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Do IT consultants want to be professionals?

The title expresses the first part of a two-part question:

  1. Do IT consultants want to be professionals?
  2. Do clients want IT consultants to be professionals?

Note the wording: I’m not asking whether IT consultants want to be professional (adjective). I’m asking whether they want to be professionals (noun).

The question isn’t about what it means to be professional in our work. It seems to me that amounts to our desire to do the best job we can. I don’t think there’s much debate to the contrary. The question is about what it means to be treated as a professional by our clients; conversely, whether our clients really want to treat us as such.

I suggest many individuals who like to refer to themselves as “IT consultants” are not ready to accept the level of legal responsibility implied by the word, “professional.” I think people just like the sound of the word.

I further suggest that very few clients—if any—are ready to engage IT consultants on a truly professional basis. What clients want is the ability to impose the same legal remedies on IT consultants as they can do on professionals, while continuing to treat those consultants as temporary hourly labor. As the expression goes, they want to have their cake and eat it, too.

What is a professional?

There’s been an off-and-on debate in the IT world about professionalism. There are different perspectives about the meaning of the term. Some people say that if you’re paid to do a job, then you’re a professional. That’s all the word means.

People who give the question a bit more thought might cite a handful of key factors that determine whether someone is a professional. Here is a non-exhaustive list of considerations often mentioned under the heading of professionalism:

  • Some form of specialized education, up to a defined level that qualifies as preparation for professional work
  • Some manner of vetting, certification, or accreditation
  • Declared intention to adhere to a formal code of ethics
  • Sometimes, people recommend a form of apprenticeship or mentorship during the early stages of a professional career

Considerations like those are easy to see when we observe the operation of “the recognized professions,” such as law, accountancy, medicine, and engineering. A more formalized expression of what it means to be a professional may be found in the Wikipedia entry on the word “profession,” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Profession. The definition is one that was first published in 1977 and has been repeated many times:

A profession is a vocation founded upon specialized educational training, the purpose of which is to supply disinterested objective counsel and service to others, for a direct and definite compensation, wholly apart from expectation of other business gain.

Who is a professional?

Clearly, the “recognized professions” meet this definition. In addition, any occupation that requires licensure is treated in the same way. For example, consider the difference between a licensed contractor and a handyman.

Every licensed contractor isn’t an expert, and many handymen are highly skilled and will act in a professional manner. There are two main differences:

  1. Legally, the licensed contractor has fiduciary responsibility to the client; and
  2. The handyman is less expensive than the licensed contractor; sometimes considerably less expensive.

What does this mean on a practical level? Basically, it means you have legal recourse against the licensed contractor, should they mess up the job. The license doesn’t guarantee good results; that’s up to the individual doing the work. The quality of work is always up to the individual who performs it, notwithstanding any formal education, certification, accreditation, or licensure. The difference is that you have a chance of recovering some of your money, in case of a poor outcome.

With the handyman, the results are whatever they are. Their business depends on word-of-mouth reputation, and that’s their incentive to operate properly. Make no mistake: it’s a very strong incentive. The lack of a license doesn’t mean the handyman is “unprofessional,” in the general sense of the word. But in the end, if they can’t make it right, you’re stuck with whatever you have; and an individual handyman lacks the resources to go very far toward making it right, even if they are willing.

What is fiduciary responsibility?

Professionals have fiduciary duty to their clients. IT consultants may or may not be “up for it.” They may prefer life as a handyman, because they incur less personal liability in that role. There are six key aspects:

  1. Confidentiality
  2. Accounting
  3. Reasonable skill and care
  4. Loyalty
  5. Obedience
  6. Disclosure

Confidentiality

A client must be free to tell a professional helper anything pertinent to the consulting engagement. They must be able to trust that the consultant will keep whatever they learn confidential. As “handymen,” we almost always sign a nondisclosure agreement. This gives clients a certain comfort level, but does not provide the potential legal remedies that apply to “true” professionals such as physicians and attorneys.

For a professional—and this is a key distinguishing factor between the professional consultant and the “IT handyman”—the duty of confidentiality survives the end of the contract. We must honor our pledge of confidentiality forever.

Accounting

For physical work such as home remodeling, accounting means keeping track of costs and ensuring the client is aware of them. For IT consulting, it can mean the same thing when we have to purchase physical supplies to support our work, but it mostly means that we account for the time we spend working on behalf of the client.

This doesn’t have to mean that we are engaged on an hourly basis; that’s a question of billing, not accounting (in this sense).

Reasonable skill and care

This probably seems pretty obvious to anyone who offers services as an IT consultant, coach, contract programmer or tester, or similar; but it might not mean what you assume it means.

