An IT consultant is an experienced individual who provides expert advice for a fee. Such an individual may work as an independent contractor, in which case he or she may be referred to as an independent consultant.
An IT consultant may also be an employee at a company that offers consulting services. IT consultants typically charge clients an hourly rate for their services.
Types of IT consultants
IT consultants help individuals or businesses make technology purchases or strategy decisions and resolve technology challenges. An IT consultant may serve as a short-term virtual CIO, providing expert advice on IT strategy to a company that lacks high-level IT expertise in house.
Today, IT consultants often work for value-added resellers (VARs), systems integrators and other service providers that offer consulting services within a broader portfolio of offerings. An enterprise deploying a new ERP system may opt to hire an IT consultant recommended by their vendor, rather than train employees in-house or hire new employees who would become surplus to requirements once the system is installed.
VARs sometimes partner with consultants in a sales engineering capacity. Such a consultant examines the client's immediate business or technology needs and recommends products, services or other IT solutions that can address those needs. Similarly, systems integrators may rely on IT consultants to assess a client's business and technology challenges, identify opportunities for process optimization and suggest ways technology can support the organization's business objectives.
Managed service providers (MSPs) may use consultants to work with customers who need to create an IT plan or manage technology refreshment projects. MSPs are often founded by technicians and engineers, so the consulting approach helps them bridge the gap between their technical services and their often nontechnical customers. Many MSP clients are small businesses that lack an IT department.
Consultants focused on cloud computing help clients define their requirements, select public cloud services, build private clouds and manage data and application migration. They may also help create cloud governance strategies that aim to keep cloud costs in check and help organizations get the most value out of their cloud investments. With cloud consulting, specializations occur within the cloud specialization. A consulting firm may specialize in a particular cloud platform such as AWS, Google or Microsoft Azure. In addition, a consulting organization may focus on one or more SaaS providers such as Salesforce and ServiceNow.
Other popular areas of expertise include IT security, information governance and e-discovery and compliance. An IT consultant in these fields may be hired to assess an organization's security risks, identify vulnerabilities and recommend remediation strategies, help clients comply with government regulations and mitigate risk.
Related consulting fields
Other types of consultants' work may overlap with IT consulting. Management and strategy consultants, for example, may provide expert advice for a fairly wide range of business concerns. But management consultants who work with clients to redesign old business processes or implement new processes may make IT recommendations when it's time to automate those processes.
Over time, IT may actually eclipse management consulting as a company's core business. Indeed, the management consulting divisions of the former Big Eight accounting firms spawned IT consulting companies such as Accenture.
Similarly, a supply chain consultant may primarily focus on a client's inventory and vendor management concerns, but may become involved in IT -- ERP and supply chain systems implementation and integration, for instance.
Benefits and drawbacks of working with consultants
The IT consultant's specialized knowledge -- and the ability to tap into it as needed -- is one benefit of working with a consultant. Turning to a consultant may make sense when it's impractical or too costly to hire a full-time employee for expertise that's only needed temporarily. Major business systems upgrades only happen occasionally, for example.
An IT consultant's independence is another advantage for organizations. Consultants are often hired to help troubleshoot problems in complex systems. Because a consultant performs in an advisory capacity, he or she has the freedom to identify problems and propose solutions that an in-house employee might be reluctant to advance.
However, it may prove challenging to take a consultant's ideas and make them a reality. A consultant may make a useful recommendation, but the client may lack the knowledge or skills to successfully execute the envisioned strategy. Once the consultant leaves, the suggested course of action may never gain traction. Conversely, the IT consultant may be retained to oversee the implementation of a particular recommendation in a subsequent project or projects. This situation, however, can lead to an expensive dependency on outside help.