For many years my professional title has included the word “consultant”, and with it the gravitas that comes with being able to use that term. In the cold, hard light of my early-40s, in all honesty I have say that I was not a consultant for most of that time: I was an analyst.
Analyst versus consultant. What’s the difference?
In black and white terms, an analyst is a tactical consultant, with a specific set of skills and knowledge that can be used to solve a particular problem. And a consultant is…?
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. Inigo Montoya
Consultant is over-used and mis-used word. All the people I know who call themselves consultants are actually analysts, contractors, or skilled professionals who call themselves consultants for lack of a better term to describe what they do to pay the bills, and because putting Gun For Hire on a business card tends to attract the wrong clientele.
On the other end of the spectrum, consultant is more than a term to describe a person who works in a large consultancy or professional services firm (or as, Andrea Mulligan is working through in public, a professional service practice in a software or SaaS firm). A consultant comes to a customer with a set of skills that cannot be had just anywhere, be it in a programming language, GAAP restructuring, or, in my case, Web performance measurement and load testing.
A true consultant must be more than a skilled analysts who has chosen the freedom of working outside large companies, leaping from challenge to challenge. A consultant brings years of experience and a view of the larger world with them. In fact, many of the best consultants can’t do what their analysts do for them (or maybe the consultant’s skills are just too rusty) on a daily basis.
Analysts solve a specific problem. Consultants ensure that the problem never happens again.
Consultants put the problem that analysts solve into context.
For more than a decade, I have been an analyst, solving whatever thorny riddle is put in front of me using whatever tools and skills I could cobble together. Analysts don’t have a lifetime career ahead of them, as their skill-set falls out of favor or is replaced by younger, more talented analysts.
Consultants take what they have learned during their analyst/apprentice days and convert that into a strategic view. Not simply How do we solve this problem? but Is this the right problem to solve? or How did we get to the point where we needed to solve this problem?
And, most importantly, Is the solution we’re developing flexible enough to adapt to solve and prevent problems we can’t even foresee now?
It’s hard for someone like me who revels in solving the problems no one else can to let go and realize that the problem isn’t everything. To realize that there are people out there who can do what I do as well as or better than I can.
Letting go of one thing means that you have to have something else to grab onto. I do not relish Wily Coyote moments: looking down to see the fall that’s about to come.
So, at 42, I am stepping back to embrace a very new and different career question: What does it really mean to be a strong consultant?
It’s not easy to shift gears, and drop into the career lane that I had avoided for so long, feeling it a trap. I now know that to survive and flourish, I have to understand how the business works, how practice/company goals are set and met, how to effectively sell professional service (something I am awful at a lot of the time), and how to position professional services within the SaaS model.
It is a somewhat disheartening realization that the 10 years I spent fighting becoming a strong consultant now have to be made up in a very short amount of time, but the games everyone remembers are those that are won from behind in overtime.