Many contract programmers more-or-less “copy and paste” their last project into their next one. Many contract testers just repeat the same things over and over again on every engagement. They don’t do it because they’re lazy; they do it because they believe their way of writing or testing software is the “best way.” Many “agile coaches” promote the same method or framework in every context, believing that their favorite method or framework is the definition of reasonable skill and care, because they consider it the “best method or framework.”

But reasonable skill and care implies continual professional learning and development. It implies quite the opposite of locking in a particular approach, technique, method, or framework and shoving it down the throats of every client.

A blunt question for you to consider on your own: Is a person who promotes a single solution for all cases, like Scrum, or a specific framework, like SAFe or LeSS, or a particular improvement method, like Kanban Method, a professional consultant or just a salesperson?

Loyalty

Simply stated, this means putting the client’s interests above our own. I think it’s closely tied to reasonable skill and care, as well as accounting, obedience, and disclosure.

Obedience

In context, this doesn’t mean following the client’s commands without question. It means that the client owns their business, their operations, their decisions, and their outcomes. As professional consultants, it’s out of scope for us to impose our choices on a client. We are supposed to offer advice and let the client choose. In no case are we invited to force the client down a path of our choosing, in opposition to their own choices.

Obedience in the context of fiduciary responsibility reminds me of an old concept: advise and consent. A consultant’s role is to do just that. We offer advice, and we try to ensure the client understands the advice correctly. Then the client chooses what to do, and it’s up to us to consent…or disengage.

Disclosure

In general, this means we must disclose any information we learn that is pertinent to the work for which the client has engaged us. The exception is the case when disclosing something would violate our duty of confidentiality to a former or current client.

For members of the “recognized professions” and for any licensed professional, fiduciary responsibility is enforceable in court. I suspect this is a detail that most self-styled “IT consultants” haven’t thought through.

Giving due consideration to the realities of being a professional, we can think about whether we would prefer to accept the responsibilities of the role or offer our services as “IT handymen.” There’s no good vs. bad, right vs. wrong here. It just is what it is, and ain’t what it ain’t.

Professionalism with middlemen involved

Sometimes, independent individual IT consultants are engaged directly by their clients. More often, they are engaged as subcontractors of a firm that provides consulting services and/or temporary staffing services. What are the professional relationships in that case?

There’s a concept known as agency. The “middleman” company is acting as an agent to arrange the services of a third party to their client. The client company, known as the principal, enlists the help of an agent to manage the relationship with the third party, who provides the “expert” services to the principal.

The legal and financial burden of fiduciary responsibility falls to the middleman company in that case. It’s common practice to assign some of that responsibility to the third party—that is, to the independent subcontractor. Independent individual consultants routinely sign various kinds of agreements, such as non-compete agreements, non-disclosure agreements, and confidentiality agreements; and they are often expected to carry specific forms of business liability insurance, sometimes including Errors and Omissions coverage (although insurers are often at a loss to understand how the latter could possibly apply to the kind of work we do; it doesn’t appear on any of their application forms for E and O.)

When we work as independent subcontractors through a middleman, we are in effect “agents” of the middleman, who is our client; and the middleman is the agent of the real client; their principal.

If we want to be treated as professionals, then, we must be willing to assume that fiduciary responsibility, and act as representatives of the middleman.

The structure is similar, but not exactly identical, to the agency relationships among a home buyer, a real estate broker, and a real estate agent. In that case, the home buyer is the principal or client of the broker, and the broker is the principal or client of the real estate agent (also called “salesperson”). Both real estate broker and real estate agent are licensed occupations. The legal right to practice these occupations is accompanied by enforceable fiduciary duties.

Most IT consultants are in no great hurry to open themselves up to being blacklisted, sued, or thrown in jail just because a client doesn’t like their code, their fashion sense, or their personality. They’d rather function as “IT handymen.”

What are clients, consultants, and middlemen looking for?

In our field, everyone wants the best of both worlds for themselves:

  • Clients want professional-quality consulting advice for the price of low-end hourly temporary labor. They also want someone to blame when they don’t realize the benefits they had been led to expect from the latest IT craze (even if they never do their part by actually following the advice they are given).
  • IT consultants want the respect and admiration they feel goes along with being called “professionals,” but without the legal and financial risk that professionals in other fields accept.
  • Middlemen want to be seen as “consulting firms” (and they market themselves as such) while actually functioning as temporary staffing agencies (a designation that lacks the perceived prestige of “consultancy”). I have commented on this phenomenon in another post.

Where does that leave us? It leaves us with the present trend toward squeezing the independent consultant out of existence.

How is the independent consulting landscape changing, and why?

Clients, who wield the greatest power because they are the ones with money to spend, have been making greater and greater demands on middlemen who engage independent subcontractors.

They have begun to ask for levels of business insurance coverage that are so high the typical insurance agent can’t approve them; the process of obtaining the necessary coverage has become burdensome for individual independents. The cost of excessive insurance is another factor that discourages people from staying independent.

