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Corporate Staffers = Second Class Citizens?

Earlier today I read a blog post that compares consultants with corporate staff members.  The author unashamedly compares consultants to major league baseball players, while grouping corporate staffers into the minor leagues.  While he does make a few valid points, the theme of the post – as well as many of the assumptions he makes – are out of left field.

Before I share any further thoughts, I should briefly discuss my own past experience.  For the first decade or so of my career, I was that very corporate staff member, having worked at two different relatively large (1000+ people) companies.  I’ve since changed roles, and am now a business intelligence consultant.  So naturally I have empathy for both groups of individuals we’re discussing here.

The Good

The article is not completely absent of reality.  Amidst the demoralization of non-consultants, the author makes the valid point that staff members in a corporate environment can make the transition into consulting.  Further, the article points out that consulting companies must use due care when recruiting into a consulting role someone who has never before been a consultant.  Also, we are reminded that consultants often juggle multiple assignments at once, and may report through many different corporate hierarchies at once.

Apart from these few nuggets of truth, I take issue with most of the other conjecture presented by the author. 

The Bad

As I mentioned, I’ve worked in both camps.  While I can attest to the fact that there are a lot of major leaguers in the consulting world, I’m just as quick to bring up that there are many, many superstars in the corporate world as well.  If the author’s consultants fail to recognize the rock star contributions made by their clients’ staff members, they are doing those clients – and themselves – a disservice.

Also alluded to is the notion that corporate types do not have sufficient breadth of experience to be considered a major leaguer.  Again referring to my own experience, I would not have had the opportunity to learn about so many different subject areas had it not been for my experience before my consulting career began.  I learned how to replace and rebuild drive arrays, build servers and networks from scratch, troubleshoot network connectivity issues, develop and troubleshoot software using various languages, and lots of other tasks that I could not possibly have been trained in as as a consultant.  Further, I’ve met a number of consultants who are very deep but not broad, and they end up being so laser-focused on their specialty that they have little knowledge of matters outside their area of expertise.

Curiously, the author makes little mention of dialoging with end users to discover their business needs.  Note that I wrote “business needs” without mentioning technical needs.  A high-quality consultant is not a hired gun who comes in simply to sling code/build a network/create a data warehouse; rather, he/she will meet with business principals to discover the root of the problem or need, and will partner with (write that down) their clients to cooperatively develop a solution.  There are many sharp corporate staffers who spend much of their time in front of the business users, giving them a greater appreciation for the underlying processes than a just-show-me-the-code kind of consultant.

The Ugly

The underlying tone of the article reflects an us-and-them mentality.  The author points to the success of his company, and draws the line between the superstars he hires and “the others” of average talent who are not consultants.  Sadly, though, the author is not alone in his opinion; there are many who believe that consultants are the best-of-the-best, and that others should aspire to work their way into such a prestigious role.  Fortunately, those consultants are often easy to spot – they are quick to tell the client everything that the client’s own staff are screwing up, and can often be heard shouting “The sky is falling!” during meetings with executives.  While some of these types do find success, I suspect that they don’t get a lot of repeat business.


Are there great consultants and mediocre corporate staffers?  You bet.  But the reverse can also be found in abundance.  Good consultants recognize that their clients are partners and not simply a general ledger account against which to bill, and they treat the clients’ staff members – as well as their contributions – with respect and appreciation.

Tim Mitchell

Tim Mitchell is a business intelligence consultant, author, trainer, and Microsoft Data Platform MVP with over thirteen years of data management experience. He is the founder and principal of Tyleris Data Solutions.

Tim has spoken at international and local events including the SQL PASS Summit, SQLBits, SQL Connections, along with dozens of tech fests, code camps, and SQL Saturday events. He is coauthor of the book SSIS Design Patterns, and is a contributing author on MVP Deep Dives 2.

You can visit his website and blog at TimMitchell.net or follow him on Twitter at @Tim_Mitchell.


Posted by tim costello on 12 April 2011

Excellent post Tim.  The idea that a hard line can be drawn between consultants and staffers is ridiculous.  There are rock-stars and clowns on both side of that line.

In my mind, one of the key things a consultant brings to the table is a fresh perspective.  Sometimes that's all it takes to turn a project around.

Posted by Roy Ernest on 12 April 2011

I have known some real good consultants (With in depth knowledge) and there are some very bad consultants as well. Sometimes when I talk to them I wonder how they make it as a consultant because they have very less or no knowledge at all.

And the same can be said about staffers. But do keep in mind that staffers can be trained and molded into a better person but you cannot do that to a consultant. They are there for a contract.

Posted by Robert Pearl on 12 April 2011

Interesting article, Tim.  And of course, there should be no disparaging of anyone corporate or consultant.  I too was on both sides of the coin.  As a consultant, you know you're there, often as a higher-paid SME, but you also know that you're held to a higher standard, and very expendable.

Staffers, who really have "skin-in-the-game" are invested in the company, and really have the motivation to work hard, do well, and succeed to climb the corporate ladder.

Furthermore, I also remember the "ugly" consultant water cooler conversations at the office - someone who got in, not very knowledgeable, and rode the wave for 2 years, with a good chunk of dough, with little to show for it.

Anyway, that guy's conversation better not get out to his own staffers - their likely to walk-out, forcing him to re-hire them as consultants for 2x the pay ;-)

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