe in an attempt to gain techincal prowess over other IT workers in your office.

Either way, be aware that the term "consultant" is so widely used it's becoming a joke, and you are just as likely to receive a wry smile from your sharking-target at the bar as you are from your next interview panel.

Ray Murphy, resource manager at Spring IT, says he sees the word "consultant" on CVs all the time. "It means nothing now," he says, "it's just a loose term."

He urges contractors to explicitly state what their roles have been without relying on inexact language like "consultant," or "expert." If you are a C# programmer, put exactly that on the tin, he says.

There was a time when consultants represented the pinnacle of professionalism. You saw a consultant when you acquired a rare and mysterious skin rash or wanted to check the foundations of your Forth rail crossing. Consultants were anything but ordinary.

And in some minds, the myth persists. Tony Gillet, former contractor turned entrepreneur, describes his view of a consultant. "I would expect a consultant to have very specific and deep knowledge of a particular technology and be considered as an expert in that area."

Gillet believes: "A contractor is paid for their work, and a consultant paid for their knowledge. As such their niche skills demand higher rates, and hence a desire for a contractor to become consultant."

It is "deep knowledge" that so many contractors wish to convey when they update their CVs, but Murphy points out that simply adding the word "consultant" does not make any more money. At least not when going through an agent.

The overuse of the term has devalued its impact. Dave Waterman veteran contract architect is cynical, about using the "C" word. "You should be bringing best practice and imparting the wisdom you have gained."

Yet while the terms contractor and consultant are not mutually exclusive, Waterman does see a distinct consulting role separate from run-of-the-mill contractors.

"You are normally bought in to advise," he says, "force or manipulate one or more situations. You don't normally get involved in the day-to-day grind of the coder."

Contractors with years of experience must surely be worth more than just the title "programmer," or "designer". Somehow, they have earned their "consultant" wings. Are contractors afraid that, since companies are usually so bad at determining skill levels, there is little else to distinguish between the novice and the authority?

Murphy harks back to the simpler days of "programmer," "analyst" and "team leader" before the all encompassing "consultant" became fashionable, and therefore, meaningless as a skills predictor.

Even if a contractor has very niche skills or expertise in a narrow area, they should make sure their CV is professional and clear without using the word "consultant," Murphy suggests.

Though he admits that use of the word is unlikely to damage job prospects since nearly everybody is dancing the consultant jig and inflating their titles.

However, merely using the "C" title does not sweeten skills in the same way that paying more for a 'no-longer-a-penny chew' fails to make it a Werther's Original.

William Knight

Wednesday 19th Oct 2005
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