For a recent engagement, I was required to obtain $2 million in general business liability insurance; double the usual amount. I was also required to obtain $2 million in Errors and Omissions insurance; a form of business liability insurance that has no bearing on IT consulting or “agile coaching” work. I was also required to buy $2 million in liability insurance on my personal car, despite the fact I did not use the car for any purpose related to the engagement.

In the end, it took more time for me to obtain the required coverages than the duration of the consulting engagement. Of course, I immediately canceled the unnecessary coverage afterwards.

I have worked mostly as an independent subcontractor since 1984, and this is the only occasion when a client imposed any requirements on my personal automobile insurance. There is no business justification for it. Period.

For a different engagement involving and different client and a different middleman, I was required to register my single-member LLC in multiple US States in order to perform work in those States. This has never been required previously. It changes nothing of substance about the work itself, but only imposes an additional burden and cost on the independent consultant.

So, what is the point of putting independent IT consultants through this sort of busywork and expense…and more and more of it with each passing day?

At the same time as clients impose new requirements on service providers, they have been “poor mouthing” more than ever before. On one hand they boast about how profitable they are and how rapidly they are growing, and on the other they whine that they can’t afford consulting rates that have been the norm for quite some time. Both statements can’t be true at the same time. So, what is this really all about?

In the spirit of Sherlock Holmes, one can say that once the impossible has been eliminated, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Clearly, there is no genuine business need for any of it. Besides that, we have been working happily without it for decades, and nothing bad has happened as a result.

Therefore, it is impossible that these requirements are actually necessary for clients to work with independent subcontractors. What remains is this: These are tactics designed to discourage people from working as independent contractors.

If that is what is happening to our work, the next question is why? Let’s follow the money. Clients want the best service for the lowest price. Middlemen want hourly billing, and will say and do anything to get it. Temporary employees, with no identity as professionals, no support from a professional organization, no status as independent businesspeople, and no resources with which to stand up for themselves, will provide both. We won’t stop doing our best work, because that is a matter of personal pride. We will become cheap temporary labor with very limited rights, no benefits, and no recourse for unfair treatment.

If “independent contractor” becomes an untenable career choice, both client companies and middlemen stand to benefit in the short term, on a shallow level, while damaging the industry and the economy in the long term, on a deep level.

But wait a minute…why would they do that? Isn’t this their industry, their economy, their society, their world just as much as it is ours? Aren’t they thinking about the future opportunities they want for their own children someday? Maybe so. Then again, maybe not.

What can we do about it?

As the people who perform the work—the one thing the middlemen and clients can’t do, and the only thing that adds any value—we have no real power. Our choices boil down to these:

  1. Give in and find a job somewhere as a standard employee
  2. Hang in there and keep purchasing more and more insurance and signing more and more documents, and hope the rising costs don’t run us out of business
  3. Organize and set some professional standards for ourselves

Those alternatives are listed in order of increasing difficulty. The easiest thing to do is to acquiesce and take a regular job; give up on the idea of changing the world for the better; just write code and go home and forget about it at 5:00 each day. It’s a very tempting option.

More difficult is the option of hanging in there and trying to remain independent. Fewer and fewer middlemen will work with you on that basis, and only smaller clients are typically willing to engage individual consultants directly. As long as someone is willing to take the temporary, hourly job, we can’t apply any pressure on clients or middlemen to work with independents. So this is a very tough option.

The option of creating some sort of viable professional standards for our work is the most powerful and compelling of the three, and also far and away the most challenging. One of the biggest challenges is our own attitude (well, most of us, anyway). Before we can organize and turn our work into a profession in the full sense of the word, we first have to take a gigantic first step: We have to get over ourselves.

Every time the question of professional standards or certification or vetting makes the rounds in our community, people ask the same question (in different words): “Who is qualified to judge me? I am great. Who are you to certify The Great Me?!?!?”

As long as we persist in that, we will never be able to take the next step toward creating a genuine profession for IT consulting and related types of work. Clients and middlemen will always be able to pit us against each other. They will always be able to find enough people willing to rent themselves out as cheap hourly labor. They can squeeze independent contractors out of the market altogether, and permanently.

They’re doing it.

We’re enabling it.

So, is there any point to this post, after all?

Probably not.

I began this piece with a two-part question:

  1. Do IT consultants want to be professionals?
  2. Do clients want IT consultants to be professionals?

It’s clear to me the answer to the first part is, “No.” Generally speaking, individuals who rent themselves out as “IT handymen” are pretty satisfied with that status. If they have to become temporary employees instead of temporary contractors, they won’t really care.

And the answer to the second part is also, “No.” Clients just want cheap, temporary workers to come in and do as they’re told for a while; people they can toss aside like so much garbage when it suits them, with no obligations and no consequences.

Am I wrong? I hope so. Prove it.

Please.

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