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What to look for when hiring an IT consultant

What to look for when hiring an IT consultant

IT executives share their tips and advice on finding the right IT consultant for your organisation. We also suggest five questions you should ask all prospective candidates.

Just because someone has the words "IT consultant" printed on a business card doesn't mean he can solve your particular technology challenge or will work well with your IT or management team. So how do you find the right IT consultant, someone who understands your business and can address your specific IT need(s)?

So before you even think about giving a third party access to your critical or sensitive information systems or software, check out what some of the top IT executives and consultants say. The experts outline their top eight tips for vetting an IT consultant -- as well as the five questions you should ask all prospective third-party IT hires.

8 Tips From IT Execs and Consultants for Vetting an IT Consultant

1. Make sure the consultant has experience in your size and type of business. "An IT consultant who typically works with Fortune 500 companies will have a difficult time serving the needs of an SMB -- and a consultant who has been in the finance industry his entire career may not have the experience needed for, say, a manufacturing shop," explains IT consultant Morris Tabush, who runs Tabush, an IT support and consulting company. So when considering hiring an IT consultant, make sure the consultant has had experience -- and success -- working with companies not only in your industry but your size, he advises.

2. Find out what the consultant's relationship to relevant vendors is. Are you looking for a consultant who is affiliated with a specific vendor (e.g., a certified partner) or someone who is independent?

"We have run into situations where clients received advice from an IT consultant, but didn't realize the consultant had a [monetary] interest in the outcome," notes Laura Pettit Rusick, the founder and president of OPT Solutions, Inc., an IT management services and technology optimization company. "That interest may be a commission, referral fee or the ability to staff additional employees from the consultant's organization at the client." In other words, the consultant may not have your best interest at heart.

That's why she recommends that you ask consultants what their relationship is to any vendors before you sign a contract. "Do they resell a vendor's products but want to provide software selection services? Do they receive commission when a particular vendor is selected? Is the consultant truly unbiased?"

3. Ask to see samples of their previous work."Before hiring, ask to see candidates' online portfolio and check them out on community sites like GitHub, Coderbits or CloudSpokes," suggests Dave Messinger, CTO of CloudSpokes, a community of global developers. "It's great to see the actual work done than [just] take a recommendation," he says. While references are important, it's good to "see what projects the candidates have completed in previous positions or on the side to really get a sense of the quality of their work."

"Previous work -- products [applications] they have built or worked on -- is a very good indicator of what you should expect to get," adds Alex Genadinik, who has been and hired IT consultants and is the founder of Problemio, which develops mobile business planning and marketing apps. Examining a consultant's previous work will also show you "their strengths and weaknesses."

4. Check credentials and affiliations."Experience is a good start, but does the consultant have any industry certifications or accreditations (for example, are they a recognized solutions or consulting partner)?" asks Shell Black, the president of ShellBlack.com, a Salesforce consulting and professional services firm. "Also don't be afraid to ask if their certifications are up to date," he says. "Many software vendors require you to pass ongoing exams on the latest versions in order to remain certified. If the consultant hasn't pursued such recognition, how deep can their expertise really be?"

In addition, "check for membership in professional organizations such as the Institute of Management Consultants or the Independent Computer Consultants Association," advises Nepal Patel, CEO and founding principal at CIOsynergy, which organizes IT leadership events. "Such memberships indicate ongoing professional development and a commitment to their industry."

5. Get and call references -- even if the consultant was referred by a colleague. "When hiring a consultant, always ask for and check their references," says Puneet Bhasin, director of IT at advertise.com, which provides online advertiser and publisher solutions. "Usually the best consultants have been referred to me via word of mouth." But even if you plan on hiring someone who has been referred by someone you know, it doesn't hurt to get a second (or third) reference. "I've always been dubious of consultants that are unwilling to share their client list and references with me," he says.

Also, when speaking with references, "ask about the last time they had downtime or another emergency, and how the IT consultant handled the situation," says Eric Schlissel, CEO, GeekTek IT Services.

Besides asking colleagues, another good place to look for and check references is LinkedIn. "Consultants, especially IT consultants, should have a social media presence," states Sanchit Vir Gogia, chief analyst & CEO at Greyhound Research, an IT research and advisory firm. "A quality following on Twitter, connections on LinkedIn and a blog all indicate a credible candidate."

6. Conduct a thorough background check. Before allowing an IT consultant access to your business critical systems, conduct a thorough background check, advises Monica Hamilton, director of SMB Product and Solutions Marketing at security solutions provider McAfee. "Mandatory items to keep an eye out for: criminal offenses, including misdemeanors, and suspicious credit scores," she says. Also, "if you are hiring for government-related jobs, confirm any necessary government clearances. And lastly, always check at least three references."

7. Look for good communication skills -- and the ability to work well with people. How articulate is the consultant? Can he speak clearly -- and successfully convey information -- to both your IT team and management? "An IT consultant must be business-savvy and possess good communication skills," says Bruno Scap, the president of Galeas Consulting, a firm specializing in technology management. "He should understand the technology and be able to articulate it in business terms that management can understand," he continues. "The purpose of technology is to solve business problems, and a competent IT consultant must be equally comfortable in both technical and business settings."

In addition, "seek someone who is both technically sound and able to interact with others while working collectively and collaboratively." The last thing you want is to hire a consultant with an attitude problem, who doesn't work well with others.

8. Find out how they measure results. Before hiring an IT consultant, make sure he is comfortable using a measurement system. "There are numerous methodologies out there that can be used to measure readiness, improvement and overall progress, such as Six Sigma, ITIL and CMM," notes Ray Zadjmool, principal consultant, Tevora, a management consulting firm specializing in information assurance, governance and compliance services and solutions. "While you may have your own preference, aligning to any methodology shows that a consultant takes his work seriously."

5 Questions to Ask Before Hiring an IT Consultant

1. What is your experience with my type and size of business? (See Tip No. 1)

2. Are you familiar and comfortable working with my current hardware? "Yes, I know the axiom that a server is a server, but that is not always the case," says JR Rodrigues, the CEO of NetCablesPlus, which supplies networking cables and other supplies to IT consultants and systems integrators. "Each manufacturer always puts in its own 'enhancements' as differentiators and that can result in different steps to perform the same function. I would prefer to not pay for any learning curve (not only in consulting time, but in errors that might be made at first)."

3. Are you familiar and experienced working with my current software? ("See reasoning outlined in the tips -- and then multiply by ten!" says Rodrigues)

4. What are your certifications? "This will provide insight into what they like to do and probably do most of," he says. "If all of your equipment is Dell and Oracle-based and the consultant is certified in IBM and SQL Server only, it should raise questions."

5. How do you typically work with clients? Before hiring an IT consultant, it's important to know how they work. (You can verify or confirm what they say by calling or emailing references.)

Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a contributor to CIO.com and runs a marketing communications firm focused on helping organizations better interact with their customers, employees, and partners.